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Centers of Progress, Pt. 36: Seville (Navigation)

Blog Post | Infrastructure & Transportation

Centers of Progress, Pt. 36: Seville (Navigation)

The expeditions that departed Seville’s harbor greatly expanded humanity’s horizons.

Today marks the 36th installment in a series of articles by HumanProgress.org called Centers of Progress. Where does progress happen? The story of civilization is in many ways the story of the city. It is the city that has helped to create and define the modern world. This bi-weekly column will give a short overview of urban centers that were the sites of pivotal advances in culture, economics, politics, technology, etc.

The 36th Center of Progress is Seville during Europe’s Age of Discovery, from the mid-15th to the mid-16th century, when the city was a major trade port at the forefront of progress in maritime navigation. In 1519, a five-ship expedition departed Seville on a quest to sail around the world. In 1522, only a single ship from that expedition returned, the galleon Victoria. And victorious she was, having sailed 42,000 miles to successfully circumnavigate the globe—a milestone in the history of navigation.

Today, Seville is the capital, as well as the most populous and richest city, in Andalusia, and its harbor remains busy as Spain’s only river port. The port handles exports such as wine, fruit (including oranges, which famously grow throughout and perfume the city of Seville), olives, and minerals. The port also handles imports, including oil and coal. Shipbuilding is a major part of the city’s economy, alongside the services industry and tourism. The city is known as the world capital of flamenco dancing, and throughout the city there are frequent performances of that dance form, which is likely a fusion of Asian and European dance forms brought about by a wave of immigration from northwest India to Andalusia between the 9th and 14th centuries. The city is also known among tourists for its bullfighting shows and its religiosity, with many believers thronging to the city during its Santa Semana (Easter Holy Week) festivities. The city is also the setting of several famous operas, including the Barber of Seville

Seville’s architectural wonders have been featured as backdrops in famous movies and television series, including Star Wars and Game of Thrones. While the city contains notable modernist buildings, such as the world’s largest timber-framed structure, the distinctive Las Setas (the Mushrooms), Seville remains best-known for its historic architecture. The city’s old town contains no less than three UNESCO World Heritage Sites. One is the Mudéjar-style Alcázar royal palace, which was largely built by Castilians in the 14th century on the site of an earlier Abbadid dynasty–era (1023–1091) fortress, incorporating some of the original structures, to house King Peter the Cruel (1334–1369). To this day, Spain’s royal family continues to occupy the Alcázar when visiting Seville, making it Europe’s oldest royal palace still in use.

Another World Heritage Site is the Seville Cathedral, which took more than a century to build. Completed in 1507, it presented an extravagant sight during Seville’s golden age of trade, just as it does today. It remains the world’s largest Gothic-style church, as well as the fourth-largest church of any kind. It is said that the original construction committee was tasked to create something “so beautiful and so magnificent that those who see it will think we are mad.” The surrounding orange trees delight the church’s visitors with Seville’s trademark scent.

The city’s final World Heritage Site is the General Archive of the Indies. It was commissioned in 1572 by King Philip the Prudent (1527–1598), who oversaw the peak of the Spanish Empire, to serve as the Merchants’ Exchange House (Casa Lonja de Mercaderes) for Seville’s tradespeople to conduct business related to their New World voyages. Throughout its history, different portions of the enormous Renaissance building have variously served such diverse functions as a painting academy, a grain storehouse, and a shelter for orphans and widows. As its current name suggests, the General Archive of the Indies now serves as a repository of archival documents illustrating the history of the Spanish Empire and its transatlantic trade.

According to mythology, Seville’s founder was none other than the famous demigod hero of classical literature, Hercules. A garden square called the Alameda de Hércules (Hercules mall), built in 1574, greets visitors to this day with a towering statue of the hero. More precisely, the city’s mythical founder was the Phoenician god Melqart, who later became identified with Hercules. The oldest part of Seville was likely constructed around the 8th century BC, on an island in the Guadalquivir River (derived from the Arabic al-wādī l-kabīr, meaning “the great river”). Seville was multicultural from its inception, defined by a mingling of the Tartessians, an indigenous Iberian people, and Phoenicians, who were lured by the city’s potential as a trade port.

