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Johan Norberg's new book, "Open," explores the history of human progress and cooperation.

Norberg: “Open: The Story of Human Progress”

By Johan Norberg @Johanknorberg

By Tom Palmer

The following is a transcript of opening remarks from a Cato Institute book forum featuring Johan Norberg’s new book, Open: The Story of Human Progress. The full video event can be found here.

Johan Norberg: This book, “Open: The Story of Human Progress,” is a history book and a psychology book. It is about openness in human history, and closedness, and in the human mind, and how they have interacted for millennia.

Chelsea [Follett] has written a lot on human progress, and so have I and many others in the Cato family, and especially focused on the fact that we’re in an unprecedented year right now when it comes to human progress. But the starting point of this book is that we’ve had many golden eras in history. It’s not a particularly Western story, it’s not a Eurocentric story, or an American one. We’ve had golden eras in different cultures, eras of rapid growth of scientific knowledge, technological innovation, and economic productivity. We’ve had them in all sorts of cultures and religions. In Ancient Greece, Phoenician society, Pagan Rome, in Muslim Abbasid Caliphate, Confucian Song China, in Catholic Italian city-states, and there are two common denominators between these very different cultures.

The first one is that they were all, relatively speaking, for its time, open to the rest of the world. Not in a classical liberal sense, often consisting of vicious warlords and authoritarian regimes, but relatively open for trade, exchange, migration and new ideas from within society and from without. So, they were more open to surprises coming from new strange places. As Montesquieu wrote, the French enlightenment thinker wrote about the Romans, the main reason for the Romans becoming masters of the world was that, having fought successively against all peoples, they always gave up their own practices as soon as they found better ones. And Jack Weatherford, the historian, wrote about Genghis Khan and the Mongol invaders, that they had no system of their own to impose on their subjects, so therefore they were willing to adopt and combine systems from anywhere. They simply searched for what worked best. In other words, these cultures were relatively open. The other common denominator was that they all ended, at one point or another. All those golden eras in history ended, except this one, at least so far.

So, what’s my argument? Why does openness create progress and why is it so often threatened? Well, let’s start by looking at human beings and why we’ve come this far. And therefore, we should start by looking ourselves in the mirror, or you can actually look into my eyes, look at the white of my eyes. The white is clearer, the part of the eye that surrounds the cornea. It’s white, and that’s actually a rarity in the animal kingdom. When we go to our ape cousins, we see that their brown’s clearer because, for one reason or another, they got an evolutionary advantage by not broadcasting their attention to the other apes, to their flock. If they found a potential prey or a partner, they didn’t wanna give it away to the others because they wanted to keep it to themselves.

Whereas for human beings, our evolution took another interesting turn. We came to possess a cognitive niche, where it made sense to broadcast our attention to others. If we saw a potential prey or a predator, it made sense to broadcast that attention to the others. White’s clearer so that we saw what we were looking at. Because then others could help us and they could surround the prey and throw stones at them, or attack the predator together so that we would be more successful. This supercharged our development in various ways. We developed the skills of intelligence, ability to communicate and cooperate, and they reinforced one another. The more intelligence, the more we had to communicate, the better we could cooperate. And if we could cooperate, it made even more sense to have more intelligence, so that we could cooperate in better ways.

Human beings, we don’t have super strength, we don’t have a natural Panzer. We can’t even fly, we’re pretty bad at swimming, but we’ve got something else. We’ve got each other. We’ve got the ability to use the ideas and learn from the insights of others and the hard work of other people. And civilization, as Hayek pointed out, is to be able to use knowledge that you do not possess yourself. And then the more you are open to ideas and innovations from other places, the better off you are, and that’s what we saw in history’s great effervescences, these cultures that managed to prosper dramatically because they began to open up and learn from more groups of people. And they were in the intersections between different cultures, different groups, and different economies, and therefore they could also make use of more brains and more labor.

And when we protect this with systems of rule of law and at least relative international peace over a longer period, the result is the greatest civilization ever, and that’s what we’re in right now. Over the last 200 years, we’ve increased life expectancy from around 30 years to more than 70 years globally. We’ve reduced extreme poverty from around 90% to 9% today. We are here and we can have this event, even though we are on different continents because of it. And we can come up with a vaccine against COVID-19 by working together across the Atlantic. Turkish immigrants to Germany and American multinationals, and they can fly the genetic material in Pfizer’s corporate jets, which could take off even though America and the European Union tried to stop all flights during the pandemic.

