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Centers of Progress, Pt. 37: Dubrovnik (Public Health)

Blog Post | Health Systems

Centers of Progress, Pt. 37: Dubrovnik (Public Health)

In the midst of the Black Death, Dubrovnik kept its port open with innovations in public health.

Today marks the 37th 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 37th Center of Progress is now called Dubrovnik, but was known historically as Ragusa. The picturesque port city is nicknamed “the pearl of the Adriatic” for its beauty. But the city has also been called “the Hong Kong of the Mediterranean” for its historic embrace of personal and economic freedom and its maritime trade-based prosperity. Not only was the small city-state of the Republic of Ragusa at the forefront of freedom for its time, being one of the earliest countries to ban slavery, but the glittering merchant city on the sea was also the site of an early milestone in the history of public health: quarantine waiting periods, which were first implemented in 1377. In 1390, Dubrovnik also created the world’s first permanent public health office. Perhaps more than any other city, Dubrovnik can claim to have helped create the idea of public health.

Today, Dubrovnik is best known for its exquisite sights, including many historic buildings and museums. It is located in the southern Croatian region of Dalmatia, best known for the Dalmatian dog breed, which existed as far back as1375. Tourism dominates the economy. Much of the city’s layout remains largely unchanged from the year 1292, with narrow winding stone-paved streets; innumerable medieval monuments, towers, and monasteries; and charming garden-surrounded villas and orange groves. The old city is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, boasting well-preserved Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture in the form of numerous churches and palaces. The city is often considered a major artistic center of Croatia and the site of many cultural activities, theatrical and musical performances, festivals, and museums. The city’s Banje Beach is also popular, and the Gruz Port is now busy with cruise ships.

The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) claimed, “Those who seek paradise on Earth should come to Dubrovnik.” Fans of Game of Thrones may recognize Dubrovnik as the set bringing to life the fictional seaside city of King’s Landing. But whereas King’s Landing was the capital of a despotic absolute monarchy, in reality Dubrovnik was devoted to freedom to an unusual degree from its inception, and is proud to have had no king. “The city-republic was liberal in character, affording asylum to refugees of all nations—one of them, according to legend, was King Richard I (the Lionheart) of England, who landed on the offshore island of Lokrum in 1192 on his return from the Crusades,” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Dubrovnik was a tributary city-state under Venetian suzerainty from 1205–1358, retaining substantial independence and growing prosperous as a mercantile power. It was during that period, in 1348, when the bubonic plague first reached the city. Within four years the disease extinguished the lives of perhaps two-thirds of the city’s citizens. And that was just the first wave. During the Black Death pandemic, periodic lulls were often followed by new outbreaks.

In 1358, Hungary pressured Venice to surrender control of Dubrovnik, and the Republic of Ragusa (1358–1808) was born. It was during the republican era that the city created the novel public health measure of quarantine, and practiced it from 1377–1533. While not perfect—outbreaks of plague occurred in 1391 and 1397—the measure was nonetheless revolutionary. Other cities soon implemented similar protocols, such as Geneva in 1467. 

“It should not be a surprise to find Dubrovnik at the heart of quarantine’s origin-story, because the city was a seafaring supernova for much of the medieval era,” notes British journalist Chris Leadbeater. An aristocratic republic with fewer than 10,000 people living within its walls and a constitution resembling Venice’s, Dubrovnik was ruled by a council of merchant princes selected from the patrician families that comprised about a third of the city’s population. Unlike in Venice, the ranks of the nobility were never formally closed, meaning that newly successful merchant families could gain patrician status. Term limits restricted the top government official, the rector, from serving for more than a month, after which he could not seek the role again for two years. Dubrovnik also “never saw an elaborate increase in bureaucratic functions or felt the great weight of government intervention as Venetians did,” opting for relatively limited government interference with the city’s robust trade. 

If you could visit Dubrovnik during its maritime golden years (1350–1575), you would enter a vibrant coastal city filled with stone architecture, diverse travelers speaking languages ranging from German to Turkish to Italian, and awash in art and commerce. You might have glimpsed noblewomen wearing fine jewelry—who were free to trade their jewels without male permission even in that age of extreme gender inequality, thus contributing to a lucrative export market.

The Croatian economic historian Vladimir Stipetić has noted, “Dubrovnik traded like Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan . . . but did so some five hundred years before . . . [and like those countries] became prosperous . . . because of [its] adopted economic policy.” As a result of the city’s relative economic freedom, and the resources saved by the city’s disinterest in military expansionism, Dubrovnik’s fleet of hundreds of merchant ships at times outnumbered those of Venice, despite the latter boasting perhaps 10 times the population of Dubrovnik. Dubrovnik’s economic expansion is also, of course, owed to the innovativeness of its people. In the 15th century, a Dubrovnik humanist, merchant, and nobleman named Benedetto Cotrugli (1416–1469) published Della mercatura e del mercante perfetto (Trade and the Perfect Merchant), which is thought to be the first work on bookkeeping in the world. It was also a trade manual advocating for honesty in all dealings.

