Progress is not the heritage of the West

Globalization has been described as the “westernization” of the world. I used to think that was the case, but when I first became interested in history, I am afraid I studied it in reverse order, like most people. Thus, I started with the present time and traveled back in time to search for its roots, which gave me a distorted view of the distinctive character of Europe. Identified phenomena such as the Enlightenment or the Industrial Revolution, I looked for their antecedents. It didn’t take long for me to find them in the Renaissance, in the Magna Carta, in Roman Law … until I reached the Greek discovery of philosophy or democracy. This version of history has been described by the British-Ghanaian philosopher and cultural theorist Kwame Anthony Appiah like the “gold nugget theory.”

Once upon a time, the Greeks found a gold nugget buried in their lands. When the Romans conquered them, they took this gold nugget and polished it. When the empire fell, that gold nugget broke apart and the fragments ended up distributed by different courts, city-states or European learning poles that preserved them, until the nugget was grouped again thanks to European universities or the independence movement from the United States.

I began to lose my faith in this explanation when I began to learn of cases of cultural rebirths in other latitudes. Beyond the West we also find periods in which the rule of law, scientific progress and rapid and intense economic development prevailed. I discovered that Greek philosophy was, in fact, a common heritage shared with the Islamic world. And I learned that the Chinese discovered and created numerous scientific and technological wonders for themselves, many years before the Westerners did. When I had to confront all that past evidence, I found it increasingly difficult to defend the existence of some kind of direct lineage that explains Western civilization, especially since this view of history depends, for example, to limit the centuries and centuries that go from Rome to the Renaissance as a simple aberration or Dark Ages.

No, there is no “gold nugget” that explains all progress in a linear fashion and limits it to a Western advance. Throughout history there have been golden ages marked by creativity and technical, scientific, economic achievements … The historian Jack Goldstone refers to these periods as “efflorescence”, which are usually rapid and often unexpected, but allow population or per capita income to rise rapidly. What these historical heights have in common is not their geographic location, the ethnicity of their protagonists, or the beliefs of the populations that starred in them. The “efflorescences” occurred in different places and times, under different creeds. It happened in pagan Greece, the Abbasid Muslim caliphate, Confucian China, Catholic Renaissance Italy, the Calvinist Dutch Republic … The common denominator is that all these peoples were open to new ideas, knowledge, habits, people, technologies and business models, wherever they came from.

The position of the West was not given to us by fate, but by certain institutions that could end up being devastated, as has already happened in the past in other parts of the world.

As an argument in this book [Abierto: la historia del progreso humano]The reason the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution began in Western Europe was that this region of the world turned out to be the most open, partly out of sheer luck. This has happened in all those places that have undergone similar institutional changes. It is not, therefore, the triumph of the West. It is the triumph of the opening.

If this is so, it is good news for the world, because it implies that this development can also take place in other cultures. At the same time, it is bad news for us in the West, since it means that Our position was not given to us by fate, but by certain institutions that could end up being razed, as has already happened in the past in other parts of the world, which saw how their “efflorescences” ended up collapsing.

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

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

Openness created the modern world and drives it forward, because the more open we are to unexpected ideas and innovations, the more progress we can make. The philosopher Karl Popper coined the concept of open society. Popper thus referred to a society that has an “open end”, because it is not an organism with a unifying idea or a collective plan that establishes a utopian or common goal. The role of government in the open society is to protect the freedom to explore new ideas and live in different ways, so that everyone pursues their own goals under a system of rules that apply to everyone in the same way. Such a government will refrain from choosing “winners” and “losers” in culture, intelligentsia, civil society or family life, as well as in markets, business or technology. Their role will be to protect everyone’s right to experiment with new ideas and methods, and to allow those who find solutions to needs and desires to reap the benefits that others’ acceptance generates, even if this displaces those who once had a problem. most advantageous position. Therefore, the open society is open because it does not end: it is always evolving, it is always in progress.

This generates a very remarkable margin to consolidate the irruption of new forms of human order that are nothing more than the result of human action, not of human design. The most important institutions we find in culture, economy and technology they were not planned centrally, but were the result of cooperation and competition, experiments, trial and error… Groups that adopted the best solutions, sometimes out of sheer luck and sometimes out of genuine judgment, were more successful, outnumbered, and ended up being imitated by others, while failed experiments suffered a consequent decline.

People who are more open to novelty are less likely to be in favor of banning changes. But that’s not always the case

As the Austrian economist and Nobel laureate emphasized Friedrich Hayek:

As humiliating as it may be to human pride, we must recognize that the advancement and even the preservation of civilization depends on increasing the chances of accidents occurring.

Openness to experience is considered today as a psychological trait. It is included as one of the “big five” in the taxonomy that describes personality traits and is explained as a component related to imagination, intellectual curiosity or a preference for variety. But this book is about opening up institutions, not so much about individuals. Often, the two forms of openness are related. People who are more open to novelty are less likely to be in favor of banning changes. But that is not always the case. There are people who take risks in a personal capacity and, on the other hand, see necessary the existence of hard rules and big States that protect us from certain deviations or temptations. As countless biographies show, there are people who lead lives open to sex, drugs and rock and roll, but defend authoritarian or repressive ideas, while others live a conservative and prudent life, but defend more open and tolerant political attitudesNot “despite” that personality, but “because of” it, since they see with their own eyes that freedom allows them to act virtuously and do good things.

My thesis is that, acting under a framework of open institutions, people solve more problems than they create, regardless of their personality traits. In addition, in these circumstances, the possibility that the paths of people with different features will cross and, in this way, combine thoughts or ways of working, increases.

*** Johan Norberg is a Swedish writer and historian. This text is an excerpt from his new book Open: the history of human progress (Deusto, 2021)

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