Seville’s geography perhaps destined it to become a major port. The city marks the point on the 408-mile-long Guadalquivir beyond which ships are unable to travel farther inland. As Spain’s only major navigable river, the Guadalquivir has been used to transport goods since at least the 8th century BC when the ancient Phoenicians moved precious metals that were mined in Spain by boat, carrying them out to sea and delivering the cargo to the world’s first major port at Byblos, in what is today Lebanon, as well as to the Assyrians. The river was not only the main artery of trade traffic in and out of Andalusia, but it provided access to the Atlantic, which became critical for exploration of the New World and, ultimately, the achievement of circumnavigating the globe.

Over the years, Seville was ruled by Carthaginians, Romans (whose city walls remain partially intact), Visigoths, Moors, and Castilians. The city was always a prominent trade gateway and was progressively diversified by a constant influx of goods and people from different cultures. But it was during Spain’s Golden Age, at the height of the Spanish Empire’s transatlantic trade in the 16th century, that Seville grew to be one of the largest cities in Western Europe.

If you could visit Seville during its glory days, you would enter an intoxicating metropolis with eclectic architecture epitomizing centuries of cultural intermingling. As a Spanish rhyme goes, “Quien no ha visto Sevilla, no ha visto maravilla.” (He who has not seen Seville, has not seen wonder.) Walking amongst the crowds along the city’s intricately tiled pathways and mosaicked plazas, you would have seen a thriving cosmopolitan commercial center that housed merchants from across the continent, and you would have heard not only Spanish, but English, Flemish, and Italian, among other languages. While Islam was outlawed in 1502, there remained a significant Moorish, formerly Muslim minority, known as moriscos, some of whom continued to practice Islam in secret. Enslaved Africans also would have been present. The streets would be abuzz with talk of the latest groundbreaking maritime expeditions, as Europe’s great powers competed for mastery of oceanic trade avenues and raced to be the first to discover promising sea routes and uncharted lands.

In 1503, Spain granted Seville exclusive trading rights with the New World, and the city prospered. But, as the British historian Richard Cavendish has noted, “The idea that such a web of human activity could be controlled by a bureaucracy proved hopelessly unrealistic and for all the cascade of silver, Spain remained a poor country.” The weight that Seville’s monopoly and other policies limiting economic freedom put on the Spanish economy contributed to the government’s financial troubles, including nine eventual bankruptcies of the Spanish monarchy (in 1557, 1575, 1596, 1607, 1627, 1647, 1652, 1662, and 1666). Government-backed privileges enjoyed by the elites in areas ranging from trade to land management, monetary inflation from an influx of New World silver, and high government war spending were some of the factors that stymied economic development. Seville’s golden age was short-lived, ending when the crown transferred control of New World trade to Cádiz in 1717.

Among 16th-century Seville’s crowds, you might have glimpsed the renowned novelist Miguel de Cervantes (1547–1616), who studied at the Jesuit college in Seville in the 1560s and returned to the city in 1588 for a few years. Seville featured in several of his works, for example, by providing the setting for his novel about the city’s organized crime scene, Rinconete y Cortadillo. In one poem, Cervantes characterized the city this way: “O great Seville! Like Rome triumphant in spirit and nobility.” In Cervantes’s magnum opus, Don Quixote, the eponymous central character of that groundbreaking novel (first published in 1605), receives an invitation to visit Seville because “it was just the place to find adventure, for in every street and on every street corner there were more adventures than in any other place.” 

