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Johan Norberg joins the show to talk about the the importance of humanity’s embrace of openness.


The freedom to explore and exchange — whether it’s goods, ideas or people — has led to stunning achievements in science, technology and culture. As a result, we live at a time of unprecedented wealth and opportunity. So why are we so intent on ruining it? Johan Norberg explores these ideas and more throughout this episode.

How new is openness? Were early civilizations open? How do open societies progress faster than closed?

Further Reading:

Open: The Story of Human Progress, written by Johan Norberg



0:00:07.2 Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Trevor Burrus.

0:00:09.3 Aaron Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.

0:00:10.6 Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Johan Norberg, a Senior Fellow at the Cate Institute and a historian of ideas. His new book is Open: The Story of Human Progress. Welcome to Free Thoughts, Johan.

0:00:20.5 John Norberg: Thank you very much.

0:00:23.0 Trevor Burrus: It’s the opening days of 2021, and many people have been swearing off 2020 as the worst year ever, but you’ve written that maybe we should look at 2020 differently if we have a little bit broader perspective. So can you give us an optimistic take on this year that we just went through?

0:00:41.7 John Norberg: [chuckle] Well, I can try, but obviously, from my perspective on openness, it’s been a bad year because we suddenly stopped flying, traveling, trading, meeting with friends and relatives and consumers and shops and so on, and that has a devastating effect on people’s lives, on the economy and on indicators such as poverty. On the other hand, we’ve also seen some spectacular cooperation across borders when the scientists have cooperated faster than ever to come up with new ways of dealing with the vaccine, and dealing with the virus and coming up with a vaccine in a matter of months. And heroic work when it comes to entrepreneurs and businesses just putting food on our shelves when the world seemed to be closing down. So if I were to summarize 2020, I need to look at both these things, the net result of 2020 is both the bad aspects and the good ones. The closed and the open.

0:01:52.5 John Norberg: And then what I do is I turn to statistics and data to see what comes out on top. And obviously, it’s not been a good year, but how far back in time did we travel when it comes to indicators on human well‐​being such as GDP per capita, extreme poverty, child mortality? Well, it seems like we’ve moved back in time around four years. So the statistics is preliminary, but according to some projections, it seems like this year, 2020, was a little bit better than 2016, but a little bit worse than 2017. And only three years in human history have been better when it comes to indicators of human well‐​being like this, and those are the past three years, 2017, ’18, and ’19. So in the great scheme of things, I think it’s one up for science, technology, innovation, business, and trade because we’ve come so far that even a horrible virus like this and the pandemic and the shutdown only throws us back in time some four years.

0:03:05.5 Aaron Powell: Do you worry, though, that that four years… Is it just a, like we reset to 2016 and now we just start ticking up again, but that it might be… That 2021 might be even worse, or that it takes us a long time to get back up to where we were four years ago?

0:03:21.7 John Norberg: Yes, I’m worried about that. And I think that depends on our choices. It depends on whether we are trying to return to open societies and open economies, or whether authoritarians and big governments see this as a good crisis not to waste. We’ve seen… There’s been a terrible backlash politically in 2020 where lots of governments have taken greater powers, more restrictions, more fiscal power, and if they… There’s often this ratchet effect where they might return some of those powers to citizens, but not all of it, and in that case, there is a risk that the backlash that we already saw against globalization and open societies, that that will be reinforced because of this pandemic, and that’s the thing that worries me the most.

0:04:20.1 Trevor Burrus: Getting to the book and the title, especially the concept and title of your book is sort of… It’s wonderfully simplistic and complex at the same time. There’s kind of two sections, there’s open and closed. But in a general sense, why just the word “open” as the title for your book?

0:04:40.0 John Norberg: Well, actually, the Swedish version is Open and Closed, so we’ve got both aspects there. My British publisher preferred to focus on the openness because that’s the prime mover of world history, and all the rest is just backlashes and reactions against that openness. Because the key idea is that the thing that creates, that gives human beings the role that we have in the world, why we dominate the planet, is that we’re good at cooperating, at being open, finding new common ground with strangers, and find ways to cooperate and trade when it comes to favors, trust, goods, and services in a way that creates mutual benefits and makes it possible for us to solve more problems than we would all by ourselves.

