A civilization that used to lead the world is in ruins—and only the locals can rebuild it.

July 5, 2014

A THOUSAND years ago, the great cities of Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo took turns to race ahead of the Western world. Islam and innovation were twins. The various Arab caliphates were dynamic superpowers—beacons of learning, tolerance and trade. Yet today the Arabs are in a wretched state. Even as Asia, Latin America and Africa advance, the Middle East is held back by despotism and convulsed by war.

Hopes soared three years ago, when a wave of unrest across the region led to the overthrow of four dictators—in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen—and to a clamour for change elsewhere, notably in Syria. But the Arab spring’s fruit has rotted into renewed autocracy and war. Both engender misery and fanaticism that today threaten the wider world.

Why Arab countries have so miserably failed to create democracy, happiness or (aside from the windfall of oil) wealth for their 350m people is one of the great questions of our time. What makes Arab society susceptible to vile regimes and fanatics bent on destroying them (and their perceived allies in the West)? No one suggests that the Arabs as a people lack talent or suffer from some pathological antipathy to democracy. But for the Arabs to wake from their nightmare, and for the world to feel safe, a great deal needs to change.

The blame game

One problem is that the Arab countries’ troubles run so wide. Indeed, Syria and Iraq can nowadays barely be called countries at all. This week a brutal band of jihadists declared their boundaries void, heralding instead a new Islamic caliphate to embrace Iraq and Greater Syria (including Israel-Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan and bits of Turkey) and—in due course—the whole world. Its leaders seek to kill non-Muslims not just in the Middle East but also in the streets of New York, London and Paris. Egypt is back under military rule. Libya, following the violent demise of Muammar Qaddafi, is at the mercy of unruly militias. Yemen is beset by insurrection, infighting and al-Qaeda. Palestine is still far from true statehood and peace: the murders of three young Israelis and ensuing reprisals threaten to set off yet another cycle of violence (see article). Even countries such as Saudi Arabia and Algeria, whose regimes are cushioned by wealth from oil and gas and propped up by an iron-fisted apparatus of state security, are more fragile than they look. Only Tunisia, which opened the Arabs’ bid for freedom three years ago, has the makings of a real democracy.

Islam, or at least modern reinterpretations of it, is at the core of some of the Arabs’ deep troubles. The faith’s claim, promoted by many of its leading lights, to combine spiritual and earthly authority, with no separation of mosque and state, has stunted the development of independent political institutions. A militant minority of Muslims are caught up in a search for legitimacy through ever more fanatical interpretations of the Koran. Other Muslims, threatened by militia violence and civil war, have sought refuge in their sect. In Iraq and Syria plenty of Shias and Sunnis used to marry each other; too often today they resort to maiming each other. And this violent perversion of Islam has spread to places as distant as northern Nigeria and northern England.

But religious extremism is a conduit for misery, not its fundamental cause (see article). While Islamic democracies elsewhere (such as Indonesia—see article) are doing fine, in the Arab world the very fabric of the state is weak. Few Arab countries have been nations for long. The dead hand of the Turks’ declining Ottoman empire was followed after the first world war by the humiliation of British and French rule. In much of the Arab world the colonial powers continued to control or influence events until the 1960s. Arab countries have not yet succeeded in fostering the institutional prerequisites of democracy—the give-and-take of parliamentary discourse, protection for minorities, the emancipation of women, a free press, independent courts and universities and trade unions.

The absence of a liberal state has been matched by the absence of a liberal economy. After independence, the prevailing orthodoxy was central planning, often Soviet-inspired. Anti-market, anti-trade, pro-subsidy and pro-regulation, Arab governments strangled their economies. The state pulled the levers of economic power—especially where oil was involved. Where the constraints of post-colonial socialism were lifted, capitalism of the crony, rent-seeking kind took hold, as it did in the later years of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Privatisation was for pals of the government. Virtually no markets were free, barely any world-class companies developed, and clever Arabs who wanted to excel in business or scholarship had to go to America or Europe to do so.

