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From Poverty to Progress

Blog Post | Energy & Environment

From Poverty to Progress

How division will stifle US prosperity.

This article originally appeared in the Washington Examiner on August 10, 2023.

Why isn’t everyone in dire poverty, hungry, diseased, illiterate, missing teeth, eking out a subsistence existence in the wilderness, and making do with Stone Age technology? After all, that’s how we started. Penury is the default state of humanity, as is a lack of technology. In fact, advanced technology and widespread prosperity are relatively recent innovations.

What has allowed all the progress we’ve experienced to date to take place? And what stands in the way of further advancement? In his valuable bookFrom Poverty to Progress: Understanding Humanity’s Greatest Achievement, Michael Magoon seeks to explain progress’s origins and enemies.

First, Magoon offers a sweeping overview of how the world has changed into a place where an increasing number of people enjoy prosperity, peace, advanced medicine, and other wonders of modern life. With graphs and data, Magoon demonstrates the historical and ongoing transformation of the human experience “from poverty to progress.” Magoon provides a valuable service in painstakingly recording the many ways in which our ancestors would envy modern life.

Magoon then explains the origins of the metamorphosis. He dispels popular but mistaken ideas about the roots of progress, such as the fallacy that progress comes from the government — he writes, “Throughout history governments have done far more to hinder progress than they have done to promote it” — or from politicians or top-down policies by brilliant planners. “Rather than flowing down from politics and government, progress bubbles up from society,” he notes.

Magoon then shows how that occurs. His theorized five keys of progress are food, trade, decentralization, industry, and energy.

A “highly efficient food production and distribution” system is a prerequisite for progress, he claims. The next two keys are the ability to engage in trade, mutually beneficial exchange, and decentralization of power, freeing humanity from the restrictions that come with a controlling central authority and fostering nonviolent competition.

Another key to societal advancement is developing at least one high-value-added industry that exports, he claims. As he notes, plentiful energy promotes progress. Historically, obtaining such energy has involved the use of fossil fuels.

With these five keys in hand, humans unlock new solutions and copy solutions others have achieved.

To unlock further progress, I would add an economic liberty key ensuring all of a society’s people can participate in the market processes of innovation and exchange. I might also add a communications technology key involving written language, without which transmitting ideas over time or across distances is difficult. Still, Magoon’s list holds considerable explanatory power.

The preconditions for progress that he names are relatively recent and rare in the grand sweep of history. Moreover, transitions toward attaining the keys to progress have not occurred everywhere at once and have only been achieved unevenly. Magoon thus recognizes that societies across history and the globe often differed dramatically in their tendency to stifle or foster innovation. He discusses many types of societies, such as hunter-gatherer societies, agrarian societies, herding societies, industrial societies, and commercial societies. He sees each society type as a logical adaptation to a particular environment.

The book concludes with an examination of the current constraints on progress, including geography, extractive institutions, geographic and cultural distance separating poor countries from rich ones and discouraging the former from copying the latter, monopolies stifling competition, historical legacies inhibiting change, and identity-based rationales for stagnation. (“We have our own ways.”) But he says the biggest threat to progress, which could unravel the conditions for innovation in the rich countries, is divisive ideologies.

Because society primarily comes from self-organizing, experimenting with solutions, and then copying the solutions that work, a centralized government driven by ideology inherently attacks the very foundations of progress.

Divisive ideologies split people into groups of good and evil, often along class, racial, religious, or urban/rural divides. Magoon notes that the ideology called “critical theory” (also often known as “wokeness”) may be a particular threat to progress because of its current spread in the United States, a major innovation center.

A thought-provoking and extraordinarily wide-ranging book, From Poverty to Progress is a must-read for anyone interested in the history, and future, of progress.

Blog Post | Science & Education

Introducing Our Upcoming Book, Heroes of Progress

Over the past two centuries, humanity has become massively more prosperous, better educated, healthier, and more peaceful.

The underlying cause of this progress is innovation. Human innovation―whether it be new ideas, inventions, or systems―is the primary way people create wealth and escape poverty.

