The Keys to Societal Development: Comparing Explanations

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The world contains a number of societies that are rich, a much larger number that are relatively poor, and another set that are in between the two. All have had access for centuries to studying what others do and yet there is no universal formula being followed that works in all cases. The most successful formula so far – that based on free-market capitalism – is itself interpreted differently from country to country.

The question then arises as to whether there are patterns in the successful formulae that apply in all cases, but have simply been interpreted differently, while retaining their influence. So, regardless of the country certain things have to be got right. If so, what are they?

  1. There is a large literature on this topic and it includes development economics, economic history, political economy, and economic geography. It is now being added to with new thinking  in evolutionary theory, complexity theory, and socio-economics. This lecture is a very brief introduction to main ideas now current.
  2. Evolutionary theory operates at two levels. The first deals with all organisms that have so far evolved on the planet, including plants, animals, people, groups, and societies. It identifies three universals as necessary: differentiation, selection, and amplification.
  3. For the human species when meeting these three challenges two other features are necessary: : learning and cooperation.
  4. Human learning takes place (a) biologically via genes, (b) culturally via learned patterns of behavior called memes, (c) socially via rules for cooperation.
  5. Human learning has taken place over 60,000 years in two distinct environments, the agonic and the hedonic. The first of these is based on settled living and agriculture. The second is based on hunting and constant mobility. This may have something to do with the two great separate clusters in which the cultures of the world are gathered. We do not yet know this for sure.
  6. The first major work on the wealth of nations and its origins, was by Adam Smith. It remains a classic with great power to explain. Smith was as interested in what made a society good, as in what made a society rich. He explained the essential components of economic action, and the crucial background factors that helped it to work.
  7. The second major figure is Max Weber who brought out the role of religion as a force stimulating respectable behavior and in turn reliable conduct, and in turn greater confidence in making transactions, and so a rising economy.
  8. The success of western Europe and the North America in following capitalist ideals has led to a consensus with huge influence. In its extreme form it became the Washington consensus and became unpopular because of misapplication. In its purer from it is represented here in the summary of its components by Innes.
  9. Variations on this are considered in contributions by Niall Ferguson and Michael Spence.
  10. Other variations adding extra political considerations are considered from Francis Fukuyama, and Acemoglu and Robinson. An integrating summary is offered as a conclusion.