« Basics for Economics 210a, Spring 2008 | Main | Why Should Economists Study Economic History? After-Action 210a Note »

January 15, 2008


Mitchell Hoffman

Because the Diamond paper is not an academic work, it is difficult to know how to evaluate it. Points are made often without citation and with limited, selective empirical evidence. Even attempting to evaluate the article as a popular piece, I find his arguments, on the whole, to be unconvincing and speculative, made perhaps with the aim of being controversial instead of adding to anyone’s knowledge.
The paper claims at least five ways that agriculture hurt civilization: health, material well-being, leisure time, conflict, and inequality. Probably the best argued one is the effect of agriculture on health. He lists several pieces of evidence (though without clear citation—which studies by Armelagos?) about how agriculture may have increased disease and reduced life expectancy. These are interesting. His claim that “farmers gained cheap calories at the cost of poor nutrition” is less straightforward; I was taught in high school that American diets were overly high in protein, and that improved health came from higher carbohydrates a la the Japanese or Northern Italian diets. Having only this little knowledge, I have no ability to evaluate the scientific validity of his argument, but I am certainly not convinced.
To argue how agriculture has hurt material well-being, or the total amount of consumption, he mentions the Irish potato famine. There are many, many examples though of shortage among nomadic societies. One way that Nomadic societies often face deprivation and risk is through their dependence on the population of certain animals. With the growing extinction of the bison in the United States, many central plains Indians starved, or were forced to turn to agriculture. Just as Diamond describes how agricultural societies compete for lands, American Indians often competed for herd animals, and this occurred (if I remember my US History coursework correctly) before the arrival of the Europeans. Many other societies, such as tribes in Africa like the Zulu, have engaged in competition for animals. Finally, even the statistics that Diamond cites in his argument, like 2,140 calories per day "when food was plentiful" seem, to a laymen dietician like me, extremely unconvincing; 2,000 calories is often recommended as a caloric limit for middle-aged people looking to maintain or lose weight. In colonial America, an agricultural society where people engaged in vigorous physical activity, caloric intake was much higher.
The abundance of leisure time afforded by agriculture is a commonly cited example of the advantage of agriculture. Diamond only addresses this point by saying that Bushmen had a decent amount of leisure time.
As described above, nomadic societies frequently fight over animals instead of land, and there are many examples of conflict. American Indian warfare was frequently brutal. I read a book about the Zulus and warfare there was also nothing nice. There are many examples of agricultural societies fighting wars simply because most societies today are agricultural.
As for inequality, nomadic societies are also oftentimes autocratic. Native American and African chiefs exercise tremendous power, as did Genghis Khan and other Central Asian nomadic leaders. Diamond’s claim that agriculture uniquely added to inequality or autocracy doesn’t seem well-founded.
Switching to the question of why organizational process is faster in some societies than in others, I found William Baumol’s article on this question and the general issue of the differential value of entrepreneurship to be much better argued and interesting. He argues that whether entrepreneurship is used for good (e.g growth & technological innovation) or ill (e.g. crime) is determined by societal incentives for innovation. I found the piece intriguing. While Baumol’s use of the historical record seems balanced and thoughtful, I am interested in seeing how his theory might explain more contemporary differentials in entrepreneurship. I am also a little uncertain on whether entrepreneurship and crime/plunder are really two sides of the same coin. Would a successful drug lord also have made a successful businessmen? Why do countries like Columbia that have implemented free-market policies and seem to provide incentives for entrepreneurship still have enormous issues with the drug trade and other undesirable innovation?

Francois GERARD

Francois GERARD
Memo 1: Modes of Production

Diamond supports the surprising idea that agriculture might have been the worst invention of the human race. While his point of view interestingly encourages considering the question of the consequences of that decisive invention for the human race with a richer perspective, I do not agree with his conclusion.

