The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

The Unit of Civilization

An interesting thread at Belmont Club is discussing the threat to civilization latent in the diffusion of increasing destructive power into the hands of smaller groups. To summarize: small groups are more prone to radicalization and less easy to deter; the State containing the group can be deterred, but is unaware of the group's existence; thus the State has an incentive to strict policing, lest it be punished for its citizens' misdeeds.

Clearly, the important question is how States will accomplish this policing, and at what cost? One of Belmont Club's comments describes a surveillance state reminiscent of the world of, say, Niven's "Madness Has Its Place". But such surveillance will inevitably be abused by whoever can use it for gain.

At this point, we need to examine an important element of recent conservative thought, which does not seem to have a name. I will call it the Initiative Hypothesis, and state it as follows:

The rate of both technological and material progress within a society inevitably increases with increasing freedom.

This hypothesis is certainly not original to me; it originates with Adam Smith and was greatly developed and bolstered by Friedrich Hayek (my first victim). I have tried to make it explicit that freedom is assumed to be a good in both the short and the long term, and to focus on technology, the main driver of long-term progress. Bill Whittle has provided an eloquent defense of this idea, but it must still be regarded as only a hypothesis.

With the growth of technology (and especially of nanotechnology) the importance of technological prowess is sharpened; it becomes a question not of prosperity, but of survival. The idea of a small Islamist cell setting out to cause great harm to the West is a threatening one; but similar cells attacking other parts of their own more-primitive world, which will always be softer targets, will be far more likely (or, in the worst case, far more common).

Suppose for the moment that the Initiative Hypothesis holds, and that the future belongs (almost literally) to whatever state will obtain the most freedom for its citizens without being destroyed in the process. States will be able to obtain security with less policing if they are smaller, more homogeneous, and have closely controlled borders. All these are disadvantages to economic competition in today's world, leading to the dominance of large nations and the European drive to join the ranks of behemoths. But in a less secure world, the optimal balance would tip in the other direction. Small designer communities could come to lead the drive to the stars.