Open: the story of human progress
On 21 September 2021, the Rafael del Pino Foundation organised the Master Lecture live on the Rafael del Pino Foundation's website. www.frdelpino.es entitled "Open: the history of human progress" given by Johan Norberg on the occasion of the publication of the book of the same title published by Deusto.
Johan Norberg es writer, lecturer and documentary filmmaker. He is a member of the Cato Institute of Washington D. C. and of the Centre for International Political Economy Brussels. He has published more than twenty books that have been translated into twenty-five languages.. Progress (Deusto, 2017) was an international bestseller that The Economist considered book of the year. In addition, the following have been published in Spanish In defence of global capitalism (Unidad Editorial, 2005) and Financial Fiasco: How Americans' obsession with real estate and easy money has led to a financial fiascocil causeThe economic crisismica (Unidad Editorial, 2015). Norberg writes regularly for media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, Reason y HuffPost.
On 21 September 2021, the Rafael del Pino Foundation organised the keynote lecture "Open: the history of human progress", given by the Swedish writer and historian Johan Norberg.
Norberg tries to understand why things in the world are a bit confused. In politics, in society, there are positive and negative aspects. Everyone is making progress. Economists, philosophers, financiers, professionals do wonderful things. Every day, for the last twenty years, hundreds of thousands of people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. Even now, with this raging pandemic, we have to remember that what is important in historical terms is not the virus, it is the vaccine, the fact that we have been able to vaccinate the population just one year after the virus broke out in the world. That is how the world progresses.
The world, however, is fearful, nervous. The political environment is complicated. Instead of seeking mutual benefit, the choice of the political world is to force others to do what you want them to do. This is because some are too open and others are too closed. It is important to be open, but too often politics is about zero-sum. It's not live and let live. It's eat or be eaten. Both realities fit within ourselves. This explains progress, but also why we sometimes complicate things so much. Openness is good for us, but we fear it. We have a dual nature: we are traders, but we are also tribalists.
Starting with the opening, how can it be that homo sapiens conquers the world? It is curious because, if we compare ourselves with other animals, we are not very strong, we are not very fast, we cannot even fly, we do not swim very well. We lack, therefore, the physical capabilities that would suggest that we are the conquerors of the planet. But we do have a superpower. If we look at our eyes in the mirror, we can see the whites of our eyes, which is something that only humans have. Primates don't have it. Other mammals have a brown sclera, not white, so you don't see the whites of their eyes. If they find a tasty morsel or a possible mate, they don't let that show so they can be the first to get to that food or that mate, so they are cheating those closest to them. Humans, however, have a different strategy. It is very important that their intentions are known, that others can interpret their look.
About three million years ago, some ancestor learned to survive on the African savannah because it was dangerous, until our ancestors understood that they could cooperate. They understood that they could throw stones at cats and, if they did it together, in a coordinated way, they could surround the predator and stone it to death. In a moment we go from being prey to hunters, to the top of the food chain. If we reveal our intentions, we can cooperate; if we cooperate, we achieve our goal, we specialise, we learn from each other and, in this way, we conquer the planet. If one of our ancestors came up with an idea, an innovation, for example, controlling fire or learning how to make a sack to carry tools, the others could learn by observing, by exchanging. This is how trade came about, and this is what explains everything.
Civilisation is the possibility of using knowledge that one does not have. If you don't know how to read the genome, or create a vaccine, you can benefit from it if you are part of a society where that knowledge exists. Those who don't know how to do it can take advantage of it because they live in an open civilisation where we specialise and freely exchange our best ideas. We have always done so. That is why human beings are different. Three hundred thousand years ago we were already different. At that time there were already homo sapiens and there is evidence of long-distance trade in tools and pigments. This is what explains this change, because a person is not limited to his or her knowledge and skills. On the contrary, the more people there are, the more there is exchange, the more progress is made. It seems like a small step, but we have gone from coordinating efforts to take down a lion to being able to launch rockets. This is what it means to be open.
Those regions that have developed institutions, sometimes by mistake, but which have allowed more people to search, to discover new things, to innovate, are the regions that prosper because they are societies that are open to new ideas, technologies, discoveries, business models that they, on their own, cannot achieve. From outside, the migrants, the missionaries, the traders and from inside the society the minorities, the eccentrics, the innovators. This is very important because all our technologies, cultures, habits and traditions were innovations a long time ago, they were things that were not liked at the beginning.
When you read the history of technology, there are seemingly trivial discoveries like the umbrella, the bicycle, the automobile, the computer, the internet, the vaccine, all the way to the Enlightenment, freedom of speech, biology, all of which at the time were considered weird, even dangerous. But they came about because some civilisations were a bit more open, so these eccentric people were able to play with these ideas until they were able to take advantage of them. So, in the long run we prospered.
At some point, all business models have been considered useless by someone. There were societies that planned from the top down. These absurd ideas could not flourish. In these societies, experimentation is not allowed and therefore not much happens. But in an open society, in an open market, these ideas, these methods, do not have to be validated by a programme. They can be successful if we take advantage of them spontaneously. That's why we take advantage of so many brains, so many hands, so much work, so many ideas that contribute so much.
The classical age is not the first golden age of rapid scientific and economic development. There have been many others in different cultures, for example, the Phoenician navigators in the Mediterranean, pagan Rome, the Abbasids, Confucius in China, the Catholic Renaissance or the Dutch Calvinist republic. The common denominator is not a culture, an ethnicity or a religion; the common feature is that, relatively speaking, they are civilisations open to trade, to migration, to new ideas emerging within and outside society.
Montesquieu studied the Roman Empire to try to understand how the Romans achieved an empire that lasted so long and was so successful. And he discovered that they took advantage of new ideas to constantly improve. The reason the Romans were the conquerors of the world is because they were willing to abandon their practices if they found better ones, even among the peoples they conquered. This is also true of some bloodthirsty warlords, such as Genghis Kahn, whose empire lasted a very long time. He built it in a very short time, partly because he was a great warrior. But he was a great warrior because, since the Mongols had no system of their own that they could impose on their subjects, they were willing to adopt the combined systems of others. They searched for the best solution and, when they found it, they would pass it on to different countries. Although he was a bloodthirsty warrior, Genghis Kahn allowed a certain freedom, a meritocracy, in his empire. Only in this way could he achieve better technologies and ways of both waging war and generating prosperity for his people. When the Mongols invaded Europe, two-thirds of his army were not Mongols. They were the best warriors, engineers and thinkers in the whole empire.
When there are institutions of this kind, which endure over time, which enjoy the protection of the rule of law - the right to private property, to freedom - with institutions that allow for innovation and creativity, then there is a quantum leap in progress. This is what we have seen in the West in the last two centuries, with the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Suddenly institutions appear that allow many people to improve their standard of living. In the last two hundred years we have increased life expectancy from 30 to 70 years, we have reduced extreme poverty from 90% to 9%. That is why we are here and can share stories of why some societies emerge and others disappear. Before, this was an activity for a small group of people. Now we can discuss it, we can talk about it, it's on social media, we read about it in the press every day. We have achieved an extraordinary civilisation because we can take advantage of knowledge, innovations, goods and services that we could not create on our own. This is the good news that comes from being open. We have to value it and take care of it at all times.
There is also bad news. In historical terms we developed a fantastic capacity and we can cooperate with others in harmony, even with strangers. What for? So that we can steal and kill others. This is the tribalist in us. Our ancestors reach the top of the food chain millions of years ago on the African savannah and it seems that there are no more threats. But it turns out there are. They are other groups of people who cooperate better, who raid each other. The fear arises that others will organise themselves better and attack us, kill us, steal from us. This makes us aware of who is with us and who is not with us. Us against them. This fear of the assailants from outside, and the profiteers from within, causes us to become tribes. Sometimes in the short term we find it hard to cooperate because you have to risk your life, you have to fight to keep what is left after the battle. But if someone doesn't want to fight hard, you have to be aware that they are a freeloader. All this develops a sense of who is one of us and who is not, who is loyal and who is not, because there are different groups of us. It's not a positive-sum game, it's a zero-sum game.
