What comes after history?

It seems like history is ending faster than expected.  Here’s a FT report from Burma:

“I almost left the country thinking they’re moving a little too fast. I never thought I would say that about Myanmar.”

Those are the words of Espen Barth Eide, Norway’s deputy foreign minister, after a trip this week to Burma, which the Norwegians call by its official name of Myanmar. Mr Barth Eide said that political reformers in the country “have the upper hand” and were moving quickly to try to consolidate their position before there was a counter-offensive from hardliners. “The danger is not that it’s not sincere,” he said of the push to open up the political process, “but that the counter forces will set in.”

The deputy minister, who met senior officials in the new military-backed civilian government, cited among the changes:

– A promise to release political prisoners, the first tranche of which could come imminently
– Easy access to previously banned websites, including those critical of the Burmese government
– A statement by the government’s chief censor that the country should consider ending all forms of censorship
– Lively debates in parliament, which were being filmed and shown on television. This must be “mindboggling” for the people, he said.
– A change of tone in the official newspapers, which had dropped slogans bashing western news organisations and “foreign propaganda”
– The words of Aung San Suu Kyi, who told him she thought Thein Sein, the newly “elected” president, was sincere in his push for a political opening.

And here’s a NYT report from North Korea.

RASON, North Korea “” A seaside casino resort developed by a Hong Kong company chauffeurs Chinese officials and businesspeople from the nearby border in a red Humvee.

A Chinese construction company is expanding a bazaar where North Korean entrepreneurs sell Chinese-made goods to their compatriots at market prices, a sign of nascent capitalism. Trucks bring coal from mines in northeast China to a pier leased by the Chinese where the coal is shipped to Shanghai. A Russian company is leasing another pier.

Those are some of the seeds of foreign enterprise in this remote northern port town that North Korean officials are seeking to nurture. Grappling with an economy that has stagnated from decades of communist central planning, North Korean leaders are slowly opening their isolated nation to foreign investment.

And of course the larger-than-life dictators (Saddam, Gaddafi)  are gradually being replaced by bland technocrats.  It looks like history will end at some point during the 21st century.  So what comes next?  Didn’t Fukuyama say something about using technology to change human nature?  Will that be the next phase of humanity’s reckless journey into the unknown?  I await your answers in the comment section.

HT:  Tyler Cowen



35 Responses to “What comes after history?”

  1. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    13. November 2011 at 07:20

    You can’t have the End of History and a Great Stagnation.

    So glad you have joined my team!

    I will at least give you credit for the inflation driven food riots, those helped, so it wasn’t just technology, but mostly tech, mostly tech.

  2. Gravatar of JCG JCG
    13. November 2011 at 07:25

    We still have a host of problems to get through. And eventually we will have to address overpopulation and resource depletion. So our history, in the sense that Fukuyama describes it, will never end until we go extinct.

    But assuming we are at the end of history, there will be mediocrity and stagnation(at least according to Nietzsche). We turn into a bunch of boring schlubs, who just futz around and don’t accomplish anything. Kind of like the characters of Seinfeld. We become occupied with petty concerns because we have nothing better to do. As Fukuyama states:

    “The typical citizen of a liberal democracy was a “last man” who, schooled by the founders of modern liberalism, gave up prideful belief in his or her own superior worth in favour of comfortable self-preservation. Liberal democracy produced “men without chests,” composed of desire and reason but lacking thymos, clever at finding new ways to satisfy a host of petty wants through the calculation of long-term self-interest. The last man had no desire to be recognised as greater than others, and without such desire no excellence or achievement was possible. Content with his happiness and unable to feel any sense of shame for being unable to rise above those wants, the last man ceased to be human.”

    Here is the wiki entry on “the last man”:


  3. Gravatar of JimP JimP
    13. November 2011 at 07:36


    A clever layout from ZH.

    The ECB faces the same choices, and sees them in the same way, as Bernanke. The ECB will print only if the fiscal authority cooperates by tightening spending. Lose money and tight fiscal would be the best solution for both (well, maybe not for corrupt politicians).