First Diamond has a far too restrictive idea of human progress. There is obviously no consensus on what “progress” means and, in a way, Diamond is right to consider that an increase in the amount of goods per person does not imply per se “progress”. But the fact that hunter-gatherers were healthier (he could have add that they were doing less harm to the Nature) is a much too medical approach that is clearly linked with his specialization. So yes, with agriculture, the population increases, the first cities appeared and merchants started traveling from one place to another carrying infections and diseases. But is that all? Definitely not! With agriculture, population increases, some people started to survive without producing food but trying to specialize in other and new activities, thinking, developing, inventing,… and trade and communication between distant cities made the diffusion of ideas and inventions possible. So yes, hunter-gatherers were (are?) maybe healthier, living in more peaceful societies and even more “happy” but that does not imply that agriculture was a mistake because agriculture made available fantastic new areas to develop (and was itself the result of) the insatiable force that drives the human race, the one that makes us think, invent, undertake, gather, share, communicate,…
Second, Diamond gives too much importance on the specific effect of agriculture. If the world now does not look much more attractive than the world of the hunter-gatherers, it is not only because of the development of agriculture: the force that I introduce here above may not have been well oriented. Agriculture opened new possibilities of progress but those possibilities may not have been exploited efficiently. That is the point of the other articles. Indeed they suggest that cultural aspects in some societies, resulting in a structure of incentives that did not promote inventions (and their diffusion) and entrepreneurship, caused a slower technological and organizational progress than possible. And as Temin suggests that was not because of the absence of a market economy. During most of the post-agriculture history and in most places of the world, practical inventions and activities have been discredited; social consideration has not come with ingenuity and the leading class has rarely been composed by the most progress-enhancing people. Then we can read Diamond by concluding that even a tremendous invention that offer fantastic new opportunities for the human race will not lead for sure to a progress for the human race if it does not come with an institutional structure that encourages studies, inventions, entrepreneurship and diffusion of techniques that makes possible a progress-enhancing exploitation of that invention (whatever the definition of progress is). But as Diamond explained the post-agriculture history is still really short with respect to the whole history of human race and as we can see in the additional material provided for this week, progress (at least economically speaking) seems to be on a better track recently (last 200 years), so we may hope that a future Diamond writing in 200 years will never conclude that agriculture was the worst mistake in the history of human race.

Insook Lee

Even though modern models of economic growth theory do not specify of how mode of production or social norm interactively affects the welfare of human race, it is meaningful question to be answered since human welfare is one of eventual concerns of economics.

To begin with, for agricultural production which once has been prevalent and basic mode of production, Jared(1987) threw tried fresh view against progressivist, arguing choice to agriculture was a trade of quantity with quality which brought about nutrition deterioration, diseases, class division and gender inequality. Based on paleopathological analysis over skeletons and example of Bushman etc, he tries to buttress his point. However, they does not look well-balanced or thorough; for instance, the logical link between agriculture and inequality is not necessarily of causality, if you look for the life of small tribes in Pacific Islands or Africa who keeps still fishing or hunting have also inequality. Even the argument that switch to agriculture decreased the life expectancy would be easily refuted by asking whether people could live as long as 80 or 90 if human would remain in the field looking for a game and fruits with limiting population.

Narrowing the view scope within civilization agriculture, therefore, Rome can be of interest. And Finly(1965) showed how economic productivity had not advanced, pointing out that potential was already there like Alexander Museum. Even though there was refinement in quality, wide development of productivity in terms of quantity was missing in Roman Empire. “Divorce between science and practice” and, in line with this, parasitical way of Rome autocracy when accumulating wealth, such as conquest, usury, and booty deterred progress of technology and productivity as well as capitalism. Relying on slavery, emperors took expedient measure to feed their increasing population rather than fundamentally alter productive arrangements. (At the head of the article, Finly throw a question why productivity did not prove, but in answering, he shows how more than why.) On contrary to this view of lack of interdependent market system in Rome, Temin argued that Roman Empire was market economy at least among the “literate Rome”. Using synthetic model of Polanyi and Pryor with his category over human behavior, Temin argues that market exchange where institutional behavior is characterized, developed up to quite decent level. Even though there was centric transfer like annona, it was to be purchased with money in the market. Furthermore, highly sophisticated transaction and marine insurance contract worked well between private actors. As liquidity crisis in 33 CE shows, prices were varied over time, although it was not unique across Empire. According to Temin, we can say that Roman economy achieved organizational progress although not in technological progress. However, the lack of data makes me hesitate to be fully persuaded, not free from concern of what if literate Rome is really small-unpresentative- portion of Roman society.

