A Conservative is a fellow who is standing athwart history yelling 'Stop! - William F. Buckley Jr.
We now have a good guess for how our civilization will decline and then be displaced in the next few centuries. And a plausible explanation for this decline is that we let our world culture drift far from where it started, into places which added a great many obstacles to fertility.
For those of us who see such a decline and displacement as a bad thing, this is an opportunity not only to recalibrate our respect of the new winners and losers, but also to allocate credit and blame for how we got here. And the common description of conservatives as those who resist cultural changes more suggests that conservatives might deserve some credit here.
But do they really? I’ve previously proposed a historian project to see if we could reform academia via futures markets in distant historian evaluations of the relative contributions of academics to long term intellectual progress. In this post, I propose a different historian project, this time to evaluate this claim that conservatives deserve credit for pushing us to avoid civilization decline.
I propose that we ask historians to evaluate some counterfactuals of the form “If political instinct X had been more influential in the world over the last six centuries, how much bigger would our civilization have become before declining?” Now let’s clarify some details.
The Amish-like insular fertile subcultures who I expect will displace our civilization are not “us” for the purpose of this exercise. But most everyone else in our world now and in our past does count. It is also probably fine to ignore the possibility that we might develop a fast growing AI- or em-based economy before the coming decline.
The “size” of our civilization might be understood as an integral over its duration of its economic size, or of some measure of total welfare for all its members. But as population decline is likely the main cause of our civ decline, it may usually be sufficient to just estimate the world population peak before the decline. Which counterfactuals would have increased that peak?
In the counterfactual where a certain political instinct was more influential, seems simplest to assume it was more influential across the board. That is, in government, in private orgs, and in personal actions. And similarly more influential across the entire world.
Finally, we have a number of different ways to define “conservative” political instincts for the purpose of this exercise. If we had a good way to distinguish “left” from “right”, we might use that, but many are skeptical on this. Perhaps the simplest alternative is to postulate a stronger “wariness of change” of all sorts. Or we might postulate wariness of more particular changes, such as a wariness of changes to the degree the they influence our cultural values, or a wariness of changes to the degree that they influence fertility. Maybe even a wariness of violating Christian maxims or rules. This is the dimension where I feel the least confidence about the best approach; maybe we’ll need to try several.
Yes this is a big project, to do it all right. But folks could clearly get started sketching out what might be the main trends or choices that plausibly mediate the causal relation between more conservative influence and a larger total civilization. Early efforts might identify the main difficulties that this analysis seems to face. And one could do more focused versions of this exercise, over shorter time durations and smaller spatial scopes.
Students of history might even take a first cut at this. And I suspect polymaths will be especially useful here; historians who only understand one particular historical place and time maybe find it harder to trace causes across such long historical paths.
You might think this project is so hard that there’s little point in trying. But it should be easier to evaluate the effect of past conservative instincts on past historical changes, than to evaluate the future consequences of conservative influence today on our future world. So if you are willing to make educated guesses on that latter topic, you should be willing to make guesses on the former topic as well.