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What is Progress?

People often get into arguments about what constitutes progress. Some say that what others regard as progress is not progress at all.

Some people evaluate progress in relation to their notion of an ideal state of the world, i.e. progress is defined as progress towards utopia. As you will see, I am not a utopian.

We bypass these arguments by considering a country or a section of a country to have progressed if people who have a choice move to it and adopt its ways - revealed preference, the economists call it. We give short shrift to arguments that people didn't know what they were doing when they made their choices. According to revealed preference, America is the most progressive country. So far as I know there is no other country that has more immigrants from America than America has immigrants from that country. By the way, many people move back and forth enough between America and the countries where they grew up so that the reasons for where they choose to live are based on a lot of information.

Some people misunderstand the claim that there is progress and there will be more and people will like it with a claim that in the glorious future, everyone will be happy. Nothing now known offers a way of making everyone happy. Kings were often dissatisfied, and the very rich of today have their dissatisfactions.

Revealed preference agrees pretty well with the common notions of progress.


World Progress

Here are some aspects of recent world material progress that we expect to continue.

  1. Larger quantity and variety of available food. In recent years famines have only occurred as a result of wars. The last major non-war famine was the Chinese Great Leap Forward famine of 1958-60. [1999 note: It was pointed out to me that now we have a new one - the North Korean famine, which may have a similar cause.]
  2. Better health. Almost all countries are experiencing an increase in lifespan and a reduction in the fraction of their time people spend ill. A recent study, Science 2000 Sept. 29, of the maximum length of life in Sweden gives the oldest age of death in 1990s as 108 vs. 101 in the 1860s. 72.5 percent of this 7 year advance is due to lengthened survival of people who have already reached age 70. While the study was confined to Sweden which has very good birth and death statistics, the authors believe that the phenomenon is common to industrialized countries.
  3. The elimination of child labor. It is hard for us to imagine the evil of putting children to work in the coal mines at age six. Macaulay's History of England, published in the 1850s, has considerable information about the reductions in child labor in England that had been achieved by his time.
  4. Shorter work time. Increased productivity has permitted this. The improvement is both in free hours per week and increased years available for education and retirement. See this for a 1921 advertisement claiming that buying a tractor helps "keep the boy in school".
  5. Improved housing. More space and more privacy.
  6. Individual mobility from the automobile. Since that is so often attacked as undesirable, an essay on cars provides a detailed defense.

  7. Increased availabilty of material goods of all kinds.
  8. Increased independence of old people.
  9. Increased personal mobility.
  10. Increased equality. This is often disputed, but it can be partly verified by looking at the changes in expected length of life in different groups in the population.
  11. Privacy. This has been the motivation for a very large part of expenditures by individuals. Since America is the most prosperous country, its citizens have spent the most on achieving privacy. Here are some of the ways.
    1. One family homes. The rich go for even greater isolation. People, including the rich, will suffer long commutes to work in order to have their own homes. The Soviet Union had a continued housing shortage as people moved to the cities. This forced communal apartments and forced the unmarried workers to live in dormitories and to wait a substantial time after marriage to get an apartment. Divorced couples often had to live together for a long time. This lack of privacy was one of the major complaints about the system.
    2. Individual rooms. I remember that when I was child, my mother was eager to get a house in which my brother and I could each have a room. Virginia Woolf wrote a famous essay "A Room of her Own".
    3. Personal transportation. Most of us drive to work in our own cars. The social engineers have almost totally failed to get us to use public transportation. The failure of car pooling in spite of reserving car pool lanes for them is especially telling about the preference for privacy. My late second wife, a Sierra Club member inclined to environmentalism, tried car pooling to work (a 45 minute drive) but gave it up after a short time. She said it felt like going to work 45 minutes early and leaving work 45 minutes late.
    It seems to me that sociologists haven't studied this human desire, and failure to understand it has led to delusions among planners. Foolish slogans about "sprawl" won't help the social engineers herd us.

Past Technological Advances

The progress described above is due to technological advance and the social advances that have permitted the technological advances to be used. Technology is available worldwide, but its effectiveness in raising the standard of living has depended on social achievements - a market economy, peace and the rule of law, education and not letting economic parasitism get too much out of hand.

Here are some of the important technological advances.

Social Progress

In the late nineteenth century and up to World War I, there was a general opinion that progress in human institutions had accompanied scientific and technological progress. World War I and the other social disasters of the first half of this century changed this view. My opinion is that there really had been permanent social progress. It was just that there still remained large social dangers. My opinion is that there still remain large social dangers, but there has been real social progress. The collapse of the Soviet Union greatly reduced these dangers, and the rise of Muslim fanaticism has only increased them slightly.

