The Berggruen Institute


The Berggruen Institute

“The real problem of humanity is the following: We have Paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technology.”

Last week I had posted about the Center for Humane Technology – an organization that is trying to address this problem.

(As an aside, this quote is actually from E. O. Wilson, which makes it even more perfect because he is the world’s top authority on social animals like ants. By the way, here is another quote from him:

(On Marxism): “Wonderful theory, wrong species.”)

Anyway, the reason for this post is that I came across another organization, the Berggruen Institute, that is also trying to solve the problem mentioned above. The Berggruen Institute works on developing foundational ideas about how to reshape our political and social institutions.

One could say that while the Center for Humane Technology is involved mostly with the third part of the problem definition above, namely humanizing the god-like technology, the Bergguen Institute appears to be focused on the second part, namely fixing the medieval institutions.

The interview with its co-founders, Nicolas Berggruen and Nathan Gardels, included below, gives a high-level overview of their work. Mr. Berggruen is an investor / hedge fund billionaire who has taken the “Giving Pledge”. He was also notorious for being a “homeless billionaire” because he didn’t own a home for many years. Mr. Gardels is a journalist and author. The interviewer is a respected tech celebrity billionaire himself, Mr. Reid Hoffman, one of the founders of LinkedIn.

The interview is full of interesting ideas. I am not sure I agree with all of them, but certainly they are very useful starting points for further discussion. They themselves say that there are a lot of things that still need to be worked out. Their intention is to make the institute not just a think tank but also a place for action.

Their main proposal focuses on 3 aspects of government and society in general:

  • “Participation without populism”: Their proposal is to create a process of depoliticized deliberation by creating new mediating institutions comprising of randomly selected citizens rather than representatives. Apparently some such mechanisms are used in Ireland and Switzerland.
  • “Predistribution”: All citizens automatically become owners of a part of all businesses residing in the country, just by being citizens. They can then share in any profit that the businesses make. Contrast this with redistribution, where the government taxes revenue generated by businesses (and people) and gives it to the poor. One of the ideas here is something called Universal Basic Capital (UBC) instead of Universal Basic Income (UBI). UBI is basically a handout, with all its accompanying negative connotations, whereas UBC implies ownership, with more positive connotations. (By the way, they do acknowledge a role for UBI also, but it’s not their main proposal.) They give the example of Singapore as a country where a form of UBC is practiced, via their sovereign fund.
  • “Positive nationalism”: This is probably the most controversial idea. They believe that open societies need defined borders and clear priorities with respect to who to allow in and who not. They give the example of Canada, which does a good job of integrating immigrants, but also has strict policies regarding who can immigrate – primarily based on skill-based immigration rather than family based.

Some other quotes from the interview that I thought were interesting:

  • “Elections aren’t people expressing their preferences, they’re a way for those with time and money organized to manipulate the public to dominate the government.” (This is the unfortunate reality of elections at present.)
  • “Bad faith results from good intentions if you don’t have the resources to fulfill your moral claims.” (This is a jab at bleeding heart liberalism.)
  • “Populism hurls pent up emotions at complex problems.”
  • “Being for yourself doesn’t mean you’ve to be against everybody else.”
  • “Government should be a service organization to help all citizens, not a political instrument.”