3 Questions about Progress: The Profectus Progress Roundtable

by on June 15, 2022 · 0 comments

Profectus is an excellent new online magazine featuring essays and interviews on the intersection of academic literature, public policy, civilizational progress, and human flourishing. The Spring 2022 edition of the magazine features a “Progress Roundtable” in which six different scholars were asked to contribute their thoughts on three general questions:
  1. What is progress?
  2. What are the most significant barriers holding back further progress?
  3. If those challenges can be overcome, what does the world look like in 50 years?

I was honored to be asked by Clay Routledge to contribute answers to those questions alongside others, including: Steven Pinker (Harvard University), Jason Crawford (Roots of Progress), Matt Clancy (Institute for Progress), Marian Tupy (Human​Progress​.org), James Pethokoukis (AEI). I encourage you to jump over the roundtable and read all their excellent responses. I’ve included my answers down below:

What is progress?

Progress is the advancement of human health, happiness, and general well-being. Measures of well-being can be challenging, however, so we should consider a broad range of metrics, including: life expectancy, infant mortality, poverty measures, energy production/consumption, GDP, productivity, agricultural yields/nourishment, and access to various important goods, services, and conveniences. While each of these metrics may have limitations, taken together, they stand for something meaningful that represents a rough proxy for progress.

But we should always remember what progress means at a deeper level for every individual. Innovation and economic growth are important because they allow us to live lives of our own choosing and enjoy the fruits of a prosperous, pluralistic society.  Progress “is not just bigger piles of money,” as Hans Rosling once noted. “The ultimate goal is to have the freedom to do what we want.”  Accordingly, we should aim to broaden the range of opportunities available to all people to help them flourish.

What are the most significant barriers holding back further progress?

The most significant threat to continued progress is the risk of stagnation accompanying efforts to protect the status quo. As Virginia Postrel taught us in her wonderful book The Future & Its Enemies, we should reject stasis-minded thinking and instead shoot for a world of dynamism, which cherishes and protects the freedom to think and act differently.

Progress hinges upon the growth of knowledge. Knowledge comes from experience, and the most important experiences involve trial-and-error learning. Public attitudes and policies that restrict people and ideas from intermingling freely are a recipe for intellectual, social, and economic stagnation. Accordingly, when we consider public policies toward progress, we should first seek to identify and remove legal and regulatory impediments that limit risk-taking, entrepreneurialism, and technological innovation. As science writer Matt Ridley provocatively puts it, to unlock more growth and prosperity, we must first remove obstacles to “ideas having sex.”

The free movement of people and capital is essential to this process. Openness to immigration is the easiest way for a nation to expand its potential for innovation and growth. But domestic labor skills and mobility are equally important. For entrepreneurs and workers, we need to reframe the battle for progress as “the freedom to innovate” and “the right to earn a living.”

Unfortunately, many barriers exist to advancing those goals, like occupational licensing rules and permitting processes, cronyist industrial protectionist schemes, inefficient tax schemes, and many other layers of regulatory red tape. Reforming or eliminating such rules is crucial for broadening opportunities.

Finally, we need to address cultural barriers to progress. Technology and entrepreneurs often get a bad rap in the media and popular culture. Fear and pessimism dominate their narratives. We must do a better job communicating the benefits of openness to change and give people more reasons to be optimistic about a dynamic future.

If those challenges can be overcome, what does the world look like in 50 years?

I agree with Yogi Berra that “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Nonetheless, history shows we can achieve remarkable things when we get the prerequisites for progress right and let people tap into their inherent inquisitiveness and inventiveness. Moving the needle on innovation and growth even just a little will yield compounding returns to future generations. But we should dare to dream bigger and think what progress means for each person today and in the future.

A pro-progress agenda will help us lead longer lives and significantly expand our capabilities because that is what people have always desired most. Accordingly, I believe the most significant advance of the next 50 years will be a radical increase in life expectancy and dramatic improvements in our physical and mental capabilities while we are alive.

Today’s tech critics often claim that technological innovation somehow undermines our humanity. They couldn’t be more wrong. There are few things more human than acts of invention. When we take steps to address practical human needs and wants, we enrich our lives and the lives of countless others. The future will be wonderful, so long as we are free to make it so.

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