The flag of the Iroquois Confederacy

The Great Law Of Peace

What society could look like

Can we have a free and equal society? The road to tyranny is paved with good intentions. So can this question be asked at all? Or do we lack vision? Perhaps examples can show us the way. In 1142, five North American tribes, Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, and Seneca, formed a league known as the Haudenosaunee, Iroquois or Five Nations. In 1722 a sixth tribe, Tuscarora, joined. Their constitution is known as The Great Law Of Peace.

The impact of the league on world history is considerable. Unlike Europeans, the Haudenosaunee had equality and liberty for all. This degree of equality is not uncommon in tribal societies. The Haudenosaunee influenced the European colonists settling in the United States and 18th-century European thinkers. Freedom, equality and brotherhood became the motto of the French Revolution and are still amongst the values many people believe societies should be based on.1

The formation of the league

Legend has it that three people made it all happen, Dekanawida, known as the Great Peacemaker, Ayenwatha, also called Hiawatha and Jigonhsasee, the Mother of Nations, whose home was open to everyone. They proposed the league to end the constant warfare between the neighbouring tribes. The warrior leader Tododaho of the Onondaga kept on opposing the idea.

Deganawidah then took a single arrow and asked Tododaho to break it, which he did with ease. Then he bundled five arrows together and asked Tododaho to break them too. He could not. Deganawidah prophesied that the Five Nations, each weak on its own, would fall unless they joined forces. Soon after Deganawidah’s warning, a solar eclipse occurred, and the shaken Tododaho agreed to the alliance.

The Haudenosaunee absorbed other peoples because of warfare, adoption of captives and offering shelter to displaced peoples. During the American Revolution, two tribes sided with the revolutionaries. The others remained loyal to Great Britain. The tribes had to take sides. They needed the favours of the winning party as diseases had reduced their populations. After the revolution, the league was re-established.

The principles of the league

The Great Law Of Peace consists of 117 codicils that deal with the affairs between the Six Nations. Major decisions require the consent of the people who are part of the league. When issues come up, the male chiefs or sachems of the clans come together at the council fire in the territory of Onondaga.

The league aims for consensus. Decisions require large majorities of both the clan mothers and the sachems. It puts pressure on individual members of both groups not to impede decision making with insignificant objections or frivolous considerations. Matters of great importance are decided in referendums.

Women have considerable influence and are entitled to the land and its produce. The clan mothers deal with the internal affairs of their tribe. They elect the sachems of their tribe and can remove them from office. Hence, the sachems heed the advice of their female relatives.


Compared to the despotic European societies of the 17th and 18th centuries, the Haudenosaunee was a liberal form of government. In the first two centuries of European colonisation, there was no clear border between natives and newcomers. The two societies mingled. Europeans could see from close by how the natives lived. They had a degree of personal freedom common to tribal peoples but unseen in Europe.1

As for the Haudenosaunee, the colonial administrator Cadwallader Colden declared in 1749 that they had such absolute notions of liberty that they allow no kind of superiority of one over another and banish all servitude from their territories. Colden had been an adoptee of the Mohawks. Other Europeans complained that the natives do not know what it is to obey and think that everyone has the right to his own opinion.

Social equality was as important as personal liberty to the North American natives. They were appalled by the European division into social classes. Louis Armand de Lom d’Arce, Baron of Lahontan, was a French adventurer who lived in Canada between 1683 and 1694. He noted that the natives he visited could not understand why one man should have more than another and why the rich deserve more respect than the poor.

Some early colonists preferred to live with the natives. The leaders of Jamestown tried to persuade the natives to become like Europeans. That did not happen. Instead, many English joined the locals despite threats of dire punishment. The same thing happened in New England. Puritan leaders were horrified when some members of a rival English settlement began living with the local tribes. As Franklin lamented in 1753:

When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return. [But] when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, though ransomed by their friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a short time they become disgusted with our manner of life … and take the first good opportunity of escaping again into the woods, when there is no reclaiming them.

United States Seal

European colonists had to adapt. Otherwise, they could lose their people to the native tribes. It may have helped make American society more free and equal than societies in Europe. The European philosophers of the 18th century took their ideas of freedom from the native Americans. It eventually led to the French Revolution. Freedom and equality are now basic principles of democratic nations.

The ideals of liberty and limited government influenced the United States Constitution. Equality and consensus did not. The US Seal features a bald eagle holding thirteen arrows bound together, representing the thirteen founding states reminiscent of the bald eagle and the five arrows from the legend of the Five Nations.

Featured image: The flag of the Iroquois Confederacy. Mont Clair State University website (

1. New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (2005). Charles C. Mann. Knopf. [link]

World civilisation and universal culture

The West and the rest

During the last 500 years, the living conditions of humans on this planet changed dramatically because of modernisation. Modernisation involves division of labour, industrialisation, urbanisation, social mobilisation, and increased education and wealth. Social mobilisation means organising via purpose-based groups, for instance, corporations. Expanding scientific and engineering knowledge allows us to shape our environment in unprecedented ways. Modernisation is one of the most dramatic changes in the history of humankind.

