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2. (Re-)defining Progress
What do we really mean by economic and social progress?
This is the second in a series of long-form essays which will appear here over the coming months. To distinguish them from other pieces on the site, they are numbered, and are probably best read in order. The first essay is here.
In my 2005 book, The Possibility of Progress, I began by offering a definition of progress which still stands up today. I will couch it first in the form of a question:
Would the world not be a better place if more people enjoyed a level of economic security that enabled them to access adequate housing, sufficient food, appropriate clothing, decent healthcare and properly-resourced education for their children?
Surely any reasonable person would answer ‘yes’ to this question. And as the global population includes a great many reasonable people, we have quickly arrived at a statement of value to which millions would happily sign up. From it, we can deduce a definition of progress around which a consensus can hopefully be built. Progress is:
movement towards a social, economic and political order in which more people have access to adequate housing, sufficient food, appropriate clothing, decent healthcare and properly-resourced education for their children.
Notwithstanding concerns over the precise meaning of adequate, sufficient, appropriate, decent and properly-resourced, or that the privileges currently enjoyed by some might be curtailed by action to improve the lot of the many (I will come back to these), this is the definition of progress that provides the context for the essays and articles on this substack.
Before you click away in disgust at such an exclusively materialistic view of progress, I am not suggesting we should measure progress only in terms of material wellbeing, simply that a certain level of material security is essential if a person is to gain some satisfaction and enjoyment from life, and if they are to have any chance of fulfilling their potential or achieving their ambitions. Such material-focussed progress would also help ensure that more people feel justly treated by society. It is the acute sense of injustice felt by so many that lies at the root of much current conflict.
Progress, then, is a continuous process through which changes to social, economic and political structures and institutions enable more people to enjoy greater material security and therefore get more out of life, while also feeling fairly treated.
There is, of course, no guarantee of progress. And historical progress can easily be reversed. People can experience a reduction in their economic security and lose the access to essential material needs they have previously enjoyed. History shows us that the direction of social change, while progressive over the long term, is punctuated by frequent episodes of catastrophic backsliding.
The key outcome of the huge political, economic and technological changes of the 20th century was the irreversible globalisation of just about everything. To my mind, the advantages and potential benefits of globalisation far outweigh the costs. Although I will frequently use the example of specific countries to illustrate my arguments, the scope of progress, as discussed here, is by necessity global: it includes all human beings. You don’t have to travel very far to recognise that despite cultural differences, the vast majority of the world’s people share very similar aspirations for themselves and their families. I am not advocating some form of homogenous global culture. I’m simply saying that when considering how to deliver higher levels of material security the minimum acceptable should be the same in every country.
This isn’t to imply that every person in the world should have private access to running hot water and plumbed sanitation, for example. This is obviously unrealistic in the short term, requiring, as it would, massive transfers of capital from rich to poor worlds. But it does mean that richer nations (and their citizens) should not engage in activities which undermine the capacity of poorer societies to develop economically and make progress towards the levels of material wellbeing that most of us in the rich countries take for granted. We have to recognise the common aspirations of all people, and acknowledge the need for a common standard.
The British philosopher John Gray is one of the most illuminating writers on the subject of progress. He regularly rails against the complacency of liberals for their unthinking belief in the inevitability of progress. I consider myself immune from Gray’s censure: I am a liberal, yes, but I believe in the possibility of progress, not its inevitability. Gray is absolutely right that progress (certainly of the kind outlined above) is far from inevitable. Historic progress is the result of the heroic efforts of remarkable people often in conjunction with the judicious application of emerging technology. If nobody makes the effort, or we are not circumspect in our use of new technologies, there will be no progress.
Where Gray’s argument falls down is his failure to explain how, if humankind is not cut out for progress, just how far we have come. Historical progress is clear evidence for the possibility of progress going forward. We humans experience consiousness: we think about the world and our place in it, and this enables us to make value judgements about events and the general direction of social change. It helps shape our moral outlook. To a great extent, we develop the ability to tell right from wrong, good from bad, by making historical comparisons. And because we recognise the progress we have made over the last several centuries, many of us feel a strong sense of moral ambition for the future.
But Gray is also right: liberalism, as currently constituted, has a very patchy record when it comes to progress. Worse, it appears to have delivered the world to a place as dangerous as any in the last seven decades. The reason is simple: liberalism, a creed that makes great play of its core values, values including freedom, justice and indeed progress, has a total blind spot when it comes to economics. And it is economics, or rather the way we choose to organise our economies, that is currently placing strict limits on the possibility of future progress.
