The Guest Blog

Guest blog post by K. Winther.

1. Freedom and Power

The transition from Stone Age to a modern high-tech society is a result of human innovation, and future improvements in our standard of living will depend on continued innovation. But all too often that progress is hindered by the societies and social structures created. If someone decides what you can and cannot think, then it is hard to be a great innovator. Any demand for intellectual obedience will hinder the development of a culture fostering creative mindsets: creativity requires a free mind. Most countries have done away with physical slavery, and that is a good first step forward. However, mental slavery is still widespread. People subjected to mental slavery might be indoctrinated, will not be allowed to question certain things, or might be obliged to accept certain thoughts. So what are the problems? And what can the EU do? First some fundamentals and the historic background will be discussed before those two questions are addressed.

Granted or Earned Power

There are two types of power. Some people earn their power, such as a politician in a democratic society who has won an election or a business person that the customers choose to buy from. Other people utilize power granted to them, such as a feudal landlord that inherited the estate, a totalitarian dictator or some religious leaders. People who depend on granted power are normally adverse to change, because change could be a thread to their position of power. On the other hand, people who seek to earn power by offering value often welcome change because that represents new opportunities for them. Some people buy power that is supposed to be “earned”, it might be through advertisements, lobbying or outright bribery. That makes any system based on earned power at risk for being influenced by people of granted power.

Armed conflict is tied to the world of granted power. If power is earned then there is no need to use arms. One problem arises when elected leaders use their power outside the constituency in which they are elected, e.g. the government of one country try to impose their agenda on another country. In that way earned power in one place becomes granted power in another. It could also be that one country provides financial support for certain political parties in another.

Even in a world where public opinion matters but the leaders do not have much value to offer, then intellectual dominance of people’s minds become essential for maintaining power. This dominance is in part for leaders to exert their control, and in part a preventive measure to curtail having their position of power questioned. But they don’t seem to realize how devastating it is for innovation and long term prosperity. Or they may not care, because some of them are looking after themselves today, with no sincere interest in the wealth of future generations or the well-being of society at large.

Science and engineering is like earned power in politics. In science there is no predetermined conclusion, as the conclusion chosen is based on its scientific merits. Modern engineering is usually designed as an input-process-output system, because it can result in a performance far superior to an output only system. For example a modern car has lots of sensors (input) that feed data to a computing unit (data processing), which in turn controls the engine (output). That creates a car with more power and less fuel consumption than a car from the early 1900’s that had only a plain engine (output only). The scientific or modern engineering process contrasts most religions where there is a predefined “book”, and thereafter only output.

Freedom: Restrictions on Thoughts or Actions

In some social structures the leaders are to decide what is right and what is wrong. The leaders can define criminal thoughts, as done by some totalitarian governments, military dictators or religious heads throughout history, or even today. Those leaders often think that violence and wars are acceptable as long as it is done for the cause of a “correct thought”, like the Christian crusades in the 11th – 13th century. A true democracy is the opposite. There, each person needs to take their own decision. People are allowed to think what they like, but some actions are criminal, so people are for example not allowed to kill other humans, make unreasonable large harm to the environment or in other ways infringe excessively on the space of others. Actually, a democracy will only work if there is freedom to think and legal limits on actions. Science is a method that helps you define your own thought, but you are free to think what you want. The only “restriction” is that you need to believe what you observe.

Freedom entails Risk

Taking advantage of freedom entails risk. If a person utilizes the freedom of expression to write something, then it could be misunderstood or cause opposition from people of a different opinion. If a person utilizes the freedom of traveling by car, then that person will have to accept the risk that traffic accidents can happen. Developing a new product or a new business also entails risk. A prosperous and free society will be a society that has risks and accepts risks.

2. Historic Background

The western civilization has a distinctive heritage with roots in Mesopotamian, the Old Egypt, Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. The Greeks had a plurality of gods that were not perceived as being all that far above the human rulers. They were almost approachable with all kinds of stories about them. Some of the Greek states experimented with public debates and democracy. And progress was made in the fields of philosophy, math and science. But compared to modern standards their democracy was quite restrictive. In a town like Athens the democracy was restricted to free male citizens, leaving out the women, the slaves and the permanent residents without an Athens-citizenship. And while the artistic style evolved over time there was often a very high level of conformity at any given geography and point in time, showing that there was not all that much freedom in the art world.

