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A Look at Progress

December 31, 2009


Nobel Laureate, economics professor, and New York Times‘ op-ed columnist Paul Krugman suggests that we label the past decade “The Big Zero” [“The Big Zero,” 28 December 2009]. He writes:

“It was a decade in which nothing good happened, and none of the optimistic things we were supposed to believe turned out to be true. It was a decade with basically zero job creation. … It was a decade with zero economic gains for the typical family. … It was a decade of zero gains for homeowners, even if they bought early. … Last and least for most Americans — but a big deal for retirement accounts, not to mention the talking heads on financial TV — it was a decade of zero gains for stocks, even without taking inflation into account. … So there was a whole lot of nothing going on in measures of economic progress or success. … So let’s bid a not at all fond farewell to the Big Zero — the decade in which we achieved nothing and learned nothing. Will the next decade be better? Stay tuned. Oh, and happy New Year.”

Has the world really stopped progressing in any meaningful way? In a very thoughtful essay on progress, The Economist asks, “Why is the modern view of progress so impoverished?” [“Onwards and upwards,” 17 December 2009]. It begins:

“In the rich world the idea of progress has become impoverished. Through complacency and bitter experience, the scope of progress has narrowed. The popular view is that, although technology and GDP advance, morals and society are treading water or, depending on your choice of newspaper, sinking back into decadence and barbarism. On the left of politics these days, ‘progress’ comes with a pair of ironic quotation marks attached; on the right, ‘progressive’ is a term of abuse.”

The magazine laments the fact that, at least in the “rich world,” too many people are becoming cynical. The article notes that “it was not always like that.” In an age bursting with data and new knowledge, people have somehow lost the idealistic fervor that that motivates them to come up “with ideas for how the world might become a better place.” The essay continues:

“[In past ages,] for most people, the question was not whether progress would happen, but how. The idea of progress forms the backdrop to a society. In the extreme, without the possibility of progress of any sort, your gain is someone else’s loss. If human behaviour is unreformable, social policy can only ever be about trying to cage the ape within. Society must in principle be able to move towards its ideals, such as equality and freedom, or they are no more than cant and self-delusion. So it matters if people lose their faith in progress. And it is worth thinking about how to restore it.”

The essay isn’t arguing that progress is not happening. Instead it is arguing that people’s view of progress has changed for the worse. The essay agrees with “the case put forward in ‘It’s Getting Better All the Time’, by the late Julian Simon and Stephen Moore then at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank in Washington, DC.”

“Over almost 300 pages they show how vastly everyday life has improved in every way. For aeons people lived to the age of just 25 or 30 and most parents could expect to mourn at least one of their children. Today people live to 65 and, in countries such as Japan and Canada, over 80; outside Africa, a child’s death is mercifully rare. Global average income was for centuries about $200 a year; a typical inhabitant of one of the world’s richer countries now earns that much in a day. In the Middle Ages about one in ten Europeans could read; today, with a few exceptions, such as India and parts of Africa, the global rate is comfortably above eight out of ten. In much of the world, ordinary men and women can vote and find work, regardless of their race. In large parts of it they can think and say what they choose. If they fall ill, they will be treated. If they are innocent, they will generally walk free. It is an impressive list—even if you factor in some formidably depressing data. (In the gently dissenting foreword to her husband’s book Simon’s widow quotes statistics claiming that, outside warfare, 20th-century governments murdered 7.3% of their people, through needless famine, labour camps, genocide and other crimes. That compares with 3.7% in the 19th century and 4.7% in the 17th.) Mr Moore and Simon show that health and wealth have never been so abundant. And for the part of humanity that is even now shedding poverty, many gains still lie ahead.”

While the author of the essay agrees with that accounting of the world’s progress, he (or she) asserts that “a belief in progress is more than just a branch of accounting. The books are never closed.” The essay warns that a global catastrophe, like a nuclear war or an environmental collapse, could “tip the balance into the red.” Just as importantly, it claims, is the fact that “the accounts are full of blank columns. How does the unknown book-keeper reconcile such unknowable quantities as happiness and fulfilment across the ages?” Is there a way to measure material progress if it’s accompanied by spiritual decline? The essayist is correct in asserting that “belief in progress is about the future.” Belief is also intertwined with hope. But people in the rich world have seen so much progress that they expect today’s amazing quality of life and it no longer inspires hope for a better future. The essay continues:

“People born in the rich world today think they are due a modicum of health, prosperity and equality. They advance against that standard, rather than the pestilence, beggary and injustice of serfdom. That’s progress.”