Nevertheless if Rome was market economy, why was productivity not promoted well? Baumol(1990) addresses this issue, arguing that the game of rule, i.e how entrepreneurship is rewarded, matters for whether it contributes productively or not. Adding ‘rent seeking’ into the list of Schumpeterian innovations, he analyzes how allocation of entrepreneurial input can serve for unproductive to society. With stark contrast of vibrant technological progress lead by Cistercian entrepreneurship in later Middle Ages, Baumol attributes sluggish productivity growth in ancient Rome, medieval China, earlier Middle Ages to their failure to deter rent seeking behavior and to give proper payoff to the productive entrepreneurs. And, as a result, this exerts huge influence on the innovation of economy as whole. Although not all, Baumol tries to answer where the difference comes from; however, he should have paid more attention to other Civilizations to prove his 3 propositions. Moreover, he did not provide clue on why determinants of economic progress vary over time and places.

In addition, if natural environment such as weather, epidemic and etc., which must have exerted huge impact on the economy of human race, were considered, the arguments of articles above could be more well-grounded and convincing. Grasping those articles at one hand, however, seminates other questions; then is there any relationship between agriculture production and emergence of market economy? ; how labor division, which is another source of productivity improvement, related to the market economy?

Willa Friedman

A brief glance at a few of the memos already posted and a few anecdotal remarks over pizza have led me to conclude that our class on a whole was not too persuaded by Diamond’s argument. This was my initial reaction as well and while I haven’t exactly changed my mind, I thought in the spirit of the discussion, I’d devote a bit to trying to defend parts of his argument.

It seems admittedly silly to refer to a change in a way of getting food that was likely necessitated by a scarcity of resources, in part caused by population growth, as a “mistake.” Even if looking at fossils show that hunter gatherers of one generation and agriculturalists who were probably of a much later generation show differences in health and nutrition, it seems unlikely that this change could have existed within the generation that made the transition. If a farmer who grew up hunting and gathering is hungry, wouldn’t he just go hunt and gather, assuming that the resources were there?

However, if one reads Diamond’s “mistake” as one large coordination failure, the argument seems more convincing. Most of the problems that Diamond points out are problems due to a rapid increase in population growth facilitated by agriculture. The woman has more kids and so each kid gets less. This is a tough argument because it seems like anything that leads to a decline in mortality is going to lead to population growth and associated problems, but it would be tough to call Penicillin or the elimination of malaria in the US or any reductions in infant mortality “mistakes.” Still, Diamond’s argument is more complex. If fewer kids die and people live longer, that’s good, but if people start having kids faster than they can support them, that might not be.

Whether this is what happens is a factual question and without a knowledge of what’s out there, I’m not sure that Diamond has presented all the facts. If a newly agriculturalist woman is overburdened by having kids every two years, has she forgotten whatever birth control methods were available to her hunting and gathering grandmothers? I’m skeptical that the change was in what the men wanted because Diamond acknowledged that by carrying children on their backs, female hunter-gatherers also bore the brunt of the responsibility of early child-care. Many summary accounts of hunter-gatherers seem to oversell the equality of the sexes. Men were still in charge and women’s roles were still limited by child-production.

But again, interpreting this as something like a coordination failure helps to strengthen Diamond’s argument. Once the barrier to having kids quickly (needing to carry them on the back) is lifted, then from an evolutionary standpoint, it’s best to have lots of kids because the number of kids that one family has is not likely to influence how many of them survive. However, if the number of kids an entire society has increases dramatically, then this could start to cause the type of problems that Diamond points out. So in this way, the introduction of agriculture was a curse that removed an obstacle to something that is individually beneficial, allowing a short-term (on the order of generations not years) advantage. This in turn greatly contributed to population growth, without an increase in life-expectancy, and contributed to reproduction becoming even more central to women’s lives, something that over many generations probably did lead to greater inequality between the sexes.

