14 September 2020

Amid Covid clampdowns, the case for open societies has never been more urgent

By Joakim Book

As the world debates how firmly societies should close to limit the spread of a pandemic, it might not seem the most opportune time to publish a book extolling the virtues of openness. 

Johan Norberg, the Swedish author and congenital optimist known for Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, thinks otherwise.

The recently released Open: The Story of Human Progress, is a comprehensive defence of openness in all its forms: openness towards trade and the global division of labour; openness towards foreigners and the ideas they bring; openness towards innovation and new tools that do things better.

Open explores themes Norberg has been writing on with great expertise for over two decades. His strength has always been to weave big-picture tales of human history into the issues of our time, to mobilise the writings of past philosophers alongside the latest scientific results in a story that celebrates liberty and human progress.

This time, makes a convincing case that open societes are engines of progress, that permitting new ideas, people, goods, and traditions to exist side by side, enriches us all. In doing so he draws not only on history, but also on psychology and economics, along with extensive commentaries by contemporary philosophers and statesmen.

As Norberg tells it, the great empires of the past – Rome, the Ottomans, the Mongols – became great, and remained great by incorporating good and useful technologies from the peoples they conquered. Rather than merely exterminating their enemies, they let the skilful rise to power and assimilate into their own ranks. The Roman emperor Claudius, for instance, let previously conquered tribes stand for public office and even command armies of their own. This way, he turned “outsiders into assets.”

Nor were they set in their ways. Each embraced the new and the better, allowing other traditions and even religions to remain in place. At its height, the Roman leadership was untroubled by the gods praised in cities they conquered, paying lip service to “whichever gods protected the city”.

That cosmopolitanism and aura of tolerance has been found in many places of the past, from Song China to Muslim Spain: “the most rapid economic and technological progress,” posits Norberg, “has always taken place in cultures that opened up and engaged in deep and long-distance commercial ties with others”.

Norberg’s argument is even more sweeping than that, in that he attributes to “migrants, merchants and cosmopolitans […] the engine of world history”. The openness that created the modern world, he argues, was present at many points in the past – in the ancient world, under Muslim rule, during the Renaissance – but it never lasted: “it was snuffed out by invaders, tyrants, or reactionary backlashes.”

None of Europe’s many kingdoms and city states from the end of the Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution was a bastion of free thought: every place suppressed something. As innovators and philosophers and Enlightenment thinkers could move to domains where “their particular heresies” were tolerated, the continent as a whole saw an upswing of progressive thought. From Voltaire to Grotius, Descartes, Hobbes, and Locke – many of the leading figures of the Enlightenment benefited from the fortunate circumstances of openness. 

Before then, after the fall of Rome, science had become subservient to religion in the West. Scientific advances were abandoned, banned, and forgotten as the Mediterranean lands turned their backs of the openness that had powered their success for a thousand years. The then-fleeting flourishing was replaced by a dogmatic Inquisition – and entire branches of knowledge like astronomy, Greek philosophy, biology and medicine fell into decay, salvaged for posterity in Muslim lands. It was thanks to Islamic scholars, as the great economic historian David Landes has written, that some of the most iconic Western works were preserved. 

Unlike many conservative stories of Western institutions and the unique character of European success, there is nothing Eurocentric in Norberg’s story. There was no straight line from Aristotle to Newton, from Xenophon to Adam Smith. What was special about northwestern Europe beginning in the 1600s was that the openness that its fragmented governance and geography had created was not overthrown – and we are still to this day riding the wave of that prosperity.

Like many, Norberg worries about tribalism – not only because of the unpleasant divisions it creates, but for the threat it poses to the world’s prosperity. History shows us that the things we take for granted – liberty, property rights, entrepreneurship and what the economic historian Deirdre McCloskey describes as “letting ordinary people have a go” – can quickly be undermined by intolerant dogmatism and powerful strongmen.

Closing our open societies and restricting the flow of labour because we mistakenly disapprove of foreign trade or foreigners in general runs the risk of sending splendid 400-year experiment in openness and prosperity into the same spiral that brought down other formerly flourishing civilisations.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. There are plenty of reasons to expect a more positive future. Perhaps surprisingly, Norberg invokes Brexit – so often characterised as a tribal, populist backlash – to prove his point. If anything, Britain’s experience shows how quickly and comprehensively previously iron-clad tribal identities can be swept away. It tells us something important about how superficial and flimsy political tribalism really is. Far from being the expression of a deep-rooted, bigoted or unchangeable human nature, what or who we consider our ‘in-group’ is remarkably flexible.

Indeed, psychological studies suggest that it rarely takes more than a shared interest to dispel previous tribal divides. We contain multitudes, rather than single, exclusive group identities of class, ethnicity or political persuasion. Tribalism may be pre-wired in humans, but it doesn’t seem to take very much to override it. As Norberg argues, “none of the tribal divisions we are so obsessed with today is intractable.”

And that is why, for all the gloomier notes, Norberg is still able to end his book on a positive note. “The end of openness brought every previous efflorescence in history down,” he writes. “This one may yet be saved.”

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Joakim Book is a researcher and freelance writer on banking, monetary policy and financial history.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.