That’s the good news, openness creates this tremendous progress. But there are some bad news, too. If it’s so great, why does it seem like we’re often intent on ruining it all? Because there’s one tiny bit of a problem. Human beings develop this ability to cooperate harmoniously, at least partly, in order to kill others. Because the moment that we got onto this evolutionary path, when we were able to cooperate within our group, within our band, within our tribe successfully, and we could surround all the cat animals on the savanna, surround them and throw stones at them, we climbed to the top of the food chain. No predator could ever threaten us again, except one, other human beings, other groups that cooperated even more efficiently and could become a threat to us, and kill and steal us.

So, for two reasons, we developed a great concern with us and them, with our group and the other group. The first reason is that other tribes could be a threat. There was often warfare in humans pre-history. And if they cooperated more successfully, they were a lethal threat to us, so we had to be constantly worried about what was going on among the neighbors, or on the other side of the river, on the other side of the mountain, in the other country. And the second reason is, since we learned to sacrifice short-term gains to cooperate for larger gains, we had to concern ourselves with the cheats, those who don’t wanna cooperate but want to share in the spoils. We had to look at who didn’t fit in, who wasn’t a team player, who is not like us, because they could threaten all of us.

So, this origin of one of our most impressive traits, our ability to cooperate and quickly come to new terms with others, even with strangers, and find common ground and cooperate in a dramatic way. Well, the original sin, if you like, is that this was probably developed partly as a mutual armament, arms race between various bands of human beings. And we were incredibly concerned, and we’re still incredibly concerned with our place in the group and our group’s relationship to the other group. And we can see this in any kind of experiment today, when we divide people into almost arbitrary groups, that we become loyal to this almost arbitrary group almost instantaneously.

One team of researchers divided students into two groups, depending on what they thought of two modern painters that they had never seen art from before, Klee and Kandinsky. And then they divided them and said that, “Okay, let’s play an economic game now.” And you’re gonna play this economic game where you basically divide the goodies with others, strangers, people whom you have never met before and that you will never meet again. And the first thing that you notice is that people become loyal to their group. If you happen to like that Kandinsky painting, you want to benefit others who also liked Kandinsky. But it’s actually a little bit worse than that. It’s not just that we become loyal to an arbitrary grouping, it’s also that we want to punish the other team, those who liked Klee rather than Kandinsky. It’s not that you want to maximize the benefit of others, strangers, who liked Kandinsky if you like Kandinsky, it’s that you want as much separation as possible between the Kandinsky group and the Klee group.

You’re willing to forgo a benefit for your Kandinsky group if it results in even less for the Klee group, which sounds just horrible. It sounds like some people just wanna watch the world burn. But it makes sense if you understand that this tribal mentality comes from an era when the Klee group, and it might be an arbitrary grouping, they just might happen to have ended up on the other side of the mountain, their benefits could be a threat to you. If they were successful, it could threaten your life as well. Because even though we’ve had mutual exchange and trade, as long as we’ve had Homo sapiens, it’s fairly new to have it on a large scale ongoing with strangers, at least in a global way, where we see rapid economic growth and rapid innovation so that people saw, in their own lives, that during their own lifespan, that all groups could become better off simultaneously. Instead, what people saw was that if someone else was more successful, it was probably because they had stolen your goods.

It’s only in the last 200 years that we’ve really seen, on a global scale, that most groups have been able to be better off simultaneously in their own life spans. If Homo sapiens’ 300,000-year history is condensed into the last 24 hours, the two centuries when almost everything happened, when we really began to see that life can improve for all groups and nations simultaneously, is the last minute. It’s an amazing minute. Those 60 seconds, that’s where we have all our lifespan, our health, our wealth, our literacy, our opportunities, almost everything happened comes from those 60 seconds. But that’s not where our instincts come from, that’s not where our attitudes come from. They come from the previous 86,400 seconds. And that’s why we so often return back into the belief that the world is a zero-sum game, that the other group is a threat to us, and we have to stop them before they stop us. Especially when we feel threatened, in times of depressions, invasions, disasters, pandemics, it often triggers a societal fight or flight reaction when we want to disappear in the tribe.

