The Myth of Progress

“In the sphere of scientific advance it is undeniable that there is progress:  that is to say, each generation builds on the knowledge acquired by its predecessor, and one by one the secrets of the universe are unlocked and exploited.  Of course, there is no reason why this process should go on forever, and it is quite conceivable that one day educational institutions will decline to such a point that the accumulated results of scientific investigation will no longer be passed on…It is a matter of wisdom, not expertise, of an imaginative grasp of the human condition rather than the search for theories with which to explain it.”

Roger Scruton, The Uses of Pessimism and the Danger of False Hope

Optimism and hope for the future are not uncommon traits in modern America; a recent study has shown that Millennials, for instance, are more optimistic about the future than their older counterparts by the widest margin since surveys on the matter have begun.  This is hardly surprising if one considers that members of this generation have witnessed nothing but material progress in their relatively short lives.  The US economy, albeit with disappointing recent growth, has remained the envy of the world, and personal wealth has expanded in ways not easily quantified; for example, with just one handheld device, we can do immeasurably more with measurably less.

It is natural, of course, for people to assume that what has happened most recently will continue unabated.  It is difficult, in other words, for us to imagine a future in which the pace of progress stalls, and the material benefits of technological advances diminish.  But this unshakable faith in the future is not a capitalist ideal, but a Marxist one.  After all, since Marx did not believe in human nature, his philosophy assumed a linear progression of history in which human beings would be shaped by the material advances around them.

However, as Mr. Scruton notes above, human nature is very real; because we are fallible by nature, our lives and the world in which we live them must allow for periods of regress as well as progress.  It is, unfortunately, easier for us to destroy than it is for us to create.  There are countless examples throughout history of major declines in living standards.  In the immediate period following the fall of Rome, roads and cities fell into disrepair, and the bodies of the deceased were laid to rest in much shallower graves. Chinese civilization is so old, in fact, that it has witnessed multiple periods of major decline.

To those who say these are mere examples from ancient history, i would point to the century of relative decline for Argentines, once one of the world’s most prosperous peoples. Circa 1900, it was in the midst of the fastest recorded growth on record, and ranked higher than such nations as Germany and France.  Despite being spared the destruction those two nations experienced in two devastating world wars, Argentina is now poor because it squandered its prosperity through a combination of political corruption and policy error.  Relative to its peers, it has not recovered:

Consider, also, Venezuela.  After almost two decades of Chavism, – nationalization of industry, confiscation of assets, etc., – capital and intellectuals have fled Venezuela, leaving the populace desperate as their grocery stores are empty and their hospitals are without medicine.  This despite the fact that Venezuela has the world largest proven oil reserves, and has benefited from hundreds of billions of dollars in oil revenue over the last several decades.  Now, GDP per capita is dramatically less than it was 40 years ago:

It is a mistake, then, to assume that material progress is a given when in reality it has been a feature mostly of Western life.  This Gizmodo graphic of all the devices connected to the internet is just one small example of how much of the world’s wealth is concentrated in Western-leaning areas of the world:

In order to preserve our material well-being, it is imperative, therefore, that we understand the nature of progress itself.  Progress is not an inevitability toward which the whole of mankind is advancing, as Marx held.  Rather, it is the product of “the city,” the gathering of individuals from different tribes, religions, and cultures who have set aside those ‘identities of division’, if you will, in hopes of advancing their own material well-being.

As Roger Scruton puts it:

“The city is a community of neighbors who do not necessarily  know each other, but whose obligations come from settlement.  A neighbor, according to the Anglo-Saxon etymology, is one who ‘builds nearby’.  Citizens have settled side by side, and are bound by the many tacit and explicit agreements that they make with each other every day.  The city is the symbol and realization of the new form of reasonableness that emerges when the way of the tribe is left behind.”

Conversely, economic regression occurs when we revert back to the tribalism Scruton describes.  This tribalism is a mindset of us against them that leads to isolation both intellectually and economically.  It is no surprise, then, that the most successful economies are those who open themselves up to the community of ideas, welcoming thinkers and entrepreneurs into their communities rather than isolating themselves out of fear of the different.  The Venezuelas and Argentinas of the world have squandered their material and resource wealth by inadvertently or overtly driving off foreigners and their capital, those who  may be best suited to exploiting that wealth.  They have closed themselves off to foreign trade on the mistaken assumption that the division of labor among nations is a zero-sum game.

The point, of course, is to remind ourselves that progress is not inevitable, and we are fully capable of squandering the advances of our predecessors.  While history shows that we are resilient creatures and have overcome every obstacle from pandemics to world wars, it also reveals that a great number of our setbacks have been self-inflicted.  Therefore, when pondering the future and the policy choices that will shape it, it is necessary for us to be aware not just of what we might gain, but to consider carefully what we stand to lose.