2/19/09 - technology and democracy

In today's encore excerpt - Robert Wright argues that it is new technologies - especially information technologies such as alphabets, money and contracts for investing - that lead to decentralized economic opportunity which then leads to decentralized power which in turn leads to democracy:

"The Greeks ... helped test a thesis that as a society's technologies become broadly accessible, the result can be not just economic vibrance but political freedom. The Greeks added vowels to the phonetic alphabet carrying it to its height of accessibility. They grasped the virtues of coins and started minting their own. ... On balance the results of the test were encouraging. Classical Athens in its better moments was economically vibrant broadly literate (by ancient standards) and democratic (ditto).

"Actually the general notion that economic decentralization disperses political power had gotten some support from earlier phases in cultural evolution as well. The (relatively) market-oriented Aztecs had their unusually egalitarian legal code. And in (relatively) market-oriented Mesopotamia, justice was sometimes administered by citizens' assemblies. In northern Mesopotamia, a profusion of clay contracts speaks of a robust private sector ... [aided by a] simplified, less esoteric cuneiform script used in contracts ... and we find evidence of something like democracy. The documents from community assemblies show them not merely meting out justice, but assuming a deliberative quasi-legislative function. ... If economic freedom ... brings the wealth that makes states powerful, and if economic freedom tends to entail political freedom, then history might turn out to be on the side of political freedom. After all, powerful states have a tendency to prevail over weaker ones. ...

"[Much later] as some historians have noted, the Magna Carta, though rightly regarded as a milestone in democracy's history, looms too large in the popular mind. Issued by King John in 1215 under pressure from his barons, it guaranteed them the right to be consulted about taxation. But this was not so new. The English monarchy had consulted councils of nobles on major decisions for centuries. The bigger development was the expanding realm of representation over the following century as the king's council, the parliament, came to include burgesses, representatives of the towns. As markets distributed economic power more broadly across British society, political power followed. That's how the world works."


Robert Wright


NonZero: The Logic of Human Destiny


Vintage Books a division of Random House, Inc.


Copyright 2000 by Robert Wright


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