Let me just end by retelling the old East European fable, which I think summarizes the threat to openness that lies within us, in our double nature of being both open and closed, being both tradist and tribalists. There is an Eastern European fable called Vladimir’s Choice, when the poor peasant farmer, Vladimir, it’s his lucky day because God suddenly appears before him and tells him, “Look, I’ll make you happy, I’ll give you anything.” And Vladimir gets very happy about this, obviously, until he realizes that there is a caveat. God points out, “Whatever I give to you, I will give twice over to your neighbor, Ivan,” which is awful because Vladimir doesn’t want to benefit his neighbor like that, so he keeps on thinking, “How should I deal with this?” And then suddenly, he comes up with an idea. “Please God, take out one of my eyes.” Because in that case, God will take out two of his neighbor’s eyes.

Of course, we don’t act like that individually, and that’s what makes this story so weird. But whenever we start to think of ourselves as members of a tribe in rivalry with another tribe, we do. And that’s when we start to build walls and start trade wars, dismantle liberties to hurt the others even more, which takes up one of our eyes because we lose access to ideas, innovation, specializations, and surprises that we need to create flourishing societies. So, there I land, because we’ve come full circle. We’d started with what makes our eyes unique, the white sclera of our eyes, and we’ve ended with why we so often take out one of our eyes to spite the neighbors. And that is how history’s open civilizations have all been destroyed. All of them, except this one. This may yet be saved. Thank you.

Tom Palmer: It’s normal in a book forum to pick someone who will be critical, who will test the book’s thesis, argumentation, factual claims, and so on, so that’s part of my job. But it’s not because I think that this book is somehow defective or wanting. I have to admit, I found it awesome. It’s a serious contribution to our knowledge about human flourishing, it’s scholarly without being pedantic, it asks hard questions, it critically examines how we could answer them, and then it looks for answers that meet reasonable criteria. It’s synoptic, it draws on political, economic, social, and legal history, on economic theory, on sociology, on paleo-anthropology, and on empirical psychology to explain and to make the case for free and open systems of human cooperation. It was a really delightful read, and I have to say following up on the footnotes is going to keep me busy for weeks to come. In a word, awesome. Everyone should order the book and then set aside the time, whether one big chunk over a weekend or just an hour a day for a week, to read the book.

Now, I want to explore some questions that I think a second edition of the book might address or maybe another book, specifically the roots of the Great Enrichment, which so far has outstripped all other periods of human flourishing, that is to say those last 60 seconds of human history that Johan described, if you look at the vast sweep of all of the history of our species. Let me start with a positive part of the book. It very effectively addresses what I call essentialism, their cultural essentialism, the idea that there’s some unique cultural, religious or, in more extreme versions, even racial ingredient in a social order that determines its path, and we run into that periodically.

Years ago, I participated in a conference, which we read The Ethical Treatises of Aristotle and of Confucius and compared them. And one attendee at the end said that he concluded from the readings, he now understood how starting with Aristotle gave you James Madison and the American Constitution, and starting with Confucius gave you Mao Zedong and the cultural revolution. It was authentically one of the dumbest things I’d ever heard, and I commented that a lot of things that had happened in between Aristotle and Madison, or between Confucius and Mao Zedong, those were important. But that thesis, some version of it, keeps coming back, more recently in a very poorly argued book by Larry Siedentop in 2014 called “Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Liberal Individualism.” And Siedentop offered this very bold thesis that it was St. Paul that set us on the path. It was his unique understanding of the message of Christ that provided an ontological foundation for the individual.

Interesting claim, Siedentop didn’t bother to ask why other regions that also used the Pauline gospel, notably Russian Orthodox and Christianity, did not endorse that. Now, Johan’s book does not suffer from this kind of weakness. It’s a very robustly comparative approach, and I love that about it. It asks serious questions, and then goes out and compares different cultures and histories. But there’s something in common with Siedentop. I think that, Johan, you’ve passed over what I think is a very important development in European history, the Gregorian reformation of the 11th century, which was an institutional revolution that made the church independent of the empire and the various kingdoms, and it generated a big crack in power, a fissure, a split from which many other cracks emerged. And that strengthened the remarkable fracturing and diffusion of power in Europe that you document. And that competition of jurisdictions within a wide, common cultural space was an essential ingredient in the openness that you celebrate.