0:05:44.2 John Norberg: And yet at the same time, we’re not always comfortable with that, and we’re always concerned about the risk of other groups cooperating even better. So we’re very quick at dividing the world into us and them. So there’s the reaction and it has launched a thousand authoritarian movements in world history as well, but it all starts with openness.

0:06:14.3 Aaron Powell: How, I guess, new is openness? Like if we look way way back, were ancient peoples’ earlier civilizations open in a way that we would understand it today?

0:06:28.0 John Norberg: Well, yes, and no. Perhaps not in the way that we would understand or appreciate [chuckle] today, but because we’ve had more warfare and less freedom historically than we have in this era. But I would say that Homo sapiens starts with openness. That’s the thing that divides us, sets us apart from most of the rest of the animal kingdom. And we can see that when we look into a mirror and we realize that we have the whites of our eyes, which makes it possible for people to see where we turn our attention because suddenly the cornea is transparent to everybody else. That’s not the case with our chimpanzee cousins or other mammals. They have brown in their eyes, so as to hide it from others.

0:07:22.5 John Norberg: At some point in our very early history, our ancestors got more out of broadcasting their attentions to others, whereas the chimpanzees, if they saw a potential prey, they wanted to hide it from others so that they wouldn’t find it first. Well, for our human ancestors, if we saw potential prey, it made sense for us to share that attention with others, cooperate with them, surround them, throw stones at them, and then we have a larger total sum of wealth to divide afterwards. So in a way, it’s as old as mankind. And we can actually see, archaeologists have found tools made of material that comes as far as 88 kilometers away, 300,000 years ago, because we know that it’s obsidian, it’s volcanic glass, it can only come from a few particular sites. So when archaeologists find this, they say that we must have had long‐​distance trade networks, unless we had Homo sapiens, basically.

0:08:36.3 Trevor Burrus: It’s a wonderfully powerful idea because it’s almost that we trade… We can trade ideas differently than, say, chimpanzees can or dogs, and that essentially human progress comes from the ability to share ideas, communicate those ideas and cooperate together, and if you kind of throw those three things into your mixing bowl and stir them together, you get unbelievable growth that is not possible just through pure biological evolution, and that’s kind of the bottom line, it seems like.

0:09:14.1 John Norberg: Quite right. Suddenly, we have cultural evolution instead, rather than if we have a mutation in animals that makes it easier for them to hunt, it takes lots of generations before that becomes a dominant trait, whereas for human beings, if we… If someone in our group or a neighboring tribe stumbles upon a better way to hunt, it suddenly moves at the speed of light, basically. We see it and then we imitate it, and that means that even though we don’t have many great natural traits compared to many other animals, we’re not that fast, we can’t fly, we’re pretty bad at swimming, we’re not that strong, no claws and so on, but we do have something else, we do have each other. [chuckle] So if someone stumbles upon a better idea, we can all share it, so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, it’s enough with one person doing it. And that makes everything else possible.

0:10:16.2 Aaron Powell: Is this view of the free exchange of ideas leading to progress, perhaps that may be a bit Pollyannish. I mean, the 20th century was filled with horrific events that were in a sense the result of terrible ideologies, which are just ideas spreading around the world, communism and fascism, and so on, led to unimaginable suffering. So is it that openness is always good or is it just that sometimes if the right ideas spread, it’s good, but if the wrong ideas spread, it’s bad?

0:10:53.1 John Norberg: Well, obviously, yes. If we can share ideas, we can share awful ideas in an instant as well by the speed of light as well, and that means that we’re not just the nicest of species, we’re also the nastiest of species in a way because we can systematically adopt bad ideas, and put them into malpractice on an industrial scale. So it’s… For good and ill, we can do more things than any other species. What I would say is that the reason why, or one of the reasons why we have these terribly destructive ideologies is that I think that at the heart of it, they are reactions against openness. Because historically, and you’re right, just focusing on cooperation and exchange and trade, that’s a little bit Pollyannish, there is something else. We often did it within the tribe.

0:12:01.1 John Norberg: Sometimes we exchanged with strangers as well as early as 300,000 years ago, long‐​distance trade networks, but we find something in common, some cue that told us that we can trust these people. But at the same time, if there was another cue telling us that they’re not loyal to us, they might be a threat to us, that was incredibly dangerous, and we had to be over‐​sensitive to that, because not reacting to it could be the end of our lives. So this creates this distinction between openness and closed in a way coming from our ways of cooperating. And it also comes from the very basic fact that it takes hard work to cooperate, to go out there and to hunt and to gather and to build and to defend your tribe.