If we are killed or robbed, we are worse off. This is a problem we have to be aware of because otherwise we will be wiped off the face of the earth and we will not be able to get our ideas across. We are traders and we are members of the tribe. We are trying to find common ground so that we can work together with others, but we also have to be very conscious that others might be traitors, that they might come after us. It is so for sound historical reasons, but maybe we are too sensitive.
Let's recall a disturbing experiment, which has to do with modern art. A group of pupils is taken to a laboratory. The pupils are told about two modern painters: Kandinsky and Klimt. They are then divided into two groups, those who liked Kandinsky and those who liked Klimt. Now rewards are distributed to both groups, so that people become very loyal to their respective groups. Neither group gets to know the other; they only know that they are members of the Kandinsky group or the Klimt group. They are groups of people who have never seen each other in their lives, nor will they ever see each other again. They are included in each group because they had liked Kandinsky's or Klimt's work, but they become loyal members of their group, they are beholden to their group, to people they don't know who share this taste for one painter or the other. Worse still, it is not just because they are part of the group. It is because they are even willing to sacrifice an advantage for their group in exchange for a detriment to the other group.
In other words, it is good that one's own group is doing well, but it is more important that there is distance between your group and the other. In other words, you are willing to sacrifice benefits for one group in exchange for punishing the other, which you don't even know, for the sake of an artist who is also an unknown. If what we are interested in, thinking about redistribution, punishment, rewards, is based on this zero-sum game, which, historically, is the game we have been playing on the savannah for hundreds of thousands of years, this is still with us, it is still part of our being insofar as we think of ourselves as part of a group. It's not on an individual basis because we don't function like that individually. When we are one to one, we try to maximise the benefits. But as soon as we identify ourselves as members of a group, we think of the other group as a threatening group. That's why politics is a world of great fury, because the other is the enemy and we have to win, even if it costs us.
We think the world is a zero-sum game because we thought it was. But not always because we benefit from trade, from cooperation with other tribes, with foreigners, with strangers, but not always and not always enough. Being part of the tribe, wanting to get ahead of our group at the expense of others, fear of the other group works like a smoke detector. Alarms are designed to be very sensitive because if they don't go off when there's a real fire, it's over. But if it's too sensitive and goes off when it shouldn't, it's not so dangerous. That's what happens with this fear of other groups. If you are not very sensitive to those differences, you might get killed, so we are very sensitive to those differences. We are because, in this world, where we are almost always playing a positive-sum game, science, technology, competition, is something relatively new. The fact that we have institutions that protect us allows us to think about this positive-sum game. Economic growth, technological and scientific innovation are win-win things and, with them, most of us will be better off. This is something that has been the case for the last hundred-odd years.
Let us imagine that we reduce the three hundred thousand year history of homo sapiens to twenty-four hours, even a day. The last two hundred years, when almost everything fantastic has happened - the increase in life expectancy, the reduction of extreme poverty, the improvement in quality of life - would be equivalent to the last sixty seconds, which are fantastic and we are very happy to live through them. But this is not where our instincts, our attitudes, our belief systems come from. No. They come from these 86,400 seconds before. Our prehistory is much, much longer. We go back much further than three hundred thousand years, so we should not be surprised that we have not adapted to this new world in which we are progressing so rapidly by taking advantage of our open societies. Our instincts are constantly hammering us, telling us that something is wrong and if someone is doing well it is at our expense.
