Friday, March 21, 2008

Four Views of Human Progress

By any objective measure, life on earth is getting better.

Health? Infectious diseases kill about 50 people per 100,000 – a 14-fold reduction in death from infectious diseases in the last century. Longevity? From the mid-18th century to today, life expectancy in developed countries jumped from less than 30 years to about 75 years. Even in the poorest countries in the world, life expectancies have increased, in some cases by 50%. Infant deaths? In 1900, more than 1 baby in 10 died. In some areas of the US, 1 in 4 died. Today, only about 1 in 150 babies dies within the first year. Mothers dying in childbirth? One hundred years ago, the maternal death rate was 100 times higher than it is today.

The list of indicators goes on and on to an inevitable conclusion. Whether we look at diet and nutrition, the distribution of wealth, the state of poor Americans, the state of children and teens, the American worker, leisure and entertainment, housing, transportation and communication, invention and scientific progress, technology, education, safety, environmental protection, the supply of natural resources, social and cultural indicators, sports, the condition of women, racism, or the freedom of the individual, life on earth is clearly getting better.

Why don’t more people know it?

Why are people convinced the world is bad and getting worse?

Who or what is the agent of progress?

Answering these questions requires that we define the idea of progress. We immediately run into a problem. Not everyone views progress the same way. There are at least four different views of human progress in the modern world. We can classify these views as conservative, libertarian, socialist, and communist. Understanding these views can help clear up much of the confusion surrounding the idea of human progress.

The Conservative View of Progress

The conservative view of progress is profoundly skeptical. Sometimes – perhaps often – it rejects the idea of progress altogether. It may use phrases like “the end of progress,” “the limits of progress,” the “limits of growth,” or “mankind should not play God.” When presented with evidence that the world is getting better, the conservative simply claims we are measuring the wrong stuff, looking the wrong way.

In the conservative view, the present is a degenerate state filled with dangerous ideas masquerading as progress. Mankind has fallen from a Golden Age, an Eden, or a pristine state of nature. This is a view shared by groups as different as radical environmentalists and religious fundamentalists, no doubt to each group’s mutual outrage. The common theme in their world view is that unrestrained progress is a threat to whatever good is left the world. The only meaningful progress is that which restores what has already been lost.

In this view of progress, man’s task on earth is redemption. How this redemption is achieved is the distinguishing characteristic between conservative groups. Some groups see it in nature, some in faith, and some in patriotism. Individuals are not free to decide the path of their own redemption. Redemption must follow a course laid out by a proper authority such as a hereditary aristocracy, a religious leader, a group of secular moralists wielding political power, or a democratically elected official.

Whatever the type of authority in question, it is the driving agent of progress, not the individual. Authority guides the conditions, traditions, institutions and faith of all human activity in accordance with a divine or natural plan for the redemption of a fallen race. Authority sets the acceptable limits of individual behavior. Authority determines the difference between entrepreneurship and crime. Authority defines the social goals and the means to achieve them. Such a world view requires faith more than reason, tradition more than innovation.

The Libertarian View of Progress

The libertarian view of progress is organic and evolutionary. Society is organized by the self-interested economic activity of individuals in voluntary arrangements. Only the most successful arrangements survive. Predicting exactly what will survive in complex and constantly changing conditions is nearly impossible. Knowledge is too fragmented, dispersed, and fragile to collect and use for central planning. Only the decentralized process of the market can effectively use such knowledge.

Progress is messy and unpredictable, but creativity is very high. There are lots of individual goals, but there is no clearly defined social goal. Nor can there ever be one without interfering with the organic order. Social results are the unintended consequences of individual behavior. Business people and entrepreneurs are the agents of progress. The only limits imposed on their behavior are rules against force and fraud.

While tradition, faith, and reason are all present for individuals to use however they see fit, the libertarian view of progress does not require any individual to submit to any of them. What is essential in the conservative view is purely voluntary for the libertarian.

