The only clear thing that I’m able to understand from the study of history is that a freer society works better than a more authoritarian one. The ancient Roman Empire, based on slavery, fell to make place for feudal countries, where the ‘man in the street’ enjoyed more freedom than the Roman slave. Similarly feudalism disappeared and was replaced by capitalism, a system where people, at least theoretically, are completely free. And soon after capitalism took off people thought again and introduced antitrust legislation, which only apparently limits the economic liberty of the individual while in fact preserving the freedom of the markets.
My hunch is that the explanation for this phenomenon – freedom insuring a better working society – is about how decisions are made in various societies.
– (Ancient) societies where a lot of people were slaves: decisions were made by the few slave owners who controlled everything in a certain area, including who lived and who died.
– Feudalism: the most important decisions were taken by the landlords but they weren’t as powerful as the slave owners, they didn’t have the right to kill anybody for example. Besides that the advent of the free cities where manufacturing started to flourish further diluted the power of the landlords.
– Capitalism: everybody is his own master, or it should be, so the power of the individual has, at least theoretically, been brought down to Earth. One caveat though, capitalism works properly only where the market is free and the society is democratic, otherwise the situation degenerates quite rapidly (Venezuela for example)
Do you get where am I drifting to? When too many resources (wealth) will depend on the whim of a very few people we would have turned back the wheels of history. What is the difference between a Soviet Union where decisions were made by a bunch of people who got there by violence or a hypothetical state where important decisions will be made by the few guys who happen to control two thirds of the net worth of that country? Have you seen this video about ‘the Lesterland‘?
I’m not discussing here the honesty, intelligence or even common sense of those hypothetical guys, they could be anyone or the heirs of anyone. The problem is that by being few the probability of they being wrong multiplied by the certitude of being extremely powerful gives us a dark perspective: Rome fell after becoming an empire, the French Revolution took place soon after the French monarchs successfully imposed their absolute power over the whole French territory, the communist states proved once again that too much concentration of power is bad…
How to fix this? First of all this is not something that can be ‘fixed’. The only way out is by educating ourselves about the difference between instrument the the goal we try to reach by using that instrument.
I’ve already mentioned money and profit as instruments we currently confuse for legitimate goals.
I’m going to discuss another one today. Happiness. Most of us try desperately to be happy by applying recipes learned from others, including from paying too much attention to commercial advertisements.
There is a guy, Csikszentmihalyi, who discovered that real happiness comes from doing what you really like to do or from involving yourself in something you really care about and and termed the state of mind one reaches this way as Flow. You don’t get to experience being in Flow by owning stuff or by controlling people. Only by doing things you care or feel about or by being significantly involved in something you deem worthwhile.
Neuroscience discovered that buying things produces the same kind of response from the brain as doing drugs: it produces more dopamine. And what do we do with this knowledge? Do we educate people to buy only what they need? No, we do better advertisements, ones that start the flow of dopamine even before the actual buying takes place… Why? Because we all are still convinced that having more money will get us closer to happiness.
Once we’ll educate ourselves about Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow it will no longer matter who has what or how much money. We’ll be free!