Wednesday, 17 June 2015

DEMOCRACY AND FREEDOM: Outdated concepts?

By Dirk Helbing

These days, many people seem to be asking: "Are the concepts of freedom and democracy obsolete?" 

Let us look into this. The "freedom of will" or "freedom of decision-making" has, in fact, been questioned many times and for various reasons. For example, some religions believe that our destiny is predetermined. If this were true, then our life would basically be like playing back an enhanced 3D movie. We would not have any possibilities to choose, but also no responsibility for what we do. Consequently, people would be sent to prison not for wrongdoing, but for disturbing public order. There would be also no freedom of press. However, in such a framework, business leaders and policy-makers couldn't take any decisions as well. We would just all have to accept what is happening to us.

In other cultures, it is being recognized that people may make their own decisions, but everyone is expected to subordinate personal decisions to the interests of higher-level institutions or to those who are more powerful. These societies are hierarchically organized. The caste system in India is a good example of this. Compared to this, in Western democracies, the power of people and institutions has been restricted by law in favor of individual freedom, which boosted entrepreneurial activities, growth, prosperity, and social well-being.

Now, however, countries such as Singapore and China are experiencing larger economic growth rates, even though they restrict individual freedom. Should other countries copy their model? I don't think this would be a good idea. Firstly, a political system must be culturally fitting. Secondly, these countries are net importers of new ideas. If every country would be run like Singapore and China, we would probably lose a lot of innovation capacity (see figure below). Generally, countries supporting individual freedoms are better at boosting new ideas (see the green bars in the graphic below), while others are better at applying them (red bars). Moreover, it is known that the most diverse economies are the most developed ones. [1]

Figure 1.2: New scientific ideas are produced primarily in democratic societies supporting freedom of thought, speech, and markets.[2]

Recently, new critique of the "freedom of decision-making" comes from neurobiologists. Their experiments suggest that the feeling of free decision-making arises after the decision was actually made in the brain. However, this does not prove anything. Decision, execution and conscious recognition are separate things. [3] The feeling of having taken a free decision might be just a conscious confirmation of execution.

Of course, our decisions are often influenced by external factors. However, the old idea of behavioralism that people would be programmed like a computer (by education and other external influences such as public media) and that they would execute what they have been programmed for has failed long ago.

There is little doubt that most people can learn to take different decisions in identical situations (if they are not in a deprived state). A conscious decision resulting from a deliberation process compares possible alternatives from a variety of perspectives, before a decision is made. In a sense, it is the art of decision-making to consider many aspects that might matter, and some people are very good at simulating possible decision outcomes in their brain.

From a societal perspective, however, it does not matter much whether different decision outcomes resulting in practically identical situations are the consequence of free will, randomness, or other mechanisms (such as "deterministic chaos" or "turbulence"). What really matters is to have socio-economic institutions that support innovation and the spreading of good ideas.

If we want to master the challenges of the future, we must produce more ideas that help us to adapt to environmental, social, economic and technological change and to accelerate their application. So, rather than a predictable society we need one that can cope with surprises and benefit from it. Pluralism, diversity, and participation shouldn't be seen as concessions that democracies have made to their citizens. They are ways to produce innovation and collective intelligence, in other words: to generate better solutions. Certainly, democracies, like all other political regimes, can (and should) be further improved. 

If we want to solve the world's problems, we must increase our problem solving capacity. We must get more efficient in taking the best ideas on board and combining them. There is little doubt that those societies will be leading, which manage to activate the motivation, skills, ideas, and resources of everyone in the best possible way and to create a win-win-win situation between business, state, and citizens. For this, we need to figure out what roles "participation", "interoperability" and "externalities" can play.

[1] C. Hidalgo et al. (2007) The product space conditions the development of nations. Science 317, 482-487.
[2] Reprinted with kind permission from A. Mazloumian et al. (2012) Global multi-level analysis of the 'scientific food web', Scientific Reports 3: 1167.
[3] This becomes clear when we consider the example of a boss who asks his or her staff to do a certain job and to report back after execution.

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