5 questions for Johan Norberg on the benefits of an open society

Societies prosper when they’re based around openness to innovation and outsiders, but there’s no guarantee that such an embrace will last forever. Indeed, humanity spent hundreds of thousands of years living in small, subsistent tribes, so human nature is in part geared to oppose out-groups and technological change. So recently, I spoke with Johan Norberg, who makes an eloquent case for redoubling our support for open societies.

Johan is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, where he focuses on globalization, entrepreneurship, and individual liberty. He is the author of several books, the most recent of which is Open: The Story of Human Progress — published in November of last year.

Below is an abbreviated transcript of our conversation. You can read our full discussion here. You can also subscribe to my podcast on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher, or download the podcast on Ricochet.

Pethokoukis: Why have you devoted an entire book to the political
economy of “openness”?

Norberg: Because the ability
for most of humanity to have long lifespans and not live in extreme poverty is
a new phenomenon, and this progress can be explained by openness in various
dimensions: open societies, open markets, and openness to surprises.

Why is this? Well, the
technologies which make our lives better and we all now take for granted — such
as the personal computer — usually started out as things that most people
thought were stupid or impossible. These innovations always started with a tiny
minority. It took a lot of persistence, and, most importantly, it took an open
society so that even these minorities were allowed to tinker with their new

Apple CEO Steve Jobs stands by the new iMac computer as he addresses the Apple Expo in Paris. Via REUTERS

The book explores the core tension of human nature between our “trader” side — which loves openness and innovation — and our “tribalist” side — which sees the world in us-versus-them, zero-sum terms. Why does the tribalist part of our human nature seem to be ascendant at the moment?

Our instincts and attitudes do
not come from the 200 years when we dramatically improved our well-being and reduced
poverty from 90 percent to 9 percent. Instead, they come from the 300,000 years
that came before. So the instincts that make us suspicious about the world and about
change are always there.

Historically, we’ve lived for
a long time at close risk to our survival, so we had to be cautious about
outsiders and innovation, because a mistake could threaten us all. And it made
sense to assume that the world was a zero-sum game back then, because very few
people had lived with economic growth to such an extent that most groups could
be better off simultaneously.

We tend to retreat to these
instincts when we feel threatened, and this is an era when we are more afraid
of the world. We’ve had 9/11, the financial crisis, and now the pandemic. There
are many things to be afraid of, and this fear triggers societal
fight-or-flight instincts. We want protection from the strong man, we look for
scapegoats, and we trust our gut feelings rather than economics and historical

How would you respond to those who say your story of “openness” is
actually just a story of theft — one of slavery, colonialism, and the
exploitation of workers by Western societies?

The problem with this
argument is that there wasn’t much wealth to go around to begin with. Had we
redistributed everything that we had across the planet just 150 years ago, each
of us would live on the average income level of the poorest countries in
Sub-Saharan Africa right now. Compared to 100 years ago, GDP per capita is
roughly seven times higher in Europe and the US, eight times higher in Asia,
six times higher in Latin America, and around four times higher in Africa. These
current levels of wealth can’t be explained by “theft” — who did we take all of
this wealth from?

Yes, there were empires and
colonies that made a few individuals in Western Europe incredibly rich. But for
these societies as a whole, it was overall an incredibly costly endeavor. The
kind of navies and the structures that they had to build to subject people on
the other side of the planet to their empire was costly to those nations, even though
it enriched a few robbers, thieves, and colonial lords.

We talk about the Industrial Revolution coming out of Western
Europe. Why didn’t the rise of progress happen somewhere else, like China?
China was an organized, relatively advanced society. So why isn’t the story of
progress a story about the rise of China a thousand years ago?

Yeah, this should have been a
Chinese story, because they got there first in many ways. Under the Song
Dynasty, China had already navigated with a nautical compass, read books
printed with a printing press, and fought with gunpowder — the three inventions
that Karl Marx credited with having ushered in Western capitalism.

This was because Song China
was relatively open. They had rule of law, maintained fairly strong property
rights, and were open to innovations and ideas from other places. They likely
got close to an Industrial Revolution long before we got there. But this
progress was stopped by the Ming Dynasty, which was fearful of openness in the
aftermath of the Mongol invasions. So they erected barriers against the rest of
the world, which began a 500-year history of stagnation in China.

Is the United States about to make a similar mistake? Many people
believe the US could be a self-sustaining nation without relying on trade or
immigration. So to what extent does your pro-openness argument work for America

America would not be able to
isolate itself from the rest of the world and remain just as innovative. You
can see that in almost any sphere of progress. For example, the amazingly rapid
process of developing COVID-19 vaccines has been dependent on companies built by
and staffed with immigrants. The same thing goes for Silicon Valley: A
disproportionate amount of immigrants have started tech companies, while also
winning Nobel Prizes for their contributions to science.

True, it has been possible to
reduce trade with China. But that trade war came at a cost — including to US manufacturing
employment, because so many more Americans work in companies that use steel for production (as opposed to producing steel, which is what some tariffs
intended to protect). So even though a given set of tariffs might have
protected some 40 thousand manufacturing jobs, it probably lost some 250
thousand manufacturing jobs.

That effect was small compared to the kind of isolation that might happen if you closed yourself off completely, because every technology we using is dependent on global supply chains. So if you were to go protectionist big time, you’d see an economic disaster quite rapidly, which would actually hurt people who have less education and have lower income much more than those who are better off.