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What Medieval China Teaches Us about Overregulating Innovation

Blog Post | Economics

What Medieval China Teaches Us about Overregulating Innovation

European powers established their dominance through the very technologies that China repressed.

Summary: The advent of OpenAI’s ChatGPT led to a wave of fear about AI risks, with a significant portion of business leaders expressing concerns about AI potentially harming humanity. Calls for government regulation of AI, even a temporary pause, have become a subject of debate. Drawing a cautionary lesson from China’s Ming Dynasty, this article highlights the potential drawbacks of stifling innovation and warns against overly restrictive measures that could hinder progress.

The launch of OpenAI’s ChatGPT chatbot in late 2022 triggered a flurry of panic about the risks posed by artificial intelligence (AI). In fact, a recent CNN poll reveals that 42 percent of business leaders believe that AI could “destroy humanity” in 5–10 years. 

Though pessimism about potentially transformative technologies is nothing new, what is truly concerning are the calls for government regulation of AI development and deployment. For example, in March, leading figures in the tech industry, including Elon Musk, called for a temporary pause in the development of AI systems “more powerful than GPT-4.” Their open letter has received over 33,000 signatories. An April YouGov poll also disclosed that almost 70 percent of Americans endorsed a similar six-month pause on AI development. These polls ominously reveal that a non-negligible number of Americans, fearing threats to existing stability, not only desire ethical regulations of AI but also want suffocating restrictions on the entire industry.

Why is this concerning? History reveals that a severe bias toward stability and the overreach of technological alarmists in the policy space can dangerously obstruct human progress. Look no further than Medieval China.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, the Song Dynasty was the pinnacle of global civilization, destined to outpace the rest of the world. In the words of Harold B. Jones, “asked to pick from among the world’s nations the one with the best prospects for years ahead, an early fifteenth-century futurist would have bet on China.” Song China led the world in technological progress, inventing gunpowder, movable print, and the compass. It was home to the most advanced infrastructure and fleet of trading ships in the world, enriching China through overseas commerce with the coastal states of Africa. Moreover, by opening its society to foreign travelers, China benefited from the scientific knowledge and expertise of foreign innovators, making impressive strides in agriculture and astronomy. Some even say Song China was on the cusp of its own industrial revolution centuries before Great Britain. China simply had the materials and knowledge to dominate the world long before the West. Why didn’t it?

Despite Song China’s vibrant society and thriving economy, it was constantly skirmishing with its northern neighbors, eventually succumbing to the military prowess of the invading Mongols in 1279. The subsequent Yuan Dynasty marked the first time in China’s thousand-year history that a foreign-ruled dynasty seized all of China, an embarrassing defeat for Chinese traditionalists. 

The Yuan Dynasty was short-lived, as internal factionalism and corruption led to widespread rebellions, propping up the Ming Dynasty in 1368. However, still humiliated by the “barbarian” occupation, Ming leaders made it a priority to distinguish themselves from their Song predecessors. Blaming the collapse of the Song Dynasty on their embracement of a “disordered” open society, the Ming dynasty established a highly authoritarian and isolationist regime, significantly extending the Great Wall and, more significantly, unleashing an “anti-modern revolution” meant to reinvigorate China with traditional Confucian values and restrain destabilizing innovation.

Part of this anti-modern revolution was cultural, stifling innovation by stressing conformity and suppressing individualism. For example, one of the first actions of Zhu Yuanzhang, the founding Ming emperor, was to institute a strict dress code. He banned foreign fashion and dictated standards for each social position, reinforcing a neo-Confucian hierarchy. Technological progress and commercial prosperity brought about choice, fostering unsettling social disorderliness that could manifest itself through clothing. Thus, for fear of disrupting the existing order, the Ming emperor banned expressive clothing. 

In a similar vein, the Ming Dynasty reinstituted the controversial imperial examination system. The Ming education system generally prioritized the regurgitation of Confucian philosophy, overlooking scientific and technical skills. Though science was still taught, the subject matter was to be accepted as canonical wisdom rather than questioned and improved. The general environment created by the examination culture de-emphasized contributions from creative individuals—if you wrote about new ideas on an exam, you were simply marked wrong. Individualism had no place in the Ming Dynasty.

