Limited Spaces Call for Limitless Thoughts

The text below is a talk given by the author at the 2nd Jacques Rueff Conference of the Centre d’Etudes Prospectives pour Monaco (CEPROM) and the European Center of Austrian Economics Foundation (ECAEF) in Monaco on 23rd November 2017.

I. Introduction

I will try to present evidence that it is not disadvantageous for humans to live in a small state today. On the contrary, I will describe why – in the current stage of human history and development – it has even become advantageous to be inside a small political entity. Assuming my thoughts are correct, territorial extension does not play the critical role for the wealth of a nation that it used to in the past. More than ever, the safety, wealth and pursuit of happiness of a state’s people depend on the fragile balance of two main factors: 1. on statecraft in terms of a well-balanced cooperation between politics, citizens and administration; 2. on an institutionally secured, universal right to free private communication and cooperation (with one another inside the state as well as with all humankind outside). Only an intellectually flexible, economically adaptive, well-educated and homogenously committed community will have the tools necessary to persist in a world full of unseen challenges and paradox requirements. In this sense, the call for unlimited thinking is not only a question of practicability but rather also a matter of wise political leadership, particularly when standing on the grounds of a limited space.

II. Main Part

1.) Historical and empirical background

For a long time in human history, guaranteeing prosperous and wealthy living conditions for its citizens was the privilege of states ruling over extensive areas and widespread means of production. Armed forces were able to live off a land as long as farmers knew how to cultivate their spacious fields effectively. Protected by military means outwardly, and by law inside, bright engineers and entrepreneurs were able to successfully advance their technologies. At least this is what the vast majority of people used to think and what many still hold to be true.

However, in the course of time and thanks to acceleration of all kinds of technological progress, not only the quantity but also the quality of all the supplying industries and goods acquired in that process changed dramatically. First, the economic relevance of manufacturing was reduced by the significance of the services sector. Later the – as we call it – ‘digitalization’ even spearheaded this evolution. Fortunately, today’s developed countries do not primarily have to cope with the task of feeding their populations. At the present time their focus is rather on how to improve the effectiveness of production, services and communication. That again leads to a substantial modification of current wealth production: Behind the technological phenomenon that we call ‘digitalization’ stands, at its core, none other than the pure challenge of human creativity. Restless and hungry brains all over the world are continuously teaming up with one another, working on improvements and accelerations of all kinds, at any given time. But the division of labor, clearly, doesn’t only increase economic productiveness exponentially. It also brings some typical problems for the intellectual culture of a society as well. None less than Adam Smith wrote:

“In the progress of the division of labor, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labor, that is, of the great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations; frequently to one or two. But the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations … has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. … Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging.”

Thus, human history brings forth again the paradoxical correlation of simultaneously opposing trends: The progress of technology on the one side is accompanied by an individual intellectual regression on the other. While humankind as a whole is moving forward in the range of technology every day, each individual being on the other hand is moving backward and losing formerly given (and trained) skills of co-existence in contentment. Once more in history – but this time in unseen dimensions – individual humans are no longer connected to their social surroundings as they used to be in the times before globalization. Disruptive developments make it more and more difficult to feel embedded in a community. This again, of course, makes people individually feel insecure.

But there is even more reason for mental discomfort: The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk reminded us of the contrast between the soul of a Bayreuth opera-goer at the end of the 19th century and that of a hiker in a forest around Berlin only one generation later.
While the parent generation of these times had been frightened by Wagnerian dragons and dwarfs inside the dark and mysterious forests, their children already traveled there voluntarily by car, enjoying the fresh air of the woods as weekend-relaxation. This technologically induced revolution of changing world views is accelerating even today. And it’s changing not only individuals’ views, but also the sensitivities and behavior of communities acting in the world as a whole.

It’s likely that, in particular, this collective uneasiness, resulting from confusing paradoxes and radical changes all over the world, is the reason for another outstanding development: The call for newly defined collective identities to safeguard individual humans, based on a de facto inhabitable and inhabited region. Just at the turn of the last century the German historian Wolfgang Reinhardt pointed out that there is an overall, worldwide trend towards a new kind of more narrowly defined self-awareness:

“All around the world we see a tendency of people not to identify with big national groups. Instead, they prefer to feel unified as a smaller entity, inside certain assemblies or religious communities. People began to define themselves rather as Alsatians than as French, no longer as a human being than as a female.”

Today those words from a publication of 1999 almost foreshadow the most recent developments that we’ve seen in Catalonia and Venice. Obviously, there seems to be a powerful human desire for a spiritual home to counterbalance the centrifugal forces of globalization, which are exhausting people everywhere.