Now, in turn, that was due to the prior collapse of Roman imperial power in Europe, perhaps best punctuated in 476 when the last Roman emperor in Rome was expelled by one of his German generals, Odovacar, which meant that the bishop of Rome was still there and began to acquire these trappings of the Roman Imperium, but without the military power that had sustained the empire. So you get the spread of this common religious body across Europe, that inter-penetrated a number of political and military orders, created a common culture that was governed by a multitude of different political systems. That meant that exit costs were lowered. If you were to move from one to another, you were not cast into a completely foreign circumstance, but you could leave in search of better conditions, notably more legal rights. In other words, a higher degree of openness.

Europeans were spared being ruled by one empire. And then another important accident that you do address, which is the death in 1241 of Ogedei Khan, when the Mongols were poised to get all the way to the channel, all the way across Europe, and the great Khan died and the princes all returned to Karakorum to elect a new Khan. They never came back, but they devastated Russia with the golden award that remained. And then, which you document very well, the devastation of the Sack of Baghdad in 1258, and then invasions of China and India and other regions. It turns out, being spared conquest by the Mongols had a number of pretty important advantages. And then also being spared one overarching empire over the entire Europe, something that was made possible by the independence of the church, was another important ingredient here, the separation of the spiritual and the secular, and that made possible this highly competitive legal order.

The second area that I think would have benefited from more attention, maybe a second edition or another book, is that the foundations for the rule of law were rooted in the legacy of the Roman law, which was, in fact a decentralized legal order in itself, and then the further decentralization of the legal system that the Gregorian Reformation made possible. The late legal historian, Harold Berman, in his wonderful 1983 book, “Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition,” focused on that Gregorian Reformation, the independence of the church, as the key to what differentiated Europe from other regions of the Eurasian land mass. Now, what some people might find paradoxical, is that the rule of law, common legal principles that are stable and predictable, generally applicable over many regions, peoples, kingdoms, and individuals, was the result not of a legal monopoly but of legal competition. I think that was a really important issue that was absent from your book, or touched on very lightly.

And lastly, this is a very controversial topic, you argue that modern marriage and family systems, any marriage that’s based on free choice and the establishment then of independent households, the married couple leaves and set up their own household, was an outcome of the general prosperity and rising incomes. But there is also an argument that the marriage system was a condition for the social order that made that prosperity possible. In other words, that you got the historical order and the causal connection backwards. That’s argued by Joseph Henrich is his brand new book, “The WEIRDest People in the World: How The West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous.” He argued that changes in religious doctrines changed social practices and created a very different social order that was not based on the competition of clans. And that was a foundation for something you do emphasize repeatedly throughout really of cross-cutting loyalties as a part or an ingredient of an open system. It means when people might come into conflict, there are multiple peacemakers, people who have loyalties with both parties, who can step forward, because their loyalty is not entirely absorbed by one party. They have cross-cutting allegiances.

I recall being in Iraq a number of years ago, and I had lunch with a number of Iraqi men. And two of them said, “Well, they were the black sheep of the family.” I said, “In what way?” They said, “Well, we married outside of the family.” To most Europeans or North Americans, that’s a very odd thing. It was expected that they would have married cousins and they did not, so they were considered black sheep. The reason why that’s important is that the family, when it’s basically based on marriage among cousins, is a kind of closed social grouping that confronts others, and the only people you can trust in that situation are your own family members. You don’t trust someone from another family. When that system is broken down, as it is changing around the world, but as it changed earlier in Europe, you end up with people who marry into and across family lines. And as a consequence, you don’t just have clans facing each other.

The argument that has been presented is that what you say as an outcome was actually a condition for the change. Now, there are a lot of other questions that are raised by this amazing, and I’d say beautiful, book. I look forward to hearing your response and also to your future writings on this issue. I’ll end by saying one point. I thought that the discussion of tribalism or authoritarian groupiness or populism at the end was outstanding. It’s not just a triumphalist book. You end with challenges and questions for us to address as thinkers, as social scientists, and maybe most importantly, as citizens. Congratulations on a really wonderful work.


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