Daddy noted that her laptop, which is nothing special by today’s standards, had more computing power than all the computers in the world combined when he was her age 52 years earlier. A portable device used by an eleven-year-old girl for school lessons, playing games and surfing the web had more capability than all the massive computing hardware once owned by the world’s governments, universities and large corporations.
Moreover, that fact, in a generalized and somewhat weaker form, explains much of modern society, economics and human experience. The phenomenon involved is Moore’s Law, named for the Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, who first described it in the computer literature fifty years ago this week.
Moore was discussing the capabilities of computer chips when he pointed out in an April 1965 magazine that historically their capability had doubled about annually – and so was then 64 times what it had been six years earlier. Further, he projected that the trend might well continue for another decade, meaning it would increase more than one-thousand-fold on top of that – or a 65,536 times increase in 16 years.
He did not foresee that the pattern would continue to today, with a doubling time of every 18-24 months now, not one year. Nonetheless, the continuing trend means that computing device capabilities are now billions of times what they were when I was eleven – and cheap.
More importantly, scientists began to see that, with various doubling times (most of them much longer), the pattern applies to many economic and technical matters. It’s not a law required by any science or principle, just an observed pattern. However, it has driven technical and economic progress for over 300 years – ever since Britain developed modern economic, legal and social institutions, practices and policies in the 1600s, and America and then the rest of the world adopted them.
This phenomenon is the foundation of modern society and is very democratizing. Before it, economic progress was extremely slow and each generation’s lot in life was essentially that of its parents. Economic growth was nearly non-existent. With those institutions, etc. came sustained economic growth that provided each generation a level of wellbeing about twice that of its parents!
Technical progress seems esoteric and even boring when we think of computer chips, or even the communications devices that they supply for our lives. But we get its importance when we recognize, for example, that it’s essential to many life-saving and health-improving medical devices now in common use.
With such technological progress, life must be sublime for us and our children. Except that we know it isn’t quite that good and especially that it has fallen well off the trend line in recent years.
Why? Economists now know that the problem goes back to the institutions, practices and policies that ignited economic growth and fostered wide application of Moore’s Law. Since the 1950s, we have continuously retreated from them by growing government and diminishing the role of private markets and individual liberty that fostered the progress. Hence, the progress has slowed continuously for half a century due to ever more statist and Progressive government, especially in recent years.
We may wish that technical progress will overcome the deadweight drag of the public sector that plays an ever more intrusive role in our lives, but wishing doesn’t make it so. Unless we rein in government, it will triumph over technology, economic growth and us, and we won’t leave our children the great legacy of increasing human possibility our parents left us.
Ultimately, Moore’s Law is about people more than technology. The progress it describes is a measure of the good things people do in a regime of individual liberty and market freedom, when they’re not burdened by a too heavy yoke of over-reaching government. Our challenge is to rescue Moore’s Law and our children’s future from government excess.
Ron Knecht is Nevada State Controller.