The West was the first civilisation to modernise. But why? Samuel Huntington mentions the characteristics of Western civilisation that he believed to be crucial for modernisation.1 It is not clear to what extent these features will remain important in the future, but modernisation itself affects nearly everyone in this world. And so, finding clues about what might constitute a future global civilisation and culture includes investigating which elements of Western culture could be universal rather than typically Western. According to Huntington, the defining characteristics of Western civilisation are:

  • The Classical legacy. The West inherited from previous civilisations, most notably Classical civilisation. This legacy includes Greek philosophy and rationalism, Roman law, and Christianity. The Islamic and Orthodox cultures also inherited from Classical civilisation, but not as much as the West.
  • Western Christendom, Catholicism and Protestantism. Western Christian peoples believe they differ from Muslims, Orthodox Christians and others. The rift between Catholicism and Protestantism did not change that.
  • Separation of the spiritual and the temporal. Jesus taught that his kingdom is not of this world and that his followers should respect worldly authorities, even pagan ones like the Roman Empire. And so church and state could become separate authorities.
  • The rule of law. It was often a distant ideal, but the idea persisted that power should be constrained. The rule of law is the basis of constitutionalism and the protection of human rights.
  • Individualism. Individualism gradually developed during Middle Ages. Eventually, people began to promote equal rights for everyone.
  • Social pluralism. The West had diverse autonomous groups not based on kinship or marriage, like monasteries and guilds, and later other associations and societies. Most Western societies had a powerful aristocracy, a substantial peasantry, and an influential class of merchants. The strength of the feudal aristocracy helped to check absolutism.
  • Representative bodies. Social pluralism gave rise to Estates and Parliaments to represent the interests of the aristocracy, clergy, merchants and other groups. Local self-government forced nobles to share their power with burghers, and in the end, yield it. Representation at the national level supplemented autonomy at the local level.

The above list is not complete, nor were all those characteristics always present in every Western society. Some of these characteristics were also present in non-Western societies. It is the combination of features that makes Western civilisation unique. Huntington claimed that Western culture is not universal and added that such a belief is a form of arrogance promoted by centuries of Western dominance.1

That view is not beyond dispute. For instance, liberal democracy has at least some appeal to people from other civilisations. The experiences from Taiwan and Hong Kong indicate that the Chinese may prefer liberal democracy too if they are free to choose. On the other hand, recent developments in the United States and Europe suggest that the legitimacy of democracy can still be contested. Most people would prefer food and security to political influence. So, if a dictator promises to address a real or perceived threat, he might even become popular. In any case, the West has seen an unprecedented amount of social experiments, and in the process, the West may have uncovered elements of universal culture.

The list above does not tell us why the West came to dominate the world for so long. Western culture is a product of a historical accident, but not entirely so, and therein lies the issue. The accident may be about how these characteristics emerged. Their interaction may be a different story. Presumably, there is competition between societies, and the most successful tend to win out. This process involves trying ideas and discarding less successful ones. Conquest usually comes with imposing ideas on others. And you cannot go back in time, so once successful ideas have spread, there is no going back. It is, therefore, not always clear what is typically Western about Western culture.

There are reasons to believe that the future will be entirely different from the past. Humanity is using far more resources than the planet can provide. Something has to give. If humans succeed in dealing with this issue in a civilised manner, then the world may change to the point that the present cultures have lost most of their meaning. The future is unknown, but the past is not. To explain where we are now and why Western civilisation has led the modernisation process, we can investigate the characteristics of Western culture and how they interacted.

Greek philosophy

Traditional cultures centre around an idea of wisdom reflected in belief. Wisdom was a greater good than knowledge. If you studied the teachings of the great ancient prophets and philosophers, whether it was Buddha, Confucius, or Christ, you know all you need to know.2 Traditional cultures do not pursue new knowledge for the sake of it, for instance, by studying gravity to come up with a theory of gravity. Greek philosophy was different. Greek philosophers engaged in a rational and fundamental inquiry into the nature of reality and our knowledge and beliefs. It was a quest for knowledge rather than wisdom.

Western Christendom

From Christianity, the West inherited a claim on universalism. Christianity, like Islam, claims to represent the only universal truth that everyone should accept. Christianity, like Islam, also maintains that all people are equal. Everyone could either embrace or reject the only true religion so that there are only believers and non-believers. Non-believers may be inferior to believers, but that is due to their own choice. The West inherited the principle of equality from Christianity.

Confucianism, Hinduism, and Buddhism do not claim to be the universal truth, while Judaism lacks missionary zeal. Equality was not the main concern for these religions either. Ideologies invented in the West like Liberalism and Socialism and prescriptions to organise societies promoted by the West like human rights, democracy, and free trade also came with passionate claims on universal truth. This kind of missionary zeal is not prevalent in other civilisations, except Islam. For instance, China and India do not demand other nations to copy their economic and social models.

Christianity features a division between the profane and the spiritual. Jesus allegedly has said that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). Hence a Christian does not need to challenge worldly authorities. And you should give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s (Mark12:17). And so, a Christian could pay Roman taxes. This feature of Christianity made it possible to separate church and state so that in modern Western societies, all religions can be equal before the law. And, Christianity came with a powerful message of mercifulness and equality that appealed to the masses.

These features allowed Christianity to spread within the Roman Empire without causing wars and uprisings. As a result, Roman authorities did not consistently view the new religion as the most urgent threat to the empire as there were barbarian invasions and rebellions to deal with. Periods of persecution thus alternated with periods of relative peace for the Christians. Christians believed the Creator to be a higher authority than the emperor, and they renounced the Roman gods, but they did not challenge Roman rule. The Jews did resist, and so Roman armies practically wiped them out.

Not challenging worldly authorities allowed the Catholic Church to establish a vast network of priests, monasteries, and convents and a hierarchy to manage them. As a result of the Investiture Conflict, the Catholic Church gained control over the appointment of bishops and thus became an independent institution with political influence all over Europe. That contrasts with other civilisations. In Orthodox Christianity, the emperor oversaw the church. In Islam and Hinduism, priests and religious scholars could have considerable influence on political affairs. Only, these civilisations had no centralised independent religious institution like the Catholic Church. In China, established religion did not play a prominent role in politics.3

Rule of law and representative bodies

Law consists of the rules of justice of a community. In premodern societies, the law was often believed to be fixed by a higher authority, for instance, custom, a divine authority or nature. It made law independent from rulers, at least in theory, and to some extent also in practice. Religious law is administered by priests explaining holy texts. That applies to Judaism, Islam and Hinduism. In China, the state provided the law.3 There never was Christian law, and Christians accepted worldly authorities and their law systems.

