Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Inevitability of Human Freedom

For the last few days the passion and the dignity that has been demonstrate by the people of Egypt has been an inspiration to people around the world, including here in the United States, and to all those who believe in the inevitability of human freedom.
--Barack Obama (February 1, 2011)
I don't need Obama, I don't need Clinton. I will free Egypt with my Mom and Dad.
--Young child at Tahrir Square (February 1, 2011)
Things were boiling in Tunisia for 15 or 20 years.
--Sami Zaoui, Tunisian Secretary of State for Communications (January 31, 2011)

As last, a statement from the President of the United States that gets to the heart of the matter: The inevitability of human freedom. Simple words that hold so much promise, and so much reproach.

The promise is evident. It is a promise based not on optimism, but on physics. People can not be contained any more than the elements. Heat water in a pot and it will boil. Seal the pot and it will explode. When? Under precisely what circumstances? Impossible to predict. As Gregory Bateson wrote in his classic (and I mean classic) book, Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity:
Under tension, a chain will break at its weakest link. That much is predictable. What is difficult is to identify the weakest link before it breaks. The generic we can know, but the specific eludes us. Some chains are designed to break at a certain tension and at a certain link. But a good chain is homogeneous, and no prediction is possible. And because we cannot know which link is weakest, we cannot know precisely how much tension will be needed to break the chain. 
There is an deep irony contained in this prosaic description: Control creates its own ignorance. The more effectively people are oppressed, the more vulnerable is the oppressor. The precise moment at which human freedom exerts itself is as unpredictable as the ultimate outcome is inevitable.

This brings me to the reproach. A common refrain this week from the "policy community" and "area experts" was that no one could have predicted #Jan25 #Jan28 #Egypt. Indeed, only a year ago, a Council on Foreign Relations "Contingency Planning Memorandum" on the topic of "Political Instability in Egypt" noted that "most analysts believe that the current Egyptian regime will muddle through its myriad challenges and endure indefinitely." This translates as "The sealed pot is not moving;" or, alternately, "the chain is not breaking."

The same CFR memorandum offered a contrasting view, stating that "there are a variety of scenarios emerging from Egypt’s present political, economic, and social environment that could result in acute instability or even decomposition of the regime." This translates as "The pot about to explode;" or alternately, "The chain is about to break."

My friend and colleague @p_mandaville Tweeted something of great importance to folks interested in United States foreign policy two days ago: 
Public break w/Mubarak changes rules for entire region. A watershed decision point for U.S. foreign policy. #Egypt #Jan25
He is right. The rules have changed. A fundamental, sweeping rethink is in order.

But what hasn't changed are the laws of physics. Going forward, it won't be enough to say "Who was to know...?" or "How could we have predicted...?" The specific eludes us, but the generic we can know.

The generic lesson is this: Repression makes the repressor vulnerable. It is not only immoral, and inhuman, it is also fundamentally ineffective to chain people. The United States is not made more secure by perpetuating circumstances anywhere in the world which, by their very fundamentals, deprives people of their freedom and us of our security.

It is for this reason that only a strategy based on principle and genuine expression of core values can possibly be effective in the 21st century. It is for this reason that I believe the way forward for the United States is to work with partners around the world to facilitate the search for, and implementation of, entrepreneurial solutions to global challenges. 

But whether we choose this course, or not, progress will come, as it has this week in Egypt. After all, human freedom is inevitable.


  1. I find the use of the word "inevitable" curious especially when applied to Egypt in particular. This is a civilization that has existed for 7000 years without achieving freedom. And we still do not know what the outcome of the current situation will be.

    If the pots may not boil over for 7000 years then inevitability is not a useful concept. For that matter, if the pots won't boil over for 30 years, that's long enough for most dictators to take the deal happily.

    While celebrating what is happening in Egypt and the apparent turn in US policy--though I'm also waiting for more evidence on that point--I feel compelled to point out that human oppression is far more inevitable, based on the evidence, than human freedom. Or in more eloquent words, all that is required for oppression to flourish and freedom to wilt is for good people to do nothing.

  2. Very good points, with which I mostly agree.

    I do think that (historically speaking) authoritarian systems contain within them the seeds of their own undoing, and open societies are more resilient than closed ones. But as someone whose work (including just about every other post on this blog) is about entrepreneurship, I'm certainly not going to disagree with you if you say that individual agency matters!

    What I'm trying to emphasize here is that the unpredictability of the specifics of change should not provide an excuse for ignoring the predictability (if not outright inevitability) of change in its general form.