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Johan Norberg and open societies

Summary:
Johan Norberg’s latest book is entitled “Open - The Story of Human Progress” (Atlantic Books, London). It’s a very apt title because it makes the case that it is open societies that have led progress in history. This uses “open” in the Popperian sense to mean open to the movement of goods, ideas, and people.The book is an instant classic, a complex and wide-ranging series of insights into what has led some societies to succeed and some to fail. “Succeed” here means giving their citizens the chance to lead decent and improving lives. Trade, Norberg shows, has been a key factor. Merchants take back and forth not only goods but ideas and innovations that can be copied. Open, trading societies learn from each other, whereas societies that close their borders to foreign goods in order to

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Johan Norberg’s latest book is entitled “Open - The Story of Human Progress” (Atlantic Books, London). It’s a very apt title because it makes the case that it is open societies that have led progress in history. This uses “open” in the Popperian sense to mean open to the movement of goods, ideas, and people.

The book is an instant classic, a complex and wide-ranging series of insights into what has led some societies to succeed and some to fail. “Succeed” here means giving their citizens the chance to lead decent and improving lives. Trade, Norberg shows, has been a key factor. Merchants take back and forth not only goods but ideas and innovations that can be copied. Open, trading societies learn from each other, whereas societies that close their borders to foreign goods in order to protect their own producers are denying their citizens access not only to goods from outside, but also to ideas that can improve their lives.

Open societies that allowed movement of goods, people and ideas have prospered. Their openness has bred tolerance and welcomed diversity. Ancient open cultures have progressed in arts and science, in manufactures, agriculture and in ideas, as well as in wealth. People copy successful innovation.

Open societies are ones that do not require adherence to one set of beliefs and practices, but which allow different groups within them to follow differing values. They tolerate nonconformity, and are prepare to see new ideas develop and spread. All previous open societies have reverted to authority and imposed conformity. Some, Norberg points out, have succumbed to external shock such as conquest or plague. Others have seen innovation and tolerance repressed as traditional ruling élites and those benefitting from established powers have fought back to restore their advantage.

There has been one exception - the one that fostered the Industrial Revolution in Britain and which has provided an economic template as the source of the modern world. It survived, Norberg suggests, because no-one had the power to shut it down as they had done elsewhere. Power in Britain was dispersed and multi-faceted, and neither crown, aristocracy, church or guilds had enough power to impose their will to silence the ideas or to stop the innovations. Norberg lists the Glorious Revolution of 1689 as a pivotal event in this, channeling monarchical power into constitutional government.

Norberg is particularly good on explaining how the tribal instincts developed by hunter gatherers, can reassert themselves in modern, open societies when people feel threatened by developments and events. Prospering societies tend to toleration and openness; it is in economic shocks and downturns that some are inclined to close borders, put up shutters, and blame outsiders and dissidents for their misfortunes. In place of the liberal and democratic institutions and practices they think have failed them, they are tempted, says Norberg, to turn to strong leaders who can assert authority to restore what they see as former glories. Traditionalism fosters protectionism, and when societies close borders for self-sufficiency, they become poorer materially and intellectually.

Norberg remains an optimist despite the alarming threats to openness posed by attempts to shut down debate and free speech, and by the rise of populism as a response to perceived exclusion from power and prosperity. There is nothing, he says, that ensures our still fairly open society will survive. But it could if we wanted it to. This is an excellent book, and I cannot recommend it more highly.

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