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Why progress studies need to reconsider regress

‘People think the world is getting worse, not better’

Entrepreneur Jason Crawford has recently turned his website The Roots of Progress into a non-profit of the same name.

Crawford announced this to the world in an August 23 post titled, “We need a new philosophy of progress.”

“We live in an age that has lost its optimism,” he writes. “Polls show that people think the world is getting worse, not better. Children fear dying from environmental catastrophe before they reach old age. Technologists are as likely to be told that they are ruining society as that they are bettering it.”

This was, to put it mildly, not always the case.

During what has come to be called the Enlightenment, he writes, “Western thinkers were caught up in a wave of optimism for technology, humanity and the future…”

Crawford thinks the reason for that wasn’t all the new gizmos, but philosophy.

“The Enlightenment was many things, but in large part, it was a philosophy of progress,” he writes.

This Enlightenment philosophy isn’t the dominant one today, Crawford grants. He believes that is the case because part of what it promised, namely human perfection, never panned out.

For a time, that didn’t matter so much because “material progress…was rocketing ahead.”

For instance, after huge wars finished running their courses through Europe and America in the mid-1800s, “the path was clear for technological innovation and economic growth: the railroad, the telephone, the light bulb, the internal combustion engine.”

But many of the historical and intellectual developments of the Twentieth Century took dead aim at the idea of progress. The environmental movement targeted the internal combustion engine, for instance, and that looks likely to be on the way out this century, in spite of the fact that electric vehicles are not appreciably less wasteful.

Crawford follows in the footsteps of people such as George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen in seeing a great stagnation in technology today. He blames the dismissal of progress for this stagnation.

“Today, progress and growth are called an ‘addiction,’ a ‘fetish,’ a ‘Ponzi scheme,’ or a ‘fairy tale.’ Some even advocate a new ideal of ‘degrowth,’” he reports.

The entrepreneur admits that “The 19th century philosophy of progress was naive,” but argues “the 20th century turn away from progress was no solution.”

Therefore, it’s time for a new philosophy of progress that “teaches people not to take the modern world for granted…acknowledges the problems of progress, confronts them directly, and offers solutions and…holds up a positive vision of the future.”

I wish him all the success in the world on that endeavor. In the spirit of his idea that this new philosophy must overcome serious objections, let me throw three out there:

1. Avoid chronological snobbery

Boosters of progress often take the default position that what happened in the past was all bad, spurred by ignorance and superstition, and that we have overcome that sort of thing. This way of looking at the world isn’t just wrong, it’s injurious to a serious case for progress in two ways. First, many of us know that it’s hogwash and thus dismiss it and are likely to discount what else a person has to say. Second, it gives the current ignorant and spreaders of new superstitions cover that they don’t deserve.

2. Consider regress

Things can and do go the wrong way as well as the right way, and technological progress is not immune to this problem. For instance, Big Tech gave people ways to connect to each other as never before. Generally good thing. But now they are trying to get a stranglehold on the country’s political dialog through amorphous “community standards” and the like. Bad thing. Optimists about progress should not blindly dismiss such problems.

3. Think about trade-offs

This is something optimists need to learn from economics. What you think of as progress man not be in incontrovertible good for all of us. For instance, we allow railroads to use eminent domain to force the sale of lands, because we believe that’s the only way to make sure that rail lines actually get built. If you like trains, it’s progress. If you have to sell your ancestral lands for a song or watch them be carved up by rail, it’s a slightly different story.

So long, and thanks for all the fish!

Finally, let’s end on a personal note: This will be my final column for The College Fix, as tomorrow will be my last day here. Another job beckons. I had a great time in these cyber pages, writing what I wrote and working to mentor and publish many great student journalists. Thanks to John J. Miller and Jennifer Kabbany for affording me the opportunity and supporting me along the way. I only regret it couldn’t have been for longer.

My departure leaves a vacancy. I encourage readers who have the interest and the experience to help fill it. Click here to see if you have what it takes, and apply within!

MORE: Read Jeremy Lott’s archive for The College Fix

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About the Author
Jeremy founded three of the Real Clear Politics family of websites and has covered subjects ranging from religious trends to space travel to an armed standoff, for hundreds of publications. His books and comic books include The Warm Bucket Brigade: A History of the Vice Presidency, William F. Buckley, and Movie Men. Jeremy graduated from Trinity Western University, where he served as an editor for the Mars Hill newspaper.