Tuesday, 20 September 2016

The benefits from geniuses


Other people—wherever they are—give us benefits even if we never meet them.  Even if we don’t even know they exist. Even if they’re from the other side of the planet—or from centuries before we were born.

It’s all part of the social cooperation of the market, in which we can all enjoy the many benefits of genius wherever we are.

One of the many blessings of the division-of-labour society that the market makes possible is how it allows us all to benefit from the existence of these geniuses (genii?). “It makes it possible” explains economist George Reisman, “for geniuses to specialise in science, invention, and the organisation and direction of the productive activity of others, thereby further and progressively increasing the knowledge used in production.” From which we all get the benefits, even centuries later.

I was thinking of this when I saw this clickbait list of the Top 20+ Smartest People Who Ever Lived – the sort of thing you and I like to click on during breakfast. Based on the web writers’ own spurious estimates of a spurious measurement (IQ) and interspersed with chess heroes and a failed stateswoman (Cleopatra) we see a number of people without whom our own lives would be a much lesser existence. List the ways in which each of them moved the world, and you’re well on your way to writing a 100 Greatest Reasons to Be Alive listicle for the next piece of clickbait.

And the funny thing is, as one commenter pointed out, there is no way if knowing that these are even the greatest genii who ever lived (geniuses?), because it’s perfectly possible, and even highly likely, that many other would-be geniuses simply withered on the vine without any opportunity to exercise their genius or benefit the world.

But when we realise the powerful impact just one genuine genius can have – that of an Aristotle, a Shakespeare, a Newton – we should understand the crucial life-giving importance of the specialisation that the division-of-labour society makes possible:

In the absence of a division-of-labour society, geniuses alonng with everyone else, must pass their lives in producing their own food, clothing and shelter—assuming they are fortunate enough to have survived in the first place. Perhaps their high intelligence enables them to produce somewhat more efficiently than do other people. But their real potential is obviously lost—both to themselves and to the rest of society.
    In contrast, in a division-of-labour society … instead of being lost in obscurity, they [are able to] become the Newtons, the Edisons, the Fords of the world, thereby incalculably raising the productivity of every member of the division-of-labour society.

The effect is not just expanded wealth and productivity – it’s virtually an exponential multiplication of brain power.

The effect of a division-of-labour society is thus not only to increase the total of the knowledge that the same amount of brain power can store and  use, but also to bring that knowedge up to a standard set by the most intelligent members of the society. The average and below-average member of society is enabled to produce on the strength of the intelligence of the most intelligent…

So even if we have never heard of Philip Emeagwali, Srinivasa Ramanujan or Aryabhata, the fact they existed and their genius was able to flourish and be shared has made our own lives incalculably better and more productive.

… And in each succeeding generation, geniuses are able to begin with the knowledge acquired by all the preceding generations, and then make their own fresh contributions to knowledge. In this way, the knowledge and productive power of a division-of-labour society are able progressively to increase, reaching greater and greater heights as time goes on.

It’s a great story.

Exactly the sort of story I like to think about over breakfast.


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