In conclusion (of my defense of Diamond), I think that the strength of his argument rests on the difference between removing an obstacle to survival of an individual and removing an obstacle to a higher birth-rate. This quickly allowed individual concerns to move away from the concerns of the group and produce a significant loss in welfare.

One final point to join the group criticizing Diamond is that it seems likely that the fall in welfare from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists was not sudden and took a few generations. And, that welfare went back up to a point higher than before the transition. So it can only be a mistake for perhaps generations 3-20 (or 50), but not for 1 or 2 and not for anything later. That’s a pretty specific time-frame. Those who remained hunter-gatherers until today are by most standards the worst off, even though the fact that they are still hunting and gathering implies that they must have had an easier time of it than did those who transitioned earlier.

As for the second and third questions, the connection seems to be the link between necessity and innovation through incentives. If there is a scarcity of basic necessities, then the incentives for developing new ways of procuring those goods is greater. Baumol’s well-qualified argument that differences in allocations of entrepreneurial energies can explain some differences in productive innovation was very convincing. The debate between Finley and Temin, at least from the perspective of Temin’s argument, was so based in facts that I don’t know, that it’s impossible for me to distinguish. However, some of the lack of innovation in Rome explained by Finley seems tied to Baumol’s arguments about incentives.

For example, perhaps the innovation was in creating such a complete political/class system that the elites were easily able to meet their needs on the backs of others. They controlled all that was of value – possibly in large part by controlling the beliefs of what was important (land ownership and number of slaves and not industry and commerce, for example). It seems that incentives are based on the ability to get things of value. While money can do this, so can political power so perhaps the incentives at the time were set up so that gaining political power (through land and status) rather than economic power (more money through more production) was more “valuable.”

Finally, I’ll make one more connection between the two questions and that is through my earlier reliance on finding coordination failures. Finley points out that the interests of the state should have been to think of ways of increasing production (p44, Technical Innovation and Economic Progress in the Ancient World). Yet, he mistakes the mistake many people make of anthropomorphizing the state and assuming that the state has interests. It doesn’t. People do. The actions of the state that he describes seem more in line with the interests of the individuals who were participating.

Summary: Diamond’s argument makes more sense if “mistake” is interpreted as “coordination failure,” and looking at changes in history as the results of individual actions based on individual incentives, sometimes in the absence of coordination, does seem to explain some changes in technological and organizational progress.

I. Romem

There is what to extract from "the worst mistake in the history of mankind" with respect to the dynamics of innovation and progress.

But first a comment: Jared Diamond's statement does not warrant an objective response. Concluding whether or not an event was good for mankind requires a well-defined measure of welfare, so that assessing the invention of agriculture reduces to arguing over which measure is appropriate. Clearly, there can be a variety of such measures, and they can be chosen to indicate that any given state is better or worse than any other. An appropriate measure is one that reflects the values of the beholder. Diamond provokes his readers by stressing health and quality of life in place of technological progress which he disregards (these terms are overly simplistic, I admit, but the point remains). One could ask Romans, medieval Chinese or Europeans of more recent ages whether they considered the invention of agriculture a mistake or not given their values and their own contemporary circumstances, but it would probably be far more interesting to ask them how their own age fares with respect to ours.

The picture portrayed in Diamond's article is one where health was traded off in favor of population growth, and despite his criticism I will add that it was later followed by an absolute improvement in health. This improvement was made possible by means that would most likely not have developed in a pre-agricultural world, such as modern medicine. So in essence, if human health is viewed as the ultimate goal, it seems that foregoing some pre-agricultural health in favor of increased population allowed mankind to improve its health thereafter.

Suppose we proclaim our goal is to maximize technological innovation and progress, because we believe they drive economic growth and thereby human welfare. Then let us adapt the previous line of thought to some of Baumol's examples of periods where different "rules" - driven by contemporary "institutions" and values – prevailed. It can be argued that temporarily straying from our proclaimed goal can help us escape sub-optimal local maxima, as follows:

Ancient Rome: "rules" favoring rent-extraction over productive entrepreneurship had a part in inducing Rome's territorial expansion, bringing the empire a great deal of extracted wealth. This wealth could then have promoted technological innovation and progress, despite the unfavorable "rules", to a greater extent than would have occurred in a territorially constricted Rome with "rules" favorable to technological innovation.

