The role of progress in defending liberalism
Why defenders of liberalism should care about progress
I had a piece recently in Symposium: “Why Liberals Should Care About Progress”. The opening:
The case for a free society is a broad integration across many subjects, including history, economics, and moral philosophy. Central to this integration is the topic of human progress—specifically, the scientific, technological, industrial, and economic progress that has been dramatically raising standards of living around the world for over two hundred years. Understanding the history, nature, and causes of progress should be a focus for anyone who wants to defend philosophical liberalism, for three reasons.
And the conclusion:
The truth is … liberal philosophy has worked. It has created abundance, empowerment, and safety for all. It offers a compelling vision for the future, and the solutions to our problems and fears. Explicating this argument is central to defending the values of a free society.
In the shadow of the Great War
The idea of progress fell out of favor in the course of the 20th century. But when exactly, and why?
In a recent essay I alluded to the pivotal role of the World Wars. Here’s a quote that adds weight to this—from Progress and Power, by historian Carl Becker, published in 1936:
For two centuries the Western world has been sustained by a profound belief in the doctrine of progress. Although God the Father had withdrawn into the places where Absolute Being dwells, it was still possible to maintain that the Idea or the Dialectic or Natural Law, functioning through the conscious purposes or the unconscious activities of men, could be counted on to safeguard mankind against future hazards. However formulated, with whatever apparatus of philosophic or scientific terminology defended, the doctrine was in essence an emotional conviction, a species of religion—a religion which, according to Professor [J. B.] Bury, served as a substitute for the declining faith in the Christian doctrine of salvation …
Since 1918 this hope has perceptibly faded. Standing within the deep shadow of the Great War, it is difficult to recover the nineteenth-century faith either in the fact or the doctrine of progress. The suggestion casually thrown out some years ago by Santayana, that “civilization is perhaps approaching one of those long winters which overtake it from time to time,” seems less perverse now than when it was made. Current events lend credit to the prophets of disaster who predict the collapse of a civilization that seemed but yesterday a permanent conquest of human reason …
At the present moment the world seems indeed out of joint, and it is difficult to believe with any conviction that a power not ourselves—the Idea or the Dialectic or Natural Law—will ever set it right. The present moment, therefore, when the fact of progress is disputed and the doctrine discredited, seems to me a proper time to raise the question: What, if anything, may be said on behalf of the human race? May we still, in whatever different fashion, believe in the progress of mankind?
I find it fascinating to see that the downfall of the idea of progress began as early as this, after World War I. World War II perhaps simply reinforced an existing trend.
I also find fascinating Becker’s idea that humanity required some sort of safeguard, a “power not ourselves” to “set it right.”
There is no power outside of humanity. We are the masters of our fate, for better or for worse. If there is to be a 21st-century philosophy of progress, it needs to be based not on an Idea or a Dialectic, but on human agency.
Interview with Noah Smith
Noah Smith interviewed me for his Substack. An excerpt:
N.S.: Isn’t another possibility that those celebrations of science back in the day were really celebrations of patriotism? As in, proof that America could do great things? Patriotic pride was certainly on my mind when the vaccines came out. And I remember from when I was a kid, how the Mars Pathfinder rover had everyone glued to their screens and throwing house parties – maybe that happened because the 90s were an era of resurgent pride in America. In contrast, we’re now in an era of deep national division, where lots of people feel like they can’t celebrate the achievements of a nation that contains a large rival faction. I think you can see that in the mass resistance to vaccines among many Trump supporters (even though, ironically, the vaccines were developed under Trump!). What do you think of that theory?
J.C.: Yeah, I think you’re on to something with that. I think America had a sort of national self-esteem crisis around the late ’60s / early ’70s, with Vietnam, Watergate, and the oil shocks all hitting around the same time. The Apollo missions were kind of the last hurrah of our national self-esteem, and it was downhill from there. I don’t think we’ve ever fully recovered.
Interview: Thoughts in Between with Matt Clifford
I was interviewed on Thoughts in Between with Matt Clifford, where we discussed “what causes progress; why it’s not universally popular; what the history of bicycle tells us about why advances in technology sometimes take so long; why the future people imagined in the 1960s didn’t happen; and much more.”
Listen on the show page.