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Excerpt from Chapter Twelve



Large, unified polities are two-edged swords. On the one hand, they offer big, low-friction zones for trade--an especially valuable thing in ancient times, when marauders often lurked beyond state bounds. But this day-to-day benefit coexists with a long-run liability: imperial governments have often resisted changes that are key to continuing viability amid technological flux. We've already seen this logic at work in medieval Europe, where feudal fragmentation, for all its day-to-day downsides, had the upside of encouraging experimenta­tion with economic and political algorithms.

At the end of the Middle Ages, as monolithic China turned in­ward, Europe was crystallizing into a land of nation-states, and so its contentious dynamism persisted. By their nature, Europeans were just as capable of formulating self-defeating policies as Ming emperors were. It's just that, in a more immediately competitive environment, someone else was bound to try a better policy, so bad policies came back to haunt you sooner. And once somebody did try a good idea, it could spread to competing polities fast by emulation.

Columbus himself illustrates the point. He sought Portuguese financing, but the king of Portugal turned him down-rather as the Chinese government had decided half a century earlier that long westward voyages weren't worthwhile. But there was one difference: Portugal, unlike China, had lots of neighbors that were a stone's throw away. Columbus went to Spain, got support, and came back from the New World triumphant. Within a few years Portugal was playing the discover-America game, too. The "sail westward" meme, having proved its value, proliferated.

As consequential as this meme was, the more important thing, for
this book's purposes, is how memes in general exploited the political landscape of Europe. In this hothouse of interstate competition, technologies of energy, of materials, of information--including algorithms of capitalism and of political governance--were bound to keep sprouting and spreading. For example, patent rights, which helped make initiative worthwhile, were granted in Venice in 1474 and diffused to much of Europe by the middle of the next century.


All told, if the key to the "European Miracle" lies in geography, it is not so much Europe's and China's relative proximity to America as it is Europe's and China's political geographies. Europe comprised lots of independent laboratories for testing memes, while China possessed political unity--an asset, to be sure, in matters of everyday commerce, but a handicap in any long--run race for technological preeminence.

A number of scholars have acknowledged that Europe's broken political landscape played a role in its rapid advance. For some of them, such as David Landes, this is among the reasons to doubt that China, left to its own devices, would ever have reached the industrial age.

They are missing a key point. This European advantage--being a neighborhood of competitive laboratories--was an advantage of degree only. All nations have some relatively robust neighbors within some proximity. China had Japan, among others. That's why no government can countenance stagnation forever without facing the consequences. Even the much-maligned Ming dynasty periodically felt the need to flirt anew with international trade (which it had never quite stiffed anyway, thanks to the enterprise of Chinese and Japanese smugglers). And, though technological advance slowed to a crawl during much of the Ming and Manchu periods, it didn't stop--and the economy continued to grow. 

Not only do all states have some competitors within their neighborhoods; the number of those competitors grows inexorably. The reason is that, as the means of transport and communication advance, the size of a "neighborhood" grows. That is what China and Japan had begun to learn by the sixteenth century, but were taught with special force during the nineteenth century, when westerners in gunships showed up and demanded access to Asian markets: Europe and Asia were now in the same neighborhood. 

Such jarring encounters can incite a nativist reaction. At the turn of the twentieth century, China's Boxer Rebellion provided a fine metaphor for the illusions that nourish such reactions; it was inspired by a cult whose rituals were thought to render members impervious to western bullets. This thesis was abandoned in the face of painful evidence, as was the larger thesis of imperviousness to western influence.



An excerpt from Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, By Robert Wright, published by Pantheon Books. Copyright 2000 by Robert Wright.