However, the costliest aspect of this revolution concerned destabilizing technological innovations. Most significantly, the Ming Dynasty severely restricted innovation regarding exploration and oceanic shipping, famously (or infamously) enacting the Edict of Haijin. This policy severely restricted private maritime trading and exploration, leading to the destruction of many private ocean vessels and the imprisonment of hundreds of merchants. The sentiments of this policy were most notably manifested through the destruction of Admiral Zheng He’s fleet.

Everyone knows the famous rhyme, “in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue”; however, what many people do not realize is that several decades before Christopher Columbus, a Chinese admiral named Zheng He made larger and more ambitious voyages with a fleet 300 times larger than Columbus’s. Yet, rather than opening the world to trade as Columbus did, the Ming government burned his great fleet, stifling a critical source of economic advancement. Why did they hinder such progress? Though the official reasoning concerned piracy, many scholars point to a general fear of foreign interaction and the rise of a powerful merchant class, all of which would have disrupted the post-Mongol order—the Ming emperor appeared to prefer stagnation over progress, for stagnation weakened threats to his power.

As China fostered a long period of cultural and technological stagnation, Europe entered a great age of individualism and innovation. By embracing scientific progress and overseas commerce during the Renaissance, Europeans made remarkable economic and technological strides, overtaking China as the global economic and technological epicenter. In fact, European powers used the very innovations that China repressed to establish their dominance—namely, maritime and naval technologies. As the Ming Dynasty burned ships and oppressed merchants, Europeans were establishing enriching trade routes and colonizing the globe with their powerful navies. The British even used these tools to later humiliate China during the Opium Wars. Thus, the Ming Dynasty’s “anti-modernism” significantly contributed to the “Great Divergence,” subjecting China to a centuries-long game of catch-up with the West.

Therefore, as we consider a temporary termination of the deployment of AI, the legacy of the Ming Dynasty provides a cautionary tale. Through unregulated data collection and short-term jolts to the labor market, AI certainly has the potential to disrupt existing stability. However, there is something to be said about the potential upsides of AI development. From automating monotonous tasks to revolutionizing modern medicine, many benefits would be delayed by a pause in development, delays that, like what happened in China, could set the United States back for decades. Though techno-optimism has its own concerns, we must also be wary of the over-implementation of the precautionary principle, for, as the Ming Dynasty shows, ill-advised and overcautious social policy meant to preserve stability can and often does foster costly stagnation.

The Guardian | Wellbeing

Internet Use Is Associated with Greater Wellbeing, Study Finds

“Published in the journal Technology, Mind and Behaviour, the study describes how Przybylski and Dr Matti Vuorre, of Tilburg University in the Netherlands, analysed data collected through interviews involving about 1,000 people each year from 168 countries as part of the Gallup World Poll.

Participants were asked about their internet access and use as well as eight different measures of wellbeing, such as life satisfaction, social life, purpose in life and feelings of community wellbeing.

The team analysed data from 2006 to 2021, encompassing about 2.4 million participants aged 15 and above.

The researchers employed more than 33,000 statistical models, allowing them to explore various possible associations while taking into account factors that could influence them, such as income, education, health problems and relationship status.

The results reveal that internet access, mobile internet access and use generally predicted higher measures of the different aspects of wellbeing, with 84.9% of associations between internet connectivity and wellbeing positive, 0.4% negative and 14.7% not statistically significant.”

From The Guardian.

Blog Post | Progress Studies

The Rediscovery of Human Progress

A new movement promoting scientific, technological, and economic solutions to humanity's problems emerges.

Summary: The modern world is built on centuries of progress, yet many take its comforts and opportunities for granted. A new movement aims to redefine our understanding of advancement, and focuses on celebrating humanity’s achievements to shape an optimistic narrative for the future. From fostering technological innovation to advocating for economic growth, this coalition strives to combat cultural pessimism and inspire a renewed belief in the potential for a better world.