The republic mediated trade between the Ottoman Empire and what was popularly called Christendom. Located at the intersection of territories practicing Islam, Catholicism, and Orthodox Christianity, Dubrovnik maintained a policy of friendly trade with people of all faiths in an era when religious tensions were high, while internally endorsing Catholicism. The city’s culture was unusually “secular, sophisticated, individualistic,” and cosmopolitan for its time. During its republican era, Dubrovnik became a major center of Slavic literature and art, as well as philosophy, particularly in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries—earning the city the nickname “the Slavic Athens.” It produced notable writers, such as Cerva (1463–1520), Šiško Menčetić (1457-1527), Marin Držić (1508–1567), and Ivan Gundulić (1589-1638), now regarded as Croatia’s national poet. His most famous poem is the “Hymn to Freedom”:

O liepa, o draga, o slatka slobodo,

dar u kom sva blaga višnji nam Bog je dô,

uzroče istini od naše sve slave,

uresu jedini od ove Dubrave,

sva srebra, sva zlata, svi ljudcki životi

ne mogu bit plata tvôj čistoj lipoti.

O beautiful, o precious, o sweet Liberty,

the greatest gift of all the treasures God has given us,

the truth of all our glory,

the decoration of Dubrovnik,

all silver, all gold, all human lives

are not worth as much as your pure beauty.

Despite its lack of military power and its miniscule size, Dubrovnik’s economic freedom and remarkable political and social stability helped the tiny republic to survive for almost half a millennium before Napoleon conquered it in 1808. While Dubrovnik was at times compelled to provide tribute to its more powerful neighbors to maintain political independence, the republic’s citizens were proud of their relative liberty. In fact, the republic’s Latin motto was Non bene pro toto libertas venditur auro, meaning, “Liberty is not sold for all the gold in the world.” The republic’s flag was simply the word Libertas (Latin for “liberty”) in red on a white background. From 1792 to 1795, Dubrovnik also issued silver coins called libertinas, featuring the word Libertas in the design’s central position. Moreover, the republic was among the first European countries to abolish slavery, outlawing the slave trade in 1416. The city’s governing council voted that “none of our nationals or foreigners, and everyone who considers himself or herself from Dubrovnik, can in any way or under any pretext to buy or sell slaves . . . or be a mediator in such trade.”

Recognizing the threat that recurring outbreaks of bubonic plague posed to their city, the people of Dubrovnik took action to preserve their trading prosperity and their very existence. Thanks to Dubrovnik’s public health measures, the city managed to prevent many deaths and even achieve significant mercantile expansion during the plague period.

Bubonic plague is a bacterial disease that, when left untreated, is usually fatal within days of symptoms appearing. The bubonic plague has ravaged humanity many times, and has even been found in human skeletons dating to 3000 BC. Bubonic plague cases still occur even today. The first outbreak of the illness that was widespread enough to be termed a pandemic occurred in the 6th century AD, during the reign of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I. But the bubonic plague pandemic that devastated Asia, Africa, and Europe in the 14th century—named the Black Death or the Great Pestilence—proved to be the most fatal pandemic in recorded history, killing perhaps as many as 200 million people, including up to 60 percent of Europe’s population. 

That outbreak first emerged in western China. In just three years, between 1331 and 1334, bubonic plague killed more than 90 percent of the people in Hebei Province, which covers an area of land slightly bigger than Ireland. Over 5 million Hebeian corpses presented a preview of the deaths to come.

The scale of the devastation is difficult to imagine. The Black Death laid waste to Europe from 1346 to 1353. In 1348, the bacteria wiped out 60 percent of Florence’s population. That same year, the plague reached France, and within four years at least a third of Parisians were in the grave. The following year, the plague arrived in London and halved that city’s populace. In practically every city and town, the tragedy repeated itself.

One firsthand account of the devastation notes: “[T]his mortality devoured such a multitude of both sexes that no one could be found to carry the bodies of the dead to burial, but men and women carried the bodies of their own little ones to church on their shoulders and threw them into mass graves, from which arose such a stink that it was barely possible for anyone to go past a churchyard.”

Survivors were haunted by grief and loneliness. In 1349, the Italian writer Francesco Petrarch, who lost many companions to the plague, including his muse Laura, wrote:

Where are our dear friends now? Where are the beloved faces? Where are the affectionate words, the relaxed and enjoyable conversations? . . . What abyss swallowed them? There was a crowd of us, now we are almost alone. We should make new friends—but how, when the human race is almost wiped out; and why, when it looks to me as if the end of the world is at hand? Why pretend? We are alone indeed.

Despite life’s hardships, survival was nonetheless preferable to death, and people made a great number of innovative attempts to prevent and treat the disease that was decimating humanity. Many of those measures were tragically ineffective, such as bloodletting and avoiding baths. (Bathing was thought to expand the pores and make one vulnerable to disease.) Some measures helped a little in the prevention of illness—such as avoiding foul smells, including rotting corpses, and encouraging better home ventilation. 