0:12:53.7 John Norberg: If someone that’s not willing to put that hard work in but wants to reap the rewards, that’s a threat to us as well. So early on, we sort of have large parts of our brains are focused on finding out whom we can trust and to basically talk about our neighbors. Can we trust them? Are they good workers? Are they decent? And so on. And if not, we had to react to that instantly as well. So both these things, the threats from other tribes and from free‐​riders within the groups and raiders from without, we had to be very quick at dividing between us and them. So it’s… Openness creates lots of opportunities and chances everywhere, but we’re also very, completely obsessed with trying to find out whether there’s a major threat coming from another group, and that I think is the basis of most of the collectivist ideas. Treating relationships with the others as a zero‐​sum game, and if they are successful, it’s a threat to us.

0:14:05.5 Trevor Burrus: As I was reading your book, I was picturing this sort of idea, it’s a conversation almost within ourselves as a species, the open part and the closed part, almost like those cartoons where someone has a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other shoulder, and they’re looking back and forth between them or that someone would say, “You can be open and you can achieve all these things.” But as you pointed out, the openness can breed closedness. I mean, I guess, probably it’s maybe somewhat obvious, but like the genesis of that idea, it seems like that’s been happening a lot recently. And so maybe that’s one reason why you wrote this book now, is that now it seems like our openness has generated a lot of closedness in response.

0:14:52.1 John Norberg: Yes, because I think that we are basically at some level very good at cooperating, at finding mutual ground with strangers and people from other countries, but at the same time, we’re also uncomfortable with it. It doesn’t take much to make us concerned. And since this plus sum game in a major way, especially on a global scale, where we see in our own lifetimes economic growth that’s so rapid and innovation, so that our lives improve simultaneously for different groups, for different countries, that’s a very new phenomena and it’s wonderful that we’ve got that. But unfortunately, that’s not where our instincts and our fears and many of our belief systems come from, they come from the earlier era when oftentimes relationships with other tribes were zero‐​sum. And this creates a basic mismatch between our brains and the world that our brains have created.

0:16:06.6 John Norberg: Because we look at China and they are making rapid progress and immediately lots of people are thinking that we must be the ones who lose out. Or immigrants getting jobs here, we think they took our jobs or the 1% are getting richer all the time, and we assume that it must come from our pockets in that case. And yes, right now we are living with that. We’re suddenly seeing the return of, on the left, kind of a redistributionist form of populism and on the right, a nativist form of populism, and they both adhere to the same kind of reptilian brain pop zero‐​sum attitude.

0:16:50.5 Aaron Powell: We’ve been speaking about this like this is the draw towards openness, but also these kind of reactionary closedness that can come from it in like a uniform, you know, we all have this, but it strikes me that openness is one of the standard psychological traits that gets measured when you’re doing personality studies of people, and that we find that openness to new experiences and all the things that we have fallen under, what we’ve just been discussing, varies a lot from person to person. And so I’m curious how we deal with not a world where everyone kind of has the same baseline openness versus closedness, but where we have to essentially live together as people, who some of us may be incredibly prone to openness, we’re excited by it, it’s what we want more of, and then other people who are going to be necessarily much more reactionary. Does this non‐​uniformity of openness complicate things going forward?

0:17:55.3 John Norberg: Yes, it does complicate things in a way. Openness to experience is, as you say, it’s a psychological trait and there might be a genetic ground to much of it. It’s related to things like intellectual curiosity, a preference for variety, and new experiences generally. And if you are strong there, obviously you’re going to be excited by an open world full of surprises, and if you’re not, you’ll not be as happy with it. And we might see the beginning of a certain change where people sort themselves out according to this urbanization, and migration is obviously led by people who are open to new experiences, whereas it’s easier to stay behind if you’re not. And this complicates matters.

0:18:50.5 John Norberg: My book… In my book, I’m trying to avoid going too much into openness to experience as a psychological trait because it’s more about the openness of institutions, not of individuals, because anybody, no matter what kind of a… No matter what your psychology looks like, that society you live in is going to give you more opportunities and a better life if the institutions are open to surprises, new technologies, and new goods and services constantly. But obviously, the reaction to it will be strongest among those who prefer some form of stasis.

0:19:34.3 Trevor Burrus: How do we find that middle line, though? Because it’s interesting, say, for example, free trade, where on one level we could say, look, yes, you lost your job as a factory worker in the Rust Belt, for example, because someone has a job in Mexico or Asia or wherever. And say you have to understand that this is a good thing. Telling someone, this is a good thing, it seems like a hard sell, and it also seems like a hard sell to be like, you should care as much about someone you don’t know in Asia as you do about someone you don’t know in America, if you are American. That seems like a really hard sell too, that there’s a reason maybe that Americans and Swedes and whatever nationalities maybe care more about those people near to them than they do about distant people, just because we don’t have an infinite system of care, we have to kind of choose. So it seems like a hard sell when it comes down to it, especially on something like free trade.

0:20:33.4 John Norberg: Oh, boy, yes, definitely. Trust me on this one. It’s a hard sell. One poll showed a couple of years ago that a large majority of Americans would happily eliminate a thousand foreign jobs to protect a single American job, and if you were equally concerned about everybody’s life chances, that’s obviously absurd, but a few people are, and they are most interested in what happens close to them geographically and culturally. So… And I don’t think that will really change. Some people talk about how we could, might sort of educate ourselves into a broader, more global concern and yes, to some point, I think we already have. We don’t just look at our local tribe or our village, but to other villages and other tribes as well, as long as they share some cues with us. And so we’re moving through, I think, thanks to things like the media, I think fiction, the fact that we read about others and realize that they are, they… If we… That they share traits with us.

0:21:52.1 John Norberg: I think markets helps us to understand and care about what others are interested in as well. But I don’t think we will get there all the way, so I think the way to sell a thing like free trade is to explain that, you know, if you sacrifice happily a thousand foreign jobs to protect a single American job the problem is that your trading partner, Mexico or Sweden, would happily sacrifice a thousand US jobs for one job back home locally, and therefore in the end, the net result would be a net loss of two thousand jobs to protect two jobs in these places, so it’s basically mutually assured economic destruction. And that’s one reason why our institutions should be, in many ways, a way of tying ourselves to the mast and make sure that our tribal concerns don’t make us do counter‐​productive things that hurt ourselves, like destroying the economy of others, and so also our own economy.

0:23:00.7 Aaron Powell: How do you deal with, I guess we’ll call it, like, the China problem? So as we’re recording this, there’s a op‐​ed in I think in the New York Times making the rounds where the author argued that, yeah, China has, Chinese Government does some pretty bad stuff, but they’ve managed COVID better, and so people in China are able to live their normal lives in a way that us Americans aren’t, and so therefore maybe China is better than we thought it was. And that kind of argument seems to be pretty common in variations that, yeah, you say openness is great, but look at this place, China, that is in all but a handful of ways, very closed and seems to be very successful.

0:23:45.0 John Norberg: I’ve often heard this when I talk about openness, that the counter argument is China, because they seem to be doing well without our kind of… The kind of openness that I’m talking about. I would say, I would counter and say, that China historically is the perfect example of why openness works and closed systems don’t work. And if you bear with me, and a very condensed and a little bit simplified version of Chinese history. China, one thousand years ago, had Martians landed on planet Earth and thinking about where will the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution come from, they would have picked, I’m pretty sure, China, Song China, at that time, was the most developed economy and culture, perhaps the Abbasid caliphate could have competed in certain ways, but economically, definitely China was way ahead. They navigated with a nautical compass, fought with gun powder and they printed books with a printing press, the three inventions that Karl Marx thought were unique to the European bourgeoisie when he wrote in the 1860s. So they had something going for it, and what was that?

0:25:02.6 John Norberg: It was a fairly, relative to other cultures at that time, open society with open markets connected through trade and with strong property rights for farmers who innovated rapidly, and this created the greatest civilization on earth. It was destroyed eventually, and specifically after we had the Ming dynasty taking over. And the problem with the Ming dynasty was that it, basically 500 years later, it built a wall against the neighbors and started trade wars with everybody else, and disliked innovation and openness and surprises, and, to make China great again, but that was the start of 500 years of stagnation in China. So, and later on the Qing dynasty, Mao Zedong’s the communist version of authoritarianism, closed ideas, it all destroyed China until it began to open up again in the early 1980s and specifically opening up the economy, to surprises from farmers who secretly privatized their land so that they started to produce more and innovate village markets.