Economic stagnation bred dissatisfaction. Monarchs and presidents-for-life defended themselves with secret police and goons. The mosque became a source of public services and one of the few places where people could gather and hear speeches. Islam was radicalised and the angry men who loathed their rulers came to hate the Western states that backed them. Meanwhile a vast number of the young grew restless because of unemployment. Thanks to the electronic media, they were increasingly aware that the prospects of their cohort outside the Middle East were far more hopeful. The wonder is not that they took to the streets in the Arab spring, but that they did not do so sooner.

A lot of ruin

These wrongs cannot easily or rapidly be put right. Outsiders, who have often been drawn to the region as invaders and occupiers, cannot simply stamp out the jihadist cause or impose prosperity and democracy. That much, at least, should be clear after the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. Military support—the supply of drones and of a small number of special forces—may help keep the jihadists in Iraq at bay. That help may have to be on permanent call. Even if the new caliphate is unlikely to become a recognisable state, it could for many years produce jihadists able to export terrorism.

But only the Arabs can reverse their civilisational decline, and right now there is little hope of that happening. The extremists offer none. The mantra of the monarchs and the military men is “stability”. In a time of chaos, its appeal is understandable, but repression and stagnation are not the solution. They did not work before; indeed they were at the root of the problem. Even if the Arab awakening is over for the moment, the powerful forces that gave rise to it are still present. The social media which stirred up a revolution in attitudes cannot be uninvented. The men in their palaces and their Western backers need to understand that stability requires reform.

Is that a vain hope? Today the outlook is bloody. But ultimately fanatics devour themselves. Meanwhile, wherever possible, the moderate, secular Sunnis who comprise the majority of Arab Muslims need to make their voices heard. And when their moment comes, they need to cast their minds back to the values that once made the Arab world great. Education underpinned its primacy in medicine, mathematics, architecture and astronomy. Trade paid for its fabulous metropolises and their spices and silks. And, at its best, the Arab world was a cosmopolitan haven for Jews, Christians and Muslims of many sects, where tolerance fostered creativity and invention.

Pluralism, education, open markets: these were once Arab values and they could be so again. Today, as Sunnis and Shias tear out each others’ throats in Iraq and Syria and a former general settles onto his new throne in Egypt, they are tragically distant prospects. But for a people for whom so much has gone so wrong, such values still make up a vision of a better future.


Piketty response to FT data concerns

Financial Times author and economist Chris Giles stated in video and in writing that the data Thomas Piketty uses in his book Capital in the 21st Century do not support the conclusion that wealth inequality is increasing. Piketty wrote a response to Giles, which the latter posted yesterday on his blog at the Financial Times website, and which can be accessed for free by those who are registered. We believe that free access for only registered guests is not free enough, and so we post the letter in its entirety below.


Dear Chris,

I am happy to see that FT journalists are using the excel files that I have put on line! I would very much appreciate if you could publish this response along with your piece.

Let me first say that the reason why I put all excel files on line, including all the detailed excel formulas about data constructions and adjustments, is precisely because I want to promote an open and transparent debate about these important and sensitive measurement issues (if there was anything to hide, any “fat finger problem”, why would I put everything on line?).

Let me also say that I certainly agree that available data sources on wealth are much less systematic than for income. In fact, one of the main reasons why I am in favor of wealth taxation and automatic exchange of bank information is that this would be a way to develop more financial transparency and more reliable sources of information on wealth dynamics (even if the tax was charged at very low rates, which you might agree with).

For the time being, we have to do with what we have, that is, a very diverse and heterogeneous set of data sources on wealth: historical inheritance declarations and estate tax statistics, scarce property and wealth tax data, and household surveys with self-reported data on wealth (with typically a lot of under-reporting at the top). As I make clear in the book, in the on-line appendix, and in the many technical papers I have published on this topic, one needs to make a number of adjustments to the raw data sources so as to make them more homogenous over time and across countries. I have tried in the context of this book to make the most justified choices and arbitrages about data sources and adjustments. I have no doubt that my historical data series can be improved and will be improved in the future (this is why I put everything on line). In fact, the “World Top Incomes Database” (WTID) is set to become a “World Wealth and Income Database” in the coming years, and we will put on-line updated estimates covering more countries. But I would be very surprised if any of the substantive conclusion about the long run evolution of wealth distributions was much affected by these improvements.

