Why does human life sometimes fail to advance? Stupidity, inertia, a lack of imagination, and a shortage of money are always good candidates. So is plain old human nature: we may be the “paragon of animals,” but we’re still startlingly imperfect. At any rate, a book on betterment should address its opposite, the failure of mankind to make progress on occasions when it should have been easy to do so.

Off With Their Heads!

One perennial obstacle is bad government. It can masquerade as bad laws or bad people enforcing them.

Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler (see Chapter 14, “The Alleviation of Poverty”) tell the story of an ancient Roman goldsmith who somehow discovered a way of extracting aluminum from bauxite, a technology that was completely unknown at the time. (Modern metallurgists couldn’t do this efficiently until 1886, using advanced concepts from chemistry—so this guy must have been quite a goldsmith!) He brought an aluminum dinner plate to the emperor, who was concerned that the national stores of gold and silver would lose value if this useful new metal became widely available.

But, instead of rewarding the goldsmith, the emperor had him beheaded. Now that’s really bad government! The emperor’s barbarism not only cost the Roman Empire a brilliant artisan who should have gotten a medal and a pension—it cost the human race 1,900 years’ enjoyment of the benefits of aluminum.

Trade if You Dare

The temptation to protect entrenched interests with the death ...

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