One of the fascinating things about studying history is to see the way in which man's extraordinary creative and inventive faculties are in a continual battle with his critical and destructive faculties. If only the first were in operation, humanity would have advanced far more rapidly. We'd now be enjoying living standards we won't reach until 3000 to 4000. We'd be making regular trips to our solar system's planets (and exploiting them) and possibly to the stars beyond.
But the other aspects of man's nature act as a continual brake on progress. I'm not thinking so much of war, since it's as effective at promoting invention and creativity as it is at destroying existing wealth. World War II, for instance, accelerated enormously the development of radar, electronics, jet propulsion and nuclear energy. What I mean, rather, is our negative propensity to find reasons -- especially moral or scientific ones -- to oppose the creative forces in the world. A primary example of this was the mid-19th-century reaction to the capitalist Industrial Revolution.
Just as a disruptive and painful period of capital accumulation was coming to an end in advanced economies such as Britain's -- wages were rising, working hours decreasing and factory conditions improving -- along came thinkers like Karl Marx, who argued that capitalism was an unprecedented threat to human happiness. They succeeded in setting up a collectivist counterforce to capitalism that maintained itself intellectually for a century and at one time controlled nearly a quarter of the world's surface area, killed scores of millions and wasted untold trillions of dollars of wealth. This force was not discredited until the late 1980s, when Soviet Communism began to collapse and its Chinese cousin embraced capitalism.
During the 20th century a series of revolutions in technology again made it possible to accelerate the production of wealth and improve the ways in which it is distributed to reach even the poorest enclaves of the world. But once again the negative critical and destructive forces have combined to put the brakes on and, if possible, reverse this process. Clever people calling themselves environmentalists, human rights campaigners, tort lawyers, etc. have played on fears and superstitions and employed ingenious arguments based on science and pseudoscience to mount a counteroffensive against capitalist advances. They have used the courts, media, international conferences and laboratories -- all with enormous cunning and effrontery -- to win many partial and some absolute victories.
One of their biggest successes has been to halt the building of nuclear power plants in the U.S., Britain and other countries. This has seriously increased the destructive impact of the oil shortages brought on by China's and India's industrialization. At the same time environmentalists, claiming that global warming is the result of industrial activity, seek to force compulsory limits on greenhouse gas emissions, which will hugely reduce industry's efficiency and profitability. This frontal attack on the production and profitability of the capitalist system is, in its own way, as dangerous as Marxism was.
Capitalism is also being slowed down and damaged by tens of thousands of lawyers who have discovered they can use the courts to transfer vast sums of money from business to individuals who believe they've been harmed by business, in the process enriching the legal profession and its more active entrepreneurs. In this war between business and its enemies, the brains are evenly divided on both sides of the trenches. There are as many clever young men and women pouring out of college and going into jobs that make them critical of capitalism as there are going into junior-executive work in finance and industry -- a fact of life likely to continue.
Criticism is a luxury advanced civilizations can afford, but creativity is an essential. Government must uphold the rule of law. But if it becomes too evenhanded in the battle between the creative and the critical and leaves the creators to fend for themselves, it's certain that growth will eventually slow down and the economy stagnate.
This is what's happened in the Eurozone over the past decade. The result: huge unemployment and about zero growth. This also happened in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, until Margaret Thatcher took office. By swinging government heavily onto the side of wealth production, she changed Britain from a low-growth to a high-growth economy. But the positive effects of this are now wearing off. The impact of New Labour -- in power for nine years -- has been to align government behind the critics and negative forces in society. The economy is slowing, and bad times are ahead for capitalism in Britain.
U.S. administrations over the past 25 years have, on the whole, given business a square deal, and the American economy has continued to grow. President Bush's refusal to sign the Kyoto treaty was symbolic, a signal act of courage reflecting the economics of common sense. But there are many signs that the critics are gathering strength. More regulations being imposed at state and federal levels, rising antibusiness litigation and hostility in the media, fueled by criminal trials and scandals, bode ill for growth.
Left to themselves, the creative forces in society will always deliver, but keeping them reasonably free to do so is a perpetual, grinding battle. It is one that must never be lost.
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