“The tragedy of today is that we are the heirs and the beneficiaries of thousands of years of progress and we take it for granted. You wake up in a nice soft bed. You go get fresh milk and orange juice from the fridge. You take a shower under hot running water. You hop on the train or car to work. You take the elevator up to the 40th floor. You earn your living by typing on a computer behind big plate glass windows in an air-conditioned building. You relax in the evening by streaming movies and music or catching up with friends from around the world in your real-time video calls. None of this existed a couple centuries ago. A lot of it didn’t exist a few decades ago. And yet it’s just so easy to go through your days enjoying all of that without giving a second thought to where it all came from or how, or how challenging it was to bring all of those amazing inventions into the world.”

Jason Crawford, founder of the Roots of Progress project, is one of the leaders of a new pro-progress movement that is coalescing in a collection of think tanks, websites, and other intellectual incubators. It celebrates humanity’s achievements so far. It judges progress not in technocratic terms but with an eye on outcomes for individual human beings. And it imagines, again in Crawford’s words, an “ambitious technological future that we want to live in and are excited to build.”

Rethinking Progress

These groups promoting economic growth spurred by scientific, technological, and industrial progress are quite distinct from modern political progressives. Contemporary progressives trace their ideological lineage back to the Progressive movement that arose in American politics around the turn of the 20th century as a response to the consequences of mass urbanization, mass immigration, increasing economic inequality, and rapid industrial growth.

Fundamental then as it is today among modern progressives is their certainty that they know the direction in which “progress” must go and that exercise of government power guided by a technocratic elite is central to achieving their version of “progress.” Princeton University historian Thomas C. Leonard observes that early 20th century “progressives believed in a powerful, centralized state, conceiving of government as the best means for promoting the social good and rejecting the individualism of (classical) liberalism.” In addition, he says, they believed in “the disinterestedness and incorruptibility of the experts who would run the technocracy they envisioned, and a faith that expertise could not only serve the social good, but also identify it.”

A hundred years later, one illustrative distillation of modern progressivism is “The Progressive Promise” manifesto issued by the 101 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “We believe that government must be the great equalizer of opportunity for everyone,” forthrightly states the Promise. “We support bold policies to close the gap between the rich and everyday Americans and ensure our government delivers essential services to every person in this country.” They envision “transformational change” that includes “ending poverty and income inequality,” and “advancing racial justice and equity in every policy.” It is notable that unlike their early 20th century forebears’ belief in technological progress and economic growth, this essentially redistributionist manifesto nowhere mentions policies aimed at advocating and promoting either in the 21st century. In their view, uncontrolled economic growth is leading to environmental catastrophe and to appalling social consequences.

The contours of the new progress movement stretch from the Human Progress project at the libertarian Cato Institute to the “eco-modernist” initiatives at the Breakthrough Institute and the Pritzker Innovation Fund. Four relatively new groups at the forefront of the pro-progress forces are The Roots of Progress, the Institute for Progress, The Progress Network, and Works in Progress. Together, they are—as The Progress Network puts it—”building an idea movement that speaks to a better future in a world dominated by voices that suggest a worse one.”

Cultural Pessimism

There are indeed many voices who say our future is bleak. William Rees, a population ecologist at The University of British Columbia, claimed last year that “collapse is not a problem to be solved, but rather the final stage of a cycle to be endured.” Also last year, Stanford University biologist and indefatigable population doomster Paul Ehrlich told 60 Minutes “that the next few decades will be the end of the kind of civilization we’re used to.” A 2022 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences declared that climate change could “result in worldwide societal collapse or even eventual human extinction.” Last year an article in the Journal of Industrial Ecology suggested that civilizational collapse is likely this decade and certain by 2040.

These dire prognostications are reflected in bleak public attitudes, especially in rich developed countries. A YouGov poll in 2016 found only 6 percent of Americans thought the world was getting better. Other rich countries had even lower scores: Germany and the United Kingdom were at 4 percent, Australia and France at 3 percent. (The Chinese were the most optimistic, with 41 percent saying the world was getting better.) In 2017, a Pew Research Center poll reported that 41 percent of Americans thought that life today was worse than it was 50 years ago, compared to 37 percent who thought it was better.

