Arnold Kling doesn’t think we can construct cathedrals, anymore:
Charlton says that we no longer have the sort of concentrated expertise that enabled us to fly to the moon. Perhaps. If you go to Europe, you will see cathedrals that I do not think we could build any more. Does anyone think that we could produce a Constitution as brilliant as that devised in 1787?
Few people realize that the great economic and spiritual enlightenment that happened after the Dark Ages in Europe also coincided with the beginning of the use of the Brakteaten money system. Local lords issued silver plaques which were called in every six months or so, taxed (physically, which made the coins thinner, and thus reduced their value) and returned to the users. The demurrage fee was around 2-3% per month for the entire period of about 1150-1300AD. Again just as in Egypt, this prevented hoarding by the people, and increased the velocity of the money, creating ample investment demand.
What did lords invest in? Since this was a time of globalization, cities were looking to attract Christian immigrants from around Europe. What better way than massive (and impressive) cathedrals as celebration of their spirituality? The Brakteaten money system facilitated this kind of long-term investment. What event coincided with the downfall of this architectural era? The king’s monopoly on money.
Now, it is patently obvious that we can build cathedrals today. And, given enough capital, you could build a cathedral to the very exact specification of your favorite Medieval building. This isn’t the point that Arnold is trying to make; the point of the post is that we lack the organizational capital to build the network — the innate bond between people — which allowed humans to previously build large works of wonder with voluntary participation of the community.
I think this phenomenon (to the extent that it is true, and I don’t think it’s as true as Kling may believe) largely has to do with our money system.
Update: I want to add that I think Bruce Charlton’s simple model is very, very wrong. He lays it out in this paragraph:
This may sound bizarre or just plain false, but the argument is simple. That landing of men on the moon and bringing them back alive was the supreme achievement of human capability, the most difficult problem ever solved by humans. 40 years ago we could do it – repeatedly – but since then we have *not* been to the moon, and I suggest the real reason we have not been to the moon since 1972 is that we cannot any longer do it. Humans have lost the capability.
Now, what would suggest that we should repeatedly go to the moon? I want to go to the moon — is the fact that consumer demand is there, but we simply can’t make it cost effective the problem? No. Going to the moon remains very expensive, we’ve already been there, gotten what we needed (unless, you know, there IS an alien base on the dark side of the moon), and now it’s pointless. The marginal costs FAR exceed the value of another trip to a dead rock just to say we did (again). Plus, we’ve put a rover on Mars…is that not impressive?
Moreover, I can now reliably communicate with people anywhere in the world for free or very cheap. I can interact with some of the greatest minds in economics, of which I would have never had the chance to hear them speak at 25 in any other time. I can collaborate with people from around the country, whom I’ve never met (indeed, that is what I’m doing right now). I can travel distant cities with the confidence of a free map, with suggestions as to where I should visit. I can listen to the greatest musicians and view the works of the greatest artists of my era (and every other) for negligible marginal cost. From literally anywhere I find myself, I can be steeped in more culture, opinion, and knowledge than anyone of any wealth level of any other period in time — for a fraction of what just one of these activities would cost them. Is this not impressive?
However, I don’t think Bruce’s argument is even about material accomplishments. Here is the key passage:
By 1986, and the Challenger space shuttle disaster, it was clear that humans had declined in capability – since the disaster was fundamentally caused by managers and committees being in control of NASA rather than individual experts.
Indeed, this fits in the “organizational capital” category. Bruce is lamenting our inability to form networks, not achievements. However, I’m not very inspired by how he understands networks work.
(The update has little to do with my comment about money systems above and in the comments.)