The book Why Nations Fail makes the argument that sustained societal prosperity is only possible when economic and political institutions are inclusive instead of extractive. It’s a little long-winded, but the historical accounts of the rise and fall of the Roman Republic and the Venetian city-state in particular are fascinating.

Both societies entered eras of strong growth and prosperity when they allowed larger parts of its citizens to partake in political and economic life. This glory phase lasted for generations, but eventually the elite sought to protect entrenched power and privilege and turned inclusive institutions back to being extractive. Thus began the decline and eventually demise of their success.

This is a drastic simplification and there is much more to both stories, but it got me thinking about just how fragile the commercial freedoms for software developers I listed yesterday are. There are many forces and elites working to turn this wonderland of prosperity and innovation into another wasteland. Here are some of the threats as I perceive them:

  • Patents and trolls: When you can be shaken down at any time for bullshit patents, the risk of starting something new rises. Only elites with big protective patent portfolios and huge legal war chests are safe.
  • Censorship and regulation: It’s easy to point at China and shudder at their explicit, heavy-handed shutdown of services, but there have been plenty “Why Won’t Someone Please Think Of The Children” campaigns elsewhere too. It usually starts with something like porn, and then everyone else is next.
  • Net neutrality: Imagine if you had to enter separate agreements with every ISP in the world to get full-speed access to all your potential customers. Only the established elite would be able to navigate such shark-infested waters.
  • The rise of app stores: When you’re at the mercy of the arbitrary whims of an elite landowner, you’re at constant risk of eviction or expropriation. This on top of, in classic extractionist style, working for free two days out of the week (30% cut).

If history is any guide, the amazing freedom and the prosperity we celebrate is easy to take for granted—right up until it’s gone. Progress often begets regression. The dark ages of commercial freedom is never more than a few elite power grabs away.