Left Utopia envisions a world without economic winners and losers, which is to say, a world without competition. This world without competition is sometimes figured as “post-capitalism,” but as Nick Land has said, “post-capitalism has no real meaning except an end to the engine of change.” I’d go further, arguing that non-competitive post-capitalism has no real meaning except as slow destruction of technological society and reversion to pre-industrial lifestyles. Put the other way around, the engine of technological change and growth is competition—creative destruction, capitalism. The inevitable social by-product of growth is economic winners and losers. A healthy society will put a basic welfare system in place to help the losers temporarily, and to channel them back into the growth economy with new skills. A sick society will incentivize the losers’ staying losers, creating a permanent underclass of professional parasites. A terminally ill society will make this permanent underclass the focus of its moral and economic energy.

According to Joel Mokyr (whose work is highly recommended), the old guild system of Europe offers a clear case of a force impeding growth by minimizing competition to keep guild members from economic loss. Mokyr calls the guilds a “conservative” force, but he goes on to compare them implicitly to modern labor unions; clearly, then, the guilds, as proto-unions, were proto-Leftists. (However, one might also frame the guilds—just as one might frame pre-Civil Rights era labor unions—as populists whose concern was the welfare of the artisan and working classes, a Leftism of sorts but one not necessarily and often not associated with Leftward movement more generally. I’ll return to this alternate framing at the other end of the long quote.)

As with the rise and fall of Islamic science, the European guilds offer an historical example that informs us about what does or does not facilitate the growth of science and technology. One of the points made in Mokyr’s excellent essay—“Innovation and its Enemies”—is that if a population is dedicated to the maintenance of a safe, non-competitive equilibrium for itself, then science and technology will likewise remain in atrophic stasis. Mokyr writes:

The protection of skills and specific human capital is often combined with other forms of rent-seeking through the creation of barriers to entry and the control of output. This is clearly a widespread interpretation of the European craft-guild system which ruled urban artisans in many areas for many centuries. In pre-modern urban Europe these guilds enforced and eventually froze the technological status quo. Similar phenomena, mutatis mutandis, occurred in China.

. . . Kellenbenz, for example, states that “guilds defended the interests of their members against outsiders, and these included the inventors who, with their new equipment and techniques, threatened to disturb their members’ economic status. They were just against progress.” Much earlier Pirenne pointed out that “the essential aim [of the craft guild] was to protect the artisan, not only from external competition, but also from the competition of his fellow-members.” The consequence was “the destruction of all initiative. No one was permitted to harm others by methods which enabled him to produce more quickly and more cheaply than they. Technical progress took on the appearance of disloyalty.”

In most of Europe, then, craft guilds eventually became responsible for a level of regulation that stifled competition and innovation. They did this by laying down meticulous rules about three elements of production that we might term “the three p’s”: prices, procedures, and participation. As guilds gained in political power, they tried as much as they could to weaken market forces as aggregators and tended increasingly to freeze technology in its tracks. The regulation of prices was inimical to technological progress because process innovation by definition reduces costs, and the way through which the inventor makes his profits is by underselling his competitors. Regulating prices may still have allowed some technological progress because innovators could have realized increased profits through lowering costs even if they could not undersell their competitors. To prevent this, procedures stipulated precisely how a product was supposed to be made and such technical codes, while originally designed to deal with legitimate concerns such as reputation for quality, eventually caused production methods to ossify altogether. Enforcing these procedures, however, was far more difficult than enforcing pre-set prices. Finally, and in the long run perhaps the most effective brake on innovation, was participation: by limiting and controlling the number of entrants into crafts, and by forcing them to spend many years in apprenticeship and journeymanship, guild members infused them with the conventions of the technological status quo and essentially cut off the flow of fresh ideas and the cross-fertilization between branches of knowledge that so often is the taproot of technological change. Exclusion of innovators by guilds did not end with the Middle Ages or even the Industrial Revolution. In 1855, the Viennese guild of cabinetmakers filed a suit against Michael Thonet, who had invented a revolutionary process for making bentwood furniture . . .