Then came the Romans; they were more focused on power. In many ways they admired the Greeks, and adopted some of the Greek culture, but not the emerging civil liberties which could be a threat to their power. They had an expensive central government and national army. Early on, much of the expenses were covered by gains from conquered territories. However, when the expansion slowed down, they increased taxes. The central government collected the taxes from the provinces, the provinces from the landlords and the landlords from the surfs, so all tax hikes were passed right along to the lowest levels of society. That caused unrest. Organizers of political protests were treated as terrorists and the military cracked down on them. On the other hand, religion was more pardonable and people managed to gather under the name of religion, Christianity north of the Mediterranean and Islam to the south and east. Eventually the Roman Emperor Theodosius I adopted Christianity as the official state religion in an attempt to control the movement. But eventually the greed for power in Rome resulted in the disintegration of the Empire. It was a mistake for the Romans to abandon the more participative ruling style of the Greeks that might have avoided the situation that the autocratic Emperors ended up in. It was also a mistake for them to be more acceptant of religious freedom than political freedom: politics is politics even if it is a priest doing it. And hadn’t it been for those two mistakes it could potentially have meant that Christianity and Islam would not have developed the way they did, and Europe might have been very different today.

Christianity and Islam both promoted one almighty God under which a hierarchy of religious officials “served” and a book dictating the “right and accepted thoughts”. There was no tolerance for alternative views or criticism, which is ironical considering that they both developed from movements of upraise against an autocratic rule. The Christian crusades and witch hunting showed that religious leaders restricted thoughts, not actions. This was the situation through the financial recession dominating much of the Middle Ages.

Martin Luther managed to loosen the grip of the Christian religion in some geographic areas of Northern Europe, removing part of the monopoly that the church had on “communication” to God, and thought in general. People were encouraged to be directly responsible to God and to be responsible for themselves in a different way. That change in mindset heralded a new era. In the mid-1600’s, around 100 years after the Reformation, the early Agricultural and Industrial Revolution started in some of those geographic areas in particular England and Germany. Technological development in the area of agriculture eventually made an end to the notorious famines that previously had plagued Europe. Advances in medicine brought many of the worst deceases under control. The time of Enlightenment fostered a more humane society. Those developments further diminished the importance of religion, replacing it with a more scientific understanding of reality in broader parts of society. While northern Europe, and North America extensively settled by people from north European countries, were leading the way, the rest of the world followed and contributed to the developments of the Industrial Age. Eventually there was almost no part of the world that did not directly or indirectly feel the changes.

3. The Current Problem

Some Islamic extremists felt intruded by these changes. Their real enemy was probably the underlying culture of freedom out of which these developments were growing, because it eventually could undermine the granted power approach structuring their societies. So some extremists attached the US in September of 2001. They achieved all what they could have hoped for and more. First and furthermost they prompted a crackdown by Western governments on civil liberties of their own citizens. Then there were the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, helping them portray the West as “evil” – the perfect enemy picture needed in a conflict. The conflicts in Iraq and Syria weakened the regimes there, making it easier for the extremists to claim land and create a “home base” from which they could get money and support further attacks. The stream of refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria, as well as immigrants from Northern Africa, fueled the far right in the EU, as did the terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels and elsewhere. In other parts of the world a number of less democratic countries wish to gain more significance on the world stage, and do so in part by adopting technology and exploring trade opportunities without adopting the freedoms that those advances grew out of.

The net result is that the intellectual freedom and ideas of earned power is losing ground across the board: The Islamic extremists fight it openly, some of the Western far right parties don’t like it, and the leadership in the less democratic countries sees it as a threat to their power and dealings. Innovation that takes place in one place migrates to totalitarian areas, and helps them fend off famines, rampant diseases, and poverty – and it helps them with weapons that keep the totalitarian regimes in power and the freedoms continue to be suppressed. With today’s technology, an inefficient system is still sustainable. Therefore totalitarian leaders might not face the same fate as the Roman Emperors experienced. However, the ongoing conflict could develop into a disaster, for example if terrorists get hands on weapons of mass destruction. So how does one support the improvement of standard of living in a world where people relying on granted power seem to be getting the upper hand?

4. Possible Solutions

There is a solution to the problem, but we need to think strategically as well as tactically. Below follows some different ideas that might help the EU.