The Catholic Church embarked on a project of introducing Roman Law throughout Europe. Consequently, Roman Law is nowadays the basis of the laws of most European nations and many nations outside Europe. Roman Law is a civil law meant to regulate affairs between citizens in a society and is not religious. The involvement of the Catholic Church in this project reflects the Christian separation between spiritual and worldly affairs. In England, another tradition of civil law called Common Law emerged.

The rule of law requires the law to be a countervailing power to worldly rulers. Feudal Europe did not have centralised states, so the Catholic Church could use its political power to introduce Roman Law. In England, a power struggle between king and nobility led the king to promote Common Law in the Royal Court to undermine his opponents who administrated the local courts.3 The king prevailed but remained checked by the rule of law and a strong aristocracy who forced him to sign a document, the Magna Carta, that guaranteed the rights of the nobility. The Magna Carta is a precursor to modern constitutions.

The rule of law often was a distant ideal rather than a reality. The outcome depended on the balance of power between the political actors in each society. These were the king, the aristocracy, and the clergy. Traditionally, the aristocrats and clergy were powerful. They had a representation in the Parliaments called Estates that decided over taxes. After the Middle Ages, centralised states began to emerge with kings trying to acquire absolute power and aspiring to decide on their own over taxes.

A power struggle between the kings and the aristocracy ensued. In Poland and Hungary, the aristocrats prevailed. These states soon collapsed because the aristocrats did not want to pay taxes for the defence of the country. In France and Spain, the king more or less prevailed by bribing the aristocracy with tax exemptions and putting the burden of taxes on peasants and the bourgeoisie, who had no representation in the Estates. This move undermined the tax base of the state. In England, a civil war broke out that ended with the arrangement that the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie represented in Parliament decided over the taxes they paid.3

It made taxation legitimate as it required the consent of those who paid taxes. The aristocracy and bourgeoisie in England had a stake in the success of the state. They profited from the colonies, for instance, via the slave and opium trade, so they were willing to pay taxes if they believed that it was necessary. In this way, England could win out in the colonial wars with France in the century that followed despite having fewer resources. England’s finances were in good shape, so England could borrow more money at lower interest rates to finance these wars than France could.

Individualism and social pluralism

In traditional societies, male family lines were the basis of the organisation of families. Families rather than individuals owned property. Family elders made important decisions. In Western Europe, individuals could make important decisions about marriage and property themselves. They already had substantial freedoms in the Middle Ages. This development started soon after Germanic tribes had overrun the Roman Empire and converted to Christianity.3

The Catholic Church took a strong stance against practices that held family structures together, such as marriages between close-kin, marriages to widows of dead relatives, the adoption of children and divorce. It allowed the church to benefit from property-owning Christians who died without an heir. For that reason, women could own property too. These individual property rights undermined family structures.3 Individual property rights later became crucial for the development of modern capitalism.

As a result, the Catholic Church could finance its large organisation, provide relief to the poor, and become a significant power. Western Europeans in the Middle Ages did not trace their descent only through the family line of their father, which would be necessary to maintain strict boundaries between families. In this way, it became harder to carry out blood feuds as the circle of vengeance was smaller, and many people felt related to both sides.3

It allowed feudalism to replace kinship as a basis for social solidarity so that social organisation could become a matter of choice rather than custom. In theory, feudalism was a voluntary submission of one individual to another based on the exchange of protection for service. In practice, this was often not the case, but with the spread of the rule of law, feudal relationships turned into legal contracts in which both the lord and serf had rights and obligations.3

In the Middle Ages, there were no strong states in Western Europe. The aristocracy was powerful and responsible for the defence of their realms. As the economy began to flourish, an influential class of merchants emerged in the cities. Many cities gained independence and became responsible for their governance and defence. Serfs flocked to cities in search of opportunities and freedom, thereby further undermining the power of feudal lords. In Northern Italy, feudalism had already ended by 1200 AD and cities run by wealthy merchants came to dominate the area.

Kinship as an organising method had largely vanished. Europeans could organise themselves for a wide array of purposes. In the Middle Ages, there were monasteries, convents, and guilds. There were also military orders, such as the Knights Templars. Later on, societies and corporations emerged. This European pluralism contrasted with the absence of civil society, the weakness of the aristocracy, and the strength of centralised bureaucracies in Russia, China, and the Ottoman Empire.1

The Renaissance

The Renaissance began in the merchant towns of Northern Italy. The elites of Northern Italy became less religious. This process is called secularisation. Wealthy merchants had money to spend on frivolous pursuits like art and literary works. Optimism replaced pessimism. Medieval virtues like poverty, contemplation and chastity came to be replaced by new virtues like participating in social life and enjoying life. The Italian cities needed the active participation of wealthy individuals to finance public efforts like defence.

The pursuit of wealth became seen as a virtue, which signalled the emergence of modern capitalism. People in traditional societies and Medieval Europe frowned upon trade and the pursuit of wealth. They believed that wealthy people must share their riches with their community. Trade often comes with questionable ethics and was seen as a necessary evil.

Building on the existing European tradition of individualism, entrepreneurial individuals came to be cherished. The Italian Renaissance tradition includes individuals like Michelangelo, who was known for his unparalleled artistic versatility, and Giovanni Giustiniani, a mercenary who organised the defence of Constantinople against the Turks and Christopher Columbus, who discovered America.

The separation between the worldly and spiritual realm reduced the obstacles to secularisation. The Renaissance started in the cradle of the Roman Empire. Italian merchants sailed the Mediterranean. The legacy of the ancient Greeks and Romans was everywhere around them. It prompted a renewed interest in classical antiquity, including ancient Greek and Latin texts. The works of the Greek philosophers and their rational enquiries into the nature of reality were rediscovered and began to affect European thought. These texts were secular and promoted virtues different from Christian virtues.

