“It is a very common clever device that when anyone has attained the summit of greatness, he kicks away the ladder by which he has climbed up, in order to deprive others of the means of climbing up after him.”
- Georg Friedrich List
“Since time immemorial,” Colonel Pedro Baños writes, “the powerful have tried to impose their will and leave their mark wherever their tentacles and influence have reached.” So begins his bestseller, “Así se Domina el Mundo,” a 400-page treatise on geopolitics in which Baños unveils the keys that explain how the world works; how the relations between global powers begin, grow, and die; and how they do whatever it takes to stay in power and prevent others from gaining it.
In a chapter dedicated to “immortal geostrategies,” he mentions one evocatively called “kicking away the ladder.” The expression was first coined by 19th-century German economist Georg Friedrich List and later popularized by South Korean economist Ha-Joon Chang in a book of the same name. It describes a common behavior among political, military, and economic hegemons: They climb the power ladder to achieve an unchallengeable position. Then, using shady tactics and gaslighting—rarely met with resistance given their established supremacy—they explain why no one else can follow them up the ladder, effectively kicking it away. If their rhetoric focused on international welfare and the greater good fails, they can always resort to their intimidatory power.
The metaphor was originally intended to explain why early industrial superpowers (i.e., England), who had engaged in protectionist economic policies to grow, advocated for international free trade when they would’ve never become so dominant that way (one recent example is the Washington Consensus promoted by the US in the 80s). However, as an evergreen practice, it applies equally well between developed and developing nations as between industry incumbents and potential challengers.
As it stands today, the generative AI industry embodies the ideal characteristics—young, chaotic, highly unequal, and mostly unregulated—to be subject to the ladder-kicking strategy. It’s likely to happen soon, as it became clear after Sam Altman, OpenAI’s chief executive, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee on Privacy, Technology & the Law on Tuesday in a hearing dedicated to AI: “Oversight of A.I.: Rules for Artificial Intelligence.”
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