In 2021, The Lancet published a poll of 10,000 young people (ages 16 to 25) in 10 countries (Australia, Brazil, Finland, France, India, Nigeria, Philippines, Portugal, the U.K., and the USA) asking how they felt about climate change that found pervasive pessimism about the future. About 75 percent reported that “they think the future is frightening,” with more than 55 percent agreeing that “humanity is doomed” and 39 percent saying they are “hesitant to have children.” About 45 percent responded that “their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning.” A YouGov poll in 2022 found more than 30 percent of American adults thinking climate change will lead to extinction of the human race.

In 2023, 76 percent of Americans in an NBC survey were “not confident that life for our children’s generation will be better than it has been for us.” That same year, a Wall Street Journal poll similarly reported that 78 percent of Americans believe that life for their children will not be better than it was for themselves. A November poll by the European Council on Foreign Relations found only 24 percent of Americans were optimistic about their country’s future. These are the headwinds that the emerging progress movement is combating.

The Optimistic Opposition

There is a division of labor between the pro-progress groups. The Roots of Progress is focused on creating a new philosophy of progress and promoting young intellectuals who propound it. In an essay outlining what that might look like, Crawford argues for “a renewed vision of the future” that accelerates technological progress to provide humanity with cheap, abundant, clean fusion energy, permanent settlements in space, and cures for diseases and even aging itself using advanced biotech. “A future where we don’t just end poverty, but create new levels of wealth so fantastic that they make today’s wealth look like poverty in comparison—just as was done over the last two hundred years,” he writes.

“We are going to need a large body of intellectuals, of writers, creatives, educators, and journalists,” says Crawford. To develop this cadre, the group has created a fellowship program as “a career accelerator for progress intellectuals.” There were over 500 applicants for the first cohort, of which 19 were selected. The selected fellows analyze how to remove the regulatory roadblocks that stymie infrastructure and clean nuclear power deployment, how to incentivize countries to welcome more immigration, and how to overcome pervasive risk aversion in awarding research grants.

The Institute for Progress (IFP), co-founded by Caleb Watney and Alec Stapp, focuses on finding public policy ideas that can boost innovation sooner rather than later. “Because of the unique position of the United States, we have a moral call to really take the lead and embrace our role as the world’s R&D lab,” argues Watney. The U.S., he notes, has particular advantages when it comes to scientific and technological progress: the concentration of the world’s top universities, the fact that the world’s top scientific minds want to immigrate here, a huge and dynamic economy that enables the rapid iteration and prototyping of new technologies.

“The Institute for Progress is not an organization focused on mass politics,” Watney adds. “We are not going to get people to hold up banners saying, ‘I want total factor productivity growth to be higher.'” Instead, it’s “a very incrementalist organization” that looks “for issues that are important. If you were to change them, would they really matter? Are they tractable? Does it seem like you could actually move the needle on them in a useful way in, say, the next five years?” Among other activities, IFP researchers engage in such nitty-gritty work as filing detailed comments on federal agency proposals. For example, the IFP recently advised the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority on how to hasten the development of more effective coronavirus vaccines. Also, the IFP signed an agreement last year to partner with the National Science Foundation to help the agency develop faster mechanisms for funding high-risk, high-reward research proposals.

Meanwhile, Works in Progress publishes long-form case studies on how entrepreneurs, inventors, researchers, and others have successfully made progress in fixing various problems. It also prints proposals for how to ameliorate those still unresolved. Among the topics covered in recent articles: overcoming obstacles to tapping geothermal energy, upzoning in New Zealand to address housing shortages, how advance market commitments could have spurred the development of an effective malaria vaccine more quickly, and—in an article by Reason‘s own Peter Suderman—how mixologists surmounted the problem of boring drinks.