And a sense of adventure surely must have filled the air on the fateful day when an expedition departed Seville’s harbor on a quest to circumnavigate the globe. The achievement came at a cost: the expedition set out with some 260 people, but only 18 of them returned to Seville after circumnavigating. True to Seville’s multicultural reputation, the survivors who completed the voyage represented a number of nationalities. There were three Galicians, three Castilians, two Greeks, a Venetian supernumerary, a Genoese chief steward, a Portuguese mariner, a German gunner, and six Basque people, including the expedition’s ultimate captain, Juan Sebastián Elcano (c. 1486–1526). The Venetian, Antonio Pigafetta (c. 1491–c. 1531), kept precise journals chronicling the voyage, which many scholars consider the most reliable account of the expedition. Absent from the return was the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan (1480–1521), who had planned the Spanish expedition, but died en route in the Philippines. 

Europe’s Age of Discovery saw competition between many countries, but Portugal and Spain led the way. At first, Portugal dominated, discovering and claiming the Atlantic archipelagos of Madeira and Azores in 1419 and 1427, respectively, and finding a game-changing sea route to India in 1498, around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. The Portuguese focus on navigation even resulted in the unusual royal nickname of Prince Henry the Navigator (1394–1460). In 1501, the Florentine Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512), while on a Portuguese expedition looking for another maritime route to Asia, discovered what he called the New World—and from his name we get the term “America.” Advances in shipbuilding, including the development of a stabler, faster, and more maneuverable kind of ship called the galleon toward the beginning of the 16th century further accelerated progress in navigation.

While the governments sponsoring the expeditions may have been rivals, major voyages tended to be enterprises of multicultural cooperation, with crew members hailing from many countries—including Spaniards serving on Portuguese expeditions and vice versa, as the Spanish and Portuguese crowns competed to hire the best talent. Spain began to challenge Portugal’s supremacy of the seas in part thanks to its openness to expertise from abroad. It was Spain that financed the Genoese explorer Christopher Columbus’s (1451–1506) famous 1492 voyage to the Americas, which he mistook for the East Indies. (The West Indies owe their name to that mistake, and Columbia, derived from Columbus’s name, remains a poetic term for America). The Florence-born Vespucci died a Spanish citizen in Seville, with the title of Spain’s chief navigator, in 1512. The Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1475–1519) became the first European to cross the Americas to the Pacific Ocean in 1513, and in 1516 Juan Díaz de Solís (1470–1516), who may have been born in either Seville or Lisbon, became the first European to reach Uruguay, while on a Spanish expedition. 

Magellan dreamed of finding a direct trade route to the Spice Islands, in what is today Indonesia, that avoided having to go around Africa with its many rocky outcrops. The treacherous Cape of Good Hope route had become known as a ship graveyard. After repeated failed attempts to solicit funding for his voyage from Portugal’s monarch, Magellan went to Seville in 1517 to try his luck with the Spanish crown. Supportive of Magellan’s vision, but heavily in debt, Spain’s teenaged king (the future Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) was unable to fully fund the voyage. The private sector stepped in to make Magellan’s expedition possible. Cristóbal de Haro (d. 1541), a Burgos-born financier and merchant connected to the Fuggers, a prominent German banker family, provided the critical remaining funds that were needed for the voyage, as well as supplying goods for the crew to barter.

In 1519, Magellan departed Seville with a five-ship fleet consisting of the flagship Trinidad, the San Antonio, the carrack Concepción, the Santiago, and the Victoria. The Victoria was born as the Santa Maria in the shipyards of Ondarroa in Spain’s north, and was used for trade between Castile and England before the crown purchased the vessel in 1518. Magellan renamed her after his favorite chapel in Seville, the Santa María de la Victoria.

After a long journey across the Atlantic and travels along the South American coast in search of a route to the Pacific, the Santiago was wrecked in an Argentinian river in 1520 during a storm. Later that year, the expedition discovered a navigable sea route to cross the Americas to the Pacific through Chile, which was later given the name Strait of Magellan. Until the Panama Canal’s completion in 1914, the strait provided the only relatively safe maritime path between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. At the strait, the San Antonio deserted the expedition and returned to Spain. To justify their desertion, the crew described Magellan as a psychopath. His reputation in Seville suffered and his wife and child were sentenced to house arrest. It was only after Pigafetta disseminated his account of the voyage that Magellan’s reputation recovered. To this day, opinions of Magellan vary wildly.

