Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Technology and the State

According to Martin Van Creveld in "The Rise and Decline of the State," techology plays a crucial role at each end of the spectrum. Beginning in 1300 AD and continuing until 1975 the state was enhanced by technology; however, beginning in 1975 and continuing until the present the trend has been for technology to be more problematic to the state.

Advances in such diverse technological areas as printing, weapons, medical treatment, sanitation, farming, communications, media and transportation all served to enhance the state for most of the past several hundred years.

Yet in the past 38 years technoligical progress in many areas has appeared to damage the state's viability:
  • Transportation: The development of the shipping container, piggyback rail cars, and jumbo jets capable of hauling large amounts of freight dramatically enhanced trade. As trade increased the interdependence of states upon each other, lowered individual state's freedom of independent action as well as each states economic independence. Increased efficiency in the shipment of data is equally challenging. For example, in the era of global currency trading that approaches $4 trillion each day, it is now difficult if not impossible for any state or group of states to actually control the value of any state's money.
  • Media: The ability of the nightly news to deliver graphic images of the costs of war in real time or to show either the brutality of local police or the crackdown on disidents in totalitarian (or for that matter "democratic" societies) as well as the media's ability to deliver images of the "good life" all combined to be inherently subservisive to the power of the state. The advent of decentralized media delivered via the Internet has challenged the major media outlets and in many cases reduced their news coverage ability to the point that they are becoming little more than celebrity news services.
  • The Internet: Originally the Internet was built as a means of networked communication assuring a state's liklihood of surviving modern war and weapons systems. More and more, especially with the development and implementation of encryption tools, the Internet has become the preferred means of linking political dissidents, coordinating asymetrical warfare (terrorism) and facilitating tax evadors/political drop outs. This evolution has become perhaps the most significant challange to the power of the state in centuries.
  • Weapons: The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, coupled with demonstrated state inability to reliably account for much less control the proliferation, theft and use of those weapons of mass distruciton is a real threat to the state. If the state cannot maintain is monopoly on violence to protect its citizens, what good is it?
  • Entitlements: The use of entitlements based on bad economic models to buy loyalty or at least silence dissent is becoming a significant problem to industrialized western democracies who are faced with the inability to keep the promises they have made. In France successive governments have been paralyzed by general strikes and violence in the streets when they have attempted to rationalize benefits by bringing them to sustainable levels. This is likely to spread until eventually the state is unable to survive economically. Already citizens of the European Union who live in Germany are refusing to accept Euros they can see (by reading the currency) are created in less frugal member states such as France and Italy.
  • Immigration: States are demonstrating an inability to control and secure their borders throughout the world. Poor people, oppressed minorities and political dissidents as well as skilled workers and tax fugitives are voting with their feet. Cultural conflicts undermining the cohesiveness of states are becoming more prevelant, whether between native born and muslim immigrants in Western Europe or illegal immigrants and the native born in the United States.
  • Medical Science: Advances in medical science are significantly lowering infant mortality, increasing life expectancy and lowering birth rates. The demographic consequences of these trends are already a major threat to the viability of states such as Italy and Japan. However it's not just industrial societies that are experiencing lower birth rates. Virtually every state is experiencing this phenomena, even fundamentalist theocracies in the Islamic world and traditionally Roman Catholic societies in Mexico, Central and South America are seeing significant declines in the birth rate. Thanks to the "One Child" policy, the demographics in the People's Republic of China are making it a state with one of the most quickly aging populations populations on the planet. The implications of this are not widely understood yet but the result will likely be increased political instability around the world.

It is impossible to predict with any certainty where these trends will take civilization and whether the state is doomed or will be able to adapt. Next, The Rainmaker will consider one potential scenario, the rise of "The Sovereign Individual."

No comments: