The Long Arc of Economic Development

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Libertarian economist Steven Landsburg concisely summarized the long arc of economic development:

“Modern humans first emerged about 100,000 years ago. For the next 99,800 years or so, nothing happened… Then—just a couple of hundred years ago—people started getting richer. And richer and richer still.”

30 thoughts on “The Long Arc of Economic Development”

  1. @Elliot01: Does that mean 42 states approve of child slavery?

    When it comes to answering such questions, the concept of revealed preference is often useful.

    @Felix: Perhaps “forward-thinking” as used above implies something other than full-throated endorsement of the choice of destination that California now barrels toward in a modified Delorean going 88 miles per hour.

    • I am skeptical of the claim that libertarians oppose child slavery, given that never once have I heard a libertarian voice even mild opposition to the widespread practice of buying and selling newborns, otherwise known as commercial surrogacy.

      • Call it verbal irony. Sarcasm, a low form of humor, inflicts pain on the target. Snark, an even lower form of humor, often drives the target to do the inflicting; how John Scalzi and Joss Whedon ever managed to make it to middle age is a mystery.

    • That was my first thought as well. He should read Cochran and Harpending’s The 10,000 Year Explosion for more information on the matter.

    • At which point he’ll pull out his gun and shoot you.
      Libertarians are very much into self-defense. 😉

      • Even the smartest and most admirable of the libertarians, Murray Rothbard, in the end was defeated utterly by the question of whether libertarian doctrine forbids parents from selling their children into slavery. “They just wouldn’t, that’s all,” was his ahistorical reply.

        Disarming the post-Rothbard crop of libertarians is a far simpler matter, requiring little more than asking, “But what about the roads?” This throws them into a recursive loop that freezes them into babbling immobility, much like when Spock tricked an evil computer into calculating the final digit of pi.

        • Dunno where you live but toll roads are common and increasingly so.

          Around here the decidly leftist government (both major parties are aligned with the democrats) bankupted the state governent through mismanagement and all new major roads are now nominally “public-private-partnerships” run by friends of the party. As in privately operated, at a profit, and the public pays retail.

          It must be a very stupid academic “libertarian” who can’t defend the ideology.

          The real libertarians can cite chapter and verse blindfolded. That said, there is an overabundance of mathematical illiterates in academia masquerading as libertarians who can’t even articuate why any material based currency inevitably ends in a collapse. (Back to the gold standard? Riiight.) Always have, always will, barring a global war and the end of civilization. The only more stupid crowd is the “modern economic model” progressives who don’t believe limitless spending leads to inflation despite withnessing it this decade. Anybody who takes either camp seriously needs to look around.

          Any ideology can be neutered by taking it to extremes but only idiots take anything to extremes. Usually in the ivory towers of academia, be it economics, law, or astronomy. A certain nameless fool of the latter stripe from Harvard just caused an international incident with his ufologist twaddle in Papua New Guinea.


          Apparently nobody told him about polymetallic nodules.

          Only the media takes the ivory tower crowd seriously.
          The rest of us have better things to do.

            • That I can agree to…
              …when you talk about activists and politicians.

              But at heart most ideologies have a kernel of validity surrounded by a shell of good intentions. But as they say, the road to heck is paved with good intentions… by the ignorant and especially the math illiterate, led by opportunists and scammers interested in forcing *their* values on others. For profit, of course.

              In that, proper libertarians and the Wiccan Rede agree: “An ye harm none, do what ye will.” The increased popularity of the Gadsen flag isn’t without cause.

              As is, the current war of extremes isn’t long for this world as it’s driven by gerontocrats spooked by their imminent mortality who are past their expiration date.

              We just need to hunker down a bit more.

              • My take is that many (most?) well developed ideologies are best regarded as cults (often non theistic religious cults) whose structure is typically aimed at removing the possibility of their true believers – once recruited – feeling free to think critically and/or empirically about the ideology’s core beliefs. I certainly find it easier to understand Fascism, National Socialism and Marxist Communism on this basis.

                Libertarianism is not something I’ve studied closely enough to know whether it fits into this framework (possibly not). Martin’s comments are no real help; he does not even get as far as putting up a strawman, he just tells us that they cannot explain a few things (and I’m not prepared to accept the extreme lack of sophistication he implies).

                • You can start here:


                  It can (and has been) argued that libertarianism is the purest form of liberalism.

                  The problem is in the US some reactionary Academics keep trying to hide under that name, much as modern american Jacobins try to pass for Progressives (which were liberal republicans pre-Reagan, c.f., Rockefeller, Teddy Rooseveldt) or “Democrat Socialist”. At least some are honest enough to embrace the term Jacobin, making it easy to see how extreme and beyond the mainstream the fakers really are. In fact, they are so far gone to have wrapped around into McCarthy reactionary territory.

                • If that doesn’t make you run away screaming, there is also this:



                  In short: libertarians are today’s Greeks vs today’s statist persians. As in: does the state exist to serve the citizens or the citizens exist to serve the state?

                  Funny thing is, a lot of people are at heart libertarian but are so wedded to the myth of left-right linear politics they fail to understand their own principles.

        • It’s not entirely coincidental that the “200 years ago” cited in the OP roughly coincides with when slavery began to be outlawed.

          And there are about 25 other developments in 1820 +/- 15 years that made “comparative advantage” an achievable change from “mercantilism.” So it wasn’t just “ending slavery” by any means.

          • Mercantilism never went away. It is still underpining the chinese economy and most of east asia and it adopted a facade of openess in most of western europe, particularly France. And is likely going to make a comeback in most of western europe if the EU is to survive.