After crossing the strait, Magellan named the body of water beyond it the Pacific Ocean because its waters were peaceful when he entered it. Unaware of the ocean’s vastness, the explorers expected to cross it in a few days, but it took months before they made landfall. By that point, the crew had eaten through their food supply and were reduced to devouring ship rats and sawdust. The majority developed scurvy, a condition caused by a deficiency of vitamin C, and many died of malnutrition.

But their troubles did not end when they finally reached Guam and the Philippines. An enslaved crew member and native speaker of Malay, Enrique of Malacca (1495–after 1522), conversed successfully with the locals, proving that they had indeed reached Asia. He may have been the first person to circumnavigate the world. The expedition soon became embroiled in conflict—the Battle of Mactan. Magellan led a contingent of his crew to fight for a local ruler, Humabon of Cebu, against the warriors of Lapulapu, who was the chieftain of Mactan, an island located about a mile east of Cebu. While Magellan’s crew was better armed, Lapulapu’s men outnumbered them, and they killed Magellan with a poisoned arrow. Today, Indonesians celebrate a holiday honoring Lapulapu for defeating the foreign force, and a prominent shrine in Mactan features a statue of Lapulapu and a mural painting of Magellan and Lapulapu in combat. According to Pigafetta, after the crew refused to free Enrique upon Magellan’s death, as specified in the latter’s will, Enrique successfully conspired with Humabon to arrange their extermination and his own freedom. Humabon invited part of the expedition, including the crew astrologer, San Martin of Seville, to a feast and had them massacred. The expedition’s survivors scuttled (deliberately sunk) the Concepción in 1521 because they no longer had enough men to crew three ships, and the Trinidad later broke down in the Spice Islands.

When the Victoria finally docked in Seville’s harbor three years after her departure, loaded with spices, she fired off salutes with the expedition’s remaining gunpowder. Pale and emaciated, the crew slowly disembarked, forever scarred by the memory of mutinies, disease, starvation, war, and storms at sea. Their leader Elcano called them “the skinniest men there ever were.” The cheering multitudes of Sevillians that greeted them handed out candles and applauded as the expedition members walked shakily and wordlessly to their ship’s namesake, the shrine of Santa María de la Victoria, to give thanks for their survival. Today, a slab in the cathedral honors them. Throughout their ordeal, the first circumnavigators of the earth contributed profoundly to humanity’s navigational understanding: they found the Strait of Magellan, learned of the immensity of the Pacific Ocean, and confirmed that the world was round. The spices they transported to Seville were valuable, but the greatest treasure they brought home was their hard-won navigational knowledge. 

Seville, Spain. Aerial view.

Bursting with mercantile activity and adventure-seekers from across Europe, 16th-century Seville gave humanity the first expedition to circle the world, which was arguably “the greatest sea voyage in the Age of Discovery.” That age ushered in a new phase of sea-based globalization that expanded humanity’s horizons, allowing the mapping of the world. As distant civilizations came into contact, brutal conflict often occurred, including the transatlantic slave trade and colonial power struggles. But the global interconnectedness enabled by mankind’s newfound navigational expertise ultimately helped create modern society, with far-reaching exchange of scientific knowledge and the prosperity generated by worldwide trade. Financed by both kings and merchants, the expeditions that departed Seville’s harbor undoubtedly changed the world. It is for those reasons that Seville has found its way to being our 36th Center of Progress.

Wall Street Journal | Economic Freedom

Australia to Abolish Nearly 500 So-Called Nuisance Tariffs

“The Australian government has announced it will abolish close to 500 ‘nuisance’ tariffs from July 1, reducing the cost of importing everything from toothbrushes to roller coasters and bumper cars.