    But both parties have a signaling and commitment problem. The ECB does not believe corrupt politicians, and corrupt electorates, ever will reform. (A reasonable belief – just look at what is going on here. Lets vote ourselves a free Medicare lunch – so says Obama – get those nasty rich people to pay for it). The the populations believe the ECB when they ECB says that they will never print.

    But this thing, from the Economist, would seem to break the jam.


    The ECB can signal commitment – by commuting to reward what they want – rather than holding their nose to buy just enough debt from the people who are not acting as the ECB would wish.

  4. Gravatar of JimP JimP
    13. November 2011 at 07:45

    And I will bet that that is what Bernanke is trying to signal when he says that things are not good here and that there is more the Fed could do but the Fed is not going to do so until………….the Fed sees credible fiscal policy here.

    He does keep saying that – maybe we should believe him.

  5. Gravatar of JimP JimP
    13. November 2011 at 07:46

    My second post was the continuation of a first one that has not (yet) posted.

  6. Gravatar of John John
    13. November 2011 at 08:45

    I’m with Morgan on this one, I think it’s a weird time to talk about the end of history. I’m very concerned about how “capitalism” will look in ten or twenty years. It’s possible authoritarianism will rise in Europe again or the Chinese central planning and censorship model will sweep the developing world. It seems like the enemies of capitalism like Paul Krugman are winning by pointing out the failures of liberalization in Europe. The Occupy Wall Street movement is extremely anti-capitlaist. I don’t see a certain victory for neo-liberalism and I certainly don’t see a trend of returning to laissez-faire.

  7. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    13. November 2011 at 08:59

    Morgan, Why can’t you have both?

    JCG, You said;

    “We still have a host of problems to get through. And eventually we will have to address overpopulation and resource depletion. So our history, in the sense that Fukuyama describes it, will never end until we go extinct.”

    I don’t recall Fukuyama saying we’d stop having problems.

    JimP, Those are perceptive observations, but I wish central banks would focus on doing their job.

    John. China’s only began growing because it’s dramatically reducing its central planning and authoritarianism. So I think you got the Chinese lesson backwards. And it’s mostly the least neoliberal parts of Europe that are struggling. Ireland’s an exception, but they have a different problem from the other PIGS; they stupidly bailed out bank creditors.

    The northern Europeans are demanding that the south become more neoliberal.

  8. Gravatar of Cassander Cassander
    13. November 2011 at 09:25

    I agree with John. Progress in an industrial society is basically a race between Moore’s law and the cruft societies build up over time. Over the course of the 20th century, in the west at least, science moved fast enough to keep improving the quality of life despite exponentially larger amounts of cruft. I am not at all confident that this will continue to be the case forever. Capitalism does not jive well with a human nature that evolved in tribal bands, eventually we’re going to strangle the golden goose.

  9. Gravatar of david david
    13. November 2011 at 09:36

    There was a country which moved too fast before in initiating top-down reforms; remember Glasnost? The PRC reformed from the bottom-up, not the top-down.

  10. Gravatar of david david
    13. November 2011 at 09:42

    (I wish Myanmar the best, though, of course – but the record of top-down liberalization-after-development a la Lee Teng Hui or post-Park Korea is much better than the record of ex-communist states)

  11. Gravatar of John John
    13. November 2011 at 09:55


    I’m well aware that China didn’t start growing until they opened up to markets. I just don’t know if they are going to go farther down that road or not. Their model of censorship may be appealing to developing countries because most developing countries have authoritarian leaders and China has the world’s fastest growth. It is possible that the lesson other countries take away from China is that the type of political and economic freedoms we have in the US aren’t necessary.

    You also missed my point about Europe. The southern countries are going to grudgingly accept the neo-liberal reforms forced on them. However, lacking the intellectual support and understanding of capitalism it is unlikely that they will properly implement a real change towards markets. Capitalism won’t fail, but the reforms will and Paul Krugman will be doing victory dances saying things like austerity, deregulation, and free trade don’t work.

    The enemies of capitalism are on the march and making new progress in a way they haven’t been since Lyndon Johnson. in my opinion the only way to turn this tide is for people to demand that their politicians are enthusiastic supporters of capitalism who bring a moral commitment to the free market system.

