Imagine an economic historian in the year 2050 talking to her students about the most consequential innovations of the early 21st century—the Model Ts and Wright flyers and Penicillins of our time. What would make her list?
Surely fracking—shorthand for the combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing that is making the U.S. the world’s leading oil and gas producer—would be noted.
Fracking would make a good case study. The revolution happened in the U.S. not because of any great advantage in geology—China, Argentina and Algeria each has larger recoverable shale gas reserves. It didn’t happen because America’s big energy companies are uniquely skilled or smart or deep-pocketed: Take a look at ExxonMobil ’s 2004 Annual Report and you’ll barely find a mention of “fracturing” or “horizontal” drilling.
Nor, finally, did it happen because enlightened mandarins in the federal bureaucracy and national labs were peering around the corners of the future. For the most part, they were obsessing about the possibilities of cellulosic ethanol and other technological nonstarters.
Instead, fracking happened in the U.S. because Americans, almost uniquely in the world, have property rights to the minerals under their yards. And because the federal government wasn’t really paying attention. And because federalism allows states to do their own thing. And because against-the-grain entrepreneurs like George Mitchell and Harold Hamm couldn’t be made to bow to the consensus of experts. And because our deep capital markets were willing to bet against those experts.
Here, then, is the larger lesson our future historian will draw for her students: Innovation depends less on developing specific ideas than it does on creating broad spaces. Autocracies can always cultivate their chess champions, piano prodigies and nuclear engineers; they can always mobilize their top 1% to accomplish some task. The autocrats’ quandary is what to do with the remaining 99%. They have no real answer, other than to administer, dictate and repress.
A free society that is willing to place millions of small bets on persons unknown and things unseen doesn’t have this problem. Flexibility, not hardness, is its true test of strength. Success is a result of experiment not design. Failure is tolerable to the extent that adaptation is possible.
This is the American secret, which we often forget because we can’t imagine it any other way. It’s why we are slightly shocked to find ourselves coming out ahead—even, or especially, when our presidents are feckless and our policies foolish.
We are larger than our leaders. We are better than our politics. We are wiser than our culture. We are smarter than our ideas.
This is yet another example of the Common Genius described by Bill Greene and referenced in an earlier post. Having read the book back then and recently reread parts, I would say that on balance the author did a fine job making his point. Reiterating that point with some limited excerpts:
A major theme of these pages is that all historical progress has bubbled up from the bottom—from the actions of common men and women. A secondary theme is that most of history's evils have flowed from the top—from the intelligentsia, organized groups, and soft-science experts who arise in mature societies and are the pied pipers of their decline. In the final chapters, we will examine how the decline of free societies has often resulted from the transfer of authority and leadership from those who built the society to a destructive intelligentsia who arrive after the heavy lifting is done. The arrival of the intellectuals also marks the time when knowledge and decision-making appears to enter a steep decline. The notion that intellectuals are wise and should be listened to is a persistent, recurring, and insidious error that has doomed most past civilizations.
I do not mean to demean all people of intellect—most of them are great assets to their communities. However, there is reason to beware those with little practical experience in any field, who parade their "expertise" before the public, and operate primarily as critics rather than participants.
Throughout history, such leaders have made life as difficult as possible for the bulk of humanity. The expression of man's genius had to be fought for, and opportunities for its release have been restricted to a few brief moments and places in time. Such moments were the "accidents" of history, but there was nothing accidental about what subsequently happened. The achievements were never pre-ordained but arose from a long-term struggle by ordinary people to advance, one step at a time, over thousands of years. But wherever individual men and women got even a little such opportunity, freedom and prosperity followed. They built it piece by piece, not by trying to apply utopian theories, but by solving one problem at a time and moving ever forward.
Now, this is a revolutionary idea and perhaps in a perverse way, will delight most of the average Joes out there who are pestered by those "beautiful people" who want to tell them what to do and how to do it.
Dinocrat concluded a recent post with the following observation:
The US soi-disant intelligentsia and the US average Joes are probably more likely split against each other on some critical issues (95-5 one way, 62-38 the other) — are you de Blasio or a cop, for example. Perhaps the danger Diamond senses but (can)not articulate is in the self-styled intellectual elites losing big for a long time if the average Joes found a guy with a clear mind and strong voice. Pity Walter Williams is probably a little too old to run.
This hints at a future pregnant with the possibility of unleashing much more common genius. You know - if we had a revolt of the masses against the elites, middle class American style!
(A "revolt against" being a part of this previous post)