Described by the center-left Labor government as the biggest unilateral tariff reform in at least two decades, removing the tariffs will cost the budget $19.9 million (30 million Australian dollars) in lost revenue annually, but help to streamline $5.6 billion (A$8.5 billion) in annual trade.”

From Wall Street Journal.

Blog Post | Progress Studies

Turgot and an Early Theory of Progress

Turgot, a French statesman, economist, and early advocate of economic liberalism, was one of the first to ponder how we achieve moral and material progress.

Summary: Progress, though central to modern life, was rarely thought about until the last two centuries. During the Enlightenment, thinkers such as Anne Robert Jacques Turgot connected freedom with progress, emphasizing the unique human capacity for cumulative knowledge. Turgot’s ideas laid some of the groundwork for modern liberalism and economic theory, influencing thinkers and policies long after his time.

Progress through the Ages

Though progress is an essential ingredient of modern life, it is an ideal that has only been acknowledged, discussed, and debated extensively in the last two hundred years. At first, it might seem odd to say large swathes of people did not always think deeply about progress. But this view ignores that the vast majority of our distant ancestors used the same tools in their daily lives that their ancestors, from hundreds of years in the past, had used in their time.

Broadly speaking, the Greeks and Romans viewed civilization like any other living organism; it grows then dies like all living things. The expected historical norm was the cyclical rising and falling of civilizations. Though some, such as the Epicurean philosopher Lucretius, theorized briefly about progress, this was an idiosyncratic line of inquiry at the time. Medieval thinkers viewed their age as a dark period in the shadow of an illustrious past. The word “progress” was alien to the human lexicon for thousands of years.

But this changed dramatically with the Enlightenment, a European intellectual movement characterized, in part, by a new confidence in the power of reason to catalog, observe, and experiment upon our natural environment. An advocate for Enlightenment ideals and ambassador for liberalism in its early days, Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, was among the earliest to examine the dynamics of progress. Importantly for classical liberals and libertarians alike, Turgot was the first to establish the connection between freedom and progress. Turgot believed without freedom, human progress would revert to cycles of development and decline.

Turgot’s Life, Education, and Career

Turgot was born in Paris to a distinguished Norman family that had long served the French monarchy as royal officials. Turgot’s father was Michel Michel-​Étienne, a Councillor of the Parliament of Paris and one of the senior administrators in the city of Paris. His mother, Dame Madeleine-​Françoise Martineau, was a renowned intellectual and aristocrat.

Turgot, as the youngest son in his family, was expected to join the church, the usual career path for a younger son in 18th-​century Europe. He began studying at the Sorbonne in 1749, but after a year, he decided he could not become a priest because he refused to conceal his beliefs that were at variance with the teachings of the church. Turgot was suited to being a student; he studied voraciously, reading history, literature, philosophy, and the natural sciences, interests he would maintain until his death.

Sorbonne Lectures: Early Ideas on Progress

While studying at the Sorbonne, Turgot made his intellectual gifts known and was elected by his fellow students to the position of Prieur. This mostly honorary position called for an occasional speech to be delivered publicly. The content of these speeches was inspired by Turgot’s interaction with Bishop Bossuet and his idea of “universal history.” Turgot’s innovation was to give a secularized account of humanity’s universal history. Turgot, like the ancients, accepted that all things live and then die. However, he maintained that humans have a unique capacity for language and memory, allowing them to pass down knowledge that accumulates incrementally over the centuries, leading to ever-​increasing stores of knowledge for the whole of humanity. Though this may seem like a simple idea today, for the time, it was revolutionary, and these speeches established Turgot at a young age as France’s foremost thinker on progress.

One of his speeches now survives as an essay entitled “A Philosophical Review of the Successive Advances of the Human Mind.” It is debatable whether Turgot is the first person to theorize about progress, but we can say with certainty that Turgot is best known for identifying the relationship between freedom and progress.

