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.