At this point it seems appropriate – as an intermediate summary – to put it like this: The findings and manifestations of a globalized digitalization and its division of labor have made individuals lose track of durable integration into a consistent social community. The permanent surplus supply of information does not provide agreed (and, by this, secured) guiding directions for all members of a community. Instead, everyone faces disruptive effects in all places, all of the time. In effect, the intensively fractured integration of every individual into a worldwide community due to technology is accompanied by social isolation. And this clearly contradicts inherent human needs.

2.) Epistemology setting the direction for political developments

As a precaution, it might be useful at this point to take a look at the theory of human recognition in general. Thus, it seems reasonable and essential to insert a preliminary note on some established aspects of epistemology.

Human brains can only work and function (in the sense of any interaction with the world outside our individual crania), if there is any perception of the world as the basic precondition of all intellectual understanding. In other words: Our five senses are the doors to our mind. By listening to our surroundings, by watching, touching, smelling and tasting, we attentively collect the information we then need to act on, and behave accordingly in the world.

The quantity of visual and auditory information that a cave man had to deal with was comparatively clearly arranged and easy to manage, even if he was out hunting in the woods. Compared to his life conditions, a pedestrian, for example in 1920 New York, met far more complicated challenges to find his way home without being knocked down by a horse buggy or run over by a motor car, unexpectedly overtaking it from behind.

But even this citizen of New York didn’t face as much rudimentary information as any human being in today’s world has to process in his mind almost ceaselessly. This is what I call the permanent surplus of information supply.

To estimate the full consequences of this – for a start seemingly unimpressive – development, we have to bear one more simple fact in mind: Not even the most vigilant and attentive human being can foresee the future. All our activities are based not only on facts that we definitely know for sure. They are in addition, inescapably, based on sheer speculations about what will happen next. This, in turn, means: Every human being is inevitably condemned to challenge particular presuppositions as a basis for all further activities, without any chance of knowing whether they will turn out to be correct or not.

Even if we are unaware of this fact in our everyday life: Our brains constantly select those fractional amounts of information out of the vast totality of information offered by our environment, which they judge to be relevant in a particular situation. And after this selection process, in a further step, the information left is assessed within the scope of every individual’s activity plan. Although the skeletal structure of this process has not changed since the days of the caveman, the amount of potentially relevant information has virtually exploded.

For a long time engines have accelerated our lives and telecommunication has helped to melt away distances between all kinds of senders and recipients. But today’s Internet has essentially changed the hearing range and the visibility range in historically unprecedented dimensions. Not even the velocity of sound safeguards our assumptions based on a certain status of information against opposing “breaking news”, potentially arriving from anywhere in the world at any given moment.

And since complex worldwide causalities can be thwarted by all manner of surprising, new constellations, the ability to control even simple, individual lines of action may at any time be interrupted.

Thus, the individual and the collective consciousness (must) inevitably, and repeatedly, get disorientated by the abundance of (ultimately for the most part insignificant) available information. Nonetheless, even reasonable protection against this kind of disorienting abundance cannot be provided by trying to block selected information to prevent the potential recipients from losing track. Because this, in turn, would mean knowing (utterly impossible!) what the basis of that reasonableness for any selection or non-selection might be.

To summarize: The human brain has, undoubtedly, entered a new age. Every human brain (at least every brain that currently has access to the Internet) can be the target of any new information, no matter where on earth it is. We can say that information has become ubiquitous. But the changes we see not only relate to the dimension of space. Since a letter no longer has to be shipped over oceans or transported on roads, the whole of mankind can potentially access all information practically simultaneously. Whether it is day or night doesn’t matter any longer. Therefore, we can say that this has become a world of isochronism. All information is – at least potentially – everywhere in the world, at the same time. In consequence, all information can restructure every reality at any place, at any time, worldwide. This fact not only destroys any belief in secure knowledge about the past. More than that, it is also a very painful lesson about all our assumptions, which we want to use as the basis of our future activities. They are all doubtful and questionable at any time. Within the framework of epistemology, the age of a globalized and digitalized human consciousness will, inevitably, be an age of everlasting uncertainty.

It is crucial at this point to realize that this kind of perpetual uncertainty is not only the fate of all citizens of a state, but of its political leaders and its administrators as well. One of the former presidents of Germany, Roman Herzog, once wrote: “Obedience is the nucleus and breeding ground of the state.” But if the commander has lost his leading knowledge, what could be the remaining justification for obedience? If Roman Herzog had the right understanding of a state’s functioning, the ubiquitous isochronisms of a digitalized world would erode and hollow out the foundations of the state per se. This insight requires taking appropriate measures for the sustainable coexistence of people and peoples.