Turgot’s “A Philosophical Review of the Successive Advances of the Human Mind”

Unlike his inspiration, Bishop Bossuet, Turgot articulated a secular account of progress. Turgot does not entirely exile God from the discussion, but he relegates God to being a prime mover rather than a prime intervener in human affairs. For Turgot, progress does not come from divine providence but is a uniquely human phenomenon.

Turgot defined stages of civilizational development, beginning with hunting, then pastoral, and finally agricultural. Two years prior, in 1748, in The Spirit of the LawsMontesquieu had done the same. However, Montesquieu used these stages to illustrate how topography and climate influence human activity. Turgot’s stages are not separated by varying climates but by human developmental differences. Turgot argued human activity and civilization are influenced not only by climate and topography but also by degrees of social development, progress is not a mere descriptive conclusion; in Robert Nisbet’s words, “it is a method, a logic, of inquiry.”

Where Does Progress Come From?

For Turgot, the natural world is an unending cyclical succession of death and life —whereas human civilization shows signs not of constant decay but rather ever more vitality. Humans are unique creatures because of their capacity for language, writing, and memory. Because of these capacities, the knowledge of particular individuals becomes “a common treasure-​house which one generation transmits to another, an inheritance which is always being enlarged by the discoveries of each age.”

All humans have the same potential for progress. However, nature distributes our talents unevenly. Our talents are made practical by a long chain of circumstances. Turgot wrote, “Circumstances either develop these talents or allow them to become buried in obscurity.” But from this infinite variety of circumstances, progress slowly develops unequally at first, but its benefits spread to the whole human species over time.

Humans’ collective capacity for memory means that even amidst war, famine, and disaster, they can preserve and continuously improve their knowledge of the world. Writing prophetically before the economic miracle of liberalism, Turgot says, “Amid all the ignorance, progress is imperceptibly taking place and preparing for the brilliant achievements of later centuries; beneath this soil the feeble roots of a far-​off harvest are already developing.”

Progress Requires Experimentation

Unlike many of his philosophical contemporaries, Turgot greatly admired artisans and mechanics, people who worked with their hands to create new machines. Unlike Rene Descartes, Turgot did not believe the greatness of his century came from a superior set of ideals, attributing it instead to new inventions. Ultimately, Turgot believed we were indebted to artisans rather than philosophers for much of the comforts in our daily lives.

Behind all science lies experimentation. Turgot understood he could not give a complete account of how progress would unfold because a large part of it was down to chance and unique circumstances. He wrote, “Any art cultivated over a period of centuries is bound to fall into the hands of some inventive genius.” Turgot elaborates, “Chances lead to a host of discoveries, and chances multiply with time. A child’s play can reveal the telescope, improve optics, and extend the boundaries of the universe in great and little ways.” This might seem like fanciful thinking, but when Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, it was due to a simple mistake that yielded a crucial element of modern medicine, while Edison had to experiment over 1000 times before creating an effective light bulb which thereafter illuminated the entire world. There is no set path for progress to take. That is why we must leave people the maximum freedom to experiment and try new ideas to maximize future progress.

Obstacles to Progress

Turgot feared the main impediments to progress were conventional thinking and concentrated interests that benefited from the status quo. Turgot believed a concentration of power in any area would lead to stagnation and decay in all aspects of life, whether cultural, economic, or political. Inherited ideas, or what John Stuart Mill would later call, “dead dogma,” stop people from appreciating new knowledge. Turgot recommended we follow the facts because, “The greatest genius will not question a theory unless he is driven by facts.”

Turgot’s Laissez Faire Economics

After his time in the Sorbonne, Turgot turned his attention to politics. In 1752, he started climbing the political ladder as a substitut and later a conseiller in the Parliament of Paris. While living in Paris, he frequented salons, gathering places for intellectuals to come together to debate and discuss ideas. While attending, Turgot met the intendant of commerce, Jacques Vincent de Gournay, the man perhaps best known for popularizing the term laissez-​faire economics. In an effort to promote the study of economics, de Gournay gathered a group of young men, including Turgot.

