What is progress?

By James Pethokoukis

MIT Technology Review recently asked a bunch of activists, entrepreneurs, historians, and economists a simple but rather thought-provoking question: “What does progress mean to you?” An intrinsically valuable question, I think, but it’s especially apt at a time that seems like a moment of transition. America and the world have just suffered a huge shock, including economic tumult. There are lots of questions about what happens next. And whatever the post-pandemic future holds, we want to be active participants in trying to nudge that future in a preferable direction or create the conditions that can lead to a better world. So what does progress mean to us? Among the answers MTR rounded up:

  • “Meaningful progress is about using our abilities and resources to create a world where anyone can thrive.”
  • “Progress means actively fostering innovation.”
  • “Progress for me is about what actually matters most in life: health, job satisfaction, housing quality, living standards, and real education.”

What would I have written had I been asked for my thoughts? Maybe something like this:

Since I write about economic policy, I naturally first think of progress in terms that economic policy can affect — in particular (I hope) accelerating sustainable, long-term economic growth driven by scientific discovery and technological innovation, widely diffused. Now those effects are different, of course, if you live in a rich country at the tech frontier or in one that is further back and needs to catch up. But a world experiencing productive growth at a decent clip is more likely to be one that values and promotes personal freedom and opportunity for all. It’s more likely to be tolerant. It’s more likely to generate advances that can extend healthy lifespans. It’s more likely to have the means to turn imagination into reality. It’s more likely to be capable of dealing with big threats, including some created by progress. And I would prefer to tackle the problems caused by abundance than the ones caused by scarcity. There’s a reason this quote from Nobel-prize-winning economist Robert Lucas is a favorite of mine: “Once you start thinking about growth, it’s hard to think about anything else.” It’s what makes progress both possible and desirable.

Something like that, I guess. It’s also worth mentioning that progress is an essential component to the dominant socio-economic system that is generally referred to as “capitalism.” But here’s economist Deirdre McCloskey’s preferred way to describe that system, as she writes in Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World:

[My] trilogy chronicles, explains, and defends what made us rich—the system we have had since 1848, usually but misleadingly called modern “capitalism.” The system should rather be called “technological and institutional betterment at a frenetic pace, tested by unforced exchange among all the parties involved.” Or “fantastically successful liberalism, in the old European sense, applied to trade and politics, as it was applied also to science and music and painting and literature.” The simplest version is “trade-tested progress.” Many humans, in short, are now stunningly better off than their ancestors were in 1800. And the rest of humanity shows every sign of joining the enrichment, the “innovism.”