Why Liberals Should Care About Progress

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.

First, the history of progress is a validation of the modern world and its institutions.

Since about 1800, most of the world has escaped from poverty. In the industrialized world, the average person, who once lived without refrigerator, toilet, or running water, now has all of these conveniences; many also enjoy a vacuum cleaner, dishwasher, and microwave. Working conditions have improved as jobs moved from farms to factories to offices and as machines took over physical labor, while working hours declined from over 60 hours per week to under 40. Famine, once relatively common, is only a distant memory in most of the world. Where almost 1% of mothers once died in childbirth, and half of all children died before the age of fifteen, child and maternal mortality today have plummeted by orders of magnitude. Speedy powered transportation and instant electronic communications have connected the world like never before, to the benefit of commerce, science, education, and cultural understanding. And the ability for the majority of the globe to access virtually the entirety of world art, literature, and philosophy has enabled unprecedented intellectual and spiritual enrichment.

These benefits have not been shared evenly, but they have been shared broadly. Every country on Earth today has a life expectancy higher than any country did in 1800. Every continent has now achieved a food supply of over 2,600 calories per person per day. And global poverty is declining by almost any metric you choose—not only in relative terms, but by many metrics, in absolute terms as well. (And no, it’s not just China.) All of these metrics still have a long way to go, but they have come far in the last two centuries—further than they had in all the millennia before.

These grand achievements are due at least in part to liberalism: free markets, free trade, free migration, and most fundamentally the free and open exchange of ideas.

The enormous economic growth was due in large part to increases in productivity which were brought about by private enterprise: the spinner and weaver left their cottage industry to operate machines in factories; the farmer traded his horse-drawn plow for a gasoline tractor; the blacksmith laid his hammer down upon his anvil and took up the steel rolling mill and press. But for such enterprises to thrive, old institutions had to be dissolved: the restrictive guild system, which often opposed new techniques; the arbitrary granting of royal monopolies; the corvée system of forced labor. More importantly, new and better institutions had to be created. The railroads, representing a massive buildout of transportation infrastructure, depended on the new legal form of the limited-liability corporation to raise the required capital. And inventions, from the cotton gin to recombinant DNA, depended on the protection of the patent system.

Industrial civilization is also founded on science: the thermodynamics of engines, the electricity that powers lights and computers, the chemistry that fertilizes our crops, the antibiotics that cure disease. The birth and growth of science, starting around the 16th century, was based on a new epistemic principle: a commitment to reason and empiricism. But it was also based on a new social principle: a commitment to free and open debate. To embrace reason and empiricism, the leaders of the Scientific Revolution needed to shove aside tradition and authority. Scientists had to be free to speak against revered but mistaken theories, from Aristotle’s physics to Ptolemy’s geocentric astronomy to Galen’s “four humors.” The motto of the Royal Society, Europe’s premiere scientific institution of the 17th century, was nullius in verba—“on no one’s word.”

Both free enterprise and free thought were aided by the free movement of people between nations. Migration protected heretics: If during the religious wars they were persecuted in a Catholic country, there was often a Protestant country happy to take them in, and vice versa. Descartes wrote his Meditations in the Netherlands when religious intolerance was growing in France; Hobbes wrote Leviathan in Paris during the English Civil War. Later, during the rise of capitalism, migration brought economic opportunity. Many of the most successful entrepreneurs were immigrants, from the Scottish-American Andrew Carnegie, who brought cheap steel to America, to the Turkish-German founders of BioNTech, Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci, who brought a COVID vaccine to the world.

The dramatic rise in global living standards, then, is a vindication of freedom in all its forms.

Sadly, not only is this achievement rarely celebrated, it is not even broadly known or believed. A 2017 survey asked people whether they thought global poverty over the last 20 years had halved, doubled, or stayed the same; only 5% of US respondents, and less than 10% of those in the UK, correctly answered that it had halved. And in 2015, fewer than 10% of people polled across several countries believed that “the world is getting better”.

Some even claim that technological and industrial progress have not on the whole been good for humanity. They argue that progress has destroyed jobs, that it ruins the environment, that it has created looming existential threats to our species, that it doesn't actually make people happier, and that in any case it is unsustainable. So Jeremy Caradonna asks “Is 'Progress’ Good for Humanity?,” Jared Diamond calls agriculture “the worst mistake in human history,” David Barash calls modern civilization a “Ponzi scheme,” Kate Raworth and Naomi Klein call economic growth an “addiction,” Clive Hamilton and James Gustave Speth call it a “fetish,” and Giorgos Kallis advocates an entire “degrowth” movement. On the right, religious traditionalists rail against the supposedly empty and thoughtless “materialism” of our wealthy, industrialized society.

If this were a fair assessment of progress, it would indeed be high time to overthrow liberal values and institutions and to replace them with a revolutionary new model for society.

Thus, a defense of liberal philosophy requires a defense of progress. It requires showing that, despite the real problems it has created and the challenges that lie ahead, material progress has been on balance a massive good.

The second reason why progress is central to the defense of philosophical liberalism is that the story of progress points us to a positive vision for the future. We can use science, technology, and industry to create a better world. We can cure heart disease, cancer, AIDS, obesity, mental disorders, genetic diseases, and even aging itself. We can design self-driving cars that will save time, eliminate road deaths, and make personal transit affordable to many more people. We can shrink the world further with supersonic passenger travel, going from New York to London in under four hours, or Seattle to Tokyo in under five. We can end air pollution and control the climate. We can colonize the solar system, and perhaps one day the galaxy. We can even reverse extinction and bring back the wooly mammoth (though maybe let’s pass on the velociraptors). We can “grow the pie” and make it possible for everyone on Earth to attain today’s highest living standards—and then continue to raise them.

But to achieve these things, we must set our sights on them. We must recognize that just as we today are fantastically wealthy compared to past generations, so too our descendants, generations hence, can be fantastically wealthy compared to today. This positive vision, beyond just a conservation of the values and institutions of the past, should be a large part of what motivates a defense of liberal philosophy.

Finally, the lessons of progress point the way to the solutions to the real problems of the modern world, the failures of its institutions, the justified criticisms of its elites.

The progress lens helps us see that in broad terms, almost none of our problems are new. Job loss, information overload, technology accidents, and environmental damage are all challenges we have tackled before. The solution to these problems—even the ones created by progress itself—is more progress. We can address climate change with new energy technologies (including nuclear and geothermal), carbon capture, and geoengineering. We can (and will) create new jobs to replace ones lost—and we can make reskilling easier and otherwise improve job mobility. Information technology gave us distraction, but better information tools can enhance focus; it took away our privacy, but it can also give us encryption and other tools to rebuild privacy stronger than ever. And we can obtain gene safety through responsible processes, thoughtful standards, and safety technologies such as those being developed by the Safe Genes program at DARPA.

Credible approaches to these concerns must be clearly articulated within the framework of liberal principles, and soon—or “solutions” will be offered from elsewhere on regressive or authoritarian principles. A deeper study of progress, especially how similar challenges have been dealt with in the past, can inform and inspire new solutions for the future.

More broadly, the growing attack on philosophical liberalism is fueled in part by a feeling that the world is in decline. This is reinforced by an increasing distrust of elites and institutions—including the ones that helped make the modern world, such as entrepreneurs and venture capital, scientists and universities, even courts and the rule of law. The feeling is that elites, institutions, and liberal values have failed us, that they offer no vision for the future, and no solutions to the problems they created.

The truth is the opposite: 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.

Jason Crawford writes about the history of technology and the philosophy of progress at The Roots of Progress. Previously, he spent 18 years as a software engineer, engineering manager, and startup founder.