For instance, my US series have already been extended and improved by an important new research paper by Emmanuel Saez (Berkeley) and Gabriel Zucman (LSE). This work was done after my book was written, so unfortunately I could not use it for my book. Saez and Zucman use much more systematic data than I used in my book, especially for the recent period. Also their series are constructed using a completely different data source and methodology (namely, the capitalisation method using capital income flows and income statements by asset class). The main results are available here:

As you can see by yourself, their results confirm and reinforce my own findings: the rise in top wealth shares in the US in recent decades has been even larger than what I show in my book.

In the attached graph, I compare their series with the approximate series that I provide in the book. As you can see by yourself, the general historical profiles are very similar. This is exactly what I expect as we collect more data in other countries as well: we will certainly improve upon my series and adjustments (some of which can certainly be discussed), but I don’t think this will have much of an impact on the general findings.

(see also this paper pp. 91-92 of pdf:

Finally, let me say that my estimates on wealth concentration do not fully take into account offshore wealth, and are likely to err on the low side. I am certainly not trying to make the picture look darker than it it. As I make clear in chapter 12 of my book (see in particular table 12.1-12.2), top wealth holders have apparently been rising a lot faster average wealth in recent decades, at least according to the wealth rankings published in magazines such as Forbes. This is true not only in the US, but also in Britain and at the global level (see attached table). This is not well taken into account by wealth surveys and official statistics, including the recent statistics that were published for Britain. Of course, as I make clear in my book, wealth rankings published by magazines are far from being a perfectly reliable data source. But for the time being, this is what we have, and what we have suggests that the concentration of wealth at the top is rising pretty much everywhere. Of course, if the FT produces statistics and wealth rankings showing the opposite, I would be very interested to see these statistics, and I would be happy to change my conclusion! Please keep me posted.

Best, Thomas

Thomas Piketty
Ecole d’Economie de Paris/Paris School of Economics
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What Happens to a Society That Does Not Believe in Free Will?

What happens to a society that believes people have no conscious control over their actions?

June 1, 2014

By Azim F. Shariff and Kathleen D. Vohs

In Brief

  1. In the past decade an increasing number of neuroscientists and philosophers have argued that free will does not exist. Rather we are pushed around by our unconscious minds, with the illusion f conscious control.
  2. In parallel, recent studies suggest that the more people doubt free will, the less they support criminal punishment and the less ethically they behave toward one another.
  3. But science-informed doubt of free will could actually help us improve our legal system by focusing less on doling out jail time solely for the sake of retribution and more on discouraging further crime.

The Man Who Killed in His Sleep

In July 2008 retired steelworker Brian Thomas and his wife, Christine, drove their camper van to a small seaside village in Wales. Disturbed by men on motorbikes performing loud stunts, the couple relocated to the parking lot of a nearby inn. Later that night Thomas dreamed that one of the bikers had broken into the van. As he slept, he confused his wife with the imaginary biker and strangled her to death. That is how he told the story, anyway.

The next year a jury had to decide whether Thomas was guilty of murder. He had been prone to sleepwalking since childhood, the jury learned. An expert psychiatrist explained that Thomas was not aware of what he was doing when he choked his wife and that he had not consciously chosen to attack her. Thomas went free.

Such cases force people to consider what it means to have free will. During sleepwalking the brain clearly can direct people’s actions without engaging their full conscious cooperation. Recently an increasing number of philosophers and neuroscientists have argued that – based on a current understanding of the human brain – we are all in a way sleepwalking all the time. Instead of being the intentional authors of our lives, we are simply pushed around by past events and by the behind-the-scenes machinations of our unconscious minds. Even when we are wide awake, free will is just an illusion.

