Measuring progress

Progress is a vast, encompassing word. People have varying opinions about it. Some people see it as an unfortunate but necessary process, by which we can finally have a higher standard of life. Some people are anti-progress : anti-technologists, communists, ascetists, and so on.

Because of all these different views, measuring progress is also a muddled endeavour. Everyone claims his own brand of “progress”. For example, environmentalists claim that such measures must incorporate resource preservation. “Civil rights” advocates claim that they must include equality and socialisation of society as a standard. Obviously, we as libertarians think quite otherwise.

A political agenda

But before getting in such a conversation, we must define our term here. What do we mean by “progress” ? If we take rational politics as our starting point, and therefore the Choice Criteria (that is, the capacity to make as many choices as possible), a good way to define progress would be : the expansion in quantity and scope of the accomplishment possible with rational action.

An example of this would be technology. Before we had computers, we were limited in certain ways which we are not today – as for example in word processing, or in the administration of one’s budget or business. Thus new technology expands the quantity of things we can get done.

There are many similar kinds of progress. Therefore it seems reasonable to suppose that a measure of progress would incorporate and balance all of these kinds.

Some measures have appeared over the years. Unfortunately, they all show misgivings about progress. One of these is the so-called Genuine Progress Index, which has appeared in the Maritines region. It proposed to measure “real growth”, but it stands in opposition to economical growth. It mixes in social elements – that is, judgments on economical actions, such as protecting the environment as much as possible (regardless of how less prosperity this brings, voluntary service (regardless of how many people are poorer because of its voluntary nature), and so on.

In the context of Canada’s social-democracy, these may seem like valid factors, but to us they are irrelevant. More than irrelevant, they are intrusively elitist. Such things are matter of choice, not of global policy. We do not progress because some people decide not to work for free, or because one seeks to conserve a forest regardless of any profit it would bring to society in general. We progress with judicious use of our resources, and such a judicious use can only be best determined by the economical agents involved. Therefore any such measure automatically fails. It is an exercise in subjective absurdity.

Some people may argue that conserving natural resources should be the province of the government. But I have already shown in a previous article what to think of that. The mechanisms of the “Tragedy of the Commons”, at any rate, are well-known, and the consequences of so-called “environmentalism”, are also in evidence around the world.

Any conception of progress, therefore, must not be based on the pattern of individual choice, but rather on the scope which this choice can take. Of course this capacity is itself dependant on previous choices : for example, we have chosen to research and make computers, and this extends our capacities. But that does not mean either that we should blame people for not producing more computers. As I have pointed out, this is intrusively elitist and leads nowhere. We must evalute the current state of our capacities, and no more.

Another example of such measures is the United Nations’ Human Development Index, which has been often touted as the proof that Canada is the best country in the world. But this measure suffers from similar flaws, being biaised against high-income countries and and in favour of extensive educational choices. Educational attainment is not a standard of progress – more important is the quality of the education and the attainment necessary in order to be effective in society. At any rate, such a criteria is a choice of action, and therefore, as I explained before, irrelevant.

Any conception of progress, therefore, must not be based on the pattern of individual choice, but rather on the scope which this choice can take.

Measuring objective progress

We have defined progress. How then are we to measure it ? I have pointed out that such a conception is necessarily multifaceted. Some of its facets are economical, technological, scientific, medical, political, and so on.

They are part of progress because they expand the scope of our capacities to act rationally. For example, take the example of desiring to acquire food. One who has more money, has more choice about the scope of what to eat – go out to the restaurant, or get something delivered, and so on. He also expands the quantity of food he can order. This is a simplistic example, but it illustrates the basic mechanism.

We can define, therefore, economical progress as the quantity of resources available. The more resources there are, the more choices we can make. Technological and scientific progress is related to our capacity to use new technologies and scientific discoveries to expand our capacities, and therefore our choices.

Libertarianism is also part of progress. From our viewpoint, the law is a tool to limit, but can also be a tool to expand. While banning force and fraud may limit our choices at first glance, they maximize choice in general (as I explain with the Choice Criteria). Therefore libertarianism represents a form of political progress.

Another interesting factor is that new kinds of progress can emerge due to the progression of previous kinds of progress. For example, scientific advances have led to our understanding of genetics and genetic progress. Illnesses, disabilities usually limit what an individual can do. Part of this is medical : but our genetic makeup also determines the limits of our intellectual and physical capacities. Therefore a human group which would manipulate its genetic characteristics would also manifest genetic, or biological, progress.

Do we have a measure that would include all facets of progress ? Unfortunately not. However, Fraser Institute recently released a measure called Index of Human Progress. This measure includes medical progress, some forms of technological progress, economical progress, and basic educational variables such as the literacy rate.

Incidentally, the results are quite different from those of the United Nations. Not surprisingly, the United States scored first, followed by Switzerland, Luxembourg, and Denmark. Canada was in 16th place. Almost all countries are improving their score, which is a pretty positive fact.

Now, even if we can measure progress, what exactly is it that is progressing ? Since we know that society in itself does not exist, but rather is composed of individuals, we must conclude that what is progressing is the capacities of individuals. As such, the inequalities of progress may be a problem in this measure. We do know that economical progress is pretty uniform – i.e. the poorest and richest in a growing country see a relatively similar augmentation in prosperity. However, this may not be true for all kinds of progress. In that sense, we must keep an eye to this possible inaccuracy.