Medieval China: "rules" favoring unproductive study – unproductive in their day - could be the historic root of the contemporary stress placed by many Chinese on attaining a good education. The potential this has to affect technological innovation is straightforward.

Medieval (and later) Europe: "rules" favoring warfare promoted military development that later allowed Europe to dominate the world and to export the subsequent industrial revolution and capitalist culture throughout the world. I tend to believe this increased the global rate of technological innovation.

A useful line of thought? Maybe not. But it definitely has an irony to it (of the 3am kind).

James Zuberi

Although Jared Diamond’s article about the evils of agriculture is a catchy and surprising premise, there are many holes in his line of reasoning; and I suspect this article was written more whimsically than an anything else. I will try to address each of Diamond’s points, but because of space requirements I (thankfully) won’t get through all of them.

First, the author asserts that agriculture made the food source vulnerable to outside forces and in doing so made villages, towns, cities, etc. more vulnerable to starvation. Of course, having food in one place would surely make the crop susceptible to forces like weather, attack, etc. – but it is not clear to me that the vulnerability of the food source was much greater with agriculture than with nomads. For instance, if there is a drought and the crops in the field are not getting water, the shrubs and berries in the forest aren’t getting water either, nor are the wild monkeys (or other animal) that nomads supposedly catch. Further, in the present world we often make sacrifices to secure a more stable food source. Plants are genetically modified to be more resistant to rodents and other pests but in doing so the genetic variability of the crops is lessened and so the crops are more vulnerable to disease.

Second, the author asserts that a great deal of gender and class inequality emerged from the advent of agriculture. This is absolutely a plausible point to make however we must take a step back to determine exactly how evil this development was. Personally, being male and not on the poverty line I am reasonably alright about this; but probably more importantly, the clumping of people together into settlements may well have allowed for the development and sharing of ideas which, in turn, spurred technological advancement and intellectual progress. In this way, the increase in gender and class inequality cannot be honestly put forward without also describing the potentially breakthrough benefits that close association provided.

As for the last point that I will address, Diamond describes that leisure time does not increase when a person is in a fixed settlement engaging in agriculture. This may well be the case even though his argument is based on modern nomads (a fact he freely admits). Let’s say for a moment that this premise is indeed correct. Well in that case he can plausibly refute the common narrative that living in an agricultural settlement did not provide more free time than living in a nomadic settlement. Unfortunately, this does not support the thesis that the introduction of agriculture was the worst mistake in the history of the human race unless he is asserting that the metric that should be used to properly gauge the different organizational structures of the human race is leisure time.

Omar Nayeem

Jared Diamond’s fascinating article is extremely thought provoking,
though he misses the point. If one were to list the worst mistakes of
the human race in a linear ranking system, I agree that agriculture
would probably be in the top 7, however agriculture is quite
insignificant if one were to compare it to the likes of clothing. In
some cultures, it is called raiment, the application of fabric to the
human skin for vanity, temperature or propriety considerations has been
a great deal more detrimental to my human race.

Why don’t we start from the beginning. Well, we can’t literally start
from the beginning because time machines do not exist. But in many
national geographic documentaries about cultures in Africa I can see
that people live their lives completely in the nude. These naked
people not only are very skillful at climbing trees and catching fish,
but throughout the course of the documentaries they are smiling. You
may think that they are smiling at the camera that is being pointed at
their face, and I grant that this is a potentially confounding
variable, but I believe whole heartedly that they are much happier
people. Add to this the fact that Africa is a very warm place and that
modern humans migrated from Africa, it is profoundly simple to see that
our ancestors did not use clothing.

