A response to the MacIntyrical critique of my capabilities approach

Adam has graciously offered some criticism of my series on the capabilities approach. He raises some serious concerns, but I think he also overstates the differences between us. He contrasts my version of the capabilities approach with Alasdair MacIntyre’s ideal of fostering “independent practical reasoners”. Before I get to the disagreements though, I want to highlight how close we are. Adam says,

We don’t just want people to decide for themselves, we want them to become truly capable of deciding for themselves. And developing that capability requires an acknowledgement of their dependency on others, both during the process of that development, and afterwards. This sure sounds a lot like the “effective agency” of the capabilities approach.

Adam’s first complaint is that the capabilities approach fails to grapple with the implications of its own pluralism. The political philosopher Eric Nelson has made a similar critique. In trying to allow for individuals to choose from as wide a variety of lifestyles as possible, the capabilities approach embraces pluralism, but as Adam notes, “any one vision of pluralism precludes, at minimum, all visions of monism”. Adam goes on to accuse pluralists generally of glossing over this paradox. Well, I hereby acknowledge the paradox, and its doozy nature. I have no clever way out of it, except to point out that this affects all pluralist liberal paradigms, not just the capabilities approach. A capabilities approach à la Nussbaum is worse on the pluralism front than other forms of liberalism, as Ingrid Robeyns argues in an article explicitly trying to distinguish the core tenets of the capabilities approach from extraneous items added on by particular versions,

The fact that the capability approach has, at its very core, more to offer in terms of the theory of the good than in terms of the theory of the right has an important implication, namely that it is not very suitable for ethical issues that primarily concern the right. For example, the capability approach is not a very helpful theory in considerations on the morality of abortion since so much of that ethical debate is about issues of the right rather than about issues of the good. That is, most of the philosophical debates on the ethics of abortion concern the moral status of the fetus, notions of personhood, or questions about the autonomy and self-ownership of the pregnant woman — issues on which the capability approach remains mute [citations]. It is therefore not surprising that the capability approach is more useful and more widely used as a theory analyzing socio-economic policies where there is a consensus on those aspects that are questions about the right or where the questions about the right are much less weighty than those about the good. Examples include debates about poverty alleviation, distributive justice, and disability ethics.

So the capabilities approach can be tuned to taste along a pluralism spectrum. But I don’t think this really solves the problem; for any issue where someone claims there’s an overlapping consensus, I can find someone — usually not even obviously insane — who fervently dissents. And anyway this doesn’t get me out of the hot water because I am willing to affirm most of Nussbaum’s controversial list. This is all very consistent with another of Adam’s points: life is inevitably political. Pluralism is a value because humans are fallible and not all-wise. It’s therefore prudent to allow people (and peoples) wide latitude in choosing their own way. But sometimes life forces us to take a side. Speaking for myself and not for other capabilitarians or libertarians, I am willing to call myself a partisan for such issues as, say, a woman’s right to an abortion. And I will use capabilitarian rhetoric to make my case (partisan disagreements are bound to exist among capabilitarians too).

Adam is troubled by my example of a capabilitarian accommodation for the Amish choosing not to exercise the capability to vote:

The problem is that “one’s own goals and values” are not formed in a vacuum, but within the context of the communities we have lived and grown in, and have subsequently filled a large space in the specific histories of our individual lives. You don’t just wake up one day and decide to be Amish—that is, for almost in entirety, completely at odds with the reality of what it means to be Amish. The Amish are born Amish. They are raised with a certain set of values.

He presses the point that there can be no education or other political environment that can really accommodate the Amish. Any education not occurring within the social context of an Amish community under full Amish regulation will presume an alternative, non-Amish worldview and set of values. I agree, but I don’t understand how this is seen as a problem for the capabilities approach, which focuses so much energy on showing how the “social context” can be just as important as the formal legal rules of a society. No one, least of all a capabilitarian, is suggesting there is or should be a level playing field for alternative ways of life. I, and I’m guessing most capabilitarians, instead favor a society in which the individual has the option to choose ways of life different from what they were born into, even if exercising that option is difficult.

If this freedom (effective, rather than merely legal) to exit, as one might phrase it, means that the Amish way of life is doomed, then that’s just bad luck for the Amish way of life. The capabilities approach is unapologetically individualistic. While an individual surely has reason to value their affiliations and group identities, they shouldn’t be held hostage to those affiliations and groups. And if an individual while growing up is not taught to read, not granted wide access to uncensored information, not encouraged to be curious about that information, and effectively prevented from social contact with nonmembers of their group, then that individual effectively is a hostage.

The use of the Amish as an example is cute, because at least in my experience people have warm and fuzzy feelings about the Amish. And honestly I don’t know enough about the Amish to accuse them of violating my capabilitarian sensibilities. But consider replacing “the Amish” with whatever backward cult you may object to more feverishly, perhaps Christian Scientists who withhold modern medicine from their children or those Pakistani tribesmen who will kill their daughters for the sake of “family honor”. The point is that there must exist some limiting principles by which some social context an individual is raised in is deemed too restrictive to qualify as fertile for the “development of independent practical reasoners”. Honestly, I don’t see how MacIntyre’s project of developing such reasoning individuals can deny the existence of such disqualifying social contexts, even if the specification of limiting principles is left murky and subject to political contest. Finally, I also want to point out that the Amish are not a stagnant society; cultural evolution is at work in their midst as well.

So, in this sense, I essentially accept Adam’s criticism that the capabilities approach excludes certain lifestyles but I choose to own the implications. My capabilitarianism tries very hard to be as pluralistic as possible, accepts that “true neutrality” is impossible except maybe in Dungeons & Dragons, and yes, constrains the set of lifestyles effectively on offer to those that might be chosen by fully informed and intelligent human beings.

Adam is right that the capabilities approach is an incomplete theory. Unsurprisingly, Deirdre McCloskey makes a similar argument in her review (pdf) of Nussbaum’s Frontiers of Justice. All the virtues are necessary for a flourishing society full of flourishing individuals.

As Smith said in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), the invisible hand will not produce humans if we start where Mandeville starts, with selfish prudence only. Oddly, an older view is reinstated. The wider our list of virtues for flourishing — that is, the wider our list of capabilities — the stronger is the Nussbaum Lemma [that one cannot extract justice from initial conditions that do not already include justice in some form] — that is, the more and more implausible does it become that some ‘immensely simple theory’ (as Bernard Williams, 1985, put it) will turn out to give a human society. In other words, the civic republican notion that the way to have a good society is to make a bunch of good people — which seems very naive in the light of invisible hand liberalism — turns out to be much more plausible than we liberals thought.

But this is a strange criticism of the capabilities approach. McCloskey says Nussbaum’s capabilities approach is, instead of the Prudence-only of Rawls and friends, “Prudence, Justice, and a bit of Love.” So clearly capabilitarians have added something worthwhile. And if we haven’t grokked the full picture, it’s because we haven’t gone far enough in adding the virtues to a Prudence-only skeleton. But fully engaging virtue theory within a political theory will only narrow down the eligible set of lifestyles we can pursue. If I have already thrown the Amish under the buggy, pulling in more virtues into the theory will just be backing up and trampling the Amish under hoof and wheel all over again. This is because my liberal worldview is a product of my ethical commitments — that is, my understanding of the virtues. This is surely controversial and requires a detailed defense, but I will leave that to another day.

There is one final source of confusion for me in Adam’s critique. He says,

To take politics seriously is to reject reductionist and formalist pictures of politics, except in so far as they are used as thought experiments within a more hermeneutic vision. That is, a vision that focuses on persuasion and rhetoric and ethics.

Remember that feminism and the civil rights movement and India’s independence movement all achieved their victories through persuasion and ethical commitment. If Deirdre McCloskey is right, persuasion and ethics are the whole story behind our present enrichment, and therefore the only reason we can talk about having taxpayer-funded welfare at all in any meaningful sense.

But I concluded my series with this very theme. The considerations of a thoughtful libertarian, while not able to dispel the inevitability of politics, should nonetheless rein in the earnest capabilitarian from assuming the machinery of state is always the proper weapon against any given injustice or failure to flourish (this includes persuading the Amish of their alleged shortcomings). I suggested that this implies most of the work to build flourishing human beings must be done “within the murk and mire of the social context, where we talk with one another, and raise consciousness about failures of justice.” So, I guess I’m trying to end this response on a conciliatory note. I find very little theoretical structure that Adam and I disagree about; I am just more aggressively liberal in the values I would persuade the world to adopt.