Printing and gun powder were Chinese inventions that came to Europe. Around 1450, the first movable type printing system was introduced in Europe, making it possible to print books in large numbers. From then on, new ideas could spread faster. Constantinople, the last Christian stronghold in the Eastern Mediterranean, fell into the hands of the Ottoman Turks, blocking traditional trade routes with the Indies. The Portuguese then began to look for new trade routes by sailing around Africa, starting the European exploration of the world.

Double shock

Around 1500, two developments rocked Europe. The first was the discovery of a previously unknown continent, America. It uprooted the belief in traditional knowledge as Europeans discovered their ignorance. It spurred a fundamental questioning of existing ideas and a drive for knowledge2 that would lead to modern science that uses observations to produce general theories. The works of the Greek philosophers turned out to be helpful in this respect.

The second was Protestantism challenging the moral authority of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church had become corrupted by the buying and selling of church offices. Martin Luther taught that salvation is a gift of God that you might receive through faith in Jesus Christ. In line with European individualism, he made faith a matter of personal choice rather than tradition. Luther taught that the Bible is the only source of divine knowledge, thereby challenging the authority of the Catholic Church. He translated the Bible into German, making it accessible to laypeople.

The Portuguese had found new trade routes to the Indies, and Columbus had discovered a continent that promised unparalleled riches. Small bands of Spaniards with firearms overran existing empires and plundered them. After plunder came exploitation. Colonisation was a profitable enterprise that could sustain itself. It generated sufficient revenues to expand the colonies further. Enterprise and investment capital rather than state armies and taxes drove European colonisation. The resulting larger markets favoured economies of scale. After the invention of the steam engine, these economies of scale propelled the Industrial Revolution.

A revolutionary mix

In 800 AD Western Europe was backward compared to the more powerful Islamic, Orthodox Byzantine, and Chinese civilisations. By 1800 AD, China was still a match for England and France, and the Ottoman Empire was a significant power. But the Industrial Revolution was taking off, tilting the balance of power decisively towards the West in the following decades. Europeans had acquired a mindset that made them more curious, enterprising, and flexible. When the gap between industrial and non-industrial nations became clear, Italy, Austria, and Russia started industrialising too. China, Persia, and the Ottoman Empire did not. It may now be possible to identify the elements of Western culture that were crucial to modernisation and shape the ways how Westerners behave:

  • a religion with a message of equality, missionary zeal and an uncompromising claim on the truth;
  • individualism promoting flexible organisation for different purposes;
  • a separation between spiritual and worldly affairs allowing for secular law and secular pursuits;
  • a quest for knowledge and truth, for instance, reflected in science and the scientific method;
  • an absence of a strong centralised political power, but instead, an uncertain balance between countries and political actors within countries that promoted competition;
  • a rule of law that limited the powers of political actors and guaranteed individual property rights so that investments were more secure;
  • entrepreneurial spirit and a drive for profit.

The introduction of railroads exemplifies this trend. The first commercial railroad opened in 1830 in England. By 1850 there were already 40,000 kilometres of railroads in Europe. Asia, Africa, and Latin America together had only 4,000 kilometres.2 The first railroad in China was opened only in 1876. It was 24 kilometres long and built by Europeans. The Chinese government destroyed it a year later. In Persia, the first railroad was built in 1888 by a Belgian company. In 1950 the railway network of Persia amounted to only 2,500 kilometres in a country seven times the size of Britain which had 48,000 kilometres of railroads. The technology of railroads was relatively simple, but the Chinese and the Persians did not catch on. They could not do so because they thought and organised very differently.2

Until 1800, Europe did not enjoy an obvious advantage over China, Persia or the Ottoman Empire, but Europe had gradually built a unique potential. It had developed a culture of individualism, curiosity, and enterprise. When the technological inventions of the Industrial Revolution appeared, Europeans were in the best position to use them.2 They were more innovative, motivated by profit, and organised themselves flexibly for new purposes like building and maintaining railroads.

On the back of these advantages, European ideas spread over the world. Ideologies invented in Europe like capitalism and communism inherited the missionary zeal and uncompromising claim on the truth from Christianity. Similar thoughts were formulated elsewhere, for instance, by Chinese philosophers, but not as a coherent ideology. A few Chinese philosophers proposed that theories require the support of empirical evidence, but they did not develop a scientific method. Science was at the basis of European inventions. Science produced results, which promoted European power and fostered European superiority thinking.

The culture of the future

As the first civilisation to modernise, the West has led in the culture of modernity for over four centuries. During that time, the West could impose its will on other civilisations and often did so. Western ideas and values have spread over the globe. As other societies are catching up and are acquiring similar patterns for education, work, wealth, and class structure, there may be a universal culture in the future, possibly based on Western culture.1 That is by no means certain, but there is at least one issue to consider.

Hegelian dialectic sees history as a battleground for ideas. Revolutions like the French Revolution illustrate this point. The old order tried to undo its achievements but failed in the end. Indeed, the French Revolution was why Hegel came up with his concept in the first place. It suggests that more powerful ideas replace weaker ones in a survival-of-the-fittest-like competition. Nearly all the ideological struggle has taken place in the West so the surviving ideas from the West could be superior. It might explain why liberal democracy is a success, to varying degrees at least, in countries with different cultures, for instance, Japan, India, Botswana, Turkey, Taiwan, Costa Rica, Pakistan, Thailand, Uruguay, South Africa, Ukraine, Indonesia and Hong Kong.

