C.P. Snow's Five Year Plan

— I’ve just been reading C.P. Snow’s famous The Two Cultures for a Liberty Fund in Indianapolis next weekend, and it’s just an astoundingly obtuse book. Of course, I have the benefit of having seen how things panned out. In Snow’s day, perhaps it made sense to delineate something like monolithic scientific and literary cultures, but today’s world emphatically lacks any monolithic cultures. He was worried that physicists hadn’t read Shakespeare, and that playwrights didn’t understand entropy. Reading Snow, I’m filled with joy to be embedded in a culture of such richness and complexity that these sociological groupings make no sense, and that the tidy canons of cultural and scientific knowledge have simply been exploded by the ever accelerating proliferation of cultural invention and scientific discovery.

I have exactly no idea how I would fit into Snow’s schema. I’ve a degree in drawing and painting and art history, a passable acquaintance with the “classics” of literature, and am working on a second advanced degree in philosophy. But my philosophy is post-Quinean naturalism, drawing its metaphysical assumptions about man and nature directly from the sciences themselves. Am I schizophrenic? No! Just a perfectly unusual sort of hybrid intellectual type. This meta-type is a nice possibility opened up by the “looseness” of the American system of education, which Snow derides.

How about this? I once took half a course with Mark Turner, who is a professor of English Lit at Maryland, as well as a faculty member of the program in neuro- and cognitive science, as well as associate director of the Center of Advanced Behavioral Studies at Stanford. He has an advanced degree in math from Berkeley. He has written lovely books on metaphor. Now, not everybody’s a Mark Turner. But the naturalization of the mind has done a lot to bring the subject matter of science and the arts much closer together. (Philosophers of art these days are interested in such things as the neuroscience of musical experience).The message that aesthetic experience and quality are features of the natural world subject to scientific inquiry has yet to penetrate the darkest, frenchest corners of comparative literature departments, but the future is with the Mark Turners of world.

But I digress. Back to Snow… Two Cultures turns out to really be about the world’s poor. The problem, as Snow has it, is that the poorer countries have yet to undergo a scientific revolution. Once they do industrial technology will chug and chug and chug and chug and puff until scarcity and want is fully overcome. He was clearly impressed with the USSR, although he should not have been. Pete Boettke tells me the Soviets produced heavy industry at an impressive rate, and those are the numbers that drew everyone in. But somehow, all that “conspicuous production” never cashed out in terms of increased consumption, that is, in increased quality of life for the folk, who, damn them, wanted toothbrushes and shoes and good booze, not i-beams. In any case, Snow liked to say things like this: “The poor countries, until they have got beyond a certain point on the industrial curve cannot accumulate capital. That is why the gap between the rich and poor is widening. The capital must come from outside.” And they can get either from us or… from the Reds!

It seems that a man of science, like Snow, would not need someone like P.T. Bauer to point out the just GOD DAMN OBVIOUS fact that Earth is an economically closed system, and so, necessarily, the first economy to accumulate capital didn’t get it from the outside. Anyway, Snow entertains a massive technocratic fantasy to the effect that a huge effort to train scientists and industrialize the developing world (involving enormous expropriations of wealth) will straightaway make all those poor laggard brown people rich. If we fail to do it, the Russkie’s will, and then, at best, the West will remain as a mere “enclave” surrounded on all sides by the vast engines of Soviet industrial might.

Laugh as we might, Snow was not alone in his breathtaking economic incompetence. (He shows no glimmer of an appreciation of even the most basic economic precepts. It’s just we’re-smart-enough-to-engineer-The Bomb,-so-we’re-sure-as-hell-smart-enough-to-engineer-worldwide-economic-growth fatal fucking conceit all the way down.) This kind of view once dominated development policy, and we’re not yet totally in the clear. Let me close by sharing a relevant quote from John Nye’s paper for a USAID Forum organized earlier this month by Mercatus’s Global Prosperity Initiative (where I work–read the other papers too.)

If technology could do so much, who needed to worry about institutions? As one of my instructors argued at one time, good institutions may buy a nation an extra five or even ten percent income in the short run, but good technology raised growth rates by one or two percent a year forever. Indeed, it has taken a revolution in our views of economic history, and particularly the widespread assimilation of the claim by North and Thomas that technology did not “explain” modern economic growth, but was itself a manifestation of the phenomenon we think of as modern economic growth.

Which is the academic way of saying “ass backwards.”

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center