Philosophers with this viewpoint argue that all organisms are bound by the physical laws of a universe wherein every action is the result of previous events. Human beings are organisms. Thus, human behavior results from a complex sequence of cause and effect that is completely out of our control. The universe simply does not allow for free will. Recent neuroscience studies have added fuel to that notion by suggesting that the experience of conscious choice is the outcome of the underlying neural processes that produce human action, not the cause of them. Our brains decide everything we do without “our” help – it just feels like we have a say.

Not everyone agrees, of course, and debates over the existence of free will continue to rage. The two of us, however, are intrigued by a related question of equal importance: What happens when people’s belief in free will – justified or not – is shaken? What does a post-free will society, or rather a post-belief in free will society, look like? Our research into this issue offers inklings of an answer, some of which are disturbing. In particular, we see signs that a lack of belief in free will may end up tearing social organization apart.

Exoneration for Criminals

Some of our experiments have, however, hinted at a more benign outcome, implying that a society that abandoned its belief in free will would be less punitive than our world is today. In survey research, we found that the more people doubt free will, the less they favor “retributive” punishment—punishment meted out not primarily to deter future crime but rather to make individuals suffer for their transgressions. Yet what people believed about free will did not diminish support for “consequentialist” punishment, which abandons the notion of comeuppance and focuses instead on the most effective ways to discourage crime and rehabilitate perpetrators. In effect, free will skeptics treat people who break the law as they would viruses, raging floods or other natural phenomena: they want to protect themselves against further harm but have no desire to seek vengeance.

A subsequent investigation reached a similar conclusion. Half of our participants read a book excerpt arguing that a rational view of human beings leaves no room for free will. The other half read a passage from the same book that was unrelated to free will. As we expected, the first group became more doubtful of free will’s existence. All the participants subsequently read a story about a hypothetical man convicted for killing someone in a bar fight. The story made it clear that imprisonment would not help reform him. Those who had been exposed to arguments against free will recommended half as much time in prison as did volunteers in the other group.

In follow-up experiments, we discovered that it was not even necessary to explicitly mention free will to change the way people think about it and, consequently, how they decide appropriate punishment for a crime. After reading glossy popular science magazine articles describing the neural mechanisms that underlie human actions—with no overt mention of free will—people viewed an imaginary criminal as less culpable than did volunteers who were not exposed to such materials. Participants who read about brain science also recommended about half the prison time for murder. Learning about the brain in a college class appears to have similar effects. A recent experiment by Lisa G. Aspinwall of the University of Utah and her colleagues adds to this line of evidence. They showed that when a mental disorder of a supposed criminal is explained in scientific language as something that essentially takes over a person’s brain, judges are especially likely to give a supposed criminal a shorter prison sentence.

Social Disorder

Although increased leniency as a result of doubting free will might be a good thing in many instances, completely abandoning criminal punishment would be disastrous. Such punishment is vital to a well-functioning society. Experimental research by Bettina Rockenbach of the University of Cologne in Germany has shown that although few people like the abstract idea of belonging to a group that punishes its members for wrongdoing, in practice they overwhelmingly prefer it. Rockenbach and her colleagues asked volunteers to play cooperative games and gave them the choice between joining a group that either could or could not punish its members for failing to help out. Initially only a third of the participants chose to join the group that could penalize its members, but after 30 rounds nearly all of them had switched over to the punishing group. Why? Because these experiments confirmed what human societies have found over and over again throughout history: when laws are not established and enforced, people have little motivation to work together for a greater good. Instead they put themselves above everyone else and shirk all responsibility, lying, cheating and stealing their way to societal collapse.

Free will skepticism can be dangerous even to a society that has laws, however. Some of our research reveals that such doubt, which weakens a sense of accountability for one’s actions, encourages people to abandon existing rules. In studies conducted with Jonathan W. Schooler of the University of California, Santa Barbara, participants who read an anti–free will passage cheated on an academic test—electing to peek at the answers—50 percent more than participants who read a neutral passage. Moreover, in another study where participants were paid for each test question they answered correctly, those who read anti–free will statements claimed they had answered more questions correctly, and accepted payment accordingly, than did other participants.