The Progress Network—based at New America, a liberal-leaning think tank—aims to bring together an ideologically diverse set of pro-progress scholars and pundits. Its founder, money manager Zachary Karabell, says he’s aiming to “create a cohort of people who are united by a sensibility, but certainly not united by a monolithic view of what’s working and what isn’t.” Its cohort of associates includes the Cato Institute’s Mustafa Akyol, MIT economist Erik Brynjolfsson, George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, journalist Matthew Yglesias, Columbia University linguist (and New York Times columnist) John McWhorter, Depolarization Project CEO Alison Goldsworthy, and Pritzker Innovation Fund chief Rachel Pritzker. Other Network members include the founders of both The Roots of Progress and the Institute for Progress. Karabell ruefully acknowledges that it is hard to get the independent “idea entrepreneurs” he has recruited into the Progress Network to collaborate. For now, the Network has assembled 120 or so members whose voices make the constructive point that the world, on the whole, is getting better. The Network highlights stories detailing the actuality of progress “from around the world that get kind of buried under the avalanche of negative stories” through its What Could Go Right? podcast, a daily newsletter, and social media.

The heads of all four organizations cite the animating influence of the July 2019 Atlantic article “We Need a New Science of Progress,” written by Cowen and Patrick Collison, the billionaire founder of the internet payments company Stripe. “The success of Progress Studies will come from its ability to identify effective progress-increasing interventions and the extent to which they are adopted by universities, funding agencies, philanthropists, entrepreneurs, policy makers, and other institutions,” Cowen and Collison argued. “In that sense, Progress Studies is closer to medicine than biology: The goal is to treat, not merely to understand.”

Cowen and Collison are involved in the movements in other ways too. Both The Roots of Progress and Works in Progress have received grants from the Emergent Ventures project, administered by Cowen. Works in Progress became part of Stripe Press in 2022.

How Progress Got a Bad Reputation

Why did progress fall out of favor? Crawford suggests the strong belief in economic, technological, and social improvement that characterized 19th century Europe and America was dented by the next century’s bloody world wars. “People before World War I had hoped that technology and economic growth would actually lead to an end to war and that we were entering a new era of world peace,” he says. “That proved to be disastrously wrong. Not only had technology not led to an end to war, it had actually made war all the more horrible and destructive. It had given us the machine gun, chemical weapons, the atomic bomb.”

Crawford also notes the 20th century saw the emergence of institutions featuring “top-down control by a technical elite.” This, he argues, prompted “a countercultural idea that saw progress as linked to this authoritarianism and rejected both.”

Watney points to the negative externalities that have accompanied technological development and economic growth—air and water pollution, climate change, deforestation—and suggests these have contributed to the disillusionment with progress as well. On top of that, he says, a spirit of complacency and safetyism has emerged in rich developed countries, adding new roadblocks.

“We have become the victims of our success, to a certain extent,” Watney argues. “As you get increasing levels of wealth and productivity, you’re more inclined to keep hold of the safety and the gains that you already have and less likely to risk a little bit to gain a lot more.” Or as Karabell puts it, “If you’re more worried about the unknown negative consequences than you’re excited about unknown positive consequences, you’re basically going to be sclerotic and not do anything.”

You should not confuse this appreciation for past progress with a belief that progress is complete. Karabell stresses that he doesn’t believe “we should just shut up and recognize” everything that’s going right. It’s just that “we are demonstrably able to create problems and we’re demonstrably able to solve them.”

Crawford thinks progress has slowed in recent decades. Two big reasons for the slowdown, he argues, are “the growth of the regulatory state” and “the centralization and bureaucratization of research, and in particular the funding of research.” Both impose unnecessarily constraining limits on scientific freedom and the types of opportunities and inventions that can be pursued.

“It’s totally fair to be frustrated with a lot of the excesses of the regulatory state,” says Watney. More hopefully, he adds: “If you’re so pessimistic about the current state, that means there should be lots of low-hanging fruit. Small changes could actually lead to really large increases.”