The endless arguments between advocates and opponents of liberalism add little to a crucial debate partly because ‘liberalism’ means different things to different people. First, what liberalism is not: many on the right in the United States use ‘liberal’ as a pejorative term for someone on the left of the Democratic Party. And in some countries, Australia for example, Liberal is the name chosen by parties of the centre right, the equivalent of other countries’ Conservatives.
The liberalism I am talking about is a philosophical and political position that emerged during the Enlightenment and embodies the belief that each of the following are good, should be defended and where possible extended:
The rule of law, exercised equally and without favour
the freedom to organise politically
Economic freedom, usually defined as a free-market economy
The right to own property
A free media
Freedom of speech
Freedom of assembly
Freedom of religion
It should be immediately obvious that many of these rights and freedoms are not universally enjoyed. Each is open to interpretation (and there’ll be plenty of that in the pieces to come) but one of them is, I think, especially problematic. By way of exposing it, let’s look at another list: The Four Freedoms articulated by President Roosevelt in his State of the Union address to Congress in January 1941:
Freedom of speech
Freedom of worship
Freedom from want
Freedom from fear
Roosevelt’s first two freedoms are covered by liberalism, but the last two are not. Nothing in the governing doctrine of liberalism makes explicit provision for Freedom from Want or Freedom from Fear.
These two freedoms are essential to progress, yet liberalism simply assumes that by supporting the notion of economic freedom, all citizens will automatically be able to protect themselves from want. Of course, enlightenment thinkers,
in the 19th century and subsequently, have discussed this omission and tried to remedy it, most notably Jeremy Bentham with his idea that we should organise society to deliver the ‘greatest good to the greatest number’. But as with all new movements, it is the headline principles that generally inform policy as ideas are transformed into real-world actions; and the headlines of enlightenment thinking include no injuction to ensure that people are able to insulate themselves from the kinds of fear that Roosevelt meant: the fear of hunger, homelessness, war, civil strife, crime, displacement and the like.
In contrast, Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms imply a responsibility towards the wellbeing of others. This is hardly surprising: Roosevelt was a devout Christian, and calls for people to exercise their own freedoms without impinging on the like freedoms of others are central not only to Christianity, but are found in the sacred texts of all the world’s major religions. The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you makes absolutely clear that we all have a responsibility to others.
For most of the pre-enlightenment period, there was great suffering and social injustice because most people were not able to live their lives according to the Golden Rule, at least not if they wanted to survive themselves. But it says something that in its determination to sideline religion, enlightenment thinking neglected to include any requirement to consider the interests of other people. It is perhaps no surprise then that the dominant ideology of the last two centuries has delivered us to our current, very precarious, situation.
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The main problem with liberalism is the way it allows people in positions of power (or those that seek such power) to interpret its call for economic freedom, and the failure of its proponents to acknowledge that an economic system characterised by free markets, unlimited private capital and light-touch regulation is unable to make permanent any progress it does help facilitate.
The seeds of an altogether better philosophy for creating a more just, equitable and sustainable world is to be found in the work of the late American thinker John Rawls, who built on the social contract idea of earlier philosophers like Locke, Rousseau and Hobbes, with his ‘original position’ theory. Rawls suggested that if people were asked how they would design society from scratch, without knowing what their own position or rank would be, then most people, understanding that they may well draw a shorter straw in terms of the factors that determine social and economic advantage, would design a much fairer and more equal society than the current one.
Rawls’ idea picks up on the two key elements in individual moral reasoning: When making a decision that has implications for others, most of us will weigh up the value to ourselves against the potential consequences to others, assuming we can see what those consequences would be. Thankfully, many decisions have no impact on others: ‘Shall I have another beer now, or wait until half time?’ doesn’t provoke the kind of moral tension that some decisions do. ‘Should I ask my neighbour to stop his children playing football in the garden because when the ball comes over, as it inevitably does, it damages my flowers?’ is a more weighted dilemma. It might save my beautiful blooms, but it will impact on negatively my neighbour’s children and might upset relations with my neighbour from whom I may need a favour in future.
But with many of the decisions we make, particularly about what we consume and how we live our lives, the impact on others is much less clear. We carry on regardless not only because we can’t visualise the impact on others, but because often we are not even aware that others may be impacted.
