Human progress depends on encouraging trade and free-enterprise capitalism, not fettering it
During the days when human civilisation was still in its early infancy, in the fertile plains between the Euphrates and Tigris, there boomed a vibrant market economy. Humanity had reached a crucial stage in its development. The economy had transitioned from a subsistence economy, in which every man produced only enough for himself and his family, to a market economy, in which the surplus goods allowed for complex transactions and trade.
In this era of mercantile prosperity, as the volume of traded goods rose, there came a need for bookkeeping, and some creative merchant fashioned little clay tokens to represent the product of his labour. Symbol after symbol was added to the nascent proto-alphabet, and little did the merchant know that he had unwittingly given birth to writing, and ushered in a new era for humanity. It was not by the coercion of some emperor that writing came about, nor by the revelation of some sky-god or the burning desire of some long forgotten poet – but by the unfettered workings of the free market. Every written record since then, from timeless poetry to scientific tracts, has ultimately been a by-product of the free market’s early workings.
Although much has changed since the dawn of writing, the immutable by-laws governing nature and humanity have not. Freedom will, now and always, lead to a greater rate of innovation and advancement. The market has been an evolutionary force, guiding humanity in its upward ascent, providing all manner of inventions and innovations to the general public.
Graham Bell was not compelled to invent the telephone by the order of a king or commissar, but was driven to do so by the desire to profit, as illustrated by his rush to the US patent office and the quick commercialisation of his device. The electric oven, the refrigerator, the automobile and the washing machine are but a fraction of the numerous life-enhancing and life-affirming devices which have made their way to every corner of the earth.
All this has been thanks to the workings of capitalism, which has shown itself to be the most efficient and most growth-oriented system, slowly bettering the lives of all. The advent of the cellphone was met with much cynicism and pessimism by leftward-leaning luddites, who claimed that, whilst an impressive plaything, it would be confined to the upper classes, and was thus ultimately useless for the vast bulk of humanity. Today one would be hard pressed to find someone in the western hemisphere without one. Even in Nigeria, a country certainly not known for its wealth or technological savvy, the cellphone has found its way into the hands of over half the population.
Our lives are, by far, easier and more abundant than the lives of our great-grandparents, and there is no reason to expect a reversal of this trend, despite the whining and proselytising of environmental and Malthusian doomsday prophets. Their dire predictions of war and mass starvation, disease, and resource exhaustion have time and time again been refuted by the passage of time.
This familiar litany has turned out to be based on the same type of science espoused by the flat earth society. Despite a dramatic increase in overall population, the number of those in hunger, according to the UN, dropped by an astounding 132 million between 1992 and 2012, going against the intuitive Malthusian thesis which holds population growth responsible for mass starvation.
Things are getting better, not worse. Virtually all human welfare indices are going up, not down, with material prosperity increasing across the board. Things will continue to progress thus, unless the state impedes this rise through its entropic and anti-evolutionary policies. Our creative ability is unlimited, as illustrated by our increasing mastery of nature and the material world. We have repeatedly risen to every challenge we’ve been presented with, and as long as the freedom to trade and invent is left unhindered, we will forever continue to do so.
Although a modicum of regulatory oversight is needed, attempting to control or restrict the flow of free trade is dangerous, as the spontaneous order derived from capitalism has been thus far infinitely better than the type of order brought about by every alternative. If we are to survive as a species and find our way out of the current impasse, a new revolution is needed. Not a red one, of populist chants and crimson-stained banners, nor a theocratic uprising, nor a fascist coup.
What is needed is a new technological revolution. In the two centuries following the industrial era, per capita income increased tenfold. Nano-tech, bio-tech, AI, and space travel will doubtless have the same type of impact if we let the nascent industries flourish unhindered. Our salvation lies in progress and technology, and we ignore this at our own peril.
Philip Lackner is a young entrepreneur, a radical and unapologetic libertarian, and a science & technology enthusiast. Despite starting out on the left of the political spectrum, he gradually came to embrace the philosophy of Friedman and Hayek.