3.) Political consequences of ubiquitous isochronisms and permanent systematic disruptions

As I said at the beginning: It is not a disadvantage for humans to live in a small state today . And this thesis can easily be justified and explained on the basis of the empirical and epistemological contexts mentioned above.

Due to these increases in speed and the uncertainties deriving from this, big nations with extensive areas of land, millions of citizens, innumerable languages and disparate cultures run no chance in the future race of having the best living conditions on this planet. The mere reaction time they require for all those social and economic adjustments that are perpetually required is far too long to keep pace with the ever-changing framework.

Indeed, many people still believe that improvements in administrative productivity and a computerized rationalization of the workflow could compensate the perpetual change of circumstances. Some even think that a standardization and concentration of procedures could counterbalance the ubiquitous quantum leaps that are taking place at any given moment.

But these theories underestimate a core phenomenon of factor changes: Developments do not occur in a linear way but with unforeseeable multidimensional disruptive effects.

And only human beings have the very creativity at their command that is needed to mend those disruptions, in a way that is accepted by their fellow citizens in the long run. There is only one way to match the creativity of a visionary counterpart, and that is the use of one’s own creativity. The typical effect of this intellectual concept is, of course, progress and improvement on all sides.

Based on this, the path is set to design the smart state of the future . The only promising search technique and detection method inside an endless intellectual merry-go-round of worldwide ideas (while facing a shark pool of disruptions at the same time) is the permission of a totally open intellectual process by – at the same time – guaranteeing and safeguarding a reliable framework of procedural rules and inalienable rights. This raises the question: What kind of state will be fit to guarantee the stability that is needed?

Unfortunately, western democracies (including their supranational unions) have shown more than once that they are structurally vulnerable at one particular point: Even the fundamental principles of their own constitutional groundwork can fall victim to a majority decision at any time. And, to be honest, in a system of representative democracy, the group of people who can form a deciding majority is not very big. Protective arrangements in their legal systems have also turned out to be inappropriate in preventing these very foundations from being shaken by any arbitrary political mood of the day.

The only bastion against such attacks on positive law seems to be the firm ethos of a ruling class – and, in particular, of its individually acting members – not to do so. But that ethos can only be a reliable safeguard for the constitutional framework, when it is deep-rooted in the values that are actually practiced in a tangibly close community.

As soon as a ruling administrator is not personally interwoven into the community he makes decisions for, he loses the human contact that is needed to stabilize his ethos.

Administrators who decide and act anonymously, without personally knowing the people they administrate, will always be tempted to modify even the holy rules of a constitution, as long as this strategy promises to solve a particular burning issue.

It is evident that political leaders in these confusing times are perpetually tempted to simplify ambiguous situations and to slow down developments by shutting out all these ubiquitous isochronisms that I’ve outlined above.

But disconnecting a society from intellectual and technical developments beyond its homeland borders is not a promising strategy to preserve any given political situation in the long run. The world has seen that neither the ancient Chinese emperors nor the almighty communist leaders of contemporary history managed to freeze human development by building walls. In times of digitalization all political attempts to stall progress by forcefully putting up digital walls will, of course, have some short-term successes.

But their intentions to master the elemental forces of human creativity are already doomed to fail in the medium-term, because the proscribing politicians will lose their control for two simple reasons at least: First, they will not be able to control the disruptive and multi-dimensional developments all around since they cannot foresee the unknown future. And second, the violation of the people’s constitutionally guaranteed freedom of movement intensifies the citizens’ discomfort with their typical situation of uncertainty.

Cutting people off from reality is not a popular move for politicians. If it is not only the factual world outside that creates uncertainty, but also the political decisions (instead of establishing a reliable framework of procedural rules and inviolable rights) then a community and its organizations come to an end.

4.) The advantage of being a small state

Preserving and developing a state in such times of ubiquitous isochronisms and – following on from that – permanent systematic disruptions, therefore brings the challenge of walking the fine line between intellectual openness on the one side and institutional constancy on the other (side). This all but paradoxical task can actually only be mastered by a very precise definition of the core tasks of a state’s institutions and its functions, that cannot (under any circumstances) be questioned.

This leads – as a kind of revelation – to another surprising and exciting finding: The smaller a state and its authority are, the more insignificant and ineffectual are the points where uncontrollable and thus ungovernable disruptive forces can act. Big states with sophisticated institutions and an excessive bureaucratic work force are condemned to fail as soon as they are no longer in a position to maintain the accepted foundations of their existence.

Inflexibility and immovability have always been a death sentence for the great empires in human history. But under today’s conditions of nonstop high-speed innovations, even every seemingly normal-sized state with its usual institutions, that we assume we’re familiar with, can rapidly turn into a mortally wounded colossus.