Equally disturbing for social cohesion, diminished belief in free will also seems to release urges to harm others. One of the admittedly odd ways that psychologists measure aggression in the laboratory is by giving people the opportunity to add hot sauce or salsa to a snack that they know will be served to someone who hates spicy food. Roy F. Baumeister of Florida State University and his colleagues asked a group of volunteers to read arguments for or against the existence of free will before preparing plates of tortilla chips and clearly labeled hot salsa for another volunteer who had rebuffed each group member earlier, refusing to work together with that person. This same aloof individual, the subjects knew full well, was not a fan of spiciness, and the person would have to eat everything that was handed out. Those who had read texts doubting free will’s existence used nearly double the amount of salsa.

Neuroscience has revealed that at least one way skepticism about free will erodes ethical behavior is by weakening willpower. Before people make a motion—such as reaching for a cup—a particular pattern of electrical activity known as readiness potential occurs in the brain’s motor cortex, which helps to regulate movement. By placing electrodes on the scalp, Davide Rigoni of the University of Padua in Italy and his colleagues showed that diminishing people’s belief in free will decreased this electrical activity. In a follow-up study, people whose free will beliefs had been weakened were less able to inhibit impulsive reactions during a computerized test of willpower. The less we believe in free will, it seems, the less strength we have to restrain ourselves from the urge to lie, cheat, steal and feed hot sauce to rude people.

New Justice

If neuroscience research continues to degrade people’s belief that they have free will, how will society change?

We see three possibilities. History is replete with examples of moral norms evolving with new knowledge of the world. In his recent book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker documents a “humanitarian revolution” over the past 300 years in which previously institutionalized practices such as slavery and cruel and unusual punishment became widely reviled as morally abhorrent. Pinker credits the change, in part, to the expanded knowledge of different cultures and human behavior afforded by the Enlightenment’s massive increase in literacy, learning and information exchange.

New research unveiling the biological machinery behind human thought and action may prompt a similarly dramatic change in moral views. This is the first possibility. As they have before, changes in moral sentiments may actually help improve the U.S.’s penal system. Currently, criminal punishment is driven primarily by eye-for-an-eye retribution—the kind of punishment favored by people who believe in free will—and, perhaps as a result, is woefully ineffective at deterring future crime. Society should stop punishing people solely for the sake of seeing them suffer and instead focus on the most effective ways to prevent criminal activity and turn past lawbreakers into productive citizens—strategies that become more appealing when people question the reality of free will. Though uncomfortable at times, doubting free will may end up as a kind of growing pain for our society, aligning our moral intuitions and legal institutions with new scientific knowledge and making us stronger than before.

It may not happen that way, though. As our research has suggested, the more people doubt free will, the more lenient they become toward those accused of crimes and the more willing they are to break the rules themselves and harm others to get what they want. Thus, the second possibility is that newfound skepticism of free will may end up threatening the humanitarian revolution, potentially culminating in anarchy.

More likely is the third possibility. In the 18th century Voltaire famously asserted that if God did not exist, we would need to invent him because the idea of God is so vital to keeping law and order in society. Given that a belief in free will restrains people from engaging in the kind of wrongdoing that could unravel an ordered society, the parallel is obvious. What will our society do if it finds itself without the concept of free will? It may well reinvent it.



Azim F. Shariff is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, where he runs the Culture and Morality Lab.

Kathleen D. Vohs is Land O’Lakes Professor of Excellence in Marketing at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.



Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain. Michael S. Gazzaniga. Ecco, 2011.

Free Will and Punishment: A Mechanistic View of Human Nature Reduces Retribution. A. F. Shariff, J. D. Greene, J. C. Karremans, J. Luguri, C. J. Clark, J. W. Schooler, R. F. Baumeister and K. D. Vohs in Psychological Science (in press).

Is Free Will an Illusion? Shaun Nichols; Scientific American Mind, November/December 2011.

Free Won’t. Michael Shermer; Skeptic, August 2012.


SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ONLINE Read more about the neuroscience of free will at