The Cato Institute on the Future of the Free Society

They write,

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.

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5 Responses to The Cato Institute on the Future of the Free Society

  1. asdf says:


    What would you have recommended twenty years ago that would have led to different circumstances today? If there is some other Point of Departure date in your lifetime that’s fine too. I specifically mean things that we do, no changing things other people do like 9/11.

    One of the biggest eye openers for me was living in Asia and growing up around Asians. Asia is not experiencing any Martin Gurri type events. Social media has not highly politicized them. There is no creeping socialism trend. Free speech is at least in ascendence and not retreat relative to current at least. More importantly, the only free speech that is infringed upon relates specifically to government power. Ordinary citizens aren’t engaged in some Orwellian witch hunt like they are here. No Middlebury’s.

    I would not say this is because they overcame David Brin (if anything Asian society is much more up in peoples business then here) or that they lack FOOL (again, not just governmentally but culturally the most famous phrase in the west is “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down”).

    They have their problems, and I’m certainly not saying you could import Asian attitudes to the west (or that westerners would tolerate them). I do think it is a data point worth considering though. If X exists in Asia, but it doesn’t lead to Y, then maybe the causation between X and Y isn’t as strong as one might think.

  2. Dave says:

    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.

    Interesting. In this formulation then, the repugnant thing about the surveillance powers of the state are not the powers themselves, but the fact that the very same people who exercise those powers also decide who can review and oversee the way the surveillance powers are used.

    Perhaps the answer is that there should be a new constitutional amendment appointing certain citizens full access to government secrets strictly for the purpose of oversight and maintaining “citizen sovereignty”.

  3. Edgar says:

    Tyler’s “war” between “human capital” and “authoritarianism” seems much more a projection of life in the academy upon society than it does any meaningful reflection of society itself. Robert Boyers does a fine job of surveying the war in academia between free-thought and submission here: Sorry Tyler, but the inconvenience of having to get a visa to travel, or RCEP rather than TPP, are not the equivalent of authoritarianism or even war for that matter. The abject submission of tenured academic minds to the demands of a stifling conformism , however, maybe more so, even if the complacently submissive rarely speak out against it.

    FOOL nonetheless is a much more pressing and urgent matter as the academy has been largely irrelevant for ages. The “Democracy Now!” mentality that every economic decision should be collectively made is the real populist menace. The pernicious tumor of environmentalism preaching that every chemical reaction is of global significance and must be regulated has divided are reproduced in nearly every discipline. Even Camille Paglia, for chrissakes lets on that she believes human reproduction should be regulated by the state. Society today is like a group of frogs in a boiling pot of water wherein the complacent frogs sitting still accuse the frogs that attempt as being populists, resistant to change, and blinded by libertarian ideology.

    • Jeff R. says:

      I also found Tyler’s paradigm wanting. Too simplistic, somewhat mischaracterizes the fault line(s), and he oversells the whole thing, too.

  4. BenK says:

    So-called ‘FOOL’ is a complex conundrum. Everyone who has seen bullying knows what another person’s freedom can do. Meanwhile, systematic injustice is another issue.

    There are really problems of freedom. Sometimes, a few people doing something wrong can poison the environment for everyone. Minorities are not always blameless. Figuring out how to deal with this is not as simple as telling everybody to mind their own business.

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