The IFP’s chief aim is to pick that low-hanging fruit by cutting down the overburden of regulation and reforming the stodgy processes that encrust science funding. So the group is working to streamline the National Environmental Policy Act so that it no longer blocks for years the building of critically needed infrastructure: roads, pipelines, electrical lines, and nuclear, renewable, and geothermal energy projects. The institute also wants to speed up the approval processes at the Food and Drug Administration and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission—in the first case to get new treatments to patients more quickly, and in the second to deploy modern nuclear reactors faster. It is pushing to reform the science funding programs at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation. For example, researchers associated with the IFP note that NIH peer review grant evaluations now tend to focus on the probability that research proposals will achieve their primary outcomes. Thus this evaluation process generally steers funding away from high-risk, high-reward research. One IFP proposal to overcome this conservative bias is to have peer reviewers first assess how valuable the new cures and treatments stemming from the proposed research would be should it prove successful in developing new fundamental knowledge.

Trying To Make It Better

All these projects direct people’s attention to Gapminder, Human Progress, Our World in Data, and other efforts that comprehensively document how much progress is still being made today. These changes include increasing average life expectancy, cutting extreme poverty, reducing childhood mortality, increasing wealth, supplying greater access to education, and empowering women’s rights.

Yet merely pointing out the facts of progress isn’t enough to persuade a lot of folks. It would be great, says Karabell, if it worked just to tell people, “You should all just read the data and change your views.” But it usually doesn’t.

So another theme that unites these four efforts is their embrace of narrative as a way to restore cultural faith in progress. “You can’t throw facts in the face of people’s emotions, or at least you’ve got to be very careful about how you do that,” says Karabell. “You can’t tell people that they should feel better just because the data tells them they should.” Crawford agrees: “Narratives have a lot of power and they have more power than charts and graphs.”

Saloni Dattani of Works in Progress explains, “One of the reasons that we started Works in Progress was we wanted to allow people to really go deep into some area that they were interested in and make a stronger case and longer case for something that they thought could improve the world or something that they thought was a challenge.” Examples include a recent long article, “Watt lies beneath,” that details how advances in geothermal energy could provide humanity with essentially unlimited supplies of clean energy, and the short video “Gentle Density: Brooklyn” describing how Brooklyn, New York, evolved into the second-most-densely populated county in the U.S.

As another example, Zurich-based Roots of Progress Fellow Alex Telford suggests over at his Liveware newsletter on Substack that the static concepts of health and disease are barriers to progress toward perfecting precision medicine aimed at maintaining bodily homeostasis. In her co-authored Salt Lake Tribune op-ed, “We should pay farmers to save the Great Salt Lake,” Roots of Progress fellow Jennifer Morales explains how water markets can stop that body of water from drying up.

Karabell continues: “How one writes that story about the future is part and parcel of shaping that future. If you begin with ‘We’re fucked,’ it’s really hard to solve your problems because you’re basically convinced that you can’t.”

These proponents of progress do not think that they will change the world overnight. “You have to create a critical mass,” says Karabell, “and ideas take a long time to have an effect on society. But things do change, cultural attitudes do change.” Dattani describes herself as an “impatient optimist.”

“Pessimism is more arrogant than optimism,” Karabell concludes. “Optimism is simply that we know for a fact that we are capable of solving problems. Pessimism is the conviction that we are not. The future isn’t worse unless people stop trying to make it better.”

This article was published at Reason on 4/6/2024.

Blog Post | Progress Studies

What Is Progress? (Or, Progress Towards What?)

How we define ultimate progress depends on axiology; that is, on our theory of value.

Summary: The definition of progress varies from worldview to worldview. While material progress, social progress, and human progress are interconnected, the notion of progress isn’t universally agreed upon and often hinges on differing standards of value. However, there are are key throughlines that unify different reasonable notions of progress more than is initially obvious.

In one sense, the concept of progress is simple, straightforward, and uncontroversial. In another sense, it contains an entire worldview.

The most basic meaning of “progress” is simply advancement along a path, or more generally from one state to another that is considered more advanced by some standard. (In this sense, progress can be good, neutral, or even bad—e.g., the progress of a disease.) The question is always: advancement along what path, in what direction, by what standard?