The future may be different from the past, so existing cultures may not last. Humanity must face issues like the limits of the planet and poverty as one civilisation. And modernisation does not have to mean Westernisation. Japan was the first non-Western country to modernise. Today it is one of the most advanced countries in the world, and also, a liberal democracy. At the same time, Japan has retained its unique culture and identity. So far, non-Western cultures have been modernising without disappearing. In many ways, Chinese, Islamic, Buddhist or Hindu cultures reassert themselves. As the wealth and influence of non-Western societies is increasing, they are becoming more confident about the merits of their cultural heritage and may be less likely to Westernise.1

Furthermore, the West may not be in the best position for the future as the future could put different demands on societies than the past. There still is competition between countries. Other countries, for instance, China, may now be better positioned to deal with future challenges so that other civilisations, including the West, may have to adapt to China, most notably with issues regarding government effectiveness. That does not necessarily imply dictatorship, but other nations may increasingly copy features from Confucian societies. For the West, it may mean that individualism and individual rights will be reversed to some extent. And charging interest on money and debts may promote wealth inequality, financial instability, excessive government interference in the economy, and short-term thinking so other societies may have to adapt to the Islamic civilisation and abolish interest on money and debts.

People from different cultures interact more often, so a global culture may emerge in the longer term. In any case, the West cannot impose its ideas and values upon others in the future. Often people from other civilisations are resentful of the West’s imperialism.1 The Chinese speak of one hundred years of national humiliation when referring to the period between 1850 and 1950 in which Western powers broke the Chinese Empire and plunged it into civil war. Among Muslims, similar sentiments exist. The West’s recent military interventions in Islamic countries stirred up these sentiments.

These feelings may subside over time, and non-Western peoples may develop a neutral stance towards the West and its past. In the process, they may discover that at least some elements of Western culture have universal appeal. Societies from different civilisations have much in common because human nature does not depend on culture. There may be concepts, for instance, democracy, that can work in other civilisations. The West has tried out more ideas than other civilisations, so it more likely has uncovered elements of a possible universal culture in the process than other civilisations.

Barring a collective challenge coinciding with the emergence of a universal religion that inspires people from all backgrounds, global culture is unlikely to emerge anytime soon. A universal religion has not yet arrived, but this universe could be a virtual reality created by an advanced humanoid civilisation for the personal entertainment of someone we can call God. And so, the advent of a new religion is a realistic possibility. This religion could provide a plausible explanation for our existence, promote a shared destiny, and allow for a greater degree of diversity than currently existing religions and ideologies.

Featured image: Map from Clash of Civilisations, Wikimedia Commons, User Kyle Cronan and User Olahus, GFDL.

1. The Clash of Civilisations and the remaking of world order. Samuel. P. Huntington (1996).
2. Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.
3. The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution. Francis Fukuyama (2011).

A society on pillars

For a century, Dutch society consisted of identity groups based on religion or ideology. This division was called pillarisation. Religious and ideological groups encompassed several social classes. Social life usually was within your own pillar, and contacts with other people were limited. Each pillar had sports clubs, political parties, unions, newspapers, and broadcasters. Roman Catholics and Protestants also had their own schools and hospitals.

The pillars of Dutch society were Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Socialist, with each about 30% of the population. The Protestants themselves were further divided into smaller identity groups. The remaining 10% of the Dutch were liberal. The Dutch liberals were less organised and opposed pillarisation, but they too had their own political parties, newspapers and broadcasters.

Strong communities are close-knit, have shared norms and values based on ideology or religion, and come with social obligations. The pillar organisations focused exclusively on their own communities. This happened in other places in Europe too. Nowadays, similar models exist in Northern Ireland, Switzerland, Austria, Cyprus, Lebanon and Malaysia.

Nevertheless, the same laws applied to everyone. And the curricula of Protestant, Roman Catholic, and public schools were nearly the same as everyone was preparing for the same state exams.

To make pillarisation successful, the overarching identity, for instance, the nation, should be strong, and the intensity of the identity conflict should be low. Western Christianity, which includes both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, features a separation of worldly and religious affairs, so religious beliefs did not conflict with submission to a state.

The Dutch are famous for their tolerance, which was at times close to indifference. The identity groups accepted each other and minded their own affairs. After 1800, there was no civil war in the Netherlands, nor was it close at any time. Leadership was also important. The leaders of the pillars were willing to compromise, and the members merely followed their leaders.

Nevertheless, identity issues dominated Dutch politics from time to time. For instance, on 11 November 1925, the cabinet fell when the Catholic ministers resigned after Parliament accepted an amendment introduced by a small Protestant fraction to eliminate the funding for the Dutch envoy with the Vatican. A Protestant government fraction supported the amendment.

None of the identity groups on its own was able to dominate society. Instead, they had to make deals with each other. On religious issues, Roman Catholics and Protestants often found each other. For instance, they arranged that schools and hospitals could have a religious identity and that the state would fund them like public schools and hospitals. The Socialists were able to make deals on working conditions and social benefits.

Pillarisation in the Netherlands began to take shape at the close of the nineteenth century. One could say that Dutch society was built upon the pillars. They allowed groups with different worldviews to coexist peacefully and work on a common destiny, which was the future of the nation. From the 1960s onwards, the pillars began to lose their meaning.

Pillarisation can be helpful if people believe in a shared destiny, for instance, the nation-state, but do not share a common background. In that case, everyone can live and work together with the people they feel comfortable with. Cultural and religious differences may subside over time. But as long as these identities remain distinct, people can organise themselves accordingly via pillars, and in doing so, avoid conflict.

Naomi Campbell

About models

What are we talking about?

When you hear about models it is often about people like Naomi Campbell or Heidi Klum. Yet, there are far more fascinating models out there. They may not dwell in the spotlights but everyone employs them. Scientists are the most heavy users. These models are simplifications or abstractions of reality and are used to explain things or to make predictions.

Game theory model

Indeed these models are as sexy as the scientists using them so a picture might not have drawn your attention. But then again, sexy is just a temporary phase in life. So what kind of models are we talking about? You can think of:

  • models to calculate the trajectory of the planets in the solar system
  • models to forecast the weather
  • models to predict the spread and the mortality of a virus
  • models to estimate the impact of a proposed measure on the economy
  • models to predict the impact of climate change

In the 1970s weather forecasts were of poor quality compared to today. And they didn’t go a lot farther than the day after tomorrow. Today predictions are more accurate and go up to two weeks in advance, even though the longer term predictions are not as accurate as those for today or tomorrow.