0:26:26.7 John Norberg: And eventually the Chinese leadership said… They realized what was going on and put their stamp of approval afterwards when they already had seen what had happened, and that was the start of very rapid development in China. But that was led by the private sector, by the grass roots capitalists all around China, not by the central authorities, and if they ever assume that they were behind it, I think they’ll pay for it, and that’s what happens right now with Xi Jinping, there are things that… That kind of authoritarian leader is leading China back into more of a closed‐​minded society.

0:27:14.2 John Norberg: It’s possible to do things when you know exactly what you want to accomplish. If you want to put farmers into a factory, you can do that. If you know eventually what to do about… With people who suffer from a particular disease, you can do that with strong authoritarian measures, but you’re not open to surprises, and it’s not open to innovation, it’s not open to the strange things that could happen, for example a new virus appearing, because then people are afraid to speak out and if they do, they are… The police come and get them. So, and there’s a limit to what you can do with that kind of system because eventually all the growth, culturally, economically, technologically, is going to come from surprises, and Xi Jinping has shown that he doesn’t like surprises. And if you surprise him you end up in jail or your IPO is suddenly blocked by the Chinese authorities. Well, in that case, that growth, that innovation is going to peter out.

0:28:21.6 Trevor Burrus: It’s interesting, you referenced to the make… You said Make China Great Again. And that phrase, of course, we know where it comes from, but the interesting word in that phrase, whatever country you’re talking about, is again, where, and you write interestingly about that kind of nostalgia that can lead to the kind of closed or authoritarian policies, and specifically when were the good old days, because I seem to notice, and Aaron and I have been actually talking about this for 20 years, that people seem to think that the good old days were when they were between 16 and 24, which you know, it seems like quite a coincidence that everything was so awesome then, TV was better and the country was better, books were better, movies were better. And if everyone thinks that, then that seems to say something about what nostalgia is.

0:29:08.5 John Norberg: Quite right, and that’s what do you see when you look at history and specifically different civilizations. There is always this temptation to go back to something that seems more natural, something more real. Whereas nowadays, people are behaving in strange ways. And it’s always a couple of decades back in history and then when you talk to historians about it, it seems like you can continue to do that all the time, I think this is a… There’s this Woody Allen movie, Midnight in Paris, you want to return to Paris in the 1920s, and by, suddenly, surprisingly, you’re there, but you realize that in the 1920s in Paris, they wanted to go back to the 1890s because that was the Belle Époque.

0:30:00.4 John Norberg: And when you talk to historians you can go back in time all the way to ancient Mesopotamia 5000 years ago. Pretty soon after mankind invented writing, they began to write down texts about how nowadays children, they just don’t respect their elders, and the politicians, they are corrupt and business people are robbing us off. And I think there are many reasons why we have this kind of nostalgia that’s often used by politicians and demagogues for their preferred version of the past, but one of them is this personal experience, the personal nostalgia that we all share.

0:30:46.1 John Norberg: I mean, I think that the best music ever produced was obviously in the mid‐​1980s when we we had the [0:30:52.3] ____ bands and the electronic bands like Depeche Mode and Sisters of Mercy, nothing can ever compare itself to that again, and that’s what everybody else thinks as well about their own basically teens to mid‐​20s or something like that. Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame, he once wrote down three rules about how we react to technology, and I think that sums up how we react to basically our society, how the economy works, politics and new ways of communicating. And the first rule is that anything that’s in the world when you’re born is just the natural way the world works, but two, anything that’s invented between when you’re, say, 15 and 35 is new and exciting, and the parents they just don’t get it, but this is the new thing. But then we have the rule number three, and that’s anything invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things and we should probably ban it and go back to the good old days.

0:32:00.8 Aaron Powell: I wonder too, how much this is an effect of openness itself because post, say, the printing press and so the ease of spreading information, any open society in the ways that we’ve been describing it, is going to be an information dense society, you’re going to have access to all sorts of things, from the fiction that we described, to what’s happening in other parts of the world, to history, to so on. And it seems like, yes, we do get nostalgic for the world of our youth, whether that’s the exciting inventions or when we were 10 when we had no worries in the world, so in retrospect, that feels like there were no worries in the world.