Consequently, it is necessary to precisely define this core area of a state’s institutions and its functions. Due to time constraints, I will leave out some traditional questions of state organization that can be discussed perfectly well anywhere else. Instead, I want to concentrate on the essential question of today’s conference and on my subject in particular: How can a small state manage today’s specific challenges of ubiquitous isochronisms?

The first of two answers to that question is part of the question itself: A small state is a state that is small. And this quality inherently predestines it to be the perfect tool, fit to endure all the coming storms of disruption.

Big organizations are rigid, small ones are flexible. And flexibility is a feature that helps organizations to persist. A rowboat will already have avoided any difficult situation long before a tankship slowly changes its direction.

But how could a small state with few natural resources and limited space manage to survive in a world full of bigger players? At this point we have to bear in mind that the primal source of our problem (called ‘ubiquitous isochronisms’) is to be found in the phenomenon of digitalization. We are dealing with a technique for recording and sending the content of human thinking and intelligence. Creativity is what matters. But brainwork does not require any significant amount of space. It was the scholastic philosophers who already knew that thinking can be done by millions of intellectual angels on the tip of a single needle.

This comes from the fact that reality has two dimensions: The tangible world of objects and the virtual world of thoughts. Traditional philosophers named these two worlds ‘mundus intelligibilis’ and ‘mundus sensibilis.’ Thus, interactive communication via the Internet (beyond the pure algorithm work of machinery) only requires two human brains and a certain kind of hardware with some cabling or antenna, and an electric current somewhere out there in the real, tangible world.

For that you do not have to operate a geographically large state with millions of public servants and impressive government facilities. From the perspective of intellectual exchanges on the Internet a state is already big enough inside the ‘mundus sensibilis’ as soon as it has sufficient space to deploy and maintain a network-compatible computer of any considerable size.

And that state does – moreover – not even have to be big enough to shelter and accommodate the creative minds themselves. It is sufficient to welcome their brains inside the virtual ‘mundus intelligibilis’ of this state. The tangible bodies of the creative minds can be anywhere outside around the globe.

Based on practical experience, there’s just one circumstance that is absolutely indispensable for any successful innovative engagement: Creativity will only flourish in places where human brains have the freedom and permission to assemble to work on their unlimited ideas. In this regard, small states on the one side and creative minds on the other are mutually attractive. While intellectuals discover new horizons of human thinking, the state that permits this increases its wealth and the happiness of its native and virtual citizens. As long as the ruling (and permitting) political power is not endangered by the uncontrollable disruptive effects of innovation, the sensitive balance of this fruitful arrangement can persist to mutual benefit. Moreover, one might expect that – as a side-effect –the assembled creative minds that enjoy the liberties of free thinking would be the best guarantee of ensuring that this kind of state prevails. And that again justifies the assumption that small states should wisely call for free thinkers.

III. Concluding Remarks

I think there is some reason to believe that the dominant political direction of development in the last century that was slanted towards big states and impressive administrative multi-state unions is coming to an end.

More and more people understand that their personal strategies to master the challenges of human life are incompatible with the strategies of other people on the globe. And maybe the time has come to admit that the relevant discrepancies are too big to be resolved by the sheer attempts of harmonizing politics within one region and one state. Especially an intervening state that tries to be in line with everyone inside a multicultural society must inevitably now and again create self-contradictions. Wherever it isn’t possible to resolve these disagreements by trade and cooperation, it seems the best advice is to segregate and partition incompatible groups and to offer them the chance of peaceful separation.

Two scientists from Munich have just published an article on the subject of the political economy of secession that I found very impressive. Their research has not only shown an increase of nations worldwide from 57 to 194 within the last 100 years. They also point out that the dogma of unchangeable borders on the one hand indeed safeguards a given status quo. However, this dogma can collide painfully with the right of self-determination on the other hand. Isn’t therefore a better way toward a peaceful political framework to allow secession, as the chief economist of the magazine ‘Wirtschaftswoche,’ Malte Fischer, recently suggested?

Ten years ago, the Ethiopian economist Eleni Gabre-Madhin formulated the secret of human happiness in a wonderful sentence. She said: “Happiness is freedom of choice”. If that is true (and I personally believe it is) we could transfer this economic insight into the world of states and citizenships. We would then come to the conclusion that the more states the planet has the more happiness could be provided for civilians. Although the surface of the earth is limited, human brains and their creativity is not.

So in the end I believe that the smartest strategy to prevail in an ever-changing world of uncertainties is to learn how to learn. If you cannot control your circumstances then you have to control your skills, to be able to adapt to the changes. And at the center of all intellectual efforts it can never be wrong to study the philosophy of science. Together with training and schooling of the traditional canons of education, a community can be made fit for the future. Intelligence can survive on the tip of a needle.