Now on to the classical times. It is a well-known fact that Helen of
Troy had the face to launch a thousand ships. The Trojan war not only
destroyed the powerful city of Troy, but also isolated a poor Trojan
prince by the name of Aeneas who endured countless hardships in finding
a new home. Now are we to believe that it was Helen’s FACE that caused
all of this suffering? Many fashion designers today will tell you that
a person’s face is by far not the characteristic of a woman that imbues
her with beauty – it is the clothing. Therefore, Helen’s clothing is
to blame for the death of Greece’s greatest hero Achilles and Priam’s
enormous sorrow at the loss of his beautiful son Hector.

In today’s world, clothing has installed itself in an especially
invidious place in society. Clothing companies like Gucci and Prada
cater to the wealthy, vain and arrogant who buy different pieces of
clothing and in doing so reinforce their distorted view of the world.
But the situation is far more dire! There are also cheaper companies
that sell cheap alternatives to the expensive pieces of clothing and so
much of the population at large tries to buy clothing in order to look
like they are rich and better than their neighbor. It is for this
reason that Louis Vitton bags are all over the place. I hope that in
the course of the next few years Jared Diamond will update is beliefs
and publish an article which acknowledges the horrible effect that
clothing has had on our human race.

K. Powers

The invention of agriculture
Before one can make a normative judgment on whether the invention of agriculture was the worst mistake of humanity, one must first examine non-neutral attributes or results of agriculture and then brainstorm how humanity could have developed under alternatives.

Agriculture has the certain advantage over hunting and gathering of generally being able to feed a larger population over the same amount of land. Thus, if a population is growing above a rate of zero, an agricultural society will probably be more likely to sustain the population as long as it cannot migrate to another piece of land.
However, as Jared Diamond notes, agriculture helps sustain crowding, a situation conducive to quick spreading of infectious disease. Additionally, the hunter-gatherer societies at Dickson Mounds suffered from fewer enamel defects and incidences of anemia – likely evidence of malnutrition – than did their farming successors. Degenerative spine conditions also appeared more often in the farming society at Dickson Mounds, a condition suggested by Diamond to reflect great amounts of physical labor (Diamond 1987). Finally, the diet of early farmers consisted of a few starchy crops, although (clearly) this is not necessarily the case for contemporary farming communities.
Though agriculture may not be a holy grail for humanity, what could have alternative situations looked like? Though Diamond speaks highly of hunter-gather lifestyles, the increasing rate of population growth that was occurring at the time of agriculture’s invention was not being sharply curbed by nomadic lifestyles (Diamond 1987). Thus, without an increase in the supply of food, a world of hunter-gather societies would probably have seen increasing territorial wars or periodic episodes of starvation. Given Diamond’s assertion that the invention of agriculture also led to “starvation, warfare, and tyranny,” how different would the paths of agricultural and pure hunter-gatherer societies have been in this respect? One should also not overlook the incidence of infanticide in hunter-gatherer communities when making normative judgments of lifestyle.
Additionally, Diamond contends that hunter-gatherer societies are less prone to starvation than are agricultural societies due to a less varied diet in the latter lifestyle. But can hunter-gatherer societies respond to widespread droughts and other weather effects better than farming societies? Even if contemporary farming societies still raised only a few starchy crops, global trade in food is such that domestic starvation can be staved off given appropriate economic or political situations.

What causes relatively faster growth rates of technological and organizational progress? William Baumol suggests that the rules of government which govern entrepreneurship have an economically significant effect on innovation by incentivizing the allocation of entrepreneurial spirit between productive and unproductive activities (Baumol 1990, p918). Indeed, in contemporary market economies, actors are believed to follow the incentives set before them. One crucial incentive, then, is the existence of entrepreneur-friendly infrastructure in productive sectors; the cost of setting up such a market may be prohibitive for individuals. The encouragement of innovation by governments would also move economies toward a path of higher achievement referenced in Paul David’s in his analysis of path-dependence (David 1993). However, policy and physical or financial capability are not alone in motivating innovation. As noted by Baumol, the absence of societal stigma or other value-based impediments to entrepreneurship and wealth allows entrepreneurs to openly and competitively seek profit. Indeed, the societies of antiquity, which experienced few revolutionary innovations in production, limited the prestige of those gaining wealth from industrial pursuits (Finley 1965).

