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Small-Scale Question Sunday for April 21, 2024

Do you have a dumb question that you're kind of embarrassed to ask in the main thread? Is there something you're just not sure about?

This is your opportunity to ask questions. No question too simple or too silly.

Culture war topics are accepted, and proposals for a better intro post are appreciated.

Jump in the discussion.

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So, what are you reading?

I'm on Meyer's In Defense of Freedom. It's an effective statement of right-libertarian ideas, and surprisingly critical of Kirkian conservatism. Meyer's defense of freedom and reason is in large part against "New Conservatism's" defining of freedom as the freedom to do one's duty. It's surprising considering that the system related to his name is "fusionism." I'll have to dust off my Kirk sometime.

I'm rereading The Human Reach series by John Lumpkin. It's a hard sci-fi Tom Clancy in space series- the atomic rockets guy was illustrator and scientific/technical cosultant- and is at the very least interesting and engaging with no glaringly obvious scientific errors. Ships have heat radiators and space battleship tactics are cognizant of Newton's laws and the tyranny of the rocket equation instead of trying to do Midway or Trafalgar in space.

One thing I think it could benefit from is introducing an economic logic driving space travel and colonization. The series takes place in a world of continued relatively low fertility and tries to use national pride as the logic behind space colonization, which in turn necessitates trade, creating enough of an infrastructure to set space battles and spy stuff against. But it's hard not to notice that the great powers could easily just... not. Not build antimatter factories or fusion fuel production operations or engage in long range exploration. Indeed, it's lampshaded in the books themselves; two of the belligerents are specifically noted for their populations being too low to fill out colonies and the sheer expense of colonization and maintaining a space navy is readily apparent. Every benefit to the homeland is drawn from things based in Earth orbit and not beyond. It's not implausible that the US and Russia and the like would maintain a single colony for national pride, but maintaining multiple and then going to war to own more of them seems to require an explanation, which is lacking in the book.

Isn't that similar to how European colonial empires were a net economic drain? And yet there was something, not measured by that economic equation, that made them want a "place in the sun".

Putting aside motivations like pride and competitiveness, there might be something similar to what Paul Graham wrote (I think), about allowing serendipity. Holing up and focusing on specializations may not be the best investment strategy. Maybe there's a place for trying a number of things that aren't likely to work, in case one of them takes off. (What would the world be like if the circa-1600 UK had decided that this "colonization" thing was economically inefficient?) Maybe it's like the social-capital version of an index fund, or hybridization? Possibly the increased scale provides more options in case something somewhere goes wrong, much like an insurance policy?

(There's room for a counter-argument here, about guaranteeing exposure to disease, political instability, and other problems of heterogeneity.)

I thought it depended on the place and time. The sugar producing colonies in the Caribbean were extremely profitable for example. And the Spanish got literal boatloads of silver out of their South and Central American colonies.But then you get into the scramble for Africa in the 19th century and a lot of those were prestige projects that never made any money for the mother country, with the Italians in Abyssinia being the the most egregious example.

I think there were profitable episodes and individual people who made a lot of money throughout, but for the most part most things were a financial drain after the mid-18th century. Even in the Caribbean you had in many cases the classic situation in which profits were privatized but ‘losses’ (paying for defenses like building forts, the various extremely expensive colonial wars, compensating slaveowners) were funded by government borrowing and in most cases taxes on the metropole. While England was much richer than the rest of Europe for almost all of the 19th century, that was probably more to do with the Industrial Revolution than the Empire, and at the height of empire in the early 1920s the UK wasn’t substantially (or at all in some cases) richer than other northwest European countries.

Even where states made a lot of money early on (again, more of an Iberian thing than an Anglo-French one) it was squandered pretty quickly. The Spanish obviously lost it all fighting the Dutch and French. The scale of the public losses are sometimes overstated because a lot of failed Anglo-French investment (eg. the colossal amount of money the British wasted in Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru and Latin America generally) was private, but that was still a big economic drag. Plus, imperial preference never really worked because the British were worried about another 1776 and so from the early 1880s allowed the colonies to opt out or circumvent a lot of protectionist policy, which meant that the whole system never brought much wealth back to London.

There's another element: discovering wealth does not necessarily make you wealthier. Within 100 years of discovering the Cerro Rico at Potosi which essentially doubled the world's silver supply, the Spanish crown was serially bankrupt.