Gossip, press freedom, and economic progress from hunters to modern citizens - Executips


Saturday, February 29, 2020

Gossip, press freedom, and economic progress from hunters to modern citizens

Before the law was invented, there was gossip.

When bands of men hunted big animals 10,000 years ago, they learned to divide meat equally. But some were “free riders”  -those who didn’t help much but managed to bring home bigger portions. Some of them were bullies, some were “alphas,” others were thieves and cheaters.

Around the fire, people would talk about these undesirable neighbors. Gossip was their way of knowing what’s happening in their world. In the trial by gossip, they would arrive at a consensus to “punish” the delinquents. The offenders may be ostracized or confronted.

Christopher Boehm, the author of Moral Origins, believes that this was the beginning of conscience,  morality and later on, civilized society.

Press, progress, and poverty

Most of the earliest writings in Mesopotamia and in Egypt around 3,500 B.C.E.  were government propaganda. However, they did not circulate on a mass scale. I really can't imagine people passing around heavy clay tablets!

It was the invention of the printing press in 1436 that liberated the mind of mankind. Ida Palmer, professor of early modern Europe history, explained that printed books helped the spread of ideas during the Renaissance period in the 15th century. Science also took great leaps in the 16th and 17th centuries because print made it easier to share scientific knowledge. The data being passed on have become more accurate, too, because they were safe from human error common in handwritten records.

Palmer narrated that before the printing press, it was easy to censor critics. They were killed and  their handful of handwritten manuscripts were burned.  Mass printing changed that. In fact, the printed knowledge that spurred discussion helped in the development of public opinion in the Enlightenment Era that started circa 1715.

Up to now, freedom of expression is associated with progress. In contrast, nearly all countries under autocracies never achieved economic gain. The Global Press Freedom Index of 1989 to 2007 reported that countries without media freedom were also some of the world’s poorest. Why was that so?

In a paper for Stanford University, Thomas Gale Moore argued that when the public is not free to check on the government, "A wrongheaded decision will place obstacles in the way of progress." He also wrote that autocratic leaders "are rarely interested in change, for innovation may endanger their well-being or the stability of their power."

The book Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson explained that citizens in autocratic countries are not motivated to work hard, invest or improve themselves. In North Korea, for example, why try to prosper when the fruit of your labor will be expropriated by the government?

The same thought was shared by Moore. He asserted, "Progress can only develop through the struggles of men and women to improve their condition or to create something new. People striving to better themselves, to ease their condition, to enrich their families are a driving force of progress."
There's no such drive in countries without freedom and secure property rights.

Acemoglu and Robinson said that the Industrial Revolution started in England when “inclusive institutions” were already in place. “Inclusive economic institutions are those that allow and encourage participation by the great mass of people in economic activities that make use of their talents and skills.” This was the time when a lot of inventors and entrepreneurs emerged. This turning point in the history of man began soon after “the English state stopped censoring media in 1688.”

A recent study using a panel of 138 countries revealed that free media actually promotes economic growth “as measured by domestic investments.” The study by Sudeshna Pal, Nabamita Dutta, and Sanjukta Roy showed that business activity is encouraged by how the media helps ensure the free flow of information, improvement of public policy implementation, government accountability and transparency. Investors also need the reassurance of political stability.

But why does economic growth happen in China where media is controlled by the State? Acemoglu and Robinson report that China's growth did not come from "inclusive institutions." It happened when the government channeled resources to industrialization. The authors believe China's progress will eventually come to a halt. That's because entrepreneurs there are not totally free from government control. When a business in China begins to threaten the interests of the Party, the rulers will seize or stop it using any convenient excuse, the authors said.

Increasing democracy

Many political leaders feel threatened by freedom of information. They don't want people talking around the fire.  They may be happy to know though that free media can avert uprising.

The authors of The Dictator’s Handbook, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alistair Smith observed that “increasing democracy to make people feel better off” may make them no longer want to revolt. De Mesquita and Smith are convinced that free expression, free press, and freedom of assembly can “dissipate the desire to bring down the government.” The freedom to express objection to policies they don’t like is empowerment that citizens appreciate.

J.J. Rawlings, Ghana’s President from 1992 to 2001, initially stifled media by suppressing the supply of paper. Later on, when he sensed the threat of mass uprising, he allowed free expression, free assembly and a relatively free election. He survived the crisis. Today, Ghana is an “economically vibrant country.”

“Protests are common in democracies but revolts to overthrow the institutions of government are not,” according to the book.

Read :

7 Ways the Printing Press Changed The World by Dave Roos in the History website

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond

Media Freedom, Socio-Political Stability and Economic Growth by Sudeshna Pal, Nabamita Dutta and Sanjukta Roy

Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame by Christopher Boehm

On Progress: It's Reality, Desirability, and Destiny by Thomas Gale Moore for the Stanford University

The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alistair Smith

The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy by William J. Dobson

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson

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