I’ve come across this quotation a couple places recently, most notably Gerry Pournelle’s excellent blog:
“Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded—here and there, now and then—are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.
“This is known as ‘bad luck’.”
– Robert A. Heinlein
I’d admire this quotation more if it weren’t dead wrong. But first, what it is right about:
Poverty is the normal condition of man. Yes. Up until a couple centuries ago, human population and human activity was greatly restricted by the minimum sustainable harvest farmers in the area could produce. Think about this: you had good years, and bad years. In the bad years, people starved, or, more often, people who were already weak died, while the relatively stronger were weakened, and thus more susceptible to disease and accident. That’s why, prior to modern times, 80% or more of the people in any civilization were involved in producing food. In living memory, 80% of the Chinese were peasant farmers.
It is indeed poverty when you can’t be sure you won’t starve to death from one year to the next. Add to this the ubiquity of war, where armies ‘lived off the land’, meaning pillaged and plundered (and raped) their way through the country side, leaving the villagers more likely to starve if they weren’t murdered outright or enslaved, and that’s poverty.
Further, social gravity does tend toward despotism and tyranny. It’s a lot of work keeping any decent government up and running. A constitutional monarchy is a chore; a Republic under a representative democracy is constant hard work. People are lazy, especially if the slip into tyranny is slow and imperceptible. Representative democracies with free markets are the best way so far found to create abundance and stave off starvation.
So far, so good.
Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded—here and there, now and then—are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. This is too narrow a view. You need many people committed to sustaining the culture and government before the ‘extremely small minority’ can do their thing. Think of it as social infrastructure – under a despot, no one has rights to life, liberty or the pursuit of property. No entrepreneur or inventor stands much of a chance. At best, he’ll get benign neglect, at least until he does something beneficial enough to come to the attention of the tyrant. At worst – and this is far more common – the powers that be see any innovation as a threat. They rely, for the most part, on people sleep-walking their way through life, not spending much time imagining things could be otherwise than they are. People committed to changing things are dangerous.
However, Heinlein is correct that ‘all right-thinking people’ fear independent creativity and the independent wealth and power it tends to create, because right-thinking people, by definition, think what their masters want them to think. Thus, all who seek to expand tyranny oppose activities that tend to promote independence – and nothing promotes independence like having enough wealth to flip the Man the bird.
Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty. True, but looked at inside-out: The tiny minority (and, frankly, it’s not all that tiny – there are millions of go-getters in America, even today) can only be kept from creating or driven out if the people at large have failed in their duty to preserve the Republic, to constantly enforce and reinforce the rule of law. Some creativity may take place with the patronage of a noble, but that same patronage tends to keep a lid on any change that might threaten it. In general, throughout history, the concept of a Commonwealth – of a people holding the nation itself as property (think: intellectual property rather than just Nation Parks) – is essential to any real material progress.
Think of Pericles’s funeral oration in Thucydides – the whole point is to show that Athens – not just the dirt underfoot, not just the monuments, but the whole intellectual content including history and art and everything that makes up a culture – was worth dying for, was worth loving. Every citizen had a share in this, and deserved honor for defending it. All that was lacking was for Christianity to infuse the Greek-loving Imperial Romans with the notion that each man was loved by God, that each was a special, worthy creation. Thus, the commonwealth becomes that upon which citizens rely for their freedom to become what their Creator made them to be.
Also, the ‘here and there, now and then’ line is denying the obvious: that sustained material progress is entirely the product of the West, of Christendom. It’s not some furtive, random thing at all – it took place when Jerusalem and Athens met in Rome. And nowhere else.
“This is known as ‘bad luck’.” OK, right again.