Effective local government.
Governmental services are provided, and local warfare is prevented.
Money and the market economy.
The limited liability business corporation and its toleration and regulation by law.
Free, universal and compulsory education.
This is increasingly available all over the world.
Condemnation and elimination of slavery
In ancient times, moralists often made it a principle that slaves should be treated humanely, but no-one (so far as I know) said that there shouldn't be slaves at all. The Anti-Slavery League was created in Britain in the 18th century, and slavery was suppressed in the modern world by 1869 - lasting longer in backward countries.
Government of law - not of men.
That even the highest officials of government are subject to the law is a recent idea. For example, Confucius, Christ, Buddha and Machiavelli all give advice to rulers but didn't imagine them subordinate to the law. The English first established this in the seventeenth century. The ancient Greeks made some efforts in this direction.
Political democracy.
Democracy was first established and partly debugged under conditions in which it was not universal. Thus the Magna Carta of 1215 established rights of barons relative to King John which neither party had any intention of extending to anyone else. Doubtless it is moral blemish that universal political equality was not their goal, but nevertheless we owe a lot to those barons.

(If you don't agree that there has been moral progress, you may call the above one more example of the Whig theory of history).

The main whiggish historian, as far as I know, was Thomas Babington Macaulay, and his views are included in his 1845 History of England. Here's a quotation on past and future material progress. He also believed in social progress.

It is now the fashion to place the golden age of England in times when noblemen were destitute of comforts the want of which would be intolerable to a modern footman, when farmers and shopkeepers breakfasted on loaves the very sight of which would raise a riot in a modern workhouse, when to have a clean shirt once a week was a privilege reserved for the higher class of gentry, when men died faster in the purest country air than they now die in the most pestilential lanes of our towns, and when men died faster in the lanes of our towns than they now die on the coast of Guiana.

We too shall, in our turn, be outstripped, and in our turn be envied. It may well be, in the twentieth century, that the peasant of Dorsetshire may think himself miserably paid with twenty shillings a week; that the carpenter at Greenwich may receive ten shillings a day; that labouring men may be as little used to dine without meat as they now are to eat rye bread; that sanitary police and medical discoveries may have added several more years to the average length of human life; that numerous comforts and luxuries which are now unknown, or confined to a few, may be within the reach of every diligent and thrifty working man.

And yet it may then be the mode to assert that the increase of wealth and the progress of science have benefited the few at the expense of the many, and to talk of the reign of Queen Victoria as the time when England was truly merry England, when all classes were bound together by brotherly sympathy, when the rich did not grind the faces of the poor, and when the poor did not envy the splendour of the rich.
- Macaulay, History of England, Chapter 3

It is amazing how Macaulay got it right in 1845 - as to his time as compared to the past, as to the 20th century as compared to his time, and as to the continued litany of weeping and wailing.

Social Inadequacies

Large scale ideological instabilities.
Local government works stably when it is in the framework of a national constitution. This is because of its limited powers. If local governments were sovereign, e.g. could execute dissidents and forbid emigration, being local wouldn't help much. There have been very small tyrannies.

At national levels there are greater instabilities. Governments can become militarist, tribal or racist, communist or fascist. Opportunities exist for a class or cause to appropriate all of society's resources. The worst form of instability in the 20th century were political systems that gave power to single individuals, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, Castro, Pol Pot. Fortunately, none of these tyrants was able to create a system that survived his death. That was the fate of humanity in the Ingsoc society of Orwell's novel 1984. In that novel, there didn't actually have to be a Big Brother for the tyranny to continue.

Modern communication makes possible of worldwide ideological instabilities. The greatest danger I can see today is a green Hitler with worldwide influence, enabling him to take over the world and not just a country. There's no sign of such a person yet, but I don't know why there isn't.

What Progress will People Want?

I suspect that some people will think that these aspects of progress are partly unreal. I will consider dealing here with any arguments sent by email to mccarthy at stanford.edu.

More to come, including statistics about infant mortality, life expectancy, hours worked, etc. Besides these extensions of past improvements we can expect some entirely new benefits from technology.

America the O.K. -Why life in the U.S. has never been better by Greg Easterbrook in The New Republic, 1998 January explains about recent progress and why both left and right ideologists are inclined to deny it.

Human history is one of gradually accelerating progress punctuated by disasters like big wars and worsenings of climate and also periods of stagnation. It is only since the 18th century that a person would experience enough progress in his lifetime to regard continued progress as a normal state of society. The first half of the 20th century experienced three major disasters - World War I, a consequence of nationalism (mainly German), Hitlerism, and communism. These encouraged the perpetually existing beliefs that the world is getting worse.

There are always good trends in some aspect of country's life and bad trends in others. Many bad trends are predicted in advance by some but don't get reversed till they actually cause pain. Science permits more to be addressed in advance, but inaccurate anticipation can be a source of instability.

Send comments to mccarthy@stanford.edu. I sometimes accept suggestions for changes. John McCarthy

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