Something that has been on my mind a lot recently is the evolutionary viewpoint of societies and what that entails for our future. This theory is elucidated pretty well in the book Sapiens by Harari - societies, be they tribes, nations, or empires, compete with each other. A combination of circumstance and relative competitive fitness determines what traits are selected for and survive. Unfortunately, these traits tend to be those that solely maximize economic and battlefield achievement, rather than the happiness of their constituents. Harari compares a hunter gatherer society with the agrarians who displaced them - agrarians lived shorter lives, with backs deformed by bending over to plant and harvest, their teeth ground down, all under the service of some tyrant. This is contrasted with the (while not perfect) relatively happier lives of hunter gatherers. Happiness didn’t matter in terms of societal fitness - the agrarians were able to support a more dense population and subsequently win on the battlefield. This common thread is repeated throughout history: happiness and human dignity are repeatedly shown to be immaterial to the continued survival of a society.

This trend has been bucked in modern times. Fortunately, the United States became the dominant power after WWII. Despite its flaws, the US possessed a society with a greater potential for freedom and happiness than the slave state that had coagulated behind the Iron Curtain. However, despite its relatively unscathed state after the war many in the US were worried - could central planning do better than capitalism, and thus outcompete the US economically and equivalently, militarily? Many respected economists at the time (e.g. Samuelson, Robinson) believed that central planning could outcompete laissez faire capitalism. While seemingly crazy now, this was not an unreasonable conclusion as it was still unproven empirically whether a distributed pricing system like capitalism could defeat something intelligently centrally planned. Imagine yourself in that time period - look at how much money is wasted on vapid consumer goods, how unoptimal some market behaviors are! It was a great relief when reality didn’t live up to those theoretical expectations. The economic defeat of the Soviets by the Americans (along with the drastic contrast between Deng and Mao’s China) spelled the death knell of these beliefs, and the global threat of the central planners.

Now we are in a competition with another great power. China has abandoned most of the hardcore central planning tenets, while augmenting the authoritarian practices of the old regimes with new technology. Social credit score, the Great Firewall, and facial recognition technologies have birthed something new - a police state with free market pricing. They haven’t abandoned the old practices either - as we speak, a million people are interned in concentration camps in Xinjiang being “reeducated”, and many industries are still state backed in a sort of neo-mercantilism. The question now is thus: how will they stack up competitively in the long run with the West? The scary answer is that, at least empirically we don’t know. China is a fairly opaque place - this could be a misplaced fear, like we had with the USSR or with Japan in the 1980s. Or it could be worse than any of the China hawks think. The great tragedy is that even if we don’t “lose” militarily or economically, we may have to adopt those terrible practices ourselves in the name of lesser evil and competitive fitness.

My viewpoint on this topic is pretty pessimistic. I find it difficult to think of individual policies that could help prevent such a race to the bottom. One thought would be some sort of provisions in the WTO or in other trade agreements that specify some sort of requirements for domestic behavior - an economic arms agreement of sorts ala what we have for dumping, but applied to internal policies and not just pricing/state backing. The hope would be that any bad actors would find themselves without many trade partners, and the rest of the rest of the world would be able to outcompete such a bloc of countries. Given how big of a trading partner China is, how chaotic the relations between the Western powers have been with the Trump regime, and how lucrative smuggling/avoiding tariffs are the prospects of such a treaty are pretty dim. I can only hope that I am proven wrong.