The essay recalls that in the age of enlightenment (which started in the 17th century), “thinkers believed that man, emancipated by reason, would rise to ever greater heights of achievement. The many manifestations of his humanity would be the engines of progress: language, community, science, commerce, moral sensibility and government.” They overestimated man’s achievements, however, and, as the essay states, “Unfortunately, many of those engines have failed.” The essay continues:

“Some supposed sources of progress now appear almost quaint. … Purge the language of rotten thinking, they believed, and truth and reason would prevail at last. The impulse survives, much diminished, in the vocabulary of political correctness. But these days few people outside North Korea believe in language as an agent of social change. Other sources of progress are clothed in tragedy. The Germanic thought that individual progress should be subsumed into the shared destiny of a nation, or volk, is fatally associated with Hitler. Whenever nationalism becomes the chief organising principle of society, state violence is not far behind. Likewise, in Soviet Russia and Communist China unspeakable crimes were committed by the ruling elite in the pursuit of progress, rather as they had been in the name of God in earlier centuries. As John Passmore, an Australian philosopher, wrote: ‘men have sought to demonstrate their love of God by loving nothing at all and their love for humanity by loving nobody whatsoever.’ The 20th century was seduced by the idea that humans will advance as part of a collective and that the enlightened few have the right—the duty even—to impose progress on the benighted masses whether they choose it or not. The blood of millions and the fall of the Berlin Wall, 20 years ago this year, showed how much the people beg to differ. Coercion will always have its attractions for those able to do the coercing, but, as a source of enlightened progress, the subjugation of the individual in the interests of the community has lost much of its appeal.”

The inevitable result, it seems, is that Idealism has given way to materialism. Materialism, the essayist claims, has been driven primarily by advances in science and technology. As a result, progress has also given rise to concerns about man’s ability to control science and technology.

“The modern age has belonged to material progress and its predominant source has been science. Yet nestling amid the quarks and transistors and the nucleic acids and nanotubes, there is a question. Science confers huge power to change the world. Can people be trusted to harness it for good? The ancients thought not. Warnings that curiosity can be destructive stretch back to the very beginning of civilisation. As Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, so inquisitive Pandora, the first woman in Greek mythology, peered into the jar and released all the world’s evils. Modern science is full of examples of technologies that can be used for ill as well as good. Think of nuclear power—and of nuclear weapons; of biotechnology—and of biological contamination. Or think, less apocalyptically, of information technology and of electronic surveillance. History is full of useful technologies that have done harm, intentionally or not. Electricity is a modern wonder, but power stations have burnt too much CO2-producing coal. The internet has spread knowledge and understanding, but it has also spread crime and pornography. German chemistry produced aspirin and fertiliser, but it also filled Nazi gas chambers with Cyclon B. The point is not that science is harmful, but that progress in science does not map tidily onto progress for humanity. In an official British survey of public attitudes to science in 2008, just over 80% of those asked said they were ‘amazed by the achievements of science’. However, only 46% thought that ‘the benefits of science are greater than any harmful effect’. From the perspective of human progress, science needs governing. Scientific progress needs to be hitched to what you might call ‘moral progress’. It can yield untold benefits, but only if people use it wisely. They need to understand how to stop science from being abused. And to do that they must look outside science to the way people behave.”

Humans have always known that there is a difference between knowledge and wisdom. One can have great knowledge without being wise. Wisdom is the correct use of knowledge. The essay goes on to note that science is not the only area where good and evil live as companions.

