Progress Roundtable

Progress Roundtable

As an increasing number of think tanks, public intellectuals, and public policy scholars turn their attention to the question of Progress, we decided to ask several of these leading thinkers a few questions about their thoughts on the topic.

Matt Clancy, Senior Innovation Economist at the Institute for Progress. Creator of New Things Under the Sun, a living literature review about innovation. Follow Matt on Twitter @mattsclancy and check out his website New Things Under the Sun.

What is progress?

I think progress has two components: there is the expansion of the average person’s capabilities, and then the advance in wisdom to use those capabilities to promote individual and social flourishing. We’re a lot better at progress of the former than the latter type.

What are the most significant barriers holding back further progress?

If we’re speaking about the advance of our wisdom, I think it’s just a very, very hard problem. We do make progress, but it’s slow and painful and poorly understood how we do it. 

If we’re speaking of the progress in our capabilities, I think the deepest source of barriers today is simply our own success.

Scientific and technological advance raises the bar for pushing the envelope, which makes further progress harder. The massive growth of increasingly specialized knowledge also leads to new challenges in organizing and deploying that knowledge. And rising wealth and political representation make it more challenging to agree on changes to the status quo. 

It is tempting to push for a “return” to the institutions that worked in earlier eras, before we faced these new barriers. But I think that’s not likely to work. Making progress requires innovation in the institutions that drive innovation.

If those challenges can be overcome, what does the world look like in 50 years?

Most importantly, I hope much of the world that is poor today looks like much of the world that is rich today. 

As for the rich world, it’s tempting to extrapolate and assume we’ll dive even deeper into the digital world, moving into the metaverse and governing much of our lives with new blockchain protocols. 

But fifty years ago, we were at the beginning of the 1970s and had only recently landed on the moon. Extrapolating from the recent past, our vision of the future looked like 2001: A Space Odyssey. We didn’t anticipate that the momentum of innovation would go in a completely different direction and that digital communication technology would have the biggest impacts on our day-to-day lives. 

Maybe we’re at the beginning of something like that again. I do think we’ll keep pushing into the digital realm, especially as remote collaboration becomes normal for knowledge work, but maybe our digital lives in 2072 years won’t look that different from our digital lives in 2022.

Instead, it seems possible that the big changes will once again come from another direction. Maybe 2072 will be defined by advances in medicine and biology, widespread electrification of everything, and a return to space. If things go well, I suspect we’ll still complain as much as ever, but I hope our complaints will mostly seem small and petty to those of us around today.

Steven Pinker, Cognitive Scientist and Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. Follow Steven on Twitter @sapinker and check out his website to learn more.

What is progress?

Increases in the major dimensions of human flourishing: life, health, happiness, sustenance, knowledge, social contact, and intellectual, aesthetic, and cultural stimulation.  

What are the most significant barriers holding back further progress?

The laws of nature, which are indifferent to our well-being: pathogens, entropy, natural disasters. Human nature, particularly darker impulses such as dominance, revenge, callousness, and sadism. Bad ideas, particularly those that would identify the good not with human flourishing but with the glory of the nation, tribe, class, race, or faith.  

If those challenges can be overcome, what does the world look like in 50 years?

I couldn’t say what the world will look like in 50 days! Possibilities multiply exponentially with distance into the future, more than I can conceive. 

Adam Thierer, is a Tech & Innovation Policy Analyst at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He is the author of Permissionless Innovation (2016) and Evasive Entrepreneurs (2020). Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamThierer or read more at the Technology Liberation Front.

What is progress?

Progress is the advancement of human health, happiness, and general well-being. Measures of well-being can be challenging, however, so we should consider a broad range of metrics, including: life expectancy, infant mortality, poverty measures, energy production/consumption, GDP, productivity, agricultural yields/nourishment, and access to various important goods, services, and conveniences. While each of these metrics may have limitations, taken together, they stand for something meaningful that represents a rough proxy for progress.  