During this time, Turgot became acquainted with physiocrats such as Quesnay, who argued that the state should not regulate commerce to promote economic growth, but leave markets free. Inspired by his mentor de Gournay and his friends like Quesnay, Turgot became one of the foremost advocates of free trade in France, if not the whole of Europe, before the days of Adam Smith.

When de Gournay died in 1759, Turgot wrote a fitting eulogy that summarized de Gournay’s beliefs while expanding Turgot’s own positions on how best to run an economy. The result is a short essay entitled “In Praise of de Gournay,” where Turgot develops his laissez-​faire philosophy.

Establishing the Idea of Economic Liberty

Turgot’s eulogy is the most complete statement of his economic beliefs that survives. Speaking on his mentor’s behalf, Turgot argues that, “The general freedom of buying and selling is therefore the only means of assuring, on the one hand, the seller of a price sufficient to encourage production, and on the other hand, the consumer, of the best merchandise at the lowest price.” Turgot, like de Gournay, believed that if people were left free to make their own decisions, there would not be anarchy like people expected, but instead harmony. Individuals, driven by self-​interest, make their own decisions with the information available to them, and by acting on their own interests, they unwittingly promote the interests of the whole of society.

Many of the regulations governments impose are attempts at stopping fraudulent sales or scams. Turgot wrote that, “To suppose all consumers to be dupes, and all merchants and manufacturers to be cheats, has the effect of authorizing them to be so, and of degrading all the working members of the community.” On top of regulations, the government imposed a long list of different taxes on every kind of labor. Turgot believed a more concise and understandable tax system would help repair France’s then-​failing economy.

Turgot’s thinking on spontaneous order anticipates that of later scholars like F.A. Hayek. Turgot argues that complex systems, such as economies or whole societies, emerge and organize without central planning. The idea of spontaneous order challenges the misconception that only top-​down, state-​run authorities can craft efficient and free societies. Turgot asserts that the doctrine of laissez-​faire “was founded on the complete impossibility of directing, by invariant rules and by continuous inspection a multitude of transactions which by their immensity alone could not be fully known, and which, moreover, are continually dependent on a multitude of ever-​changing circumstances which cannot be managed or even foreseen.” In short, almost 200 years before Hayek’s “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” Turgot was arguing that an individual, group of individuals or even an entire government would never have access to the mountains of information required to “manage” the economy.

Like his mentor, Turgot was for free trade and a government that mostly stayed away from trying to manage the minutiae of the economy. Turgot believed people did not need to be managed; quite the opposite, their productive energies needed to be unleashed upon the world.

Political Career

Though a prominent theoretician on economic and philosophical matters, Turgot was never an academic. Though academically gifted, Turgot wanted more than for his ideas to be discussed in salons; he wanted them to be implemented for the benefit of France. In 1761, Turgot was appointed as the tax collector of Limoges. Turgot eliminated complicated taxes and abolished the despised corvée, a form of unpaid labor demanded in lieu of taxes. Throughout his time in Limoges, Turgot dedicated himself to removing obstacles in the way of the poorest in society earning their daily bread. By 1773, when Turgot left, Limoges was one of France’s more prosperous areas; as a reward for his achievement, he was appointed as Controller General of France by Louis XVI.

With his new position, Turgot had ambitious plans. He aimed to implement several economic reforms, including free trade, reducing the lower classes’ financial burdens, and removing feudal privileges. Turgot’s reforms faced strong opposition from powerful concentrated interest groups among the day’s nobility, clergy, and guilds. Ultimately, Turgot resigned in 1776, never holding a political position again. He spent his final years at his family estate, buried in his studies and correspondence, dying at the age of fifty-​four.