Estimates vary, but nuclear and mitochondrial DNA evidence suggests that the allele split between canis lupus familiaris and canis lupus occurred 11 to 32 thousand years ago. Dogs were domesticated prior to the advent of farming, and they’ve been with us ever since. Humans have availed themselves of selective breeding and dogs’ natural propensity for obedience to create something entirely other than their wild forebears. Where once stalked a mess of snarling teeth and patient hunting tactics now stood a loyal, resolute friend ready to render aid and comfort fit to purpose bred.  Continue reading “Dominion”

On Drinking Single Malt Scotch

College is a wonderful place to learn the medicinal value of fermented beverages and distilled spirits. To avoid debt, I took on a few jobs at a time, weaving them as the warp to my class schedule’s woof. One of those jobs involved some physical labor which would have made OSHA disintegrate in the heat of its own outrage, but the abuse was overlooked because we were teen-aged students needing the dollars; moreover, we enjoyed the adventure. One aspect of that job had us navigating the underground tunnels looking for leaks in the steam system. Pressurized steam is invisible, but a steam leak is usually audible. The thrill of the terror of possibly not hearing the leak was invigorating.

I went to a small religious school in Chicago, which is, I might suggest, a beer drinking town. I suppose that doesn’t make it terribly unique, but beer it was for our aching muscles and joints–also for the realization of the possibility of actual bodily harm, which youth, in its wisdom, suppresses until after the battle. The good people at the Miller Brewing Company had just introduced a fine concoction which they named “Miller Genuine Draft.” Pitchers of this golden elixir were available at an affordable price at a Madison Avenue bar which was not particular about enforcing the draconian and prohibitory drinking age laws, so we expressed our love for MGD, as it was known, by purchasing gallons of it at a time. On my twenty-first birthday, we celebrated by buying a pitcher of the more expensive Miller Brewing Company product, Leinenkugel’s Red.

Performance anxiety requires something a little stronger. My boss was a nice, rather muscular lady who enjoyed wearing coveralls and screaming unprintable epithets at us young men to ensure we were earning our pennies. At any rate, she was of Polish descent, and we were living in one of the Polish strongholds of Chicago, so I was introduced to cheap vodka, which was readily available, and I learned, through it, how to scream those same epithets with efficient effectiveness to mitigate anxiety. Continue reading “On Drinking Single Malt Scotch”

The Arc of the Universe Bends Towards Meh

Progress and decline are just stories, but so is volatility. We like linearity, but we also like for things to have a shape, even if an awkward bendy one.

If you enter into the moral history of Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Era trilogy, or the people at HumanProgress.org, it seems obvious that we have made progress.  Even with the fluctuations of the last 15 years, food prices have plummeted over the past 100 years! We’ve cured so many diseases! For crying out loud, I am writing the post in an interface of a program running on a computer in a location I don’t even know, to be put out in public where a significant fraction of the global population can access it from any part of the world!

Yet for a certain set of people, it’s equally as obvious that we’re in decline. Some agree that we’ve made progress, but think it is a false progress—it rests on the back of exploitation of third world countries. Or maybe the Green Revolution helped us feed more people with fewer crop failures, but it uses practices that are not as time-tested, and probably aren’t sustainable. So we’re feeding more people now while setting ourselves up for a massive failure, and therefore mass starvation, at some stage in the uncertain future.

I think that McCloskey’s Bourgeois Dignity does a good job demolishing the notion that our prosperity rests on the continued poverty of others, and it is not alone in that. But if there’s one solid thing I took away from The Great Stagnation, and especially the debates that it sparked, it is that it is incredibly hard to think about progress, decline, and well-being, period.

