Gongol.com Archives: August 2021
The Census Bureau reports that between 2010 and 2020, 52% of all US counties shrank in population. The number may seem stark (and the map illustrating the change certainly is), but it's not a new phenomenon: Urbanization has been the inexorable path not only in America over the last century, but for the world as well. 55% of the world lives in urban areas today, and the UN projects that figure to grow to 68% by mid-century. ■ Not every city will grow in the same way nor at the same pace. Metropolitan Tokyo's 38 million people outnumber the entire population of Canada, Afghanistan, or Peru. Las Vegas had 2,304 people in 1920, and now it's a metro well over 2 million, for some of the fastest urban growth in America. ■ People move for many reasons, but ultimately it happens because we get restless. We move to pursue economic opportunity, cultural stimulation, and social interactions. Most of those things are found where other people are, and that's what makes urbanization unavoidable. ■ We're endowed by nature with giant brains wired to look for problems to solve. That kind of mental capacity has real usefulness for nomads, and the resulting skills like pattern recognition are what make us the most highly evolved animals of all. ■ That mental restlessness needs to be channeled someplace, lest it end up going to bad or destructive purposes. And the more we are able to do away with existential threats and move away from survival mode (which is exactly how we define the move into a true majority-middle-class world), the more it will matter where that surplus mental energy will go. ■ We can talk ourselves in circles about theories around a "clash of civilizations", particularly with China's ruling party, but also with other forms of authoritarianism. But in the long term, any conflicts between authoritarianism and the free world won't be fair fights: One side will have mostly brute force, and the other will have all of that restless energy. ■ The free world -- that is, the places governed by liberal democracy and enriched through broadly-defined economic liberty -- has ways to channel that restless energy when it isn't needed for survival. Inventors are free to innovate, politicians are free to bloviate, authors and artists are free to create, and entrepreneurs are free to contrive new wants to satisfy. Left alone to our devices, we can indulge in 5.5 hours a day of leisure time, make hundreds of thousands of patent applications, start more than a million podcasts, register four million new businesses (even in the middle of a pandemic), and stream billions of hours of homemade video. ■ This is the spare energy of human liberty. It is amazing stuff. And it can't be utilized where people must watch over their shoulders at all times because Big Brother might take a dim view of their activities and throw them in prison. Think of the mental deadweight imposed by the awareness that your "social credit" score is being monitored and that your own person is subject to sophisticated electronic surveillance by powers outside your reach. ■ Success in conflict is never pre-ordained, and it would be a terrible mistake not to take very seriously the potential for significant conflict -- including armed conflict -- with regimes that have no patience for freedom. What starts with insults like "arrogant" can escalate into much more than that. Deterrence matters; as a rule, things are usually not as bad as they seem, but they can get much worse much faster than we imagine. ■ Yet, beneath it all, the fundamentals line up in favor of the system that best deploys humans' restless energy. It makes things better by increments when times are easy, and it's the ultimate reservoir for powering giant leaps forward when times are hard. It doesn't take form like an aircraft carrier in a shipyard, but it matters far more. ■ In World War II, Dwight Eisenhower said, "[A] favorite question of mine was to inquire whether the particular squad or platoon had figured out any new trick or gadget for use in infantry fighting." Eisenhower knew then, just as we should know now, that people become the secret weapon when they are habituated to individual liberty and free to put their restless energy to work. Good ideas bubble up if we let them, but people need the freedom to be restless.