38 Comments

A few issues with your argument.

1) Isn't it likely the causation mostly goes the other way. That liberal and free societies result in more innovation?

Maybe greater absolute wealth can be shown to make countries freer and more liberal but i don't see much evidence for a causal arrow from innovation to increased freedom/liberalness.

2) Even if 1 is false your evidence doesn't distinguish between the claims that the overall level of innovation predicts the degree of freedom/liberalness and the claim that the innovation per person does.

Actually, it's worse than this because if you want to make the claim about spatial correlation there are plenty of small and very liberal countries like Iceland or other Nordic countries that in absolute terms were far less innovative than giant but very illiberal countries like China or the USSR. If anything the evidence points to per person innovation.

Yet it's not at all clear smaller populations reduce per person innovation.

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Jan 12·edited Jan 12

Well, I think you're generally right about this.

Although, I'm skeptical that "innovation of the sort that makes nation-states worried about falling behind other nation-states" is actually slowing currently. The Big One right now is AI. The world is getting separated into the AI Haves and Have-Nots. It's easy to imagine how even fairly dumb AI could completely revolutionize the entire economy by replacing all sorts of menial jobs. The AI that we've got is increasingly not dumb, and is thus reaching towards office jobs as well.

Also the fears of population decline are overblown. There is currently a strong selection pressure for people with heritable genes that cause them to have a lot of kids despite living in a high-education high-tech society. People with genes like that do exist and their descendants will be numerous. We're talking hundreds of years in the future, anyway, by which point our society will be practically unrecognizable due to robots doing everything, so such predictions are pointless.

The more pressing demographic problem is that as AI keeps doing more and more human jobs better and cheaper than the humans, we are going to have to figure out what to do with all the humans who cannot get a job because they cannot compete with the AI. This could become a majority of the population. UBI? Mass starvation and riots? Legal restrictions on what jobs robots can do? Subsidies for human workers?

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Most people in world history have lived lives of terrible poverty and oppression. If you are correct, and, sadly, I suspect you are, we would just be going back to normal.

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I'll repeat myself here, the only progress we humans have actually accomplished, in our brief history, is our ability to live longer lives, period.

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The lynchpin of your analysis is that when populations decline, so will innovation. I would posit that the two are not inextricably linked. We know, for instance, that population growth doesn't in and of itself ensure liberal societies - many a society has growth in population to be illiberal. So, why would the reverse be different?

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I am trying very hard to think of an economic equation that says innovation and GDP are reliant on population headcount in any way whatsoever. There is certainly no empirical evidence in support of your assertion, and I'd be interested to find out where the supposed supporting economic theory comes from.

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I am trying very hard to think of an economic equation that says innovation and GDP are reliant on population headcount in any way whatsoever. There is certainly no empirical evidence in support of your assertion, and I'd be interested to find out where the supposed supporting economic theory comes from.

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Your analysis seems very similar to my own analysis of the advantages and drawbacks of skepticism: "In environs and situations in which survival is precarious and military-esque deference to authority is necessary to stay alive, having a sudden increase in skepticism and doubt of the hierarchy could lead to the death of the society and the individuals that it comprises. But at other times, the meme of skepticism presents great advantages: being creative, willing to go one’s own way, follow one’s inclinations and not blindly stumble after the herd can yield enormous benefits when it comes to science, business, art, politics, or personal interactions. I would posit that there is a strong correlation between the prevalence of the skepticism meme and the level of creativity, dynamism, and liberty of a society."

https://whitherthewest.substack.com/p/the-heterozygote-advantage-and-the

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Unless we see a massive cultural shift in the direction of higher fertility, seems like there are only three ways out of this:

1. Advances in synthetic biology that help us engineer higher IQ babies such that we need fewer people to produce the same number of ideas.

2. Artificial wombs and other technology that can potentially reduce the human cost of bearing or raising children.

3. Breakthroughs in artificial intelligence

It's concerning that effective altruism is perhaps marking #3 less plausible and doing nothing to make 1 and 2 more likely. Even if you're concerned about x risk from AI, you should probably hedge your AI forecasts by funding #1 and #2, such that if AI progress stalls, we're in a world that has made progress on both enhancing human cognition and making the species more prolific.

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Robin, bravo.

Curious: how does your latest thinking, if at all, affect your thinking re: great filters, grabby aliens, UFOs, et al.

That the virtuous cycle b/t innovation begets liberality will eventually peter out (due to the wealth-fertility paradox, i.e., declining fertility) implies a very hard step for any civilization to overcome indeed and not specific to our own civilization.

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Good angle! Sounds like stasis is useful only in the strictest winter; flux (innovation) the rest of the time

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