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Progress is Counterintuitive
Why it's so easy to turn the public against progress
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For billions of people on this planet, life is better than ever. We are better educated, living longer, wealthier, and more free than at any time in human history. Yet critics of progress and their followers would have you believe exactly the opposite. It is easy to understand why so many are being misled; the factors of progress are deeply counterintuitive. Human progress defies our own intuition, and this is exploited by critics and pundits for their own personal agendas.
Appeals to Misleading Narratives
Life was better in the good old days, they say. It may defy our perception, but we cannot trust our own memories on this issue. When critics appeal to the past and the idyllic concept of the “good old days,” it is an appeal to a false version of reality. Our brains have a built-in mechanism that suppresses negative memories over time. Thus, the past will almost always be remembered more fondly than it probably deserves.
The above appeal to nostalgia circulating online serves as a great example. The idea that around 1960 in America, one income could buy a life that requires two incomes today, is false. In 1960, the car ownership rate in America was half what it is today. The average new home was about 25 percent smaller and lacked amenities like garbage disposals, dishwashers, fire alarms…etc. That is for new homes, but many lived in older, smaller homes with no air conditioning or washing machines either. College is certainly a lot more expensive now, but children at the time would likely have not attended anyway.
The fact is, one can certainly live on a single income today…if one were to live like the average family did in 1960. That is, to own only one car, a small home, 1 television with 3 channels, road trips instead of flying…etc. In fact, you would live better than they did, because you would have access to modern medicine, cheaper clothing, cheaper food, and your car and home would be vastly safer, more energy efficient, and probably have features that would have been unimaginable luxuries at that time.
To make matters worse, the news media is biased toward negative current events. A country in the midst of a bloody civil war will draw news correspondents, a country prospering at peace will not. When our brains compare the past with the present, they compare an overly negative portrayal of the present in sharp relief with a rose-colored version of the past. It should be no wonder then that most people cannot accept that poverty is lower, and famines and war less frequent than they were in the “good old days.”
Critics of progress also seize upon our deeply human propensity to subscribe to “zero-sum” thinking, the idea that for me to “win,” you must “lose.” This often comes up in the realm of global trade, which is seen by many as a zero-sum game of winners and losers. The loser incurs a “deficit” and the winner a “surplus.” But in the vast majority of cases, countries do not trade with each other, people and companies do. Transactions only take place to the extent that both parties “win,” otherwise, the transaction would not have taken place at all. While individual firms may find competition difficult to bear, in the aggregate, trade is not a zero-sum game. Trade enriches everyone by broadening competition, bringing prices down, and jump-starting innovation.
We see zero-sum thinking also cloud our judgment with regard to immigration. The arrival of immigrants from abroad, we think, must “steal jobs” from the “native” population. But economists have long understood this notion to be false, they even have a term for it: the Lump of Labor Fallacy. More immigrants do bring in more competition for jobs, but they also bring in more demand for jobs as well.
Zero-sum thinking is used as a gateway to stir up a broader movement against globalization. The free movement of goods and people is a net positive for wealth creation, innovation, and general human capability. But, critics might say, what of the lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic? They contend that the pandemic exposed the “weaknesses” of a globalized supply chain and the desperate need to re-shore all production locally.
This is a complete misinterpretation of pandemic-related supply challenges. On the contrary, the pandemic revealed the strengths and advantages of a supply chain that was not beholden to a single lockdown or viral wave. Had the supply chains for PPE or other essentials been solely domestic, shortages of goods would unquestionably have been much more acute and damaging.
Similarly, critics also now contend that an interconnected world will see more frequent pandemics; a globalized world is a dangerous hotbed of new diseases and therefore borders should be shut. However, this neglects that most new viruses are derived from existing strains. In an interconnected world, we are indeed exposed to a greater variety of viruses, but this makes our immune systems more resistant to their derivatives, should they arise. Counterintuitively, a globalized world makes novel viruses less, not more, dangerous.
Another common misconception exploited by critics of progress is the notion that population and economic growth deplete our Earth’s resources in a Malthusian fashion. History has shown this to be flatly wrong. The very core tenet of progress is the ability to do more with less. We grow more food using less land, we produce more goods with fewer people, our cars drive further with less gasoline, our fuels create less pollution with more energy…etc
Contrary to our innate assumptions, as the human population has grown, the availability of resources has also grown as technology and progress unlocked more for human use and made better use of existing supply. In fact, resource abundance has grown faster than the population itself, a concept that Marian Tupy and Gale Pooley call “Superabundance.”
Nor does growth automatically imply more pollution or environmental degradation. On the contrary, instead of deforestation ravaging the world’s forests, forest cover and greenery are spreading as countries get wealthier. Indeed, instead of spiraling out of control, climate-changing CO2 emissions are also falling as nations develop and advance. Progress is the solution, not the cause, of these challenges. But this, again, is completely counterintuitive to our nature.
Safeguarding the Future
The key takeaway here is that we must use caution when listening to pundits who paint a picture of pure doom ahead, an idyllic past behind, or versions of zero-sum thinking. The truth, as they say, is rarely pure and never simple. The truth is that the factors that enabled human progress are well understood, but because they are counterintuitive to our day-to-day experiences and portrayals in popular media, critics have many avenues through which to turn us against those very factors. This makes human progress and the factors that enable it, particularly fragile and something to be safeguarded.