You can't build a modern society without trained minds.
What we have long called the “developing” or “underdeveloped” world isn't as dumb as it appears to be. As Hans Rosling notes in this BBC documentary, most of the world has gone from being “poor and sick” in 1810 to “rich and wealthy” today.
What made the difference comes down to one word. Education. People learn how to create more value, and over time find that the real store of value isn't in their muscles but in their trained minds.
It's a change the Internet accelerates, by bringing a firehose of new ideas and learning to everyone it touches. And so we come to Egypt.
Because education is only half the prosperity solution. Trained minds also need freedom in order to achieve something with that education. Freedom to think, freedom to engage in business, freedom to try new ideas and freedom to fail.
The more free a society, the more its minds can do. America got this ball rolling, but now the truth about freedom is obvious, and it is the bottom line.
Egyptians want to use their education to re-invent their world, but the government of Hosni Mubarak – with the support of useful idiots like Richard Cohen – are afraid. He seems to think that if Egyptians are free to think they'll all reject thinking.
Some will. In Israel, which all Americans are taught to revere, there are people who deny thought in the name of their religion. Their lives are subsidized by those who use their minds instead for invention. And Israel, despite its tiny population, has more innovation per-capita than we do.
Same is true here. There are many Americans who deny thought, some who use their education to deny it. Some, like their Israeli peers, are powerful politicians. But these people don't drive the economy forward. It's the engineers and entrepreneurs who do it that. So long as these people are free to think, to invent, and to build enterprises with their inventions, the rest are a luxury.
Egypt can be as wealthy as Israel, and the Egyptians know it. They have the intellectual capital to do it. But they need a government that will let that capital be unleashed. The fear of Cohen, and other right-wing hacks, that they will choose a government dedicated to non-thinking, or magical thinking, that they will put their minds into a box now that they have been opened, is absurd.
The real problem was shown quite clearly last night on, of all things, The Travel Channel. For some reason they decided to show two Bourdain shows in succession. In Egypt, he mostly ate cheap eats like ful – fava beans cooked in a pot and eaten with bread. In Istanbul two years later, his taxi driver ate better than an Egyptian doctor would.
Sure, there are threats from the right in Turkey. There are threats from the right here in America. So long as there is freedom to choose some will choose to go backward, or to deny others their rights out of fear. But the economic consequences of enforcing that control are drastic, and most people won't accept them.
It's true that a resource-based economy, where wealth comes out of the ground and can be extracted by a relative handful of people, for the benefit of another handful, isn't like this. Resource-based economies have an economic lever they can hold over most people, keeping minds imprisoned on any ideological excuse.
But trained minds can replace resources. At the end of the day even resource economies depend on trained minds to create demand.
This is the lesson the 21st century is trying to teach. If Israel can be rich, so can Egypt. So can any educated society. And from that comes the kind of progress shown by Rosling's chart – people growing both healthier and wealthier as they become free to create the world of their dreams.