Literacy and Freedom

Literacy and Freedom are Chapters 7 and 8 of “Progress:  Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future”  by Johan Norbert.  As the purpose of these blog posts is to update our mental models regarding how much change there has been between now and the past, only the nature of the improvements will be presented, and not the innovations that underlay the improvements.  As it is only a fraction of the improvements that are in the book can be related, so this is a matter of necessity or convenience, depending on your perspective.  If you are interested in the technology and practices that underlay these improvements, please read the book.  Indeed, everyone should benefit from reading this book.

One could make a good argument that a literate society is a prerequisite for a truly free society.  The chapter on literacy begins with the following quotation from Plutarch:  “The Mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting.  Literacy is one of the most important skills as it is the capacity to acquire even more capacity.  It makes it possible to make much greater use of knowledge that others, even others who long ago have passed away.  Literacy makes it possible to pick up skills and ideas that make us more productive and able to use technology better.  It is also required to be an active an informed citizen and to follow and participate in the world of knowledge.  It has a very strong influence on our health and the health of our children.

According to the OECD’s best estimate two hundred years ago 12% of the world’s population could read and write.  Until then, literacy was mostly a tool for the bureaucracy, the Church and the merchant class.  Many of the elite and slaveowner’s should they be considered elite thought it dangerous for the poor to become literate.  The fear was that they would become unhappy with their lives and stop accepting their lot in life.

Initially charity groups and philanthropists started schools for the poor.  Then, as governments realized that educating the poor would increase their productivity and, perhaps, participate in government began funding schools.  There was immediate feedback here in that economic benefits were clearly recognized.  Even when public schools were very few, there were literate people who instructed the illiterate.  One Swede noted that in the sparsely populate northern part of Sweden, “that, although public schools are very few, nevertheless the literate instruct the others with such enthusiasm and the greater part of the common people and even the peasants are literate.”

Progress in literacy followed economic development quite closely.  In western Europe, the United States and Canada around 90% of children attended school in the late nineteenth century.  In 1900 less than 10% of the population in South Asia, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa had received basic education.  By the 1900s around half had.  Today it is around 75%.  In Latin America, the proportion increased from 23% in 1900 to 94% in 2010
The global literacy rate increased from around 21% in 1900 to almost 40% in 1950, and in 2015 it was 86%.

The chapter  Freedom begins with a discussion of slavery.  Norbert notes that slavery is the most brutal form of oppression the world has known.  Chattel slaves were the property of someone else, who could order them around, beat them at will, give them away or rent them. Moreover, slavery once existed everywhere.  Slavery once was so common that even the few vocal opponents owned slaves.  They were forced to perform chores and crafts, to work in the fields or down mines, and even into prostitution.

According to the Greek historian Herodotus, slaves in Ancient Sparta outnumbered free individuals by seven to one.  Even in democratic Athens there were likely more slaves than free men.  It was a sign of utmost poverty not to own at least one slave and the literation is filled with scenes  of slaves being flogged for disobeying their masters.

Julius Caesar brought slave traders with him on his campaigns and sold prisoners directly to them.  When he defeated a Germanic drive he sold all 53,000 survivors as slaves on the spot.  These slaves lived extraordinarily difficult lives in brutal circumstances.

As Spain and Portugal took control of America in the 1500s, the indigenous people were oppressed and enslaved.  There were a few brave opponents to this practice, the most prominent of whom was the Spanish Dominican friar, Bartolome de las Casas.  He argued that indigenous people had the right to their own persons, beliefs and properties.  Las Calas was an early, and perhaps the first proponent of human rights theory.

Nevertheless, slavery became a, if not the, central feature of the settlement of the new world.  Even European economies benefited. Even states in the northern United States where slavery was not practiced benefitted from the economy that was based on slavery.  England took the courageous act of banning slavery.  It took a Civil War in the United States to end legal slavery.

The abolishment of slavery was indeed an important step in the advancement of freedom.  Yet in the year 1900, exactly  zero % of the world population lived in a real democracy in which each man or woman had one vote.  Even the most modern and democratic countries excluded women, the poor or ethnic minorities from elections.By 1950, the share of the world population living in democracies had increased from zero to 31%, and by 2000 increased to 58% according to Freedom House, the civil liberties watchdog.  Norbert notes that today even dictators have to pay lip service to democracy and hold staged elections.

Communism in the west was abolished peacefully.  It still exists in Asia, most notably in China and most notoriously in North Korea.  Norbert notes that peaceful mass movements against dictatorships stand a better chance of successful democratic than violent revolutions.  Unfortunately neither peaceful nor democratic movements are presently succeeding.  And if a regime is ruthless enough, consider Assad in Syria, it is difficult to depose given an alliance from another authoritarian regime.  HM would argue that  peaceful demonstrations work when there is some predisposition on the part of the existing regime to concede.

In 1991 Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman mentioned that a London Newspaper          200 years earlier explained that 742 million people were led by arbitrary government and only 33.5 million people live in reasonably free countries.  That meant that freedom deprived people outnumbered free people by 22 to 1.  When Friedman spoke, he updated those numbers using Freedom House’s estimates and said that the ratio had fallen to about 3 to 1.  Friedman concluded that “We are still very far from our goal of a completely free world, but on the scale of historical time, that is amazing progress.  More in the past two centuries than in the prior two millennia.”

According to Freedom House 40% of the world population now lives in free countries, while another 24% live in partly free countries.  Norbert notes that this is more progress in two decades than in two millennia.

If you have yet to do so, go to   It is a very interesting website.  You might find the documentary “Don’t Panic End Poverty” well worth viewing.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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