In Eastern Europe there is a fable that explains this whole trend well. One day, God Almighty appears to Vladimir, a poor peasant, and says: "Today you are very lucky because today I will grant you one wish, whatever you want". Vladimir is radiant and thinks about what he is going to ask for, but God Almighty warns him: "Be aware that whatever I grant you, I will double it for Ivan, your neighbour". Vladimir breaks down because he doesn't want it to go well for his neighbour, so he thinks over and over again. Suddenly, his face lights up, he comes up with a perfect plan and says: "Sir, I know. Make me one-eyed. Because if he loses one eye, Ivan will lose both, so he is increasing the distance between him and his neighbour. This, we, as individuals, don't do this. We try to make it better for the neighbour. But as soon as we think of ourselves as members of a tribe, group, political party, race, religion, country, trading partner, we instinctively start to maximise the distance. We tend to think that, individually, we are unsympathetic, we are greedy, but when it comes to voting day we are not like that. However, the opposite is true. Individually, we try to please others because it will be good for us. Collectively, on the contrary, we behave like Vladimir. We try to protect ourselves, we want to widen the gap, especially in times of crisis.
This is also how history is understood. Often, in times of economic depression, military threats, natural disasters, pandemics, we are fearful. This triggers this fighting instinct in society. We want to find a scapegoat to fight against. It can be big capital, or foreign partners. Or we want to run away to protect ourselves, for example, by legislation that prevents free trade. We want big men, we want governments to protect us. We want to be more collectivist, we want the tribe to protect us. We are not interested in finding common ground with others, we want to defend ourselves and we want the tribe to protect us. This is what demagogues, authoritarian leaders, exploit all over the world. Politicians often try to convince us that we belong to one big group and the other groups - big capital, the rich, foreigners, minorities, another country - threaten us. This undermines progress, because we make less use of other people's brains, ideas, production capacity, because we start arguing, warring. Sometimes they are commercial wars, sometimes they are real wars. This explains how the golden ages end. In times of crisis, many cultures start thinking about plucking out an eye to make others go blind, but that is a mistake because they go blind and don't know where to go. There are many golden ages throughout history that have this first common denominator.
The second is that all of them have collapsed, they are finished, they have lost their self-confidence, they have stopped thinking about how to innovate and improve in the future. They have started to think about how to hide, how to protect themselves. All those golden ages have collapsed, except one. The one we are in right now. But this is not automatic. Arnold Toynbee argued with other historians who drew very simple analogies between societies and human beings. They said that a society had grown old, it had grown weary, it had died. And Toynbee said that there was no expiry date for societies. On the contrary, he said that societies die because they are killed or because they commit suicide, and he added that it is usually by suicide.
This is good news and bad news. The bad news is that we have this temptation to commit suicide, but the good news is that we can decide for ourselves. It's not that we're going to die of old age. No. If we die as a civilisation, it is because we have let ourselves get carried away by this reality. We have seen the enemy and we carry the enemy within us. We carry all the good and all the bad. Borges said that time is like a river that drags me along, but I myself am that river. It is a tiger that tears me apart, but I myself am the tiger. It is a fire that consumes me, but I am the flame. So the good news is that we don't have to do things the same way as other civilisations that have perished. No. We have to catch up, thinking about this beautiful world that we have created, to understand and appreciate the value of being open, of being able to move forward to create institutions that could transform this zero-sum game into a positive-sum game, as long as we are safe, we have the rule of law, we can take advantage of what others create, understand it, appreciate it.
The Rafael del Pino Foundation is not responsible for the comments, opinions or statements made by the people who participate in its activities and which are expressed as a result of their inalienable right to freedom of expression and under their sole responsibility. The contents included in the summary of this conference, written for the Rafael del Pino Foundation by Professor Emilio González, are the result of the debates held at the meeting held for this purpose at the Foundation and are the responsibility of the authors.
The Rafael del Pino Foundation is not responsible for any comments, opinions or statements made by third parties. In this respect, the FRP is not obliged to monitor the views expressed by such third parties who participate in its activities and which are expressed as a result of their inalienable right to freedom of expression and under their own responsibility. The contents included in the summary of this conference, written for the Rafael del Pino Foundation by Professor Emilio J. González, are the result of the discussions that took place during the conference organised for this purpose at the Foundation and are the sole responsibility of its authors.