Turgot’s Importance to the History of Liberalism

Though unsuccessful in his reforms, Turgot’s efforts put laissez faire and liberalism on the political map. They were no longer mere theories but practical policies. The writings of Turgot are still valuable because they help remind us of a simple yet fundamental truth: that progress consists not in merely more capital goods but in an ever-​increasing store of cumulative knowledge. His writings also illustrate that progress was a relatively rare phenomenon before the Enlightenment, only experienced in brief glimpses by select pockets of the human population. Despite being a busy and politically engaged figure, Turgot’s ideas nonetheless had a massive impact on the intellectual history of the Western world.

Legacy of Turgot

It is difficult to overstate the impact of Turgot’s ideas and work as a politician. He has garnered many admirers, including the economist Joseph Schumpeter and libertarian thinkers like Murray Rothbard. Turgot’s career in economics was brief but brilliant. Thinkers like Turgot, his mentor Vincent Gournay, and his friend François Quesnay were responsible for France being among the first countries to implement laissez faire economic policy and for integrating liberal ideas into the public consciousness. Without the intellectual and political efforts of people like Turgot, liberalism and economic freedom might have remained obscure ideas relegated to a select group of obscure intellectuals.

A version of this article was published at Libertarianism.org on 11/14/2023.

Blog Post | Human Development

1,000 Bits of Good News You May Have Missed in 2023

A necessary balance to the torrent of negativity.

Reading the news can leave you depressed and misinformed. It’s partisan, shallow, and, above all, hopelessly negative. As Steven Pinker from Harvard University quipped, “The news is a nonrandom sample of the worst events happening on the planet on a given day.”

So, why does Human Progress feature so many news items? And why did I compile them in this giant list? Here are a few reasons:

  • Negative headlines get more clicks. Promoting positive stories provides a necessary balance to the torrent of negativity.
  • Statistics are vital to a proper understanding of the world, but many find anecdotes more compelling.
  • Many people acknowledge humanity’s progress compared to the past but remain unreasonably pessimistic about the present—not to mention the future. Positive news can help improve their state of mind.
  • We have agency to make the world better. It is appropriate to recognize and be grateful for those who do.

Below is a nonrandom sample (n = ~1000) of positive news we collected this year, separated by topic area. Please scroll, skim, and click. Or—to be even more enlightened—read this blog post and then look through our collection of long-term trends and datasets.



Farming robots and drones

Food abundance

Genetic modification

Indoor farming

Lab-grown produce


Other innovations

Conservation and Biodiversity

Big cats




Other comebacks



Rivers and lakes

Surveillance and discovery

Rewilding and conservation


Culture and tolerance

Gender equality

General wellbeing


Treatment of animals

Energy and natural Resources



Fossil fuels

Other energy

Recycling and resource efficiency

Resource abundance

Environment and pollution

Climate change

Disaster resilience

Air pollution

Water pollution

Growth and development


Economic growth

Housing and urbanization

Labor and employment



Disability and assistive technology

Dementia and Alzheimer’s


Heart disease and stroke

Other non-communicable diseases



Other communicable diseases

Maternal care

Fertility and birth control

Mental health and addiction

Weight and nutrition

Longevity and mortality 

Surgery and emergency medicine

Measurement and imaging

Health systems

Other innovations



    Artificial intelligence



    Construction and manufacturing


    Robotics and automation

    Autonomous vehicles


    Other innovations


    AI in science


    Chemistry and materials






      Bloomberg | Cost of Living

      Swiss Remove Tariffs to Ease High Cost of Living

      “Known for its high living costs along with its chocolate and cheese, Switzerland is making a bold move in the era of trade protectionism that should make things a little cheaper: saying goodbye to industrial tariffs.

      Starting in January, 95% of all imports will enjoy duty-free status, promising more affordable goods like cars, household appliances and clothes. That’s up from 81% currently. Tariffs will remain on agricultural products.

      While this move wipes out half of customs revenue in a country that’s home to the World Trade Organization, it’s expected to boost competitiveness and moderate the elevated prices for everyday items.”

      From Bloomberg.