In the libertarian view of progress, there are no infallible guides toward an ideal social order. Progress is not a matter of redemption. It is a limitless evolutionary process with unpredictable social results. The world is always out of balance, in the middle of change, surging in some new direction. Progress is institutionalized innovation.

The Socialist View of Progress

In the socialist view of progress, human activity is best organized by human reason via political action. Its consequences are measurable and predictable. Progress is movement towards a clearly defined, socially desirable goal. The future is what man wants it to be. Reason is man’s essential planning tool, more useful than faith (which a socialist calls superstition), tradition (historical and social inertia), or free markets (chaotic production).

The agents of progress are technocrats who have both the technical expertise for the problem in question, and the political power to improve the organic order, i.e. the power to improve the marketplace of free and voluntary exchanges. In its mildest form, the socialist view of progress co-opts the very word in its name: Progressives. In its strongest form, it sees business people and entrepreneurs as the enemies of progress.

Today, it is almost impossible to imagine the immense confidence that early 20th-century intellectuals had in the power of planning, what was once called “socialist calculation.” They believed that all they had to do to make a better world was plug a few thousand variables into an equation, add a few thousand coefficients, and – voila! – achieve optimal outputs and a just distribution.

Before 1914, many sincere intellectuals praised pre-war Germany as a leading example of an advanced, scientific social order. “Unscientific” was the ultimate intellectual put-down, and it was often used by non-scientists to criticize the work of other non-scientists. Faith, tradition, and commerce were obstacles to progress. Remove them, and reason would achieve, at last, a more dignified life for mankind.

The Communist View of Progress

The communist view of progress is that history follows laws as reliable as the laws that govern the physical universe. History is not a chain of random events. History is the unfolding of the inevitable class struggle over the means of production. Each event expresses a historical necessity. At the present moment, mankind is not sufficiently developed to understand historical necessity. An enlightened few do, however, and these form a Party to act as the embodiment of the will of history. The Party is the agent of progress. Arthur Koestler described this view in his novel Darkness at Noon:

“The Party can never be mistaken…You and I can make a mistake. Not the Party. The Party, comrade, is more than you and I and a thousand others like you and I. The Party is the embodiment of the revolutionary idea in history. History knows no scruples and hesitation. Inert and unerring, she flows towards her goal. At every bend in her course she leaves the mud which she carries and the corpses of the drowned. History knows her way. She makes no mistakes. He who has not absolute faith in History does not belong in the Party’s ranks.”

The Four Views in Action
After nearly a century of ascendance, the Communist view of progress began dying out around 1980. Born out of the socialist ideals of the late 18th and 19th centuries, Communism left a wake of death, misery, and suffering unparalleled in human history, including the deaths of 10 million people from deliberate famine in the Ukraine in 1932 and 1933; the Gulags where millions suffered for crimes as small as making an anti-government joke; the occupation and misery of Eastern Europe; the Korean and Viet Nam wars; and the killing fields of Cambodia where nearly 2 million died. Communism was an intoxicating vision, built on grand ideas, logic, and careful conclusions, but it was an utter failure in the real world. It turned out to be an intellectual fairy tale with a horror-show ending. It smolders on in North Korea, Venezuela, and a few English departments. It has been abandoned in everything but name in China and Viet Nam.

Where did the Communists turn after their faith in the Party as the agent of progress was shattered? They retreated to the solace of the socialist view en mass, and that is where most of them are today. They reluctantly abandoned their belief in historical necessity – and with it, their willingness to sacrifice lives in the name of progress. They adopted the view that progress requires smaller individual sacrifices of liberty and property, offered up to the right people, acting according to the right reasons.

The world today is a volatile mixture of these three views of progress: conservative, socialist (composed of both original socialists and lapsed communists), and libertarian, each vying for supremacy. In reality, there is no clear dividing line between these views. They represent a continuum. However, for the purpose of exploring the idea of progress, it is helpful and not wholly inaccurate to treat them as distinct sets. Indeed, it is usually when these views overlap that trouble begins, because one view can quickly overrun another.

