There has been a lot of talk recently about whether economic markets have imploded due to over-regulation or under-regulation. Although most pick up that argument with their own particular political biases, it is a difficult question to answer not least because many governments actually act in both directions at the same time. But, let us look at a related but different aspect of civilization: innovation and progress.
In the same way that economics experiences cycles, booms, and busts, innovation and progress when considered as a market of ideas also experiences those things. This earlier article on regulation explains some of this, but we are going to take this idea a few steps further.
Many of us, especially those of us too young to remember anything earlier than the ’60s or ’70s, usually think of progress and innovation as some collective force that always continues pushing upwards albeit with greater or lesser rates depending on the circumstances. But taking a longer view shows that is not the case. Technologies like concrete and many civil engineering skills were known and regularly employed by the Roman Empire during a period of several centuries before the empire fell apart starting around the 5th century. Over the next several centuries known as the Dark Ages in Europe, many of those Roman skills were lost, totally forgotten for long periods of time, such that even by the time of the beginning of the Renaissance in the 15th century, engineers and builders still did not know how to make concrete.
So, while other civilizations had different experiences around this same point in history, we can at least say that it is completely possible for a society to experience a long term decline in innovation and progress even to the point of losing the ability to do many things that were once routine.
But, back to our question, how do we regulate ideas? Although many people may not be aware, inventions are more often planned and predicted than they are spontaneous and unexpected. Government and corporations often make innovation a requirement like saying “build a 50% more energy efficient refrigerator” [also see this article on efficiency and conservation], knowing that the technology does not already exist to achieve that capability. These kinds of requirements are useful to teams of engineers as they help focus the direction of invention, and enable trade offs between different possibilities. Society overall could respond to this innovation in different ways, either by using twice as many refrigerators (doubling the amount of food that can be stored), or by using half the energy to store the same amount of food, or something in between.
But consider the possibility that there may exist another solution to efficient food storage not known to corporate or government rule makers (or not understood) that is not related to refrigeration. In this situation the 50% more efficient refrigerator requirement could be stifling progress, directing the people available to work on innovation away from the best solution to the most easily understood solution. So, while innovation is continuing, societal progress is slowing.
On the other hand, a rule that increased the cost of energy used for food storage by 50% would allow all solutions to the problem a more equal footing in the marketplace of ideas, whether refrigeration or some other possibility. This kind of rule, would even permit another unrelated and inefficient process to be cleaned up and come to the aid of food storage by freeing up the equivalent amount of power needed, thus resulting in the same overall costs to society with increased capability.
So, look around at how our governments try to encourage the direction of innovation. Do they set the right kinds of rules? Or do we allow them (and ourselves) to jump to conclusions?