Types of Progress

“Scientific progress,” “technological progress,” and “economic progress” are relatively straightforward. They are hard to measure, they are multi-dimensional, and we might argue about specific examples—but in general, scientific progress consists of more knowledge, better theories and explanations, a deeper understanding of the universe; technological progress consists of more inventions that work better (more powerfully or reliably or efficiently) and enable us to do more things; economic progress consists of more production, infrastructure, and wealth.

Together, we can call these “material progress”: improvements in our ability to comprehend and to command the material world. Combined with more intangible advances in the level of social organization—institutions, corporations, bureaucracy—these constitute “progress in capabilities”: that is, our ability to do whatever it is we decide on.

True Progress

But this form of progress is not an end in itself. True progress is advancement toward the good, toward ultimate values—call this “ultimate progress,” or “progress in outcomes.” Defining this depends on axiology; that is, on our theory of value.

To a humanist, ultimate progress means progress in human well-being: “human progress.” Not everyone agrees on what constitutes well-being, but it certainly includes health, happiness, and life satisfaction. In my opinion, human well-being is not purely material, and not purely hedonic: it also includes “spiritual” values such as knowledge, beauty, love, adventure, and purpose.

The humanist also sees other kinds of progress contributing to human well-being: “moral progress,” such as the decline of violence, the elimination of slavery, and the spread of equal rights for all races and sexes; and more broadly “social progress,” such as the evolution from monarchy to representative democracy, or the spread of education and especially literacy.

Others have different standards. Biologist David Graber called himself a “biocentrist,” by which he meant

… those of us who value wildness for its own sake, not for what value it confers upon mankind. … We are not interested in the utility of a particular species, or free-flowing river, or ecosystem, to mankind. They have intrinsic value, more value—to me—than another human body, or a billion of them. … Human happiness, and certainly human fecundity, are not as important as a wild and healthy planet.

By this standard, virtually all human activity is antithetical to progress: Graber called humans “a cancer… a plague upon ourselves and upon the Earth.”

Or for another example, one Lutheran stated that his “primary measure of the goodness of a society is the population share which is a baptized Christian and regularly attending church.”

The idea of progress isn’t completely incompatible with some flavors of environmentalism or of religion (and there are both Christians and environmentalists in the progress movement!) but these examples show that it is possible to focus on a non-human standard, such as God or Nature, to the point where human health and happiness become irrelevant or even diametrically opposed to “progress.”

Unqualified progress

What are we talking about when we refer to “progress” unqualified, as in “the progress of mankind” or “the roots of progress”?

“Progress” in this sense is the concept of material progress, social progress, and human progress as a unified whole. It is based on the premise that progress in capabilities really does on the whole lead to progress in outcomes. This doesn’t mean that all aspects of progress move in lockstep—they don’t. It means that all aspects of progress support each other and over the long term depend on each other; they are intertwined and ultimately inseparable.

Consider, for instance, how Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen defined the term in their article calling for “progress studies”:

By “progress,” we mean the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past couple of centuries.

David Deutsch, in The Beginning of Infinity, is even more explicit, saying that progress includes “improvements not only in scientific understanding, but also in technology, political institutions, moral values, art, and every aspect of human welfare.”

Skepticism of this idea of progress is sometimes expressed as: “progress towards what?” The undertone of this question is: “in your focus on material progress, you have lost sight of social and/or human progress.” On the premise that different forms of progress are diverging and even coming into opposition, this is an urgent challenge; on the premise that progress is a unified whole, it is a valuable intellectual question but not a major dilemma.

Historical Progress

“Progress” is also an interpretation of history according to which all these forms of progress have, by and large, been happening.

In this sense, the study of “progress” is the intersection of axiology and history: given a standard of value, are things getting better?

In Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, the bulk of the chapters are devoted to documenting this history. Many of the charts in that book were sourced from Our World in Data, which also emphasizes the historical reality of progress.