Cultural conservatives often claim we’re in decline from the point of view of deteriorating values. Roy Baumeister’s book covering his work on willpower makes the claim that the Victorians took self-control much more seriously than we do, and we are the worse for it. More extreme claims of moral decline, are, of course, quite common. MacIntyre’s After Virtue tells you where he stands on the matter in his title. Mencius Moldbug, the pseudonymous prophet of the Internet neoreactionaries, resurrects Carlyle among others to make the claim that we have fallen into complete lawlessness and immorality. He thinks the Victorians eradicated violent crime, but liberal ideology led us to abandon the very values that made such eradication possible.

Consider Baltimore. For those looking through the lens of decline, the writing is on the wall—the barbarians have stormed the gates, they are on the inside, they’re just waiting for the right moment to deliver the final blow to our crumbling civilization. For those looking through the lens of progress, the riots in Baltimore are unfortunate but the peaceful protests, and increased media scrutiny of cop violence there, in New York, and in Ferguson, Missouri all hint at a possibility of important reform. A chance to take a next step in the journey that began with the abolition of slavery, continued through the civil rights movement, and continues to this day, if we who inherited it make ourselves good caretakers.

Can this be resolved by grandma’s conciliatory comment that “everyone is right,” is some sense? Well, I’m in a pessimistic mood, so I’m going to say that everyone is wrong, in the big view.

Progress and decline can be useful lenses, but that’s what they are. They can shed light on certain aspects of the world we live in, but they can never encompass it. The optimist feeling the march of progress will point out how precipitously crime has dropped in this country since the early 90s. The liberal is quick to point out that this is mirrored by an explosion in incarceration. The conservative chuckles, and replies “don’t you see how the one caused the other?” Progress in policing, through Broken Window theories and such like—we are told.

As someone who has defended the wisdom of the ages in the form of our traditions, I have repeatedly been asked how traditionalism could have fostered abolitionism when legal slavery existed in this country. Lately, I ask myself the same question: how would I, personally, have lived with the reality of being in a country with the living institution of slavery? How would I have lived with coming from a middle class family, getting a good education, and generally prospering in such a country?

The best way to answer that question is, of course, to read what people said back then. About the subject, and in general. I have not done this, not really. And shame on me for that. In school, I read some of the debates on the matter that happened in the decade or two prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. The Civil War is, of course, another one of those great divergent points for various narratives. For most, the Civil War is the war against slavery. For some, it is the patriotic war against the rebel army. For others, it is the War Between the States; one victory among what would be many for centralized power over local communities.

But I digress—the reason I pose the question about being a person on the right side of the slavery question while living in that era is that, for some, that is our present. Oh, it isn’t slavery specifically, of course. But there’s a narrative in which there’s a moral equivalency. To return to incarceration, a frequently repeated statistic in certain corners is that there are more black men in prison today than there were enslaved in 1850. The liberal and libertarian point out to their chuckling conservative friend that nearly all of this has to do with the so-called war on drugs, the very thing (some would argue) which created circumstances for the late twentieth century spike in crime. Unlike his liberal friend, the libertarian emphasizes the role that public housing has played in creating completely toxic cultural environments. Conservatives like Theodore Dalrymple, in fact, fixate on such cultures and make a career out of writing about them. For Dalrymple, they serve as banner examples of moral decline.

Moreover, the liberal and libertarian will point out that having a controlled, structured engagement with law enforcement, with the credible threat of lawsuits or in any case some consequences for mistreatment, requires resources. The poorer you are, the fewer resources you have to bring to bear. There’s also a cultural element—educated people who have grown up well off tend to have a sense of entitlement, in a bad sense of course but also in the good sense of feeling entitled to having their dignity as a human being respected. They are more likely to be outraged if this expectation is violated, and to have the resources, and the friends and family with resources, to act on that outrage. As such, groups that do not have resources, and who mostly take it for granted that they are going to be mistreated and the abusers will get away with it, are much more vulnerable. Who knows how many of those black men in prison were just an easy target for a cop looking to improve his arrest statistics?

