April 21, 2019

Should We Believe in Progress?

“THE FIRST PARAGRAPH of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities begins: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” and continues: “it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.” The early twenty-first century appears to resemble the late eighteenth century in at least this one respect. Assurances of progress alternate with threats of catastrophe; promises of endless improvement are answered by warnings of terminal decline; every Steven Pinker produces an equal and opposite Wendell Berry.

What’s at issue is not merely the accuracy of these dueling predictions—only the most long-lived participants in these debates will get to see their forecasts confirmed or falsified. In any case, the future is not a scientific experiment, in which one variable and then another is changed while the initial conditions are held constant. We have to make crucial long-term policy choices without the hope of knowing even many decades on whether different choices would have turned out better. (Yes, I know: “we” is a pleasant fiction; elites will make those policy choices. But let’s pretend we live in a democracy.)

The debate over progress is—overtly at least—a debate about technology: what’s worked, what’s likely to work, and at what cost. That sounds straightforward, but it’s not. Neoclassical economics is skilled at ignoring costs and benefits accruing to those with little market power, like subsistence farmers and fisherman, indigenous people attached to their land, and future residents of coastal areas (around 50 percent of America’s population) who might not want to have to choose between moving inland or living on a houseboat. Just as a proposal is “politically possible,” in Beltway jargon, not if a majority of the population wants it but only if it has some hope of mustering key congressional sponsors, so is a technology “viable” for an economist not if it would maximize human welfare but only if it can attract enough investors who expect to make a profit from it. Both decision processes are—to put it charitably—far from ideal.”

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