    What we also need is for economists to give up the arrogant illusion that they can manipulate the economy into doing what they want. This includes you Scott.

  12. Gravatar of John John
    13. November 2011 at 10:12


    I’m not sure what you mean by saying that the USSR changed too fast. That regime should have gone out of power.

  13. Gravatar of david david
    13. November 2011 at 10:34

    The degree of change in the late USSR was too rapid and gave the hardliners too much political capital, and the resulting struggle was disastrous for actual growth. And so Russians gave up on liberalization and backed, and continue to back, an authoritarian.

  14. Gravatar of Charlie Deist Charlie Deist
    13. November 2011 at 11:08

    Seasteads, or autonomous political communities on ocean platforms, might be next. Governments are no longer as blatantly oppressive, but they still suffer from crippling demosclerosis (Jonathan Rauch’s term) and rational voter ignorance. Given that there is no unclaimed land left on which people can set up new governments to compete with existing ones, the ocean is the logical next step.

    Scott has commented before on the potential for good governance to overcome costs of building in unusual locations like Venice.

  15. Gravatar of Becky Hargrove Becky Hargrove
    13. November 2011 at 11:44

    It all really boils down to one thing. Technology is not going to free us until we are actually convinced it can do so, and we are a long way from that happening. What makes me nuts on a regular basis is that technology could free us right here and right now. The equality of participation that people want so desparately is already right in front of them in terms of what they could provide for one another, if only they could see it. Plus, by every person also becoming a teacher and a healer it would only get exponentially better, skillwise.

    When anyone argues for supply side in the near future they will have to explain what that really means for the freedom of all, so that it will not be dismissed out of hand. If it only means the freedom to walk away when one is not needed then it is B.S. and worthless. If people continue to believe that technology stands in the way of human skill, the very mechanism that freed us for the higher aspirations of life will be destroyed and we will be back to working the land. Which can be fun, but when that is the only option we become slaves to the land just as we are now slaves to irrational complexity.

  16. Gravatar of Becky Hargrove Becky Hargrove
    13. November 2011 at 12:11

    Scott, I didn’t mean to get so upset in the last comment. It’s just that economically things are moving way too fast now as you said, and I had really hoped it would be a few more years before change on such a scale actually happened. But then, are any of us ever really ready?

  17. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    13. November 2011 at 12:13

    My god you guys make this shit messy.

    1. End of history is right… and it isn’t neo-liberalism… it is capitalism. Buck up John, we’re winning.

    2. Scott, you can’t have both because these are giant massive changes – basically ending the cold war and then toppling dictators TURNS EVERYONE into some part of the global capitalist machine.

    And network theory is CLEAR, far more important than an invention (like the airplane or car – who needs to go ANYWHERE???) is the implication of global adoption of said technology A FAST AS POSSIBLE.

    This is basic memetics (which is the basis of almost all my thinking) the strength of an idea is directly proportional to how well it copies from brain to brain.

    Network technology means you needs FAR LESS copying of copies of copies of copies.

    WHICH MEANS – network technology, the Internet gets credit FOR ALL FUTURE inventions which spread exponentially faster.

    I’m sorry Scott, but the internet is bigger than anything EVER developed…. any every day we add another advantage to its pile compared to whatever you think matter as much.

    The car has nothing else to give, the Internet goes on to infinity.

    It gets credit for every toppled dictator.

    AND THAT SAME IDEA DENIES the great stagnation. You can’t have both.


    JimP, so glad to have you aboard!!!!!

    Now if you’d just make the argument here with me daily, eventually Scott will have to admit that Ben may indeed be saying – SPEND LESS, REGULATE LESS, WORK HARDER, GIVE AWAY LESS FREE SHIT, just like the ECB is saying to the southern Euro states

    What is so frigging funny is that the ECB says it out loud, Mundell says it outloud, Greenspan says it outloud HERE…

    And Scott refuses to:

    1. ACCEPT that’s what’s ahppening.
    2. STOP COMPLAINING it shouldn’t happen, and DEAL WITH the demands hegemony – MONEY exists for people who have money, it is not a social good.

    Yes we can make the economy run smoothly, but fear of economic death is the only thing that makes fat assed Dems stop trying to buy poor votes.