0:32:45.3 Aaron Powell: But at the same time, it seems like there’s also a sense in which the more open we are, the more access we have to the way things are elsewhere, or in the distant past, the more we can kind of latch on to that, so I’m thinking of… We go through periods of like revival, nostalgia for, say, like right now, it’s like the ‘80s with Stranger Things and related stuff. And I recently came across an article written by a… Probably a person in their early 20s saying, you know, yes, like the broadband internet that we have right now is really cool, but really, the golden age was dial‐​up modem, which the person clearly was not old enough to have really used. ‘Cause dial‐​up modems, because it was like it was essentially the Internet version of the slow food movement right, like we couldn’t just flip around and we had to be more conscious and mindful about what we were consuming and so on. And so…

0:33:39.9 Trevor Burrus: This is the worst hot take I’ve ever heard in my life. [laughter]

0:33:42.5 Aaron Powell: I guess… I mean, I miss the dial‐​up sound, but that’s about it.

0:33:48.3 Trevor Burrus: It’s the worst idea.

0:33:49.0 Aaron Powell: But this idea that we can kind of… Because we have so much information available to us, we can construct versions of the imagined past, this also shows up in Catholic… Kind of trad Catholic circles of, if we could only go back to the time when everyone lived under the power of Rome, that would be a better world, because they’ve constructed these kind of false rosy pictures. So is there that sort of a potential feedback loop where the more open we have, the more ability we have to construct imaginary closed worlds that we want to then force upon others?

0:34:24.9 John Norberg: I definitely think there’s that. I can see how easy it is to construct a nostalgia by proxy in a way by just creating the… Taking the best parts and dusting them off, and that dial‐​up modem sound, and then you can imagine that it was entirely better in so many ways. On the other hand, I think that perhaps this is a safe space where we can have nostalgia, in a way. I don’t think that nostalgia is bad in itself, I think this is a way to connect with history, it’s a way to build a personal narrative as well and to connect with your ancestors, and I think to a certain extent, we need that.

0:35:18.0 John Norberg: The problem is, when we start to create the kind of fictional nostalgic politics where we think that we have a golden age that we could return to by forcing everybody to live in this way and re‐​enact that kind of civilization. And the thing is, when you look at different civilizations, they all have impressive pasts, we’ve had golden eras in almost all civilizations, but interestingly, they were created, the things that people look back at is the period that was, in almost every instance, obviously, there are exceptions, the period when they had the most rapid innovation and change and being open to new influences from other parts of the world as well.

0:36:18.9 John Norberg: Because that creates this kind of blend, this melting point where the new fascinating things that we still cherish to a certain degree. So I think that it’s true that there were good old days in the past, in a way, but that was only because the conservatives at that time lost out, and we suddenly saw new influences in those societies, those cultures, those religions that were condemned by the nostalgics of that year.

0:37:01.9 Trevor Burrus: Openness does have these problems that we’ve talked about, and some of them might be ones that we have to take quite seriously, and you write about this in the book with especially environmental destruction and possibly climate change, where we do have a system of openness that is maybe not guided by constraints or it’s not constrained enough, so how do we kind of mitigate some of those harms that we even acknowledge from openness, such as climate change?

0:37:27.9 John Norberg: Well, if we focus on climate change, we know that we don’t know where the solution is going to come from, and that’s the case with many of the problems that we’re facing today. And therefore the solution is a meta solution, to make sure that as many brains as possible are hard at work coming up with their own ideas as much as possible, connecting with others, so that they get the benefit of all their knowledge about how to deal with this. And this is really… In programming we have this saying that the more eyeballs that look at the code, the more shallow the bugs are because someone is going to solve them. And this is really how to deal with the major problems as well, make sure that we have many eyeballs and many different experiments, because it’s all a knowledge problem, everything that’s within sort of the possibility of our natural laws can be done as soon as we learn how to do it and in that case, more people looking at it, accumulating knowledge and experimenting with different solutions.

0:38:42.2 John Norberg: And that’s the reason why most solutions to major problems fail, because they often come from politicians and governments who want to be ahead of the curve and point everybody in a certain direction. When it comes to climate change, it’s obvious, they all want to pick their own favorite technology, be it wind turbines or ethanol or nuclear power, and for some reason, it’s dependent on where you are politically. The right seems to like nuclear power and the left seems to like wind turbines, I have no idea why. But they all have one favorite and they want to subsidize that to the detriment of all the other solutions. So opening up the system is the solution. Make sure that more people are involved, coming up with different solutions, more trial and error, and then we’ll get closer to a solution.

