What are the biggest obstacles to continued progress and to maintaining an open and free society?
One of the biggest obstacles is, broadly speaking, utopianism. Progress is neither guaranteed nor irreversible. The institutions and values that helped bring about the progress humanity has achieved are increasingly under attack by extremists on both sides of the political spectrum. Many nationalist populists on the right and self-proclaimed socialists on the left reject the Enlightenment values of reason, science, and open discourse, as well as free enterprise.
A realistic picture of the human condition should compare the imperfect present with a much more imperfect past rather than with an imagined utopia in the future, as well as acknowledge the truly incredible progress that humanity has already made. Unfortunately, instead of viewing the present as a vast improvement on the past, many people see the present as failing to live up to some sort of ideal world and deny the progress that has been achieved.
It is important to remember that living conditions remained remarkably constant throughout 99.9 percent of homo sapiens’ existence: poverty was ubiquitous. Then economic growth started to accelerate in Great Britain and the Netherlands, the rest of Western Europe and North America, and then the rest of the world. Markets globalized and the Industrial Revolution took productivity to new heights, causing the acceleration in economic growth and ultimately leading to widespread prosperity.
Modern society based on the rule of law, global exchange, and social tolerance, is an extremely recent phenomenon. It may also be more fragile than it seems.
The greatest travesties of the 20th century were carried out in the name of the utopian ideologies of communism and fascism. There is always the danger that new utopian demagogues will emerge.
Utopia will always be out of reach and the world will never be a perfect place. But by building on and learning from past successes it is possible to strive to make each day better than the last. Mankind has proven again and again that it is capable of rising to great challenges and solving problems that once seemed insurmountable. As my colleague Marian Tupy once wrote, “The danger lies in turning our backs on the means by which problems can be solved – reason, science, open discourse, thirst for knowledge, etc. The values of the Enlightenment are under assault from the far Left and the far Right. Both extremes believe that our world has been corrupted beyond repair. They want to blow it up and start anew. ‘What,’ they ask us, ‘do you have to lose?’ A lot, actually, should be our response.”
This first appeared on Quora.
Chelsea Follett is managing editor of HumanProgress.org.