In the past century resistance to new production technology has come in part from labor unions. There is no compelling reason why labor unions must always resist technological change: after all, as “encompassing organizations” they ought also to be aware of the undeniable benefits that new technology brings to their members qua consumers. The growth of the labor movement’s power in Britain is often held responsible for the declining technological dynamism of post-Victorian Britain. Resistance of organized labor slowed down technological progress in mining, shipbuilding and cotton weaving. Such resistance was not a hundred percent effective, but Coleman and MacLeod may well be right when they judge that labor’s resistance “reinforced the increasingly apathetic attitude of employers toward technological change.”

As anti-competition, the guilds were essentially anti-capitalist; their story is evidence that any Left Utopian attempts to initiate a non-competitive “post-capitalist” state will likely retard the progress of technology and science.


However, if you read Steve Sailer, you’ve probably drawn some parallels between the guilds’ attempt to keep outsiders from treading on their territory and possibly ‘takin their jobs!’ and the arguments for immigration restriction. After all, can’t Sailer’s entire argument be construed as wanting to limit who can enter the market, thus limiting competition? (Paging Bryan Caplan . . .)

No. You can’t construe it that way. First of all, neither Sailer nor any ethno-nationalists I know advocate for keeping out any and all possible entrants into the various American labor markets, so long as the new (foreign) entrants aren’t legion and so long as they truly bring a competitive edge with them (a degree, a high-IQ, a middle-class skill set, etc.). But Steve’s entire point (Caesar Chavez’s, as well) is that many new entrants into the American market a) are WAY TOO MANY and/or b) do not bring a competitive edge with them; they simply bring a willingness to work for cheap, cheap, cheap and without benefits.

To understand the difference between the anti-competition guild mindset and the anti-immigration stance, we can return to the last paragraph of Mokyr’s essay quoted above:

Finally, and in the long run perhaps the most effective brake on innovation, was participation: by limiting and controlling the number of entrants into crafts, and by forcing them to spend many years in apprenticeship and journeymanship, guild members infused them with the conventions of the technological status quo and essentially cut off the flow of fresh ideas and the cross-fertilization between branches of knowledge that so often is the taproot of technological change.

Restricting low-skilled immigration and reasonably regulating higher-skilled immigration will most certainly not “cut off the flow of fresh ideas” that are the “taproot of technological change.” Isolationist policies very well might, but not immigration restriction. Even Caplan and his ilk at their most delusional cannot argue, with a straight face, that curtailing Mexican immigration, not accepting third world refugees, and being stricter about H1B and H1B1 visas will have any measurable impact on scientific and technological progress, its speed or its quality. In fact, it’s arguable that inviting waves of labor who are valued first and foremost for their cheapness is, in fact, as anti-competitive as the European guild mindset.

14 responses

  1. tc

    Sailer likes to paint guys like Zuckerberg, Gates, and the Silicon Valley elite as money grubbers out to grind down American engineers, but if anyone can be said to know what it takes to move technology forward, it would be tech entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, Paul Graham, etc who are/were supporters. If you hang out on places like Hacker News, no one can imagine wanting to restrict more engineers. Not that I disagree about low-skilled immigration.

    May 23, 2013 at 5:51 pm

    • I just haven’t seen enough data on the issue. If most American-born engineers are finding work and there are still engineering needs, then clearly it’s a good idea to import high-skilled immigrants. However, it’s another story if skilled American engineers are not even being interviewed so that companies can get away with hiring cheaper H1B1 labor.