            More recently, comparative advantage has proven inadequate as a model for running a modern economy and as globalism unwinds we are in for a return of regional supply chains and neoimperial linkages.

            Although The Hill hasn’t quite gotten the memo:


            They’re still looking at the world through ’90’s “end of history” blinders. The guy sounds like he slept for the last three years of the pandemic shortages and supply chain messes.

            Any time the two warring armies in DC agree on anything *and* Wall Street pivots with them, a major restructuring is underway. And it is. 2030 America is going to be very different from 2020.

        • Libertarians have no problem with roads. They consider individual freedom to be the most important goal, but certainly not the only goal.

          The question of enslaving children is easy for libertarians. It would be a violation of the child’s individual freedom. Slavery is the opposite of libertarianism.

          • I am skeptical of the claim that libertarians oppose child slavery, given that never once have I heard a libertarian voice even mild opposition to the widespread practice of buying and selling newborns, otherwise known as commercial surrogacy.

            • I have heard very few speaking in opposition to commercial surrogacy, therefore most have no opposition to child slavery.

              • On artificial wombs:


                “In 2016, scientists published two studies regarding human embryos developing for thirteen days within an ecto-uterine environment. Currently, a 14-day rule prevents human embryos from being kept in artificial wombs longer than 14 days. This rule has been codified into law in twelve countries.

                “Last year, the International Society for Stem Cell Research relaxed a historical “14-day rule” that said researchers could grow natural embryos for only 14 days in the laboratory, allowing researchers to seek approval for longer studies. Human embryo models are banned from being implanted into a uterus,” claims The Washington Post.

                “In 2017, fetal researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia published a study showing they had grown premature lamb fetuses for four weeks in an extra-uterine life support system.”

                The 14 day rule isn’t long for the world. With the current fad for neutering children in the US and demographic collapse in dozens of countries, there will be massive demand for composite (two donor) clones and artificial wombs by 2050. Sooner in China, east asia, and Europe.

            • A bit of a reach, isn’t it? And an odd thing to bring up since surrogacy is regulated worldwide and the commercial verion is mostly prohibited. No need to speak up against it, whether libertarian or authoritarian.

              The gist of the regulation is that tbe surrogate is paid for her time and service *not* the (ahem) output. So comparing it to slavery is a non-starter.

              Here, readily available online:


              It’s a temporary practice, never fear, as artificial wombs are being researched even as we speak. Safer, much cheaper, and the machine won’t refuse to give up the child.

              For consequences of this horizon tech, look to Lois Bujold’s VORKOSIGAN books. She’s been exploring its etgics and uses for decades, often drolly.

              • The mother is not the person being sold, the baby is. Prices currently run as high as $200,000 per newborn. Three states ban this peculiar institution outright and five heavily restrict it. The remainder regulate it lightly or not at all, the always forward-thinking Golden State being a notable example.

                As to the suggestion that them will represent a moral, as opposed to a technical, advance over current methods, perhaps a scattered handful of cranks and malcontents may disagree, but the majority of postmodern Americans no doubt will conclude after due consideration that they can be safely ignored, if not suppressed altogether.

                • That got sent too soon. The second paragraph was meant to deal with the matter of artificial wombs someday replacing surrogate mothers in the name of making the baby-trade more cost-efficient.

                  Over and out.

                • Three states ban this peculiar institution outright and five heavily restrict it.

                  Does that mean 42 states approve of child slavery?

                • Amusing that you consider California “forward thinking”.

                  Let’s wait a while to see how they handle the Crisis of the Twenties. A lot more significant that one, and one they have done exactly zero to address. Unlike a bevy of states of varied coloration.

                  I’ve seen suggestions that taking care of basic needs (Maslov’s Hierarchy) isn’t quite in their wheelhouse and their posturing near the tip of the pyramid is a smokescreen to hide their incomoetence at managing the lowest, most critical, levels.


                  “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is an idea in psychology proposed by American psychologist Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” in the journal Psychological Review.[1] Maslow subsequently extended the idea to include his observations of humans’ innate curiosity. His theories parallel many other theories of human developmental psychology, some of which focus on describing the stages of growth in humans. The theory is a classification system intended to reflect the universal needs of society as its base, then proceeding to more acquired emotions.[3] The hierarchy of needs is split between deficiency needs and growth needs, with two key themes involved within the theory being individualism and the prioritization of needs. While the theory is usually shown as a pyramid in illustrations, Maslow himself never created a pyramid to represent the hierarchy of needs.[4][5] The hierarchy of needs is a psychological idea and also an assessment tool, particularly in education, healthcare and social work.[6] The hierarchy remains a popular framework, for example in sociology research, management training,[7] and higher education.[8]”

                  Maybe it’s just me, but the adjective that comes to mind about the tarnished state is backwards thinking because their entire economic outlook is running a whole generation behind the times: the 90’s are gone and not coming back. Their economic and governance model is played out and they haven’t surfaced answers to any of the new challenges. Which leaves them with nothing meaningful to address the basics of housing, food, water, employment, and physical safety. If anything, their recent policies are exarcebating the ongoing challenges.

                  As I said, let’s wait a decade or… no, half a decade will suffice. SiliValley won’t last that long.

                  Hint: SVB isn’t coming back.

                • In a Beavis and Butthead fashion?
                  All I expect is two culture warriors screaming inanities about irrelevancies while avoiding anything of consequence like the plague.

                  DeSantis may or not “win” if any of his handlers understands math and provides a few rational talking points but it’s already clear Newsom doesn’t, judging by his car and trucking mandates in the name of “the environent”. But while that is a low bar, I’m not holding my breath.

                  Idiots debating idiots isn’t my cuppa tea.
                  (And I don’t drink coffee either.)

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