The Importance of a Free Market for Ideas.

We’re living in unprecedented times. I think perhaps every generation likes to think so, but nevertheless, this is true. We are clearly on a hockey-stick growth curve across various factors. Population growth, computing power, career options.

Today we have more thousands of times more computing power in our pockets than NASA had available for the entire moon mission.

We’re also living in unprecedented times due to the pace of technological innovation. If we go far enough back in history, new ideas and inventions took time to spread across the world and become commonplace. If you were to look at 750AD or 850AD, the world would look very much the same. If we look at 1900 and 2000AD, the world is almost unrecognizable. We went from doing some initial experiments with flying machines to have taken people to the moon and back, and having thousands of satellites orbiting the earth, beaming down signals and enabling previously unthinkable technologies.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic

Arthur C. Clarke.

I think this quote sums it up perfectly. We are living in magical times. Yes, we have our fair share of problems and each technological innovation brings both significant opportunities as well as risks. But if we were able to canvas the opinions of all 100 billion human beings that have previously lived, and ask them in which year they would like to be born, if they didn’t know who they would be born as, and they would choose today.

So why has this acceleration been possible? Well, this is due to the freedom to share ideas and test them against reality. I like to call this the free marketplace of ideas because there is nobody who has to “check” that an idea is valid before it can spread. This is why the internet has played such a crucial role in the last thirty years in our technological acceleration. It connects more and more people together and allows them to share ideas at close to no cost.

It is quite interesting to think that many of the ideas that I have expressed in my writing would be punishable by death in the past, and would never have been allowed to be published in whichever medium was available. In fact, there may even be some countries today where some of my ideas would land me in jail if I was a citizen.

I lived for many years in Cambodia, which is one of the countries with the worst protections for freedom of speech: Cambodian citizens essentially have no freedom of speech.

A simple Facebook post with a rational criticism of a government policy, or the prime minister, can — and has — landed people in jail.

And so, it is not surprising that Cambodia, and countries like it that follow a dictatorial model that curtails freedom of speech and ideas, contribute almost nothing to the advancement of humanity from a global perspective. It is difficult to create a thriving class of intellectuals, scientists, and entrepreneurs when you cannot speak the truth, regardless of the consequences to the ruling class.

Let’s not underestimate the importance of the spread of ideas that are true, or at least closer to the truth. You get closer to reality, and you can make better predictions about the world.

The truth requires less scaffolding because it is always going to be simpler and rest on fewer assumptions than an elaborate construction.

Every dictatorship, bar none, has fallen by the wayside eventually. The peaceful transfer of power is difficult in those circumstances. Democracy, that rather maligned and dysfunctional system, has somehow managed to survive from the Agora of Athens to Washington and London today.

And almost without exceptions, all the benefits of modern society in the last five hundred years have come from democratic countries. This is not to say that there is no criticism of Europe and America, specifically. They also gave us WW1 and WW2, Mustard Gas, the Atomic Bomb, and the rise of consumerism.

But, this is precisely what you would expect from an open and free system — both positives and negatives, with the benefits, hopefully outweighing the costs.

Sam Harris highlights an interesting false equivalence between “the West” and countries such as Iran, Afghanistan, and North Korea. We are not the same, and we can see this from a simple thought experiment.

Right now, America or the EU could, if they decided, turn North Korea into a nuclear wasteland. There would be no tin-pot dictator treating to develop nuclear weapons—the same story with Iran. We could literally turn the country into a sheet of glass.

And yet, we do not. The West has a significant military advantage compared to any other individual country, or even any other coalition.

But if the tables were turned, what would happen? Do we imagine North Korea or Iran would be as calm and collected if they had thousands of nuclear weapons at their disposal? Or would they press the button without any further thought?

It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong.

Thomas Sowell

And this is really the problem when the truth and ideas are not allowed to flow freely. It costs nothing for bureaucrats to block your idea, however wrong they may be. This is a strong argument against public funding of scientific research, where grant writing and persuasion become more important than any real opportunities for human advancement.

Apple or Microsoft or Google or Amazon did not need permission to start. They are based on a fundamental idea, on a set of truths about how to best provide a particular set of products and services. It is painfully clear when a company tries to hoodwink the public with a great marketing campaign for a shitty product.

And so, it is best when there are few gatekeepers on the dissemination of free speech and ideas. Yes, some bad ideas will spread, of course, they will. All the misinformation about the COVID19 vaccines was terrible, and yet the truth revealed itself. At one point, more than 99.2% of COVID19 hospital deaths in the US were from those who voluntarily did not take the vaccines. In this case, people paid the ultimate price for following bad ideas, but their deaths also served as a lesson for others.

But, we have to way that negative up against the negative of having a very small group of people holding up all ideas unless they match a certain political perspective.

Strong Opinions.

This is the first half of a famous quote by Marc Andreessen of a16z.

To get anywhere in life, at some point you will need to hold some strong opinions about something.

If you’re a high school student, you are eventually going to have to make a choice of specialisation in university. If you’re a fresh university graduate, you’re going to have to choose a career. If you’re a scientist, you’re going to have to choose which area of research you’re going to pursue. If you’re running a business, you’re going to have to decide where to invest your — or other people’s — money. At some point, your opinion towards a certain set of actions will need to be stronger than the feeling of uncertainty that you experience.

And let’s be clear — you will always face uncertainty, but you still need to make decisions and choices. Life decisions are interesting things because they are non-negotiable. Even not making a decision, is itself a decision. You will eventually be forced to choose purely based on circumstances, and so it is far better to make a calm and rational decision than a last-minute decision based on the constraints of time.

But, here comes the strange thing…you need to have these strong opinions, but you need to hold them loosely.

Loosely Held.

This may feel like a paradox. Surely if I have a strong opinion, it means that I need to hold onto it strongly, regardless of the feedback I receive from the world. Surely if I hold ideas and opinions loosely, I will be no better than a leaf in the wind, getting blown whichever way nature dictates.

Surprisingly, this is not the case. We need a mix of rigidity and fluidity in our opinions and the decisions that follow from holding certain ideas.

At the core, we need to understand that we are not infallible and that there is always the possibility that we can be wrong. What if one of the building blocks of our opinions, one of the underlining assumptions that make up the internal model of the world, changes?

What then?

Do we blindly continue to hold the same ideas, or do we look for new ideas that better fit with reality?

This leads us to one of my favourite questions to ask people:

What evidence do you need to see that would convince you to change your mind?

I’ve written about this before as well and I encourage you to read that essay as well.

If you cannot answer that question, then you do not hold an opinion, you are holding something on faith or following Dogma:

A principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.

I leave you with a final paradox. The more knowledge you have of the world, the more you will be standing on the shoulders of people who came before you. The wider your understanding, you more you know that you don’t know.

I know that I know nothing.


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