      May 23, 2013 at 8:31 pm

      • Vladimir

        I am actually a high-skilled engineer immigrant (to Canada rather than the U.S., but it doesn’t make much difference for my point), and nevertheless I must admit that a simple economic calculus of the sort you suggest here is flawed because it doesn’t take into account the cultural and political externalities of high-skilled immigration. In Anglospheric nations, a high-skilled immigrant may well end up as great net positive by any straightforward economic calculation, but on average, for nearly all places of origin (including Europe), he is also highly likely to be well to the left of the domestic political center. This is further amplified by the fact that he will represent a leftist addition to the intellectual and affluent classes, which has a greater weight than a mere single additional leftist vote.

        May 24, 2013 at 3:31 am

  2. @ Vladimir

    1. Will most high-skilled immigrants be to the Left of the domestic center, or will they simply be latent nationalists who take advantage of the West’s self-hate and xenophilia? (Of course, I’m talking about non-European immigrants here.)

    Being from Southern California, I’ve had many interactions with immigrants, both high-skilled and low-skilled, and in my experience, their Leftism is just thinly veiled nationalism. They don’t truly identify with the “rights and justice” rhetoric of the Left; they just want “rights” for their own national or ethnic group and “justice” for whatever ills have befallen their group in the distant or recent past, whether or not America or Canada had anything to do with it (the Armenians seem to think that the Turkish genocide was the fault of any host nation that won’t condemn the Turks).

    The way to solve this problem is to stop catering to every ethnic group’s own sense of ethnic pride. If we terminate the Left’s ethnic spoils system, then high-skilled immigrants won’t have any reason to identify with the Left because they don’t really care about things like “universal human rights” or “solidarity with the LGBT community” et cet.

    2. Now, there’s a difference between the Leftism (the veiled nationalism) of high-skilled immigrants and low-skilled immigrants. Like most high-IQ Leftists, high-IQ Brahmins and East Asians who move to America may talk Leftist, but they don’t act Leftist. Generally, they’re upstanding citizens whose lives and whose families’ lives look no different from John Derbyshire’s or Steve Sailer’s. There’s a small population of Brahmin-caste Indians near where I live now; they own restaurants and businesses; they keep their neighborhoods clean, they drive nice cars, they add to the tax coffers, they’re polite, and their kids are generally Americanized. Also, they are all nominal Leftists. Well, whatever. I consider that kind of Leftism (IN NAME ONLY) not nearly as dangerous as the Leftism of the low-IQ, low-skilled immigrants, who come here in greater numbers and whose Leftism is parasitic and potentially dangerous (see Sweden and London). The Leftism of the mestizos and indios in Los Angeles is REAL Leftism—they want their welfare increased, they want Spanish to replace English, they’re poor, there are more criminals among them, and they’re much more likely to riot than the restaurant-owning Brahmins.

    So, I agree with your point about the externalities of immigration that cannot be inserted into a simple economic cost-benefit calculus. However, if we limit the immigration of the low-skilled Leftists and get rid of ethnic spoils policies, then those externalities can likewise be neutralized.

    May 24, 2013 at 2:40 pm

    • Vladimir

      Note that I’m talking about political externalities, not the direct consequences of the high-skill immigrants’ behavior, which is, as you point out, usually quite exemplary. These political consequences are analogous to what would happen if you multiplied the numbers of domestic middle- and upper-class leftists who similarly lead orderly and productive personal lives. That is, it’s not just about increasing the raw numbers of leftist voting blocks, but also about moving leftward the average positions of the affluent classes, whose status gives them a disproportionate influence over the direction the society will take.

      The kind of third-world nationalism (or even nationalism of the more backward European nations) that you describe poses no threat whatsoever to the established left. The first-generation high-skilled immigrants are still a reliable leftist voting block despite their common nationalist and otherwise seriously politically incorrect beliefs about the affairs of their home countries. Their descendants will in turn inherit the leftism, but without the nationalism, and they will internalize the leftism fully and completely. (Even if their parents aren’t quite happy with this, they are still helpless against the kids’ irresistible tendency to conform with the broader society’s high-status beliefs.)