Which brings us back to Rawls. The design and construction of a better society, were we able to do this from scratch according to Rawls’ thought game is, to a great extent, about how we arrange our economies. And in a globalised economy it’s virtually impossible to know the impact of our decisions. We may be aware of the problematic implications of buying cheap clothes from Primark or Walmart because we suspect the people who made them in some far off country are paid a pittance. But those struggling factory workers are hardly going to be helped if we boycott Primark en masse and drive its suppliers out of business. Such dilemmas are a direct consequence of the way we arrange the economy. They will only be resolved when we work out how to arrange it differently.
If we were to combine the central tenets of liberalism with Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms and sought to extend all these freedoms to everyone, then we’d have a pretty good value basis for progress. Thanks to Roosevelt, we have a philosophy that balances the requirements of (individual) freedom and (social) justice. I don’t know if FDR knew the extent to which the economic system would have to change in order to accommodate his desire to end freedom from want and fear, but these weren’t the words of a politician with one eye on the electoral cycle; they were the words of a visionary, a man who, during his own presidency, was endlessly frustrated by the obstacles he faced when trying to change things for the better.
Freedom and justice are too often discussed as if they are irreconcilable opposites. The only reason this appears to be true is because we allow the enjoyment of unlimited economic freedom by a small number of people to take precedence over the freedoms from want and fear of the majority. These Rooseveltian freedoms are not just about subsistence farmers whose crops have failed, or families driven from their homes by civil war, they extend to the growing number of people in rich countries dependent on food banks, and the anxieties of homeowners unable to meet their mortgage payments because of rocketing interest rates.
Freedom and justice can be reconciled; we can create a society in which all people are free and able to provide for their essential needs. We just have to target the real cause of social injustice: elite power. It is the economic and political power wielded by a tiny minority of the population that prevents greater social justice and constrains progress. We can divide that elite into three groups:
Politicians who defend the status quo and work to further entrench it. It doesn’t matter if they hold sincere beliefs that greater deregulation, for example, is the best way to grow the economic pie and therefore spread wealth more widely. Such views may be sincerely held by some, but most are engaged in a battle to protect elite privilege, including their own.
The mass media, which supports politicians in their defence of the status quo by manipulating public sentiment and presenting, at best, a partial (in both senses) view of how the world works.
The super-rich (and those who aspire to such wealth) who, often in league with politicians and media moguls, manage the global economy to ensure that the largest possible share of wealth ends up in the pockets of the smallest number of people.
And there is a fourth group, not part of the elite, but still worth mentioning: those of us who do pretty well out of current arrangements but fail to acknowledge the extent to which our own material security is derived from the same system that promotes and protects elite wealth and power, and keeps millions of people in penury.
There will be much more on the economy in the coming weeks. But here’s one key takeaway for today: there is no fixed amount of wealth to be divided up more or less equally. Certainly our ability to create wealth is circumscribed by environmental factors. But by turning the economy in a different direction, it is perfectly possible to increase the size of the cake so that there is enough for everyone, without screwing the planet for future generations. Of course, we will still need to change the mechanics of an economic system that distributes that wealth so unevenly.
The American thinker Reinhold Niebuhr, in his 1932 book Moral Man and Immoral Society, concluded that the strong moral feelings that many humans possess get lost in the process through which we come together as societies, and are therefore not coverted in to the kind of collective progress we would like to see. There’s
now almost a century’s worth of further history that appears to support Niebuhr’s claim. But in the 1920s and 1930s, although things were bad, Niebuhr and his contemporaries would have had no inkling that within a century we would have developed the capacity to destroy civilization twice over: rapidly via nuclear armageddon, or steadily through the impact of ummitigated climate change.
If Niebuhr were alive today, he wouldn’t throw his arms up in despair. I think he would exhort us to lift civilization to the next level by working out how to convert the moral ambition we hold as individuals into whatever it takes to survive and progress as a civilization.
Niebuhr is better known (or at least he should be) as the probable originator of The Serenity Prayer:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Niebuhr was right, again: Of course, as individuals concerned with the future of the planet and preserving our remarkable civilization, there is little we can do alone. But if we come together, recognise our common interests and start pulling in the same direction, we can make the requisite changes. A belief in progress, if held by enough people, will become self-fulfilling.