What is Advanced Civilization?

My previous post mentioned various hallmarks of civilization: liberty, complexity, and change, among others. But why is civilization a Good? We speak of “advanced civilizations,” but what does that mean? How does one measure one civilization against another? How is one civilization more advanced than another?

In the spirit of Mises, I would venture that the fundamental measure of a civilization is the wants that it meets: the number of those wants, the diversity of those wants, the character of those wants. A civilization that is able to meet many wants can support many people. And as one person among an growing population, any particular human desires to be different – so the wants diversify as they grow in number. And the particular human also wants to be seen as special, so the character of the wants deepens as well.

The number of wants is an obvious measure after reading Mises. The subjective theory of value at the root of all human action is based on the presupposition of individual wants. And any advanced civilization meets a vast number of wants; A group of troglodytes banging rocks together fulfills very few of anyone’s wants.

The diversity of wants implies the liberty needed to meet them. Overbearing states and dictatorships emphasize the wants of the (few) rulers over the many, thus creating a relative monoculture of wants being met. Thus the advance of civilization is stalled by a preponderance of government. Of course, the wants of specific groups of society (like intellects, like women) need protection afforded by government so every civilization must solve the balance of government and growth.

The character of the wants is also important – a civilization does not advance by merely meeting the simple wants of more and more children. So the intellects of society must have the greater freedom in society to propose and develop highly-sophisticated wants. The highest intellects of society thus become the vanguard of any civilization’s advance.

Many of the wants of society come from the female members of that society, so an enormous part of the measure of any civilization is the number of wants met for females. How well a civilization helps females to raise children, how well a civilization protects females from assault, how many opportunities a civilization affords females to have both a family and a career – these are also enlightening measures of the advance of civilization.

And back to the highest intellects – human beings are the highest intellects today, but maybe not tomorrow. The far future may see the rise of civilizations based on species other than Homo Sapiens.

What is Civilization?

I again picked up my copy of Mises’s Socialism recently, and was struck once again by Mises’s passion for civilization. To Mises, economics is not an end in itself; it is merely the study of how men act to attain their goals. His book Socialism is no mere economics text, but an apologia for civilization itself. If Plato’s Republic is the question (and certainly Socrates asks a lot of questions in the Republic!) then Mises’s writings are the answer. Plato asks: What is the best government? And Mises (correctly) replies: The highest civilization.

But what is civilization? What does the word mean? What is the idea of civilization? And what is the highest civilization?

Unfortunately, civilization is one of those words that men use to mean what they want. Words like “Liberalism,” “Communism,” and so forth. For example, the opening sentence of Wikipedia’s entry on civilization is this: “Civilization or civilisation generally refers to polities which combine three basic institutions: a ceremonial centre, a system of writing, and a city.” Ugh. Mises himself would despair to read such a lowest-common-denominator, politically-correct “definition.”

Of course the natural response to criticism of Wikipedia content is: Can you do any better?

Civilization is such a rich, important topic (one that Mises spent his life on) that one should hesitate before blithely offering a one-sentence answer, or some witty bon mot. So I thought I would use a blog entry (maybe even more than one) to collect some thoughts, and list some hallmarks of civilization that seem relevant to me.

The first hallmark of civilization in any list must be individual liberty. Liberty is the touchstone of civilization; “Liberty” used not only in the legal sense but also in the capabilities sense. (For example, modern aviation gives men the freedom to fly.) The higher the individual liberty (in all senses), the higher the civilization.

Some other hallmarks, in no particular order:

Complexity. Opportunity and thus liberty cannot grow in a monoculture, they need the clash of ideas and environments to create new combinations of options and means.

Change. Much the same idea as the previous paragraph, but with the element of time.

Literacy. A civilization cannot build on its progress if it cannot record its past.

Communications. Here I mean something broader than mere language, I include the arts and fashion as well. Once a member of a civilization creates or discovers a step towards a higher civilization, how does that member teach others about that step? How does he persuade others to take that step?

Intellect. A civilization not only needs to record its past, but also analyze it.

Tools. Civilizations require tools to make progress. (Notice that the previous three paragraphs also describe a computer: memory, buses, and processor(s).)

More thoughts to come, let me end this post with the final paragraph of Mises’s Socialism:

“Neither God nor a mystical “Natural Force” created society; it was created by mankind. Whether society shall continue to evolve or whether it shall decay lies – in the sense in which causal determination of all events permits us to speak of freewill – in the hands of man. Whether society is good or bad may be a matter of individual judgment; but whoever prefers life to death, happiness to suffering, well-being to misery, must accept society. And whoever desires that society should exist and develop must also accept, without limitation or reserve, private ownership in the means of production.”