This improvement is the result of weather forecast models and computers. Computer models have improved over time, and a lot of hard work of scientists has gone into them. Usually about 50 different models are used together to make a weather prediction. Models are important tools to make sense of what happens in the world. There has been a course named Model Thinking by Professor Scott E. Page of the University of Michigan on the Internet. Much of what you read here comes from this course.

Why use models?

When making plans for the future, models can be useful. You can ask yourself, what might happen if you choose a particular action. An economist might use models to predict the consequences for economic growth of a proposed policy measure. Predictions made with models do not always come true. For instance, most economists didn’t see the financial crisis of 2008 coming despite all the models they had at their disposal.

In 1972 a group of scientists using a computer model warned that we would have run out of oil and some other crucial natural resources by 2010. They may have been a few decades off the mark but their warning made people and policy makers think about the fact that the resources of our planet are limited.

When models fail people may start to doubt the experts. This can be dangerous. On average experts do better than uneducated guesses. Only, small errors can lead to dramatic misses so an uneducated guess can sometimes be more accurate than an expert calculation. Experts usually don’t make the mistakes laypeople make so they do better on average.

Models can be wrong because they are simplifications and don’t take everything into account. For instance, an economic model to predict demand for goods and services doesn’t include the preferences and budgets of each individual consumer. If you had all that information, you might be able to make very accurate predictions, but that may be impossible.

There are good reasons to become familiar with models and the issues that come with them. Models can make us think clearer. People who use models usually are better decision makers than those who don’t because they have a better understanding of the situation. Models help us to use and understand data. And they assist us with designing solutions for problems and setting out strategies.

Using multiple models together

Proverbs can disagree with each other. Two heads are better than one but too many cooks spoil the broth. And he who hesitates is lost while a stitch in time saves nine. Contradictory statements can’t be true at the same time but they can be true in different situations or times. It may be important to know which advice is best in which situation, or more often, which combination of advice.

Models are better than uneducated guesses and using more models together can lead to better outcomes than using a single model. That is why up to fifty models are used to make a weather prediction. People who use a single model are not good at predicting. They may be right from time to time just like a clock that has stopped sometimes shows the correct time.

Smart people use several models and their personal judgement to determine which models best apply on the situation at hand. Only people using multiple models together make better predictions than mere guessing but they can be wrong. Still, models can help us to think more logically about how the world works, and eliminate a lot of errors we would make otherwise.

Model thinking

When you plan to work with models, you need to think logically from assumptions to conclusions, and then verify the outcomes with the use of experiments or gathered data. This way of working is called model thinking. It gets even more complicated when you use different models together as the outcomes may differ. And so you might have to consider which models apply best on the situation at hand and evaluate the different outcomes. Model thinking usually consists of the following steps:

  • name the parts

A model consists of parts. For instance, if you want to figure out which people go to which restaurant, you need to identify the individual people as well as their preferences and budgets. You also need to identify the restaurants and their menus and the price of those menus. And so the parts are the individual people, their preferences, the restaurants, their menus and the price of each of those menus.

  • identify the relationships between the parts

A model comes with relationships between the parts. For instance, the financial system is interconnected because financial institutions lend money to each other. If one bank fails, loans may not be repaid, and other institutions may get into trouble too. And so it might be a good idea to identify the relationships between financial institutions and how much they depend on one another.

  • work through the logic

Suppose you want to calculate the length of a rope that you want to tie around the earth at one metre above the surface. Assume the Earth’s circumference to be 40,000 kilometres. The formula for circumference C is: C = πD, where D is the diameter of the Earth. In this case C = π(D + 2m) = πD + (π * 2m) = 40,000 km + 6.28m.

  • doing experiments

You can design a model on a drawing board and then reality may turn out to be quite different. Model need a reality check. For instance, if people are often jammed near the exit of a room, you could explore the effects of putting a post before the exit to prevent people from pushing each other.

  • identify logical boundaries

With the use of models it may be possible to identify boundaries. For instance, if you think of allowing interest rates to go negative, you may want to estimate how low interest rates can go. If interest rates go below a certain level, for instance -3%, most people may stop saving so the interest rate can’t go lower. To estimate that interest rate, you may need a model predicting savings at different interest rates.

  • communicate the findings

If you have used a model then you may have to expain your findings, and therefore the use of the model. For instance, to explain why interest rates can’t go below -3%, you may discuss how you have used the model to come to your conclusion. To support your model you may have used a survey asking people at which interest rate they will stop saving.


Models come with different types of outcomes. Models can help us predict which of type of outcomes will materialise in reality. Possible types of outcomes are equilibrium, cycle, random, and complex.

  • equilibrium

Equilibrium outcomes end at a specific value and stay there until conditions change. For instance, if you set the thermostat of the central heating to 20°C while the room is 17°C, it will turn on the heating until the room is 20°C and stop once the temperature has reached this level. By then the water in the device might be heated to the point that the room will heat up further to 21°C.

But the heater will remain off as long as the temperature is above 20°C so the room will cool down after some time as long as the outside temperature is lower. The heater will only start again once the temperature goes below 20°C. So after some time the temperature will be close to 20°C and remain so until you set the thermostat to another temperature.

  • cycle

Outcomes of the type cycle show a repeating pattern. For instance, there is a business cycle in the economy causing growth to alternate with slumps. Therefore a model for economic growth could identify a trend, which is the average economic growth over a longer period of time as well as cycles of growth and slumps.

  • random

Random outcomes are impossible to predict even though there may be boundaries or a limited number of possible outcomes. For instance, if you play a game of cards, it is impossible to know on beforehand which cards you will get even though you may know that you won’t get a joker card if it is not in the game. Likewise, if you throw a dice, you can’t predict the number but it will be between one and six.

