We have reached out to leading thinkers and challenged them to answer the following questions: What are the most pressing challenges that free societies face in the coming years? What is the most important reason for optimism about the free society? What is the most important but still unappreciated idea that lies just ahead? What’s the most important thing that you have learned about free societies that you wish you knew all along?
By “leading thinkers,” they mean only Tyler Cowen. Evidently not me. But here is how I would answer.
I would start with the last question. I think that the most unappreciated idea is that ideas are underappreciated. As I have said before, the
social sciences disciplines that study human society are too materialistic. They try to base their explanations and interpretations on material conditions. In economics, it is the rare Joel Mokyr or Deirdre McCloskey who will recognize the significance of the mental-cultural world. Recall also my essay on cultural intelligence.
The most pressing challenges that free societies face are the David Brin challenge and Fear Of Others’ Liberty.
The David Brin challenge is that we live in a world where surveillance is increasingly feasible and arguably necessary. The challenge is to avoid a dystopia of asymmetric power, in which the state has surveillance capability but the ordinary citizen does not. Brin’s distinctive recommendation is to increase the surveillance power of the citizen, rather than make what he predicts will be a futile attempt to reduce the surveillance power of the state.
FOOL makes it possible for politicians to sell the public on policies that take away freedom. People are afraid of what will happen if other people have economic liberty, such as the liberty to decide on a mutually acceptable wage or the liberty to decide what they want in terms of health insurance or the liberty to purchase products from other countries. etc.
Historically, sometimes we overcome FOOL (as in the American founding), and sometimes FOOL overcomes us (as in American slavery and Jim Crow laws). The present day strikes me as a time when FOOL is ascending, both on the right and on the left. Roughly from 1960 through 2000, on the left there was a trend toward increased support for freedom of expression and market economies. That trend has reversed. Today, we have the leading edge of the left openly advocating for suppression of others’ speech and for socialism. To me, this means that the mental-cultural sky is darkening. That bodes ill for the future, especially for when the left returns to power. Which is bound to occur, probably sooner than most people currently expect.
A reason for optimism? In 2017??? Twenty years ago, I was optimistic that the Internet would empower individuals relative to big corporations, government, and the education establishment. I guess that the most optimistic thing I could say is that maybe it will still turn out that I was right then and that I am wrong now.