So-Called “Progress”

Not everyone agrees with this concept of progress. It depends on an Enlightenment worldview that includes confidence in reason and science, and a humanist morality.

One argument against the idea of progress claims that material progress has not actually led to human well-being. Perhaps the benefits of progress are outweighed by the costs and risks: health hazards, technological unemployment, environmental damage, existential threats, etc. Some downplay or deny the benefits themselves, arguing that material progress doesn’t increase happiness (owing to the hedonic treadmill), that it doesn’t satisfy our spiritual values, or that it degrades our moral character. Rousseau famously asserted that “the progress of the sciences and the arts has added nothing to our true happiness” and that “our souls have become corrupted to the extent that our sciences and our arts have advanced towards perfection.”

Others, as mentioned above, argue for a different standard of value altogether, such as nature or God. (Often these arguments contain some equivocation between whether these things are good in themselves, or whether we should value them because they are good for human well-being over the long term.)

When people start to conclude that progress is not in fact good, they talk about this as no longer “believing in progress.” Historian Carl Becker, writing in the shadow of World War I, said that “the fact of progress is disputed and the doctrine discredited,” and asked: “May we still, in whatever different fashion, believe in the progress of mankind?” In 1991, Christopher Lasch asked:

How does it happen that serious people continue to believe in progress, in the face of massive evidence that might have been expected to refute the idea of progress once and for all?

Those who dispute the idea of progress often avoid the term, or quarantine it in scare quotes: so-called “progress.” When Jeremy Caradonna questioned the concept in The Atlantic, the headline was: “Is ‘Progress’ Good for Humanity?” One of the first court rulings on environmental protection law, in 1971, said that such law represented “the commitment of the Government to control, at long last, the destructive engine of material ‘progress.’” Or consider this from Guns, Germs, and Steel:

… I do not assume that industrialized states are “better” than hunter-gatherer tribes, or that the abandonment of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle for iron-based statehood represents “progress,” or that it has led to an increase in human happiness.

The idea of progress is inherently an idea that progress, overall, is good. If “progress” is destructive, if it does not in fact improve human well-being, then it hardly deserves the name.

Contrast this with the concept of growth. “Growth,” writ large, refers to an increase in the population, the economy, and the scale of human organization and activity. It is not inherently good: everyone agrees that it is happening, but some are against it; some even define themselves by being against it (the “degrowth” movement). No one is against progress, they are only against “progress”: that is, they either believe in it, or deny it.

The most important question in the philosophy of progress, then, is whether the idea of progress is valid—whether “progress” is real.

“Progress” in the 19th Century

Before the World Wars, there was an idea of progress that went even beyond what I have defined above, and which contained at least two major errors.

One error was the idea that progress is inevitable. Becker, in the essay quoted above, said that according to “the doctrine of progress,”

the Idea or the Dialectic or Natural Law, functioning through the conscious purposes or the unconscious activities of men, could be counted on to safeguard mankind against future hazards. … At the present moment the world seems indeed out of joint, and it is difficult to believe with any conviction that a power not ourselves … will ever set it right.

(Emphasis added.)

The other was the idea that moral progress was so closely connected to material progress that they would always move together. Condorcet believed that prosperity would “naturally dispose men to humanity, to benevolence and to justice,” and that “nature has connected, by a chain which cannot be broken, truth, happiness, and virtue.”

The 20th century, with the outbreak of world war and the rise of totalitarianism, proved these ideas disastrously wrong.

“Progress” in the 21st Century and Beyond

To move forward, we need a wiser, more mature idea of progress.

Progress is not automatic or inevitable. It depends on choice and effort. It is up to us.

Progress is not automatically good. It must be steered. Progress always creates new problems, and they don’t get solved automatically. Solving them requires active focus and effort, and this is a part of progress, too.

Material progress does not automatically lead to moral progress. Technology within an evil social system can do more harm than good. We must commit to improving morality and society along with science, technology, and industry.

With these lessons well learned, we can rescue the idea of progress and carry it forward into the 21st century and beyond.

This article was published at The Roots of Progress on 3/9/2024.