0:39:40.4 John Norberg: When it comes to an externality like global warming, it’s putting a price on carbon so that everybody has an incentive to come up… From consumers and businesses to researchers and engineers, to come up with their own solutions, but don’t try to point them in a particular direction, don’t try to second guess who’s most likely to come up with this technology, but let a thousand different solutions compete.

0:40:09.5 Trevor Burrus: So 30 years ago, we had this discussion. I think Fukuyama was the reason we had this discussion about The End of History and liberal democracy being the final political technology, I guess, and that we would all be open, liberal societies going forward. And it is now seen that that was extremely optimistic and it also seems that we’ve created a system, and we’ve been discussing this, of openness that breeds closedness, and we see it tearing apart possibly countries all over the world, especially in the urban versus rural divide that you see, not just in the United States, but you see in places like Hungary and Poland, where that kind of openness seems to be mapping on to openness or… Openness or lack of it, mapping on to the political spectrum. And there’s been the revolt against the elites and the revolt against globalization, and there’s a lot of people who do not want to seemingly live in an open society while the society is careening toward that.

0:41:13.3 Trevor Burrus: So that leaves me actually somewhat pessimistic and I’m not sure if you’re on the same boat about the kind of forces that we’re experiencing now, of whether or not we can maintain this kind of open liberal society that we’ve had for quite a while now.

0:41:28.2 John Norberg: Well, I might be a little bit more optimistic. But first, let me just defend Francis Fukuyama and I don’t know if he agrees with this defence. But I think that people simplified his headline, basically, about The End of History and… First simplified it and then exaggerated it. And well, we didn’t run out of events, things kept happening and people reacted against free market democracies, so apparently, history is still on. I don’t think that’s what Fukuyama talked about. His point was that it won’t be possible to build another kind of system of institutions than free market democracies to create more wealth and more dignity for people.

0:42:26.0 John Norberg: You can come up with different systems, but they won’t be able to deliver as much to as many people as open societies and free markets. But just because we can’t move forward to another system doesn’t mean that we can’t go backwards, and I think Fukuyama pointed that out as well. That it’s possible to drag the world back into history, back into authoritarianism, wars and revolution and so on, but it’s not possible to create a system that solves more problems than this platform of openness where as many people as possible are in a position where they can experiment freely.

0:43:14.4 John Norberg: That’s the key, and I still think that that’s the case. It’s not possible to create more than openness and freedom can create, because that’s more eyeballs, that’s more brains, that’s more hard work, more trial and error, and more innovation. But it’s still possible to drag us back into the past and create also new forms of authoritarianism that drags us back into something else. But I don’t… And this is one of the reasons why I wrote this book, that I think that this is a possibility. We are restless and we’re uncomfortable with many aspects of openness and there’s always the temptation, especially in a time of crisis, to look to the strong man, big government and so on.

0:44:06.8 John Norberg: So there’s that possibility, but that I don’t think… It doesn’t mean that those alternatives are more stable, that they are more likely to last longer or to consume the world, because I think it’s always possible to point out the problems with openness and to promise everything and to promise a safe pair of hands that’ll give you everything that you don’t find in an open society, but it’s much more difficult to deliver. And this is one of the reasons why I think that people who assume that just because we’ve got the Vladimir Putins and the Xi Jinpings and well, now, the Viktor Orbans and the Nicolas Maduros of the world, it doesn’t mean that they are the next step.

0:44:58.2 John Norberg: It doesn’t mean that they sit safely. On the contrary, I think that they are much closer to the end of their careers and those political systems, because they constantly come up against discontent, against anger, against the lack of ability to deliver. And therefore, even though nothing is for certain, nothing is guaranteed, we have to fight for freedom, we have to fight for openness. They have a much harder time, I think, to fight for their authoritarian versions of government, and that’s the reason why they have to put people in jail all the time. That’s the reason why they repress free speech, because they know that they wouldn’t survive if people had their way.


0:46:05.3 Aaron Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, make sure to rate and review us in Apple Podcasts or in your favorite podcast app. Free Thoughts is produced by Landry Ayres. If you’d like to learn more about libertarianism, visit us on the web at www​.lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.