Progress

November 26, 2011

It is fair to say, I think, that over the last 40 years or so there has been little progress in the quality of life of the average person in the West, and quite possibly there has been a deterioration. (The only indicator in which there has been steady progress, I think, is longevity.1)

Progressive ideology generally asserts that there is a wide variety of elements of conceivable and feasible policy and technology that would significantly improve average quality of life. It may be further assumed that the pursuit of any of those elements or any combination of those elements can be expected to be fruitful. To some extent this assumption – what may be termed the “parallel progress assumption” – seems to be implicit in much of present-day progressive activism: the agenda is usually very eclectic and often somewhat vague on specifics. While this is partly a tactic that is aimed at maintaining wide appeal, there is also the implication that as long as general principles are agreed to, laying out a detailed workplan is not necessary since progress can be made on any of many items quite independently of each other. While I accept the progressive assumption (i.e., that progress is possible) it appears to me that the parallel progress assumption is incorrect.

First, technological progress, by itself, doesn’t hold much promise. The dramatic technological progress that occurred over the last four decades – especially in the fields of automation and telecommunications, but in many other fields as well – has yielded surprisingly little in terms of improved quality of life. Most notably, automation has translated into the elimination of jobs, forcing workers into a desperate search for employment yielding lower and lower returns. In general, since technological progress is the product of concentrated resources, it can be expected in general that the fruits of technological progress would flow to those who control the resources. Thus, until political democratization is achieved – making control of resources more evenly distributed – there is no reason to expect that technological progress would result in increased quality of life.

In terms of public policy, there are many proposals that could hold promise, but it seems that most of them would not be feasible or would be easily reversible, unless, again, changes in government structure would act as an enabling factor. Political elites seem to be able to block any significant progressive public policy changes, or erode those changes that do manage to get implemented. Public pressure rarely gets to the level that forces progress, and when it does, steady, patient, determined regressive pressures effectively reverse over time any gains.

One important possible exception to the infeasibility of progressive public policy is Basic Income Guarantee. The experience of the Alaska permanent fund dividend shows that once such a program is in place, it becomes entrenched due to the fact that it provides direct tangible benefits very large parts of the population. The fact that the policy is relatively clear cut and equalitarian makes it more difficult to weaken it through the usual mechanisms of ratcheting complication and differentiation.

BIG, however, is the exception, I believe. Most progress would depend on policy that requires constant micro-managing, so that as long as those who do the managing are not sympathetic to the progressive goals, it would be unlikely that such policy would be effective.

Thus, by and large, progress is unlikely until government reform – namely, democratization – is achieved. Democratization, it seems to me, depends crucially on two elements:

  1. Sortition
  2. Democratic media

Those two elements, I believe, are both necessary and sufficient (and mutually enabling) for democratization of government. Therefore progressive activism must focus its energies on those elements: disseminating those idea among the population and putting them at the top of any list of objectives. Until that happens, it can be expected that the initial success of grass root progressive movements such as the Indignados in Spain and Greece, the Tent protest in Israel and the Occupy movement in the U.S. and elsewhere, will ultimately fizzle out without making long term gains.


[1] Even there the detailed picture is mixed:

In 737 U.S. counties out of more than 3,000, life expectancies for women declined between 1997 and 2007. For life expectancy to decline in a developed nation is rare. Setbacks on this scale have not been seen in the U.S. since the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918, according to demographers.

(Noam N. Levey, L.A. Times, June 15, 2011)

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