    Scott, if Obama loses, I’m expecting a SERIOUS MEA CULPA from you.

  18. Gravatar of Becky Hargrove Becky Hargrove
    13. November 2011 at 12:26

    Morgan, the Internet is still a tool, a servant, even a slave in the direct democracies we can have. Democracies where political people come and persuade us the policies they want us to consider, and we vote with our skills if we say yes.

  19. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    13. November 2011 at 12:35

    Arab Spring, Burma, N Korea, China—perhaps even Obama relaxing the warmonger Bush jr.

    I am reasonably satisfied that the vast bulk of people want peace, and to live and let live. There are horrible dictators out there, and then sometimes assemble military power.

    There was a lengthy book review on just this topic in the latest issue of New York Review of Books. The critic concluded the opposite–that man is ever given to wars, repression etc.

  20. Gravatar of TGGP TGGP
    13. November 2011 at 13:51

    “larger-than-life dictators (Saddam, Gaddafi) are gradually being replaced by bland technocrats”
    I don’t think that has happened in either country.

  21. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    13. November 2011 at 18:28

    Cassander, The real threat is technology, not socialism.

    David, Everyone’s moving in the same direction, just at different paces. Glasnost’s problem was not that it went to fast, but that it didn’t bring either markets or democracy. That’s why Yeltsin replaced Gorbachev.

    John, You said;

    I’m well aware that China didn’t start growing until they opened up to markets. I just don’t know if they are going to go farther down that road or not.

    I know if they will.

    You said;

    “What we also need is for economists to give up the arrogant illusion that they can manipulate the economy into doing what they want. This includes you Scott.”

    And you as well John.

    Charlie, If it was going to happen, I wonder why we wouldn’t already see it, at least in some areas. My hunch is that many governments aren’t as bad as libertarians assume, or alternatively, the gains from true libertarianism are less than the costs of constructing Seastead. The world’s a much better place than when Venice was set up in the Dark Ages.

    Becky, Are you worried that technology might destroy us?

    Morgan, Good news! I got a cell phone. (Bad, news, it’s a 10 year old hand me down from my wife.)

    Ben, I read that review, but wasn’t impressed. He seemed to think the end of slavery was the only positive change in 10,000 years.

    TGGP Who are these larger than life dictators? I don’t even know their names. My test of political success is when I no longer know the name of a country’s leader–then things are probably OK.

  22. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    13. November 2011 at 20:37


    Democracy, where it is possible to vote to steal other guys money, is a fad.

    The Internet is the bringer of truth, the be all end all catalyst of human history, it has BARELY squeaked its voice, years from now, when products are PRINTED, and all “offices” are virtual, you’ll get it.

    Everything is a node, and all networks know innately which nodes are bottlenecks and which are wide band – it is built into the very language of digital communication…

    Forget Democracy, it is no more valuable than the gold standard.

  23. Gravatar of Becky Hargrove Becky Hargrove
    14. November 2011 at 05:02

    I share your belief in the possibilities of the Internet. People do not quite realize that the extent of their success lies in the networks of thought and exchange between them, and the Internet continues to exponentialize that. However, there is a wall that prevents us from even being able to realize the near term benefits of the product of our minds before we can continue. The people of every nation have to understand the nature of that wall and show their governments how to break it down. That’s why it made me so uneasy when I saw nations toppling their dictators, I knew they were not ready. They thought their dictators were the wall, but the dictators were only the paint on the wall.

  24. Gravatar of Jason Odegaard Jason Odegaard
    14. November 2011 at 05:25

    Congrats on the cell phone! Hope it isn’t too much of a distraction.

  25. Gravatar of Kailer Kailer
    14. November 2011 at 07:13

    This is great news. Except for on very rare occasions, I have never found anyone to agree with me that War will be eliminated in my lifetime. They think I’m nuts, and by the time I’m proven right things will have changed so gradually that I won’t be able to get a gratifying ‘I told you so’. The system doesn’t work.

    Related question: Which do you think will happen first, the discovery of extra-terrestrial life (of any form), or the end of war?