  • complex

Complex outcomes are hard to predict but they are not random. For example, the demand for oil and the supply of oil tend to slope up in a fairly predictable manner. The price of oil depends on all kinds of things, such as reserves, people in markets, and politics, so an oil-price model is probably complex. The model might be wrong quite often too but it may do better than mere guessing.

Using and understanding data

An important application of models is using and understanding data. If you can make sense of data, you may find information that you can use. This can be done in the following ways:

  • understand patterns

There may be patterns in the data. For example, there may be fluctuations in economic growth that can be explained by a business cycle model.

  • make predictions for individual cases

A model can give a relationship between different variables so you can predict an unknown variable if the other variables are known. For example, the price of a house may depend on the neighbourhood and the number of square metres. So, if you know the neighbourhood and the number of square metres, and the relationship between these variables and price, you can predict the price of a house.

  • produce bounds

For example, if you use models to estimate predict the weather two weeks from now, there is too much uncertainty to come up with an exact temperature, so a model will probably produce a range with a lower bound and an upper bound of the temperatures that might occur.

  • test

You can use models with the data to ‘predict’ the past. In this way you can test models and check how good they are. For example, if you have the economic data from 1950 to the present, and you have a model that predicts the unemployment rate based on the economic data of previous years, you can use the data from 1950 to 1970 in the model to predict the unemployment in 1972, and then check whether or not the prediction is close to the real unemployment figure of 1972.

  • predict other things

For example, you may have made a model that predicts the unemployment rate, but as a side benefit it might also predict the inflation rate. Another example is that early models of the solar system and gravity showed that there must be an unknown planet, which turned out to be Neptune.

  • informed data collection

For example, if you want to improve education, and make a model that predicts school results, you have to name the parts, such as teacher quality, the education level of parents, the amount of money spent on the school, and class size. The model determines which data should be collected. There is no reason to collect data on school size if you don’t use it in you model.

  • estimate hidden parameters

Data can tell us more about the model and the model can tell us more about reality. For example, a model for the spread of diseases is the Susceptible, Infected, Recovered (SIR) model. If you have the data of how many people are getting the disease, you can predict how the disease will spread over time.

  • improve

After you have constructed a model, you can use data to improve it and make it closer to the real world.

Making decisions, strategies and designs

Models can help with making decisions, setting out strategies and designing solutions. A few examples can illustrate that:

Financial contagion risk
Financial contagion risk model
  • decision aides

Models can be used to make decisions. For instance, at the time of the financial crisis of 2008, you could have made a model of financial institutions like Bear Sterns, AIG, CitiGroup, and Morgan Stanley with the relationships between them in terms of how their success depends on another. As some of these companies were starting to fail, the government had to decide whether or not to save them. This model can help to make that decision. The numbers represent how much one institution depends on another.

So, if AIG fails then how likely is it that JP Morgan fails? The number 466 is big. The number 94 represents the link between Wells Fargo and Lehman Brothers. If Lehman Brothers fails, this only has a small effect on Wells Fargo and vice versa. Lehman Brothers only has three lines going in and out and the numbers associated with these lines are relatively small. For the government this can be a reason not to save Lehman Brothers. AIG has much larger numbers associated with AIG and can be a reason to save AIG because a failure of AIG cancause the whole system to fail. This is why some financial institutions were deemed ‘too big to fail’.

  • play out different scenarios

History only runs once. But with models of the world, you can play out different scenarios. For example, in April 2009, the Federal Government decided to implement an economic recovery plan. You can run models of the economy and look at the unemployment rate with and without the recovery plan. It doesn’t mean that what a model shows would really have happened without the recovery plan, but at least the model provides some understanding of its effect.

  • identify and rank levers

It can be worthwhile to implement the measures that have the most effect. For example, one of the big issues in climate change is the carbon cycle. The total amount of carbon on Earth is fixed. It can be up in the air or down on the earth. If it is down on the earth then it doesn’t contribute to global warming. If you think about intervening, you may ask where in this cycle are there big levers? Surface radiation is a big number. If you think about where to interfere, you want to think about it in terms of where those numbers are large.

  • help to choose from policy options

Suppose there will be a market for pollution permits. We can make a simple model and tell which one is going to work better. Suppose a city has to decide about creating more parks. More parks might seem a good thing but if people want to move there and developers build large apartment buildings around them, it might not be such a good idea after all.

Featured image: Naomi Campbell at Festival de Cannes. Georges Biard (2017). Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

1. Model Thinking [link]

The assembly of the canton Glarus

Swiss democracy

In the interest of the people

For a society to function, it needs an order only a government can provide. Over time more and more people came to believe that a government should work in the interest of its citizens. That is quite a leap. Traditionally governments were often a kind of crime syndicate providing a protection racket. Citizens paid taxes to a lord or a king who provided them with security against other lords, kings and ordinary criminals.

Even today many governments work in the interest of their elites while officials take bribes. Except for Northwest Europe, Canada and New Zealand, governments range from a bit corrupt to highly corrupt. Even when a government isn’t corrupt, it might be incompetent. If a business provides poor service you often can go to a competitor. Poor quality governments are harder to avoid as it often involves relocation.

corruption per country (flaxen = most clean, crimson = most corrupt)

The above graph from Transparency International gives an indication of corruption in each country. Poverty is a cause of corruption but corruption is also a cause of poverty. If a government is corrupt, money is transferred to unproductive people. Investors will be wary of making investments so interest rates need to be higher to attract capital. This makes fewer investments profitable so the country will be poorer.

Non-corrupt high quality government isn’t easy to come by. And democracy doesn’t guarantee that a government does its job well. But if a government already is of good quality, democracy can make it more responsive to the interests of its citizens. But democracy can undermine the effectiveness of a government if citizens allow their narrow personal interests to prevail over the general good.