Famously, medieval understanding of how disease spread left much to be desired. Many assumed that the Black Death was a divine punishment for mankind’s sins, giving rise to the distressing flagellant movement, and some of the brightest minds of the day at the University of Paris, when commissioned by the king of France to explain the plague, concluded that the movements of Saturn were to blame. Others blamed witchcraft. Reprehensibly, still others violently scapegoated religious minorities: “Hygienic practices limited the spread of plague in Jewish ghettos, leading to the Jews being blamed for the plague’s spread, and widespread massacres, especially in Germany and Central Europe.” 

However, while they may not have grasped the cause of the illness, medieval people did possess the general concept of contagion. They knew that the plague disseminated from one place to another and that transmission was occurring in some way: the suspected vectors ranged from the wind to the gaze of an infected person. 

Fortunately, medieval people did not need to know that the bubonic plague spreads mainly via fleas to figure out that limiting contact with people and objects from known outbreak sites was the most prudent course of action. This idea became widespread in part through the works of various physicians publishing medical pamphlets or tractates throughout Europe that may have represented “the first large-scale effort at popular health instruction in history.” The Catalan doctor Jaume d’Agramont (d. 1350 of plague), for example, advised the public against eating food from “pestilential regions,” and wrote that “association with a sufferer of a pestilential disease” could cause the illness to spread from one person to another “like a wildfire.” The possibility of interpersonal transmission became widely suspected, even if few guessed at the flea’s role as an intermediary. 

Even before the plague, Dubrovnik made several strides toward better public health. While we now take basic hygiene measures for granted, Dubrovnik was something of a medieval outlier when it limited the disposal of garbage and feces in the city in 1272. The city banned swine from city streets in 1336, hired street cleaners in 1415, and created a complete sewage system in the early 15th century. Dubrovnik’s relative prosperity allowed it to offer competitive wages to draw physicians from other cities, such as Salerno, Venice, Padua, and the home of the first university, Bologna. In 1390, Dubrovnik also created the world’s first permanent public health office to enforce its various public health rules.

Economic incentives helped motivate the trade-dependent city’s innovations in public health and sanitation: “Sanitary measures in Dubrovnik were constantly improved because the city was forced to find a way to protect itself from diseases and at the same time retain the lucrative trade relations which formed its economic base.” During the outbreak of 1347, the Dubrovnik writer and nobleman Nikola Ragnina (1494–1582) claimed that people first attempted to banish the plague with fire: “There was no cure and everyone was dying. When people saw that their physicians could not defend them, they decided to . . . purify the air with fire.” The fires may have helped to kill off some of the plague-carrying fleas, but were ultimately a failed experiment. So, they tried something new.

Even a primitive understanding of how the illness spread proved sufficient for the people of Dubrovnik to attempt a radical and historic experiment in disease prevention. In 1374, Venice first put in place waiting periods for ship passengers to enter their city, but this was purely at the discretion of health bureaucrats, thus leading to irrational, selective enforcement. But in 1377, Dubrovnik’s council implemented a much more logical system: all passengers on incoming ships and members of trade caravans arriving from infected areas were to wait for 30 days in the nearby town of Cavtat or the island of Mrkan before entering Dubrovnik’s city walls. The quarantine period was soon expanded to 40 days (the word “quarantine” means “40 days”)—a number likely reached as a result of experience, as the full course of the bubonic plague from contraction to death was typically around 37 days.

“Dubrovnik’s administration arrived at the idea of quarantine as a result of its experience isolating leprosy victims to prevent spread of the disease,” notes historian Ana Bakija-Konsuo. “Historical science has undoubtedly proved Dubrovnik’s priority in the ‘invention’ of quarantine. Isolation, as a concept, had been applied even before 1377, as mentioned in the Statute of the City Dubrovnik, which was written in 1272 and . . . is the first mention of the isolation of the patients with leprosy.” Dubrovnik’s stone seaside quarantine shelters, sometimes considered the first plague hospitals in Europe, were called lazarettos after Lazarus, the patron saint of lepers. Today the city’s lazarettos serve as tourist attractions and concert venues.

Devastating plague outbreaks eventually forced Venice to implement a complete ban on anyone entering its walls, bringing trade and city life to a halt, but Dubrovnik’s limited waiting periods let the republic keep its doors open to people and merchandise from abroad. “Hence, Dubrovnik implemented a method that was not only just and fair, but also very wise and successful, and it [eventually] prevailed around the world,” according to historian Ante Milošević. Quarantine procedures remain the standard policy to this day when dealing with certain contagious diseases.

Dubrovnik Old Town Croatia.

The Black Death pandemic is sometimes viewed as the end of medieval civilization and the beginning of the Renaissance period. Faced with a disease that would not become treatable until the advent of antibiotics in the 1940s, Dubrovnik certainly underwent a rebirth, recovering from the initial wave of deaths to become the first city to implement a coherent public health response to the bubonic plague. Dubrovnik’s invention of quarantine represents not only perhaps the highest achievement of medieval medicine, but the emergence of one of humanity’s oldest disease-prevention tools and a turning point in the history of public health. With its strong ideals of liberty and devotion to public health, Dubrovnik during its republican era has earned its place as our 37th 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.