Hunter-gatherer and primitive societies were not incapable of technological innovation. Additionally, the advent of agriculture was borne out of necessity to feed a growing population. If a purely hunter-gatherer society – or any other type of society – is sustainable, then it may not provide many incentives to innovate. However, if characteristics of a society induce its members to create solutions to perceived problems, and if few blockades exist in implementation of the solutions, then it is logical to believe that innovation will occur. Thus, because agriculture solved a perceived societal problem that, left untreated, could have resulted in violent or unfortunate difficulties in the future, it is slightly silly to project its invention as something that singlehandedly caused divides that exist in contemporary technological and organizational growth rates.

Xing Huang

Why primitive hunter-gatherers chose to develop agriculture, a more efficient way but with poorer quality of life (given we agree with the analysis and the evidence provided by Jared Diamond)? If we can understand that, but why did Greeks and Romans just make few technical or economic advances when they had such “a powerful desire for wealth and for large-scale consumption” as Finley tells us?

Before we discuss the choice of human whether to make technical innovations and use them widely, and whether to increase productivity and efficiency, we should first consider whether the society has the bases to realize their choice. Undoubtedly, to realize technology improvement, physical capital and human capital should be sufficient. More importantly, the society should have a system to allocate capital efficiently. In Greek and Roman, “there were enough individuals who possessed the resources, but not among the men whose interest lay in production”, which is inefficient physical-capital allocation; and the “divorce between science and practice” could be considered as inefficient human-capital allocation to some extent. However, all the prerequisites are just necessary factors but not sufficient for more technical advances.

Given all the prerequisites satisfied, we should further think about whether the society will choose to increase productivity and efficiency. If we consider all the prerequisites as objective factors, now we will discuss subjective factors. I want to discuss these subjective factors from three aspects --- “want-to-do”, “right-to-do” and “need-to-do”. “Want-to-do” is talking about desire or attitude, “right-to-do” is about rationality, and “need-to-do” is about lowest requirement. As Jared Diamond argues, hunting and gathering is a better choice for primitives than agriculture is. But why they choose to abandon hunting and gathering? Greeks and Romans have strong desire for wealth, but why they didn’t make a lot of technical progress? Therefore, technical advance is a “want-to-do”, maybe “right-to-do” thing for the Greeks and Romans but not a “right-to-do” thing for the primitives. Then the question could be asked in another way, why human in the history choose to do a “not right-to-do” thing but not to do a “want-to-do and right-to-do” thing?

The answers, in my opinion, should rely on whether it’s “right-to-do” individually and whether it’s “needed-to-do”. The reason that I put “individually” following “right-to-do” is that individual rationality differs from collective rationality, and individual rationality often lead to collective irrationality (like in the example of bank-run). Now we come back to the two cases about the primitives and the Greeks and Romans. Primitive hunter-gatherers choose not to limit population growth because a family wants to have more labors to obtain more food. When natural resources are relatively scarce to the population, they are rational individually to develop agriculture in case being killed by others. Every band should try to become strong through increasing population and developing agriculture. In Greek and Roman, social classes have been formed. There are strong ones and weak ones. Weak ones don’t have incentives to make technical advance and make more goods, because these goods will be used by strong ones anyway. Strong ones don’t have incentives either, because they could deprive weak ones of what they want. If so, then, why we can still see technological progress appears relatively slow in some periods but fast in others? That depends on the last factor --- “need-to-do”. For example, even though no classes intend to increase productivity and efficiency, they will have to if the goods could not meet the lowest living requirements. In this case, people will do “right” things when they “need to do”. We could also make people to do “right” things through other means, which is to establish system to make people take actions collective-rationally. As there is far less possibilities of bank-run when deposit insurance system exists, human will enjoy more advances without threats of deprivation. So if human not doing the “right” things are making mistakes, then yes, invention of agriculture and failure to make technical advance to the extent people should have are mistakes. But it’s unavoidable for human to make such mistakes sometimes if everyone is taking the “right” action for himself.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Search Brad DeLong's Website