Today on Medium I saw a post, Shouldn’t We Fix Poverty Before Migrating to Mars? The substance of the piece is less important to me than the title, because the title expresses a viewpoint common among many. Why look to the heavens when we don’t have heaven here on earth? The first time I heard this sentiment was as a child when I saw Joe Kennedy II express this opinion on the floor of congress in relation to funding to NASA in the 1980s. As something of a space-nerd the sentiment shocked me to my core. Obviously I understood poverty in at least a sensory fashion. I was born in Bangladesh before it was a textile powerhouse and there wasn’t at least the promise of development. But as a nerd it seemed to me that sacrificing knowledge of the world for a full stomach seemed like a false trade-off. Of course I was self-interested. This is what I wanted to be true.
But as it happens, I do believe that it is the truth, and that is because what we know from economic history. The rise of the post-Malthusian consumer economy validates the position that we should have one eye to the heavens above, and another focused on the concerns of the earth. The two are synergistic. What is needed for prosperity in a manner we understand to be prosperity in our day and age are two things. First, increased economic growth through gains in productivity. Second, a lack of concomitant population growth to eat up the gains in productivity. The demographic transition. In other words, get smarter to get wealthier, and don’t divide that wealth between too many children.
The West, and more precisely Britain, was the first society to break out of the “Malthusian trap,” whereby gains in productivity were eaten up by population growth. This change was not foreseen by the economists of the day. Thinkers such as David Ricardo and Thomas Malthus assumed that the “end of history” was always characterized by a stationary state where population and economic production balanced out so that much of humanity was caught in a condition of immiseration. The irony is that they were flourishing just during the period that Britain was breaking the iron laws of economics as they were understood at the time. What we term the industrial revolution was triggering the rise in gains of wages to unskilled workers that would continue to 1970, and the demographic transition would lead to the emergence of the two-child nuclear family. There are many books which chronicles this change, but one is particularly good for a lay audience is David Warsh’s Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations: A Story of Economic Discovery. It traces the evolution of endogenous growth theory, basically a model which accounts for economic growth by parameters such as innovation and human capital (this problem is not solved by the way). Greg Clark’s A Farewell to Alms and Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence as two alternative takes forwarding specific more empirical theses.
But let’s think about this in a more high level manner. Compare the Chinese intellectual and political tradition and that of the West. Since the Axial Age there are broad similarities, particularly with the rise of humanistic traditions. But to generalize one might assert that the Chinese tradition has been more pragmatic and concrete, while the Western tradition has allowed for more abstract concepts and considerations. The most otherworldly element of traditional Chinese thought actually turns out to be exogenous, that of Buddhism (the rise of Buddhism coincides with the decline of scientific Daoism and the rise of religious Daoism). After the Tang dynasty Buddhism lost its place at the table of Chinese elites, and the dominant ethos was that of Confucianism, which prioritized proper governance on earth to maintain harmony and order. A key consequence of this was that scholar-officials were fixated on the need for the peasantry, the true productive units of society, to be prosperous and fruitful. The Chinese system was deeply humanistic and civilian in its orientation. It can be argued that the Chinese state and society by the 18th century had reached the stationary state at the “end of history.” Every unit of production was being squeezed that could be squeezed by traditional means agriculture and trade between regions to maximize comparative advantage. They were at the end of the line of economic growth as could be conceived by Adam Smith’s model.
In contrast the West has been subject to less cultural continuity, and was more fragmented. The medieval scholastics, and men such as Baruch Spinoza, reflected a fixation on deep abstraction and a concern with ontology which was marginalized early on in the mainstream of Chinese intellectual thought. Arguably this flight from the pragmatic can be traced back to Pythagoras and the pre-Socratics. Mathematical mysticism continued in Western civilization because of the influence of Plato. Empirical science had its origins with the interests of Aristotle. The fusion of mathematical formalism and empirical methodology in the early modern era wrought a miracle: science. Over time science was turned into the handmaid of technology, and the elixir of innovation emerged from the synthesis.
I assume most people can understand how this ties back to the piece in Medium, and the concern of people about poverty now, rather than future dreams and horizons. But we also have to remember that it is a fact that global poverty is declining. China is a big reason, and the root is not the revival of Confucianism,* but the expansion of technological civilization. The production of iPhones is driving the decline in misery, not redistribution or primary production through agriculture. We already have a map to abolish material misery: growth and demographic transition. It may happen in our age that extreme material want will be a memory, just as slavery is.
What drives growth? Innovation. How do we get innovation? By investing in crazy projects whose payoffs we can’t calculate rationally and whose outcomes are not foreseeable. The reality is that Chinese civilization over ~2,000 years was caught in a local optimum of maximizing prosperity in Malthusian conditions. The Chinese sages were wise, but their eyes only saw to the edge of the horizon. The West’s intellectual forebears were less practical, but more diversified. This allowed for it to break out of the trap of fixating on the practical-before-our-nose. Rather, Western thinkers should dream delusional visions of abstraction and imagination. Worlds beyond imagining for the common ken. When you explore more of the parameter space you are likely to find novel optima which you would otherwise never have arrived upon. To some extent this is how evolution may work, with mutation, drift and co-evolution perturbing cozy fitness peaks. More plainly, we can only realize true innovation when we are able to understand that that entails blue sky long-shots into the deep. That is just the empirical and factual trend over the course of history, not a mystical vision.
But these issue are not simply nakedly utilitarian, they’re also normative. If we crush the spirit to explore and unleash a touch of insanity, even in the face of misery, we crush the human spirit. We were the crazy apes who dreamed to cross the vast blue oceans. Only our ancestors settled Oceania and the New World. We do not stay at home. That is not in our nature. For some of us, to explore is part of who we are. Denying that aspect denies a filament of our being.
Addendum: I have noticed and unfortunate trend of some biologists to denigrate space science as a “waste of money.” That goes to show that even among scientists horizons and wonderment can be constrained by narrowness of vision and zero-sum psychology.
* Confucianism is reviving actually in response to prosperity.