Main features

The Swiss have the most trust in their government.1 That may be because of the unique features of Swiss democracy. Switzerland is also a wealthy country, partly because Swiss banks have been a safe haven for criminals, tax evaders and dictators all around the world. For instance, Switzerland has been important for Nazi Germany’s war effort by facilitating trade with the outside world.

These issues shouldn’t cloud the evaluation of the Swiss political system. The Swiss have a unique combination of representative and direct democracy. The government and parliament administrate the country but if citizens feel the need to take matters in their own hand, this is possible.

Switzerland uses direct democracy in the form of referendums more than any other country in the world. These referendums are binding. The government must respect the outcome.2 The Swiss use the following types of referendums:

  • mandatory referendums on changes in the federal constitution
  • optional referendums on other federal laws that will be held when 50,000 eligible voters demand for it
  • similar rules exist on the state and communal levels, but the constitutions of the states deal with the specifics
  • citizens can propose a change in the constitution via a popular initiative, and the electorate can decide whether to accept the initiative, an alternative proposal from the government or parliament, or to keep things unchanged

Switzerland is a federation of 26 member states called cantons. The member states have a large degree of independence. The Swiss constitution promotes making decisions at the lowest possible level and delegating power to a higher level if that is deemed beneficial.

The citizens of the Swiss states elect the Council of States (Senate) by majority vote. They can cast as many votes as there are vacant seats. Voters can propose representatives and influence the fractions of different political parties.

The Swiss elect their National Council (Congress) every four years by proportional representation. The people vote for a political party. Optionally they can vote for a specific person on the candidate list of the party.

Executive power has been distributed in Switzerland. The daily affairs of government are performed by the Federal Council consisting of seven members. It is customary that all major political parties are represented in the Federal Council.

Constitutional changes need a double majority, which means that majority of the electorate as well as a majority of the cantons must support it.

Most Swiss communities use direct democracy to make decisions. In a few small cantons people can vote directly by the show of hands.


The use of representatives in combination with referendums means that citizens aren’t burdened with the daily affairs of government but still are in full control as they can vote on any issue if they feel that is needed. Direct democracy allows for a more fine-grained alignment of government decisions with the wishes of the citizenry as on some issues the majority might be liberal and on some others it might be conservative.

Before laws are introduced, interest groups such as state governments, political parties and non-governmental organisations are consulted, and their concerns are taken into account. As referendums tend to come down to yes or no questions, this consulting is important.

Proportional representation allows for multiple political parties that more closely match the preference of voters. New parties can emerge more easily. It also means that small shifts in voter preferences tend to have little effect on the political landscape.

Swiss voters can influence the make up of the political fractions of multiple political parties, which means that the people who are elected in parliament for one party are more likely to be acceptable to voters of other parties as well.

All major political parties work together in the Federal Council as there is little room to forward political agendas. That is because citizens can always call for a referendum. In this way referendums can contribute to political stability even when parliament consists of several smaller parties.

The use of direct democracy in Switzerland makes it less relevant who is in government so that political discussions tend to focus on issues and content rather than people and rhetoric. The Swiss tend to be well-informed about the issues that are at stake.

Proportional representation as opposed to win or lose elections foster cooperation as individual political parties don’t have a majority and need to work with other parties to achieve their political objectives.

Proportional representation reduces the need to spend large amounts of money on political campaigns and other manipulations like gerrymandering, voter fraud and vote suppression as the effects of these actions tend to be limited. In the United States a small margin in a swing state might decide who becomes President.

Many countries have strict limits to political donations and campaign spending. Switzerland does not have them. This is not as harmful as it might be without proportional representation and referendums.

Direct democracy undermines the work of lobbyists for a law doesn’t pass if it is not supported by a majority of the voters. And so interest groups need to convince the citizenry rather than politicians.

In Switzerland the Congress represents the nation as a whole while the Senate represents the states. A decision needs the consent of a majority of the parliament of the nation as well as a majority of the cantons.

Most countries have a Congress and a Senate but they aren’t federations like Switzerland. In unitary states the role of a Senate varies. For example, it can focus on protecting the constitution against laws that violate it.

Switzerland doesn’t have a Constitutional Court or a Senate to protect the Constitution. There is no good safeguard of human rights. The majority can vote for stripping the rights of minorities. Switzerland is bound to the treaties it signed but safeguards to protect human rights could be an improvement.


The Swiss are satisfied with their political system. Even though it has a few weak points, there is good reason to believe that other countries can benefit from implementing a similar political system in which the citizens have the final say. Yet, different nations might opt for somewhat different versions of direct democracy.

Some people think that a better political system is possible. There are many ideas but few of them have been tested thoroughly. The Swiss political system has proven to work in practice. It allows citizens to vote on proposals to alter and improve the political system. So even if a better system is possible, the Swiss political system may be the way to get there.

To make direct democracy work, there are conditions that need to be met. The citizens must be informed, reasonably educated and willing to engage in rational discussions. Laws must be thoughtfully crafted with extensive consultations as referendums often boil down to simple yes or no decisions. Mistakes can be made, but they can be learning opportunities as people need to deal with the consequences of their choices.

The Swiss federation can be a model for the European Union and the United States. By delegating responsibilities to the state level it might be possible to reduce bureaucracy in the federation while increasing the legitimacy of the centralised institutions. Swiss democracy might also be a model for a world government if that ever comes to pass.

The Swiss political system promotes a political culture of compromise and cooperation. It is built into their system and therefore their political system is a strong design. For those who are accustomed to divisional politics or politics centred around people rather than issues, it may be difficult to understand that a completely different way of doing politics is possible and that it can work out better.

Featured image: The assembly of the canton Glarus. Democracy International (2014). [copyright info]

1. Government at a Glance Fact Sheet OECD. (2013). [link]
2. Switzerland’s Direct Democracy. [link]