Episode #171: Interview with Johan Norberg


Ron and Ed are thrilled and honored to be interviewing Johan Norberg. Johan is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a writer who focuses on globalization, entrepreneurship, and individual liberty. Norberg is the author and editor of several books exploring liberal themes, including the one will will discuss in depth today - Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future. He studied at Stockholm University from 1992 to 1999 and earned a M.A. with a major in the history of ideas. He is also a member of the international Mont Pelerin Society.

Questions by Segment for Johan

Segment One

Would you explain your transition from leftist anarchist to classical liberal?

Life used to be "nasty, brutish, and short," but you point out that a child born today is more likely to reach retirement than his or her forebears were to live to age five.

We shouldn’t romanticize short working hours in the past: people didn’t have enough caloric intake to work long enough hours to produce a surplus of food.

Who is Norman Borlaug? And, why should we know about him?

Your book is very balanced, always pointing out the negative side effects of the progress made. Please comment on that. 

Segment Two

Your book, Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future (2016, 2017) is a treatise of factual optimism. You point out we’ve made more progress over the last 100 years than in first 100,000! In the last 50 years, poverty fallen more than preceding 500 years.

You deal with 10 major areas:

  1. Food
  2. Sanitation
  3. Life expectancy
  4. Poverty
  5. Violence
  6. The environment
  7. Literacy
  8. Freedom
  9. Equality
  10. The next generation

With respect to food, would you discuss the virtual disappearance of famines, and how the almost never take place in a democracy?

With respect to life expectancy, you write that before 1800, not a single country had a life expectancy above 40 years. Today it is 71, while the population from 1950 to 2011 increased from 2.5 billion to 7 billion. But life expectancy increased “not because people bred like rabbits but because they stopped dying like flies.” How did that happen?

Infant mortality declined from 154 to 35 per thousand between1960 and 20156, even in Haiti. This is an untold story.

Segment Three

Would you discuss the myth that the native Americans lived in a utopia, here and in Canada, until the Europeans came along?

Your chapter on violence talks about causes of war can be relatively petty. What do you think of the current dispute in the NFL of players not standing for the national anthem and respecting the flag? Would that have caused a war in the past?


You write about the importance of creativity, which is the theme of this show, and the opening quote from Ronald Reagan. You say that “humans are pleasantly reproducible.”

Even though the end of world poverty might not be within reach, do you believe it is within sight?

Segment Four


In your Next Generation chapter you discuss the decline of child labor and tell the story of a 12 year-old girl’s hands from an Indian village. Would you tell that story, because it is incredibly poignant.

In the Epilogue, you point out that humans tend to be naturally pessimistic, and that most people fail questions regarding the progress you so well document in the book. You give an interesting explanation: things that happen in an instant are mostly bad! But reducing poverty, increasing life expectancy, etc., happens slowly over very long periods of time, which tend to go unnoticed.

Your book is not Pollyannaish. Do you see trends that could derail this progress? Are you optimistic?

We loved the quote from Franklin Pierce Adams: “Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory.”

Comment /Source

Ed Kless

Ed Kless joined Sage in July of 2003 and is currently the senior director of partner development and strategy. He develops and delivers curriculum for Sage business partners on the art and practice of small business consulting. Courses include: Sage Consulting Academy, Business Strategy and Customer Experience Workshops. Ed is the author of The Soul of Enterprise: Dialogues on Business in the Knowledge Economy, a compendium of a few of the episodes of his VoiceAmerica talk-show The Soul of Enterprise: Business in the Knowledge Economy with Ron Baker, founder of the VeraSage Institute where Ed is also a senior fellow.