Thursday, August 19, 2010

Little boxes - intellectual flowering and the climate of ideas

I enjoyed Edward Glaeser's review of Joel Mokyr's The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain, 1700-1850 (Yale University Press). There Glaeser wrote in part:

Mokyr is best known for The Lever of Riches, a magisterial history of technological progress, and his erudition, earned over more than three decades of studying the industrial revolution, is everywhere evident in his important new book. As befits a scholar of human knowledge, Mokyr's overarching thesis is about the power of ideas. His grand idea is that the practical, avaricious inventors of the industrial revolution owed much to the academic but worldly philosophers of the Enlightenment.

One of the things that I find interesting about the history of Britain and the Empire including Australia in the latter part of the period that Glaeser is talking about is what I think of as a spirit of optimism, a broader view in which things were seen as possible, combined with an intellectual curiosity about the unknown.

I accept that this is a generalisation. We are really talking about the views of certain groups, yet the idea of progress as exemplified in things such as industrial exhibitions was deeply embedded, while intellectual curiosity was widespread.

In history, we tend to focus on cause and effect. What were the specific things that led to certain results; studies of the causes of the industrial revolution or the First World war are examples. It is far harder to identify a broader climate of ideas that facilitated or was a necessary pre-condition for particular results. Here the linkages are diffuse, uncertain. We can make general statements, indeed it is impossible to avoid forming broader views, but the delineation of relationships is difficult.

In looking at history, most of us are struck at the way in which at certain places and at certain times there is a flowering of intellectual and artistic activity, a flowering far out of proportion to the size of the community at the time. Athens or the Italian city states are examples. A New Zealand example is the great success achieved by graduates of Canterbury College in its early days, a success totally disproportionate to the size of the institution or the surrounding population. The New England University College and then the University in the first two decades after autonomy displayed similar features.

I have deliberately chosen large and small cases to illustrate my point. In each case, different factors were involved. However, in all cases there was a climate of ideas that was absolutely necessary to the specific flowering. Regimented, focused, Sparta may have been a success measured in purely state terms, but it is Athens whose ideas came to be embedded in Western life.

I make this point because one of the things that I write about now is the way in which current management and political systems act to exclude, to limit, alternative ideas. There are more people now involved in what we might call "thinking" activities than at any other time in human history and by a very large margin. Indeed, we even have an economic term for them, the "creative classes", yet it seems to me that the aggregate results relative to the numbers of those involved are quite low and indeed diminishing.

Now as a sometimes economist, I might simply argue that this is an example of diminishing economies of scale. Like any factor of production, if we simply keep adding more of the "creative classes", the marginal return will decline.

We can see this in Australia's bigger universities. The intellectual contribution of, say, the University of Sydney is far lower in relative terms than it was seventy years ago. The total intellectual contribution has increased in absolute terms as size has increased, but relative to the impact on society it has declined; society has increased in scale more than the University's contribution.

If I am right in thinking that one common element in intellectual and intellectual flowerings is the presence  of a climate that facilitates certain types of intellectual freedom, then what I see as the growing tendency to intellectual conformity in Australia is a problem. New ideas are there, but they are increasingly constrained within specific boxes. It has become harder to think outside the square.

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