For example, people with differing views of progress might all accept the necessity of some form of government planning for infrastructure (defined here as transportation and communication networks). When a community builds a road, it faces a problem that is very difficult to solve solely by voluntary agreement. All it takes to shut the network down is one holdout. Some degree of enforced social planning, i.e., government, is required to deal with holdouts.

However, once we concede the necessity of government planning for infrastructure, we open the door to all kinds of mischief in the name of progress. Every problem can cleverly become an infrastructure problem. Unchecked, government planning leads straight to a struggle between those who would use it to redeem mankind (the conservatives), and those who would use it to build a scientific state (the socialists). The libertarians are notably absent. They would rather not use government at all.

Is it really true that something as familiar as the local zoning board is actually the scene of a political shootout between one group’s vision of redemption and another group’s vision of the scientific state? Of course it is. Conservatives use zoning to control adult businesses, and thereby moral behavior. The Greens (another brand of conservatism seeking redemption in nature) use zoning to control development, something they view as a moral issue. Socialists use zoning to rationalize unrestrained markets. All of these groups are arguing about the right way to use government, but they rarely argue whether it should be used at all. All of these groups seek the power of government because of the good they believe they can do with it, in the name of progress. They do not see in their efforts the danger of igniting bitter civil disputes. They only want what reasonable people want. In this, they are dangerously naïve.

Government power is not simply a social contract. The Nobel-prize winning economist Friedrich Hayek made that point decades ago when he said that the most minor government functionary has more arbitrary power over another individual than the wealthiest man in town. That is precisely why government can solve network problems: the most minor government functionary can command involuntary compliance under the threat of fine, seizure, or imprisonment. Or, as George Washington said almost two hundred years before Hayek, “Government is not reason, government is not eloquence, it is force.”

Until economics developed a substantive body of economic research on the actual operations of government– what is called public choice theory – the proponents of government planning had a relatively unobstructed field to promote planning in the name of progress. Public choice theory revealed the weaknesses in their plans. Government officials are only human. True to human nature, they tend to use their offices and powers for their own benefit, the benefit of their friends, and the harm of their enemies. Business is tempted to use government to limit competition or fix prices. Labor is tempted to use government to protect jobs and benefits. Consumers are tempted to use government to lower prices and dole out benefits. Politicians are tempted to use government to buy votes and shake down contributors. The end result of this orgy of temptation, self-interest, and force is a zero sum game where someone has to lose.

Public choice theory builds a powerful case against using government as a tool of progress. It teaches us that we must carefully distinguish between those things that government can do well in the name of progress, and those things that are best left to free individuals acting in their own self-interest in the market. Knowing where to draw the line between the two is difficult. Knowing that a line must be drawn is essential.

The future of human progress – defined here as a steadily improving standard of living – depends on well drawn lines. You might consider them guardrails. On one side, the conservative rail emphasizes tradition and culture, the unspoken rules of how we should deal with one another and the world around us. On the other side, the socialist rail emphasizes reason and the unique power of public solutions. Between the two, the libertarian view of progress rushes forward in an unpredictable rush of human creativity and change that looks subversive to the conservative and looks like unreasonable greed to the socialist.

So long as tradition and reason remain the guardrails that direct and contain human creative behavior, they serve a valuable purpose in promoting human progress. But that does not mean that individuals who hold those views – those who form the guardrails -- will approve of the results. There will be inevitable friction and even violent disagreements. The relative influence of each view will wax and wane among populations, but that is precisely how progress is born, where it lives and works, where it delivers its best results, and where it dies.

To summarize, progress is what happens when free men and women act creatively within -- and sometimes beyond -- the fluctuating cultural and political constraints established by their civilization. Sometimes, progress simply improves things. Sometimes, it changes them forever.

In conclusion, let me return to the questions I asked at the beginning.

Why don’t more people know the world is getting better? That fact does not fit into their world view.

Why are people convinced that the world is bad and getting worse? The more conservative or socialist a society, the more likely people will believe that the world is getting worse.

What is the engine of progress? It is the unlimited creativity of free individuals.

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