“It is a similar story with economic growth, the other source of material progress. The 18th century was optimistic that business could bring prosperity; and that prosperity, in its turn, could bring enlightenment. Business has more than lived up to the first half of that promise. As Joseph Schumpeter famously observed, silk stockings were once only for queens, but capitalism has given them to factory girls. And, as Mr Moore and Simon argue, prosperity has brought its share of enlightenment. The Economist puts more faith in business than most. Yet even the stolidest defenders of capitalism would, by and large, agree that its tendency to form cartels, shuffle off the costs of pollution and collapse under the weight of its own financial inventiveness needs to be constrained by laws designed to channel its energy to the general good. Business needs governing, just as science does.”

Advances in science and economics, the essayist avers, are good as far as they go, but they do “not seem to be delivering the emotional goods.”

“The forests are disappearing; the ice is melting; social bonds are crumbling; privacy is eroding; life is becoming a dismal slog in an ugly world. All this scepticism, and more, is on display in ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and ‘Brave New World’, the two great British dystopian novels of the 20th century. In them George Orwell and Aldous Huxley systematically subvert each of the Enlightenment’s engines of progress. Language—Orwell’s Newspeak—is used to control people’s thought. The individuals living on Airstrip One are dissolved by perpetual war into a single downtrodden ‘nation’. In both books the elite uses power to oppress, not enlighten. Science in Huxley’s London has become monstrous—babies raised in vitro in hatcheries are chemically stunted; and the people are maintained in a state of drug-induced tranquillity. And in the year of our Ford 632, Huxley’s world rulers require enthusiastic consumption to keep the factories busy and the people docile. Wherever the Enlightenment saw scope for human nature to improve, Orwell and Huxley warned that it could be debased by conditioning, propaganda and mind-control.”

Despite the view of pessimists, the worst predictions of past and present fear-mongers have not come to pass. For example, with exceptions of countries like Iran and North Korea, neither “Orwell’s nor Huxley’s nightmares have come to life.” The question asked by the essayist is: “Why?”

“The answer depends on the last pair of engines of progress: moral sensibility in its widest sense, and the institutions that make up what today is known as ‘governance’. These broadly liberal forces offer hope for a better future—more, indeed, than you may think. The junior partner is governance—not an oppressive Leviathan, but a democratic system of laws and social institutions. … Even if government … is often inefficient and self-serving, it also embodies moral progress. That is the significance of the assertion, in the American Declaration of Independence, that ‘all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights’. It is the significance of laws guaranteeing free speech, universal suffrage, and equality before the law. And it is the significance of courts that can hold states to account when they, inevitably, fail to match the standards that they have set for themselves. Such values are the institutional face of the fundamental engine of progress—’moral sensibility’. The very idea probably sounds quaint and old-fashioned, but it is the subject of a powerful recent book by Susan Neiman, an American philosopher living in Germany. People often shy away from a moral view of the world, if only because moral certitude reeks of intolerance and bigotry. As one sociologist has said ‘don’t be judgmental’ has become the 11th commandment. But Ms Neiman thinks that people yearn for a sense of moral purpose. In a world preoccupied with consumerism and petty self-interest, that gives life dignity. People want to determine how the world works, not always to be determined by it. It means that people’s behaviour should be shaped not by who is most powerful, or by who stands to lose and gain, but by what is right despite the costs. Moral sensibility is why people will suffer for their beliefs, and why acts of principled self-sacrifice are so powerful.”

The essay ends on an upbeat note by recognizing that “people can distinguish between what is and what ought to be.”

“[Although] there are no guarantees that the gap between is and ought can be closed. Every time someone tells you to ‘be realistic’ they are asking you to compromise your ideals. Ms Neiman acknowledges that your ideals will never be met completely. But sometimes, however imperfectly, you can make progress. It is as if you are moving towards an unattainable horizon. ‘Human dignity’, she writes, ‘requires the love of ideals for their own sake, but nothing requires that the love will be requited.’ … Ms Neiman asks people to reject the false choice between Utopia and degeneracy. Moral progress, she writes, is neither guaranteed nor is it hopeless. Instead, it is up to us. “

I’m idealistic enough to believe that men and women of good will can make a difference in the world. Evil will always live as a companion to good, but that fact need not impede progress altogether. As the New Year and new decade begin, let’s work to ensure that it is not another Big Zero.

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