Our upcoming book, Heroes of Progress: 65 People Who Changed the World, explores the lives of the most important innovators who have ever lived, from agronomists who saved billions from starvation and intellectuals who changed public policy for the better, to businesspeople whose innovations helped millions rise from poverty.

If it weren’t for the heroes profiled in this book, we’d all be far poorer, sicker, hungrier, and less free―if we were fortunate enough to be alive at all.

Considering their impact on humanity, perhaps it’s time to learn their story?

Heroes of Progress Book Forum

On March 21st, the author of Heroes of Progress, Alexander Hammond, will present the book live at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. He will be joined by Marian Tupy, the editor of Human Progress, and Clay Routledge, the Archbridge Institute’s Vice President of Research, who will speak on the individual’s role in advancing human progress and the need for a cultural progress movement.

Learn more about the event here.

Praise for Heroes of Progress

Making an inspiring case for progress at this time of skepticism and historical ingratitude is no easy feat. Yet, by relentlessly outlining the extraordinary ability of individuals to shape our world for the better, Alexander Hammond does just that.

Steven Pinker, author of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

Innovation is a team sport achieved by people working together, using precious freedoms to change the world, so it’s sometimes invidious to single out one person for credit. But once an idea is ripe for plucking, the right person at the right time can seize it and save a million lives or open a million possibilities. Each of these 65 people did that, and their stories are both thrilling and beautiful.

Matt Ridley, author of How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom

The figures in this book are the overlooked and often unknown figures who have transformed the lives of ordinary people, for the better… This book is a correction to widespread pessimism and is both informative and inspirational.

Dr. Stephen Davies, author of The Wealth Explosion: The Nature and Origins of Modernity

Superman and the Avengers are all very well, of course, but the real superheroes are thinkers, scientists, and innovators of flesh and blood who saved us from a life that used to be poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Alexander Hammond tells their inspiring stories in this magnificent book that will leave you grateful to be living in the world these men and women created.

— Johan Norberg, author of Open: The Story of Human Progress

The 65 innovators honored here made us happier, healthier, and longer-lived. Indeed, it is thanks to some of them that we are here at all. Their story is the story of how the human race acquired powers once attributed to gods and sorcerers―the story of how we overcame hunger, disease, ignorance, and squalor. I defy anyone to read this book and not feel better afterwards.

Lord Daniel Hannan, president of the Institute for Free Trade

The 65 fascinating stories in Heroes of Progress are
testaments to the ingenuity of humankind in delivering a richer,
healthier, and hopefully freer world. Alexander C. R. Hammond
provides an inspirational reminder that when individuals are
free to speak, think, innovate, and engage in open markets, the
heroic potential of humanity knows no bounds.

Lord Syed Kamall, Professor of politics and international relations, St. Mary’s University

In Heroes of Progress, Alexander Hammond reminds us that human minds are the fundamental driver of every discovery, invention, and innovation that has improved our lives. By telling the stories of pioneering men and women who have advanced civilization, this book not only honors past heroes of progress, but also provides inspiration for the next generation to use their uniquely human imaginative and enterprising capacities to build a better future.

— Clay Routledge, Vice President of Research and Director of the Human Flourishing Lab at the Archbridge Institute

Blog Post | Pregnancy & Birth

China’s Fertility Flip-Flop Shows the Folly of Legislating Family Sizes

Keep central planning out of family planning.

This article was published in National Review on 1/18/2024.

After decades of the disastrous policy of limiting family growth by force, China, according to news reports, is now pestering its women through text messages and social media to have more babies. This meddling by the state, like past coercion, is counterproductive. China should stop telling couples how many children to have. Keep central planning out of family planning, and families will flourish.

Not content to regulate life outside the household, authoritarians have a long history of intervening in family affairs. The Chinese Communist Party’s recent family-policy flip-flop is unsurprising. Throughout history, communist countries have alternated between coercive measures aiming to produce larger families and ones intended to shrink the average family size. China’s one-child policy, for instance, was in force for 36 years (1979–2015).

Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union financially penalized those without children, enacting a so-called “childless tax” that the country enforced from 1941 to 1990 in various degrees. The tax punished childless men between the ages of 20 and 50 and childless women between the ages of 20 and 45. A decree in 1944 expanded the childless tax to also penalize parents who had merely one or two children.

Communist Romania and Poland (post–World War II) implemented similar taxes modeled on the Soviet law. Those taxes, like their inspiration, lasted until the collapse of the USSR bloc in 1991. Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Romania went furthest of all, enacting strict prohibitions on birth control that resulted in a large number of abandoned children whose parents often could not afford to raise them.

The conditions in the communist nation’s overcrowded orphanages — nicknamed “child gulags” — were nightmarish. Yet signs at the inhumane institutions mockingly boasted, “The state can take better care of your child than you can.”

If communists are consistent on one point, it is that the state knows best. Always. Even when it comes to how many children each couple should bring into the world. Where communists have been inconsistent, though, is on whether that number ought to be higher or lower.

Starting in the 1960s and 1970s, it became fashionable among intellectuals around the world to worry about “overpopulation,” a concept that overwhelming evidence has since called into question. The resulting panic had its darkest manifestation in China’s one‐​child policy, which saw more than 300 million Chinese women fitted with intrauterine devices modified to be irremovable without surgery, over 100 million sterilizations, and over 300 million abortions, an unknown share of which were coerced.

China’s official Xinhua News Agency has boasted that the one-child policy prevented 400 million births. “Excess birth” fines could reach up to ten times a family’s annual disposable income.

Revenue-hungry local officials continued to fine families and enforce childbearing limits even after the country loosened its one-child policy to a two-child policy (2016–2021) and then loosened it further into a three-child policy. As China’s officials grew increasingly concerned about the population’s aging and shrinking, the three-child policy was, at last, rendered merely symbolic in 2023.

Yet China’s vast population-planning bureaucracy remains in place and could easily be reoriented toward attempts to coercively engineer the size of the country’s population upward. In a CCP-run paper, some Chinese academics have called for a tax on childlessness.

And China is not alone. Some Russian politicians also would like to reinstate a childless tax (Russia’s leaders have been toying with the idea for more than a decade).

Today, while unfounded overpopulation fears retain popularity in some circles, plummeting global birth rates have led the pendulum of policy-maker opinion to swing toward the idea that the world might benefit from more, rather than fewer, children. The number of countries with “raising fertility” as an explicit policy objective keeps rising.

Thankfully, in most cases such initiatives do not involve coercion. From South Korea to Estonia, various countries have tried offering government subsidies, expensive new state programs, cash bonuses, or similar incentives to encourage their citizens to have larger families. But an overview of past efforts to alter birth rates, whether upward or downward, shows that such efforts have had lackluster results at best and resulted in tragic human-rights abuses at worst.

Rather than pursuing new initiatives that are costly and questionably effective, and risk wading into the territory of social engineering or worse, policy-makers concerned about birth rates should take a “first do no harm” approach to fertility.

As my colleague Vanessa Calder and I outlined in a recent policy paper, removing government rules and regulations that disproportionately affect families would enhance families’ freedom of choice and may reduce the cost of child-rearing enough to boost fertility. In other words, policy-makers can make it easier for parents to form the families they desire by simply stepping back and removing government barriers to fertility and family life.

The state’s thumb shouldn’t be on the scale of intimate family decisions, one way or the other. Reforming policies that artificially make family life harder offers a better way forward. Hopefully, policy-makers in China and elsewhere will come to recognize that.

New Scientist | Food Production

Genetically Modified Banana Approved by Regulators

“A genetically modified banana has been approved for growing on farms for the first time. Regulators in Australia and New Zealand have given the go-ahead to a strain of the Cavendish banana altered to be resistant to a devastating fungal disease that has spread to many countries worldwide.”

From New Scientist.