Corporate Leadership

Martin Luther did two positive things. He made the Medieval Christian establishment less harmful to society and he made it all happen through the support of kings acting in their own self-interest, i.e. making them more powerful. Just trying to strip the church of power would not have worked. Back then, there were three important groups of players: the kings, the church and the landlords. Today the kings have mostly been replaced by governments and the landlords have mostly been replaced by big business. In general it is big business that stands to lose most from a dysfunctional society and lack of freedom. The Davos Meetings are a step forward, although only a small first step in the right direction. It depends on financially strong companies, individuals and investors who have a vested interest in a world of prosperity and peace. They need in their own self-interest to support freedom. Not that it is easy because everyone will besides the common objectives have their own agenda and interests.

While some companies have bosses that are worse than dictators, others really understand how to make people perform well. A successful fund manager once noticed: The key to financial success is great leadership. While countries are more complex, there is still a lot that governments can learn from the best of corporate leaders.

Promote an Ideology

The Muslim extremists actively market their ideas. The extreme right promotes their manifests. It is against a serious democratic party to impose their thoughts on others, and they stand second to the noise made by the more extreme entities in the political spectrum. However, the EU builds on a foundation incorporating human rights and there is nothing wrong with actively market that. If the EU promotes “Earned power”, “Freedom of thought” and “Restriction on certain actions” it can market the important foundation for democracy and innovation without imposing a specific political agenda. The EU needs to actively promote the ideology that makes the democratic process possible and the subcontinent prosperous. It is unwise to take it for granted that people will know, understand and support the basis for the EU without active marketing. Especially it is naive to assume that new immigrants will be familiar with any of that. Not even what actions are illegal in the countries they come to, simple things like parents are not allowed to hit their children.

The current influx of refugees to the EU from areas with a strong tradition for granted power and restrictions on thoughts is counterproductive to the mindset that made the EU countries financially successful. However, the refugees offer a huge opportunity for a lasting solution. A long term solution to the problems in the Middle East and Northern African hinges on their ability to develop and prosper financially. The arid environment is in itself not an obstacle, because Israel is able to succeed despite those natural conditions. However, Israel has a population that in general has a higher education level and has a stronger entrepreneurial spirit. If we provide the refugees with temporary resident permits, and train them (men AND woman) in entrepreneurship and innovation, before letting them go back to their countries to which they probably have many ties, then they can help transform the countries they came from to something more prosperous and more stable. That will help the EU in the long run.

Stop Illegal Actions

As done in some cases today, it might within the EU be necessary to curtail, or in some cases outright outlaw, organizations that actively support illegal actions, as done by organized crime networks, groups promoting violence against certain ethnic groups (e.g. terrorism against non-Muslims), or groups that promote discrimination (e.g. against woman). Discrimination cannot be grandfathered-in even if it is incorporated into an old religious text. Some Roman water pipes were made out of lead, and that is interesting from a historic perspective, but with the knowledge of toxicology that exists today, it would be unwise to still allow that metal to be used in that application. Some of the social heritage is just as toxic to a free and prosperous society.

Accept Risk and Defend Civil Liberties

Most people accept the risk of a car accident as a price for having the freedom to go places by individual transportation. In the EU more than 25000 people die each year in traffic accidents. Less than 1% of that number dies in terrorist attacks, and it would be unwise to accept that as an excuse for having the intellectual freedom restricted. Unfortunately, that happens some places. Therefore it is important to protect the civil liberties, even if that means that law enforcement fail to catch some of the terrorists. Maintaining strong civil liberties in the EU is a defeat to the Muslim extremists, and if those liberties spread it could eventually undermine the extremists in the Middle East too.

The EU data security laws are commendable, but it is sad to see how many companies make their EU customers accept that their data is being transferred to jurisdictions with sub-par data standards and questionable civil liberty records. Social media is a marketplace for public opinions. Because social media are based on private platforms, the social media companies have the right to mandate certain standards in terms of what cannot be posted. In that way people within the EU may be more restricted in their freedom of speech, than what the EU in itself imposes. Either the EU may need their own public social media platforms, or defend the freedom of speech for the EU citizens utilizing commercial platforms.

5. Conclusion

It is not uncommon that politicians need to mend problems caused by their predecessors, and today the EU is in a real need of fixing some issue caused by decision taken more than 1500 years ago in the Roman Empire. It is not going to be easy but it can be done, especially if we work together across the EU. The rewards will not only be more prosperity, but also less conflicts in some of the regions bordering the union.

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