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Drawing Lessons Carefully

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Jared Diamond’s Collapse [2] is attracting plenty of attention. Among the best analyses, not surprisingly, is Tyler Cowen’s [3].

Francis Fukuyama’s review [4] in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (paid subscription required) is also quite good, if "too gentle" (to quote my buddy Gerry Ohrstrom). This Fukuyama passage hits the nail on the head:

Mr. Diamond seems to think that globalization and free trade increase the risk of global collapse because they create interdependencies and hence vulnerability. Yet a properly functioning global trading system should do precisely the opposite, by providing multiple sources of critical supplies, all flexibly mediated through a price mechanism. To the extent that there is a looming global food problem, it has less to do with environmental limits than with agricultural protectionism in rich countries — i.e., too little rather than too much free trade.

Right.

More generally, in drawing analogies between Easter Islanders, Mayans, Norse, and other pre-modern societies and our own, Diamond is too cavalier. The fact that these pre-industrial folk abused their environments and collapsed is not irrelevant, but there’s much too much difference between them and us, then and now, to justify taking their experiences wholesale as warnings for our future.

Suppose some sincere pundit makes the following assertion: "We must take seriously the lessons of communist societies. We know now that these societies were bleak, tyrannized, poor, and doomed. And for all of the differences among them, each relied heavily upon government coercion; in each, individual initiative and responsibility were denigrated and often punished. Private property was abolished. The lesson, therefore, is that giving any power to the state — and any scaling back of private property rights — creates too great a risk of tyranny, impoverishment, and, ultimately, collapse."

The experience of communist regimes tells us too little about just how much power governments can exercise before creating a serious risk of tyranny and deep and widespread impoverishment. Personally, I believe that very little good ever comes from any exercise of government power.  But I also believe that a largely free, market-oriented society can absorb lots of foolishness without being doomed to impoverishment and brutality and collapse.

But were I to adopt Diamond’s standards for drawing from society A lessons for society B, I would be as justified in warning apocalyptically about the imminent perils of expanding government power as he justified is in warning about the dangers of modern consumerism, capitalism, and resource use.

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