  26. Gravatar of Cthorm Cthorm
    14. November 2011 at 10:01

    Morgan – I’m being a bit pedantic but I think your terminology isn’t quite right. You aren’t talking about “The Internet”, you are talking about Information and Communication Technologies (ICT). This incorporated the radically accelerating advances in the quality/cost of technological products, the nearly cost-free sharing of information, and the automation of analysis. It is a trend (I hesitate to use Ray Kurzweil’s “Law”) of accelerating returns, and most people resist thinking in terms of exponential change. If you told a top manager of a global grocer in 1980 that in 30 years he’d be replacing checkers with automated kiosks and know exactly what products INDIVIDUAL customers were buying (enabling daily-adjusted estimates of price elasticity of demand) he’d think you’re a crank, but here we are.

    There are a number of institutional constraints that are slowing progress though. One that springs to mind is intellectual property laws, which will keep us from realizing the full potential of 3D printing.

  27. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    14. November 2011 at 10:54


    I reserve the right to call it all the Internet. The basic assumptions, just to use whats been said before, is network theory, and the continual lower costs towards free.

    Neither of which fits very well into an NGDP shoe.

    I’m pretty certain we should consider anytime a human being or physical object has to actual physically move his person, to travel by bike, car train, plane, to be a negative thing… and economic drag. Seeing Amsterdam may be a positive thing, but it is outweighed by everyone NOT HAVING TO SEE Amsterdam and still get 80% of the benefits.

    Anyhoo, it all adds up to more people (perhaps 80%) still HAVING TO WORK FOR A BOSS, and doing so under and outright admittance that they are consuming more (the extra provided by the top 20%) than the market worth they are delivering.

    Getting a bunch of middle aged boomers to admit they weren’t quite Born at the Right Time, isn’t going to happen, so we won’t be able to throw out TGS until they are dead.

  28. Gravatar of Sid Sid
    14. November 2011 at 11:06

    I couldn’t disagree more vehemently about calling these events a harbinger of the end of history!

    If anything history has been on a pause button since the end of world war 2 and suddenly it’s been unpaused.

    Consider Burma (we will likely start calling it that officially soon). If one understood its history – that of the relationship of the hill tribes with the delta/coastal regions – one would understand what an unsustainable anomaly the military junta is. In fact, most observers see the present movement (hopefully) moving towards exactly the sort of constitutional arrangement that was agreed post-independence but was stopped dead after Aung San’s assassination.

    One can say similar things about Libya and Egypt – artificial structures that are unsustainable in the long run and reverting messily to more localised forms of governance.

  29. Gravatar of Becky Hargrove Becky Hargrove
    14. November 2011 at 17:11

    Scott, The discussion about technology was wide open and I couldn’t quite figure out a succinct answer. What do you mean, “the real threat is technology”?

  30. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    14. November 2011 at 18:22

    Kailer, I won’t live to see either. But you will see the end of war if you are young. I have no opinion on ETL.

    Sid, I’m using Fukuyama’s definition.

    Becky. Technology might destroy all human life.

  31. Gravatar of Becky Hargrove Becky Hargrove
    15. November 2011 at 05:44

    You’re right and perhaps my way of blotting out that possibility is to focus on people destroying technology, as the two go hand in hand. It’s also why I concentrate on the economic empowerment of the individual, as I have a “lead, follow or get out of the way” view of history. When too many people are expected to get out of the way, as in the present, history tends to get wildly unpredictable.

  32. Gravatar of Becky Hargrove Becky Hargrove
    15. November 2011 at 16:52

    I looked at the link and thought, that’s not going to work. But if you haven’t seen it already, check out Tyler Cowen’s My New Kindle Fire. It sure made me think of the ten year old phone you got from your wife.

  33. Gravatar of Scott Sumner Scott Sumner
    16. November 2011 at 16:51

    Thanks, but I rarely use the kindle I already have.

  34. Gravatar of Doc Merlin Doc Merlin
    17. November 2011 at 04:30

    History over? Nonsense. People will always rise and screw things up and cause history again. These things always start again.

    I am reminded of the Quaker Holy Experiment and why it ended.

  35. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    17. November 2011 at 19:05

    Doc, “Screw ups” aren’t history.

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