The Roots of Progress

A builder manifesto

Marc Andreessen says we were unprepared for the covid pandemic because: “We chose not to build.”

The problem isn’t money, or capitalism, or technical competence:

The problem is desire. We need to want these things. The problem is inertia. We need to want these things more than we want to prevent these things. The problem is regulatory capture. We need to want new companies to build these things, even if incumbents don’t like it, even if only to force the incumbents to build these things. And the problem is will. We need to build these things.

Amen. And I’ll add:

The problem is ignorance. We don’t know how far we’ve come, and we don’t teach our children.

The problem is complacency. We take progress for granted, as if it were automatic or inevitable. It isn’t: for most of human history we moved forward only weakly and sporadically. Progress only happens when we resolve to make it happen.

The problem is fear. Every harm, large or small, actual or potential, real or imagined, becomes a rule, a regulation, a thread in a ribbon of red tape that has brought sclerosis to our institutions, public and private. We’ve bought safety at the price of speed, without debating or deciding it.

The problem is guilt. We worry that what we build is “unsustainable”, or that it increases inequality, when we should be proud that what we build drives growth and moves humanity forward.

The problem is hatred. Hatred of technology, of industry, of money, of capitalism—hatred that blinds people to the immense good these forces do in the world for all humanity.

The problem is entitlement. Not knowing what it takes to put food on the table, the roof over their heads, or the shirts on their backs, too many people see these things and much more as birthrights. Not knowing that wealth is created, they see the rich as thieves and scorn even their gifts.

The problem is tribalism. We don’t teach our children to think, and so they learn only to feel. Without a commitment to truth, without confidence in their own judgment, they fall back on age-old patterns of ingroup vs. outgroup—witness a world where even the efficacy of a drug becomes a partisan issue.

What is the solution?

We need to learn to appreciate progress—both what we’ve already done, and why we can’t stop now. We need to tell the amazing story of progress: how comfort, safety, health, and luxury have become commonplace, and what a dramatic achievement that has been. We need to learn where progress comes from, to understand its causes. And we need to pass all that knowledge on to the next generation.

We need to glorify the inventor, the creator, the maker—the builder. The independent mind who defies tradition and authority. The scientists, technologists and industrialists who pursue a creative vision, against the crowd and against the odds, facing risk with courage and setbacks with resilience, working relentlessly over years and decades to bring about a better world.

We need to inspire young people to take part in this story, to step up in their turn and to one day lead the way, knowing that it is up to each generation to pick up the torch of progress and carry it forward.

We need to invest. We need to fund science and research, both basic and applied. We need to bring back the great corporate invention labs that helped create the modern world.

And then we need to get out of the way. Unwind the regulatory state. No matter where you fall on any political spectrum, acknowledge that the creeping bureaucracy has crept too far, and that it’s time to start untangling the thicket of regulations. We can maintain a reasonable and even continually increasing standard of safety, while at the same time valuing speed, efficiency, and cost, and most fundamentally, allowing for individual judgment.

Andreessen concludes:

Our nation and our civilization were built on production, on building. Our forefathers and foremothers built roads and trains, farms and factories, then the computer, the microchip, the smartphone, and uncounted thousands of other things that we now take for granted, that are all around us, that define our lives and provide for our well-being. There is only one way to honor their legacy and to create the future we want for our own children and grandchildren, and that’s to build.

Amen. Let’s make building and progress into a philosophy, a religion, a movement.


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