And let’s talk about statistics for a moment. I’m optimistic by disposition, and I am in awe of the dramatic decline in crime rates in my lifetime. But as I mentioned, I’m in a pessimistic mood. Statistics are judgments given the air of objectivity by the fact that they are numbers. “Data”, with its root meaning being “things given,” is highly misleading. To channel Deirdre McCloskey channeling R. D. Laing for a minute, I’d much rather we call it “capta”, or “things seized.” The Bureau of Justice Statistics did not see the givens about rape and sexual assault on college campuses hanging around in the air, much less in their spreadsheets. They used their judgments, informed by best practices among people who study such things, and came at the question as outsiders looking in. They judged that 80% of campus rapes and sexual assaults go unreported, an estimate arrived at through the use of surveys.

Such surveys are not truly random. They can’t be. Randomness is not a thing available to us in this world, when we are dealing with fellow free human beings. If nonresponse is systematic, and not itself random, then the results will be biased. All polling companies deal with this. In the case of elections, they can test their methods against the outcomes to an extent. It must be remembered that only polls very close to the election can be said to be directly tested; the long period before the election where polls purport to show the ups and down of public opinion cannot truly be tested in a similar way.

The conclusions drawn by polling agencies, and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and anyone, are not really conclusions, but arguments. The BJS is arguing that rape and sexual assault happen at a lower rate on campuses than among the general population, but have a higher nonreport rate than what is already a very high general nonreport rate. The question is—should we believe them?

The reported rate is one thing. Certainly clerical errors happen in recording such things, but I don’t think it’s a great leap to say that our records for reported sexual assaults are a decent approximation.

As for total sexual assaults; well, that’s a harder judgment to make. I recall in the debates after The Great Stagnation came out that libertarians came out in droves to point out all the flaws and biases in median income and other statistics that Tyler Cowen trotted out as part of his argument. Cowen astutely observed that all of those biases and flaws were still present back when the median income data looked good, too.

So too for sexual assaults. 80% is a big number, but it has the virtue of being a number. For the general population they estimate 67%. To be frank, I don’t put much stock in either number. Maybe they are an exaggeration—certainly there are plenty of narratives saying that the question is overblown these days. Maybe they’re a vast underestimate—a lot of studies outside of BJS make that argument, as do activists in this area. Activists who are caretakers of another liberation, another march of progress.

What if the numbers are completely wrong? What if the bounds of all the surveys and judgment brought to bear on the matter are just bunk? Maybe sexual assaults were at an all time low when reported ones were at an all time high, and we are now seeing an all time high when reported ones are much lower. Maybe it peaked somewhere in the middle. Maybe the highest point was some random year in the 1930s.

I’m not saying that’s the case. I’m inviting you to consider how confident you are in the narrative that you are most attached to.

Because when I’m in a pessimistic mood, the only thing that gives me joy is raining on other people’s parades. Or their rallies.

I do believe the arguments that the Great Enrichment happened, but it gave us progress from a material point of view. I don’t think that the life of a peasant was necessarily morally inferior to ours. Nor do I think that the life of a stockbroker is necessarily morally inferior to a pious medieval peasant.

I’m not sure that I believe there is progress, or decline. But there is life, and living.

Of course, if I was a city dweller during the fall of Rome, I might feel differently. And if I were a poor immigrant who moved to this country and made a living, and saw my children make a better one, I would probably feel differently, too.

They are useful lenses. When applied carefully.

How Are We to Live? A Critique of the Capabilities Approach

Paul has written a truly formidable series on the relationship between the capabilities approach and libertarianism, and what the two communities can learn from each other. Fellow Sweet Talker Sam Hammond has rightfully called it “a true tour de force,” elsewhere proclaiming that Paul may as well have written a whole new section of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

There is a lot to like about Paul’s series, but you’re not here to read a post kissing his ass, nor would that be useful to him. But you ought to give these a read:

  1. What the capabilities approach is
  2. Why the absolutist bullet-biting libertarian arguments are wrong
  3. What libertarians can learn from the capabilities approach
  4. The genuine insights of libertarianism that the capabilities community can learn from

My critique will be two-fold: first, the capabilities approach cannot give us an answer to Socrates’ crucial question “how are we to live?” Second, in attempting to side-step this question, its proponents cripple their ability to take the political implications of their theory seriously—just like most explicitly libertarian theories.