      The simple fact is that all immigration into the Anglosphere nowadays swells the leftist ranks and voting blocks, because immigrants assimilate either into the underclass or into the mainstream respectable leftism of the middle and upper classes. Leftists may be delusional as to how many (and why) will assimilate into the former instead of the latter, but in the final analysis, it doesn’t matter, because the left knows how to maintain a firm and loyal support base in both.

      Ultimately, the problem is that the sane, common-sense rightism is nowadays completely dead and gone almost anywhere outside the Anglosphere, and replaced mainly by leftist ideological imports. (Although these are often distorted in very ugly ways — much of the aforementioned nationalism in backward nations is essentially a barbarous blend of the 19th century Mazzinian leftism, primitive fascist economics, and modern political Chomskyism.) What I’ve written above is a simple and straightforward implication of this fact.

      May 25, 2013 at 7:55 pm

      • I suppose I’m still wedded to the idea that high-IQ, high-skilled immigration is a net plus for any country, but you’re correct that these immigrants will be as Leftist as the seething masses coming to America through San Diego. If the Leftward movement of these populations doesn’t occur in the first generation, it certainly will in the second.

        For me, it’s a choice between the lesser of two evils. If foreigners coming into my country are going to change everything and push us ever Leftward at ever faster speeds, I at least want those foreigners to be civilized and smart. In other words, while waiting for everything to come crashing down, I’d prefer living next to a family of Brahmins or East Asians than to _____________. You fill in the blank.

        May 28, 2013 at 4:34 pm

  3. In some ways it’s misleading to talk about negative political externalities in this contest, because the root of the problem is that the Cathedral is absolutely intoxicated by the positive political externalities — ruthless proxy destruction of its enemies.

    May 26, 2013 at 12:53 pm

    • (‘contest’ was supposed to be ‘context’ — but actually, ‘contest’ will do)

      May 26, 2013 at 12:54 pm

    • I think Steve Sailer has written the best quality essays on this idea, i.e., that immigrants into the West are, like blacks in America or the Roma in Europe, just the weapons in a war between groups of Caucasians who really, really don’t like each other.

      May 28, 2013 at 4:36 pm

  4. Francis St. Pol

    I wonder whether Marx can be twisted into implying that the appropriate way to allow capitalism to destroy itself is to allow it to destroy scarcity. Or rather, make things “to cheap to meter.” If so, then the idea of “post-capitalism” can also be twisted to imply “uber-capitalism”, since under capitalism the price of everything approaches zero over time. Then, voila, you have Marx the Singularitarian.

    May 27, 2013 at 5:01 am

    • In a zero-cost environment, no variety of economic behavior is any more functional than any other, so adaptive selection ceases. This would no doubt count as a utopian outcome to many, but it would also be a transition to pure cultural entropy, random, and directionless. Converting the galaxy into computronium would definitely be off the agenda.

      May 27, 2013 at 7:19 am

      • Francis St. Pol

        Ah, I see. So it’d basically turn into brains in vats cranking the heroin drip up to eleven. I read a story about that:

        I’ve been trying to figure out if there’s an ideological wormhole somewhere in the extreme left that spits you back out on the right. Probably not. But it’d be extremely convenient…

        May 27, 2013 at 8:12 am

  5. If the Left was ever right, how would we know what to avoid?

    May 27, 2013 at 8:42 am

  6. Steven Cullen

    You don’t explain why, in fact, more innovation did happen in Medieval Europe than the guild system should have allowed. It’s because the guilds were local. If you were an innovative master craftsman in a large community; the guild would prevent you from using innovations. But if are the only master of your craft in a smaller community, or move to a smaller community, you are not prevented from innovating. Also a guild which was losing customers to a neighbouring community would be more willing to explore options. That’s because while there might be a guild for Paris or Lyon; there was no guild for France let alone for all of Europe. Contrast this with Asiatic societies in which imperial bureaucrats regulated entire industries in minute detail. Of course now we have national trade unions and national bureaucracies, as well as a trans-national bureaucracy in Brussels.

    May 21, 2020 at 8:57 pm

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