The Roots of Progress

BBC Future covers progress studies

BBC Future has an article on progress studies. I was interviewed, along with Tyler Cowen, Holden Karnofsky, and others. It’s well-researched and, although somewhat critical, it is pretty fair in how it represents the progress community.

Here are brief responses to some of the criticisms:

Why the progress community focuses on material progress

Progress writers say that we care about human well-being, and that this includes moral and social progress. But in practice, we have mostly focused on material progress so far. Why?

First, material progress is underrated. Economic growth is considered a wonkish concern; it deserves to be considered a humanitarian one.

Second, an appreciation of material progress is crucial to validating the core ideas of the Enlightenment—which I consider to be crucial to moral progress. For more on the link between the two, see my essay “Why Liberals Should Care About Progress.”

That said, I would love to turn my focus to moral progress at some point, and even write a book on it. In the meantime, for more on the subject, see my review of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

Why we focus on frontier growth

The progress community has also been focused on growth at the technological frontier, rather than catch-up growth in places like China and India. Why?

First, frontier growth is fundamental. Without frontier growth, there’s nothing to catch up to—that was the entire history of the world until about 1800. With frontier growth, poor countries benefit, even when they don’t fully catch up. For instance, every country on Earth today has a life expectancy higher than any country did in 1800. (More recently, the Center for Global Development found a “strong convergence in use of consumption technologies“ which “reflects considerably stronger global convergence in quality of life than in income.”)

Second, frontier growth (like material progress) is underrated. The UN has set “Sustainable Development Goals” like “no poverty” and “clean water.” No major international organization that I know of has even considered goals like “cure aging,” “settle Mars” or “invent fusion energy.”

Further, thoroughly understanding the growth of frontier countries such as the UK and US is an important foundation for driving catch-up growth. The two types of growth don’t happen in exactly the same way, but I think there is a large element of “just implement best practices,” and for that we need to get clear on what best practices are. That question, however, is fraught with political and ideological issues (did growth come from economic freedom? colonialism and slavery? the Protestant work ethic? etc.) So we need a detailed historical, economic, and philosophic study to give an answer solid enough to build an international consensus on.

I discussed this a while ago with Mark Lutter and more recently on the podcast Hear this Idea. (And if you want to read something interesting about catch-up growth, check out Scott Alexander’s review of How Asia Works.)

GDP per capita is not my “top priority”

The article claims that my top priority is increasing GDP per capita, instead of, for instance, happiness or life satisfaction. I wouldn’t put it that way. Human well-being cannot be captured by any single metric, so I would never say that my priority is to increase some metric.

However, metrics are useful, and I do think that if you had to pick a single metric, GDP per capita is the most important.

Why not happiness or life satisfaction? These metrics are more subjective, and in particular they are relative rather than absolute. They are inherently relative, because emotions and feelings tend to be relative to expectations or to the recent past; and they are relative by design: one commonly-used survey question asks people to use a scale where 10 represents “the best possible life for you” and 0 “the worst possible life for you.” Answers to these questions say more about what kind of life people think is possible to them than about what kind of life they actually have.

Progress studies is opinionated, and that’s a good thing

One section of the article concludes:

In sum, progress studies deploys a framing and language for progress that appears to be global and all-encompassing, but in practice, it is underpinned by a particular set of social and political worldviews. It’s only one idea of progress, and one idea of what human flourishing means.

Well, of course.

I don’t know what it would mean for there to be a view of progress that was not “underpinned by a particular set of social and political worldviews.” I doubt such a thing can exist.

As much as possible, the progress community tries to be empirical, non-dogmatic, and open to rational argumentation based on evidence and logic. We are steeped in history and in data. And our tent includes a range of political views, from progressive to libertarian. But there is no view from nowhere. There are some basic premises the community coalesces around, and that is necessary and good.

The BBC article seems to assume that a movement can’t be of universal relevance unless it is as neutral as a Wikipedia entry. That is wrong.

The community having “one idea of progress” is not a weakness but a strength. We have a particular, underrated idea of what progress is and where it comes from. In my opinion it is a powerful idea, and one that is well-grounded in history, economics, and philosophy. Critics are welcome to argue with it, of course—and if their arguments are equally well-grounded, then they will serve to improve our ideas, which would be even more welcome.

Comment: Progress Forum, LessWrong, Reddit

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