Open: The Story of Human Progress

Image of Open: The Story of Human Progress
Release Date: 
November 14, 2020
Atlantic Books
Reviewed by: 

“Norberg’s ability to distill lessons for today from thousands of years of world history will stimulate and enlighten both general readers and professional scholars.”

The puzzle this book seeks to answer is summed up in a table spanning three pages that shows what an ET would find if it visited earth every 10,000 years starting 300,000 years ago. For 290.000 years, every indicator was unchanged: population: 5 million; social organization, hunter-gatherer bands; means of communication, spoken language; transportation, walking and endurance running; technology, primitive tools.

Things changed only 10,000 years ago when social organization began to include agriculture and tiny cities. Jump another 10,000 years to 2020: Population now exceeds 7 billion; social organization includes industrialized economics, trade, and large-scale, democratic governance; not just spoken language but near universal literacy and global communication with portable personal devices; transportation by auto, train, ship, airplanes, and rockets. Technology includes electric and nuclear power; PCs, AI, and biotechnology. Most of these innovations occurred not in the past 10,000 years but just in the last 200!

What happened? “Openness has allowed a different kind of life—one that our old and more tribal selves still have a hard time comprehending. For 99.9% of our species’ existence, individuals did not witness much progress, innovations, or mutual gain with strangers. Life was a zero-sum game for most individuals. Our minds are still adapted to this primitive condition. Evolution has trained us to make war and to pillage rather than to cooperate with craftsmen and merchants. 

Author Johan Norberg seems to have read everything, at least in English and his native Swedish, and is aware of the pros and cons of most issues. Thus, he quotes approvingly G. K. Chesterton on a world that seems to consist of Conservatives and Progressives. “The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected.” 

To appreciate the scope of this book, look at the index entry for “Christianity.” There are 30 entries including Calvinism, clash of civilizations, the Dominican Order, Mongol Empire, orthodox backlash, Rastafarianism, and Thirty Years’ War.  

Norberg’s wide reading helps him to provide some shocking numbers. In the United States, most people die from cancer and heart disease. “If we could only die from sudden accidents and violence, life expectancy in the US—the country of firearms and heavy traffic—would increase from seventy-eight years to an average of 8938 years!” Here Norberg is explaining why libertarian views have caught on. To do so, he cites Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and Ronald Inglehart’s surveys of world values. “Once we had food, warmth, and physical safety, the need for self-esteem and self-actualization took up more of our thinking.” Given a sense of security, we tolerate more ambiguity than denizens of a society facing more physical dangers.  

How then does Norberg account for the waves of intolerance that seemed to come out of nowhere in the United States and Europe—especially in formerly Communist counties such as Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria? When the “groupish” person feels that the world is coming apart and new threats arise (e.g., from immigrants), he or she demands enforcement of conformity and obedience. These trends are whiplashed by today’s social media. But similar movements have weakened flourishing societies in times past, e.g., the An Lushan Rebellion that undermined Tang China in 755–763 and the restoration of what conservatives thought to be traditional Islam in Baghdad in 1258. In more recent times, Vladimir Putin purports to restore Russia’s greatness with a blend of Orthodox Christianity and Stalinism. Trump, too, promised to make American great again. 

What accounts for the advances in science and industry that emerged in Europe over the past several centuries? A key has been competition in ideas, facilitated by the multiplicity of city-states and nation-states that ideas banned in one place could grow in another. If Catholic thinkers and Protestant thinkers could not find refuge elsewhere, they could usually do so in Amsterdam. While ideas and theories screamed “look at me” in Europe, China, and the Islamic worlds were closing their doors to anything that threatened the status quo. 

Does Norberg underscore only the positive trends of recent centuries and ignore the dangers of openness? No, he addresses global warming and Covid-19 head on. Each problem has been worsened, he says, by government secrecy and by authoritarian interference. Thus, the George W. Bush administration sought to reduce carbon emissions by requiring more corn-based ethanol in gasoline tanks. This reliance, it turned out, made everything worse. But Norberg’s arguments against government intervention in society may not hold up in the case of Covid-19, where rules from on high may be needed to curb individual behavior.

Norberg is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington, a Koch-founded think tank devoted to individual liberty, free markets, and peace. His thesis on openness and progress overlaps with other work being done at Cato. Norberg’s ability to distill lessons for today from thousands of years of world history will stimulate and enlighten both general readers and professional scholars.