The Case for Openness – An Open and Shut Case?
Q1 | January 2022
Topic: Human Interest
January 28, 2022
Image used with permission: iStock/TK 1993
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The Case for Openness – An Open and Shut Case?
Q1 | January 2022
From time immemorial, mankind has been open. Open to new ideas, open to trade, and open to migration – the three critical ingredients for progress. Well, not always open and not everywhere, but more or less.
Three decades ago, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, western liberalism, with its key tenets of free ideas and free trade, was triumphant. Now, after a most unsettling period – September 11, the Global Financial Crisis, waves of refugees, global warming and COVID – we are seeing a rise of nationalism, populism, and calls for strong policy responses. Anti-free trade and anti-immigration are not fringe concepts – in some democracies they are policy. At universities, once lauded as the bastions of free speech and the free exchange of ideas, professors and students need to be circumspect. While The Donald may be gone for now and Boris may soon be, the underlying nationalistic sentiment and jingoism hasn’t changed. Brexit and Putin remain. Are we seeing a shift from open to more closed? Where may this lead, and why?
The Case for Openness
Mankind has made extraordinary progress. As Johan Norberg in “Open: The Story of Human Progress” points out, in the last two hundred years, life expectancy has increased from less than thirty years to more than seventy.(1) Extreme poverty has been reduced from around 90% of the world’s population to 9% today. Being poor used to mean undernourishment and stunted growth. Two centuries ago, the average male British worker was 13 cm shorter than a typical upper-class male. Today the difference is negligible. Both wear similar clothes, have access to healthcare, travel by powered transport and take vacations. And the progress is global. In the last 100 years, real GDP per capita in the West increased by a multiple of 7 times and ranges from 4 to 8 times across the various sub-regions in the rest of the world. Anthropologists put it down to humans’ ability to cooperate – the sharing of ideas and trade are at the core. Simply put, nobody could ever live in a city or enjoy specialized goods and services without trade. Without shared ideas, there wouldn’t be much to trade or other forms of progress. Similarly, we move for opportunity – perhaps for a job across town or on another continent. Along the winding path of history, more rapid progress has occurred in times of openness. Think Phoenician traders, Greek philosophers, Roman empire builders, the Dutch golden age, and our current world state. Starting in about 1800, we have enjoyed an almost unbroken increase in living standards. Outside of the Western world, openness drove the Persian Empire, China in the Song dynasty, Japan after the Meiji Restoration, and the Muslim world before the Mongol invasions.
Put another way, openness is a “win-win”. Over time, we can expand the pie for all, rather than just claim a bigger share (“win-lose” or “zero sum”). Intertwined with openness are individual rights, such as private property and freedom of choice, and capitalism, with it’s beautifully creative, sometimes destructive, and continuously scorned inequitable attributes.(2) The case for openness may seem to be open and shut, but not so. Now that openness has triumphed, we humans are doubtful and dissatisfied. Recently, Nexus hosted a webinar by Matt Ridley, author of “The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves”, but even his well-reasoned arguments generate “yes, buts” from many.(3)
Closed societies, closed minds, no progress or reversion. There are current examples (North Korea), and many in history, such as China after the cultural revolution and the Soviet Union. The Dark Ages were aptly named – following the rapid progress of the Western Roman Empire, and until the Renaissance, “centralised authority” – the Christian Church – increasingly dictated how to think. All ideas about life and death, good and evil, were commands from God. Other religions were supressed, astronomers flogged, libraries destroyed, and the 900-year old Plato’s Academy for philosophers in Athens was closed. According to Anthony Gottlieb, “By the year 1000, medicine, physics, astronomy, biology and indeed all branches of theoretical knowledge except theology had virtually collapsed. Even the few relatively educated men, holed up in monasteries, knew markedly less than many Greeks had done eight centuries earlier.”(4) The Persian Empire, China and Japan, have all had closed phases. These waves of openness and more closed seem to repeat.
What may have caused these waves and the recent tilt towards closed that we see today? Who knows, but there are some thoughts that are based on anthropology and human psychology.
“Humans” have been around for at least 300,000 years. For almost all of that time we were hunter-gatherers. There was no point in making anything that couldn’t be carried with you. Small tribes lived together to protect themselves from danger and to hunt. Between tribes, it was largely a zero sum, “what you get, I lose”, world. Hostility between tribes was normal. Small tribe sizes limited new ideas and made specialization difficult. With 290,000 years of hunter-gatherer and only 10,000 years of a more cooperative existence, it seems that our brain still has its innate tribal win-lose instinct. This part of the brain has a tendency to overwhelm our more cooperative win-win brain in times of adversity and uncertainty. Psychologists have conducted innumerable experiments to understand and validate this. Uncertainty makes us tribalistic – less tolerant of outsiders and less open to new ideas or free debate. Back in the day, this meant you listened to the person on the soapbox whose views you agreed with. Today, we simply dial up social media. Everyone self-selects the stories and platforms that reinforce their own views, amplifying the divide and the discontent. Today’s “tribes” tend to be ideological subgroups, frequently within countries, that are slowly wedging themselves apart. Psychological research confirms that the same individuals can be conformists or individualists, depending on their frame of mind. Similarly, our attitudes to authoritarianism are not fixed. In uncertain times, most, even the more libertarian, prefer an authoritarian leader. It is also human nature to see the past as more settled and better than today (every generation has a yearning for “the good old days” – they remember the good and forget the bad), so the strong leader will take us back to better times. We saw that with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Trump has been peddling MAGA. Across the pond, it’s the good ship England that will once again set its own course. Putin wants to redraw geographic lines back to Soviet days and regain pride. In Canada, it seems we yearn for the warm hand of “good government” – perhaps one that is more focussed on an egalitarian sharing of the pie, rather than growing it.
In short, like wildebeest in the presence of a leopard, people who are feeling threatened want to be part of a larger group – their like-minded tribe. At these times, our instincts to grab more of the pie – more certain, closed or “win-lose” behaviour – overwhelms our desire to grow the pie, which requires longer-term, more uncertain open or “win-win” thinking. In the theme of “You don’t know what you got till it’s gone”, perhaps we can all benefit from a more thoughtful reassessment of the lessons from history?
(1) This statistic, along with a number of others and the theme for this article comes from “Open: The Story of Human Progress”, by Johan Norberg, 2020.
(2) For a brief recap of capitalism’s apparent woes 200 years after Marx’s birthday, try this blog: Whither Capitalism?
(3) Here’s John Stevenson’s recap of Ridley’s presentation
(4) “The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance”, by Anthony Gottlieb, 2016.