A bit of cowardly hedging: I am no expert on the capabilities approach. I have not read either Sen or Nussbaum on it. I have listened to an interview with Nussbaum, which was the entirety of my prior exposure. Sweet Talk is a place of conversation—you must imagine that Paul and the rest of us have been sitting around and talking, and Paul has gotten fired up about capabilities and just finishing a long diatribe about it. Within the context of that conversation, this will be my response.

Continue reading “How Are We to Live? A Critique of the Capabilities Approach”

What Then Are the Bourgeois Virtues?

What then are the bourgeois virtues? You ask me to preach. I’ll preach to thee.

The leading bourgeois virtue is the Prudence to buy low and sell high. I admit it. There. But it is also the prudence to trade rather than to invade, to calculate the consequences, to pursue the good with competence—Herbert Hoover, for example, energetically rescuing many Europeans from starvation after 1918.

Another bourgeois virtue is the Temperance to save and accumulate, of course. But it is also the temperance to educate oneself in business and in life, to listen to the customer humbly, to resist the temptations to cheat, to ask quietly whether there might be a compromise here—Eleanor Roosevelt negotiating the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

A third is the justice to insist on private property honestly acquired. But it is also the justice to pay willingly for good work, to honor labor, to break down privilege, to value people for what they can do rather than for who they are, to view success without envy, making capitalism work since 1776.

A fourth is the Courage to venture on new ways of business. But it is also the courage to overcome the fear of change, to bear defeat unto bankruptcy, to be courteous to new ideas, to wake up next morning and face fresh work with cheer, resisting the despairing pessimism of the clerisy 1848 to the present. And so the bourgeoisie can have Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Courage, the pagan four. Or the Scottish three—Prudence, Temperance, and justice, the artificial virtues—plus enterprise, that is, Courage with another dose of Temperance.

Beyond the pagan virtues is the Love to take care of one’s own, yes. But it is also a bourgeois love to care for employees and partners and colleagues and customers and fellow citizens, to wish well of humankind, to seek God, finding human and transcendent connection in the marketplace in 2006, and in a Scottish benevolence c. 1759.

Another is the Faith to honor one’s community of business. But it is also the faith to build monuments to the glorious past, to sustain traditions of commerce, of learning, of religion, finding identity in Amsterdam and Chicago and Osaka.

Another is the Hope to imagine a better machine. But it is also the hope to see the future as something other than stagnation or eternal recurrence, to infuse the day’s work with a purpose, seeing one’s labor as a glorious calling, ing, 1533 to the present. So the bourgeoisie can have Faith, Hope, and Love, these three, the theological virtues.

That is, the bourgeois virtues are merely the seven virtues exercised in a commercial society. They are not hypothetical. For centuries in Venice and Holland and then in England and Scotland and British North America, then in Belgium, Northern France, the Rhineland, Sydney, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Bombay, Shanghai, and in a widening array of places elsewhere, against hardy traditions of aristocratic and peasant virtues, we have practiced them. We have fallen repeatedly, of course, into bourgeois vices. Sin is original. But we live in a commercial society, most of us, and capitalism is not automatically vicious or sinful. Rather the contrary.

“Bourgeois virtues” is no contradiction. It is the way we live now, mainly, at work, on our good days, and the way we should, Mondays through Fridays.

-Deirdre McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues

Innovation and Demosclerosis

A common trope among certain observers of China is that “China doesn’t innovate”. They copy, and act as a parts and assembly supplier to Western innovation. This isn’t even false, or unreasonable. China is a developing economy and they have a lot of catching up to do in terms of technology and business methods. Why should they reinvent the wheel when they can just learn how to use the wheels the OECD nations have already invented?

But this situation should not be confused with the idea that the Chinese are not an innovative people. Historically they have a long record of innovation, often inventing things (such as paper, the printing press, and gun powder) hundreds of years before the West had them. Culturally their disdain for the merchant class and centralized government prevented these innovations from being widely adopted, but the innovation was certainly there.

Further, we in the rich west have gotten complacent in some of our fields. Computers and IT are very innovative, but what about education or air travel? What about infrastructure? In 2008 the US Congress passed the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, requiring passenger rail plans to be developed by States. In California that mandate didn’t even result in a plan to build high-speed rail until 2013, and construction of just Phase 1 (connecting L.A. and San Francisco) isn’t expected to be complete until 2029. Meanwhile during roughly the same time period (2007-Present), China has gone from zero miles of high-speed rail to 10,000 miles of working track. That’s more high-speed rail than the rest of the world combined.

Now high-profile infrastructure projects like this always beg the question of whether we should build them, of if they’re worth the money, but that’s not the discussion today. The point is, both the USA and China have already decided they should, but only China did. There are reasons for that related to their comparatively lower labor costs and undeveloped rural countryside, but let’s not make excuses for ourselves. The West has hundreds of years’ head start in development, and all the laws and regulations we’ve collected as a result thereof seem to be holding us back more than they are pushing us forward.

This finally leads me to the real topic of this post (I’m terrible at getting to the point quickly), which is the Broad Sustainable Group of China. Broad Group (for short) has been around for a while now, primarily in the HVAC and air quality business. They make industrial-strength HVAC units, the ones that manage air temperature and humidity for major office buildings, very large apartment buildings, and sports complexes. They’re state of the art, managed in real time from a control center in Broad Town, a company town in Hunan, China of, well, Chinese scale and proportion (that is to say, large).

But what Broad Group is catching attention for these days is building really big buildings, really quickly. In fact, they aren’t built so much as assembled. They’re manufactured in a central factory and then flat-packed and shipped by truck to their destination, like Ikea furniture. All the wires, pipes, lighting, air ducts, etc. are built into the module back at the factory, so the assembly process on site consists of lifting the pieces into place using a construction crane and bolting them together.

The first building I’m aware of that Broad Group has built using their new was during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. They built a pavilion there in a single day, but I cannot find a video of that now. Since then they have assembled a 15-story hotel in two days, a 17-story building in two days, a 25-story building in 17 days, a 30-story building in 15 days, and a 57-story building in 19 days. There have been others, but not all of them have been captured on video.

All this construction is leading up to Broad Group’s desire to build Sky City One, a 200-story tower (838-meters, or 2,749 ft, tall) that will be the tallest building in the world when complete. And they want to assemble it in 90 days. That assembly time doesn’t include the time spent at the factory building and assembling the modules, which would be a process of six months to a year, but for comparison the Burj Khalifa in Dubai took five years to build from start to finish.

Now before you start freaking out about safety or quality, take a look at this video of Broad Group simulating one of their buildings being shaken by a Richter Scale 10 earthquake. This seems to be a safe design, and in the six years they’ve been building them I haven’t heard of any of them falling down, burning, or experiencing some other catastrophe. They seems to be taking this side of things seriously.

The Broad Group’s methods convey other benefits besides speedy construction. For one thing, building this way is much safer for the workers, as most of the work is done in the controlled environment of a factory, with industrial robots lending assistance, and not in chaotic construction sites. There’s a lot less waste, clean-up is easier, and basically all the same benefits we saw moving to factory production of our cars, machines, and tools. And most importantly, it’s CHEAPER, which is something I’m sure anyone who’s bought an apartment in Manhattan could appreciate. Building more and better things for less is the sina qua non of economic growth.

This is an innovation that could have happened anywhere in the developed nations. This isn’t cutting edge science, and the engineering is easily within our grasp. But we don’t do things this way. Why? No doubt some architect will tell you a story about how we value our individuality too much, but all the Toyota Camry’s I see driving around belie that hogwash. The truth is that we don’t build things this way because we have forgotten that innovation is something that should happen in every industry, not just “technology” companies like Google and Microsoft. We have allowed the laws around permits and site inspections and zoning to calcify around how buildings were constructed at a certain time in our history, and there progress stopped. Meanwhile in China, without that legacy, innovation marched on. China, in this one field, is now more advanced than the West, as they made a step of progress we could have made – should have made – forty years ago or more.

But all is not lost. Here’s the good news: China has shown it can be done. This is as good a time as any to reflect on the laws we have, and reconsider our approach. Rather than specifying how we build, and send in site inspectors to shut down construction now and then (which is costly), we ought to focus on the results we want (especially around safety and environmental health) and then let innovation bloom again to find better, cheaper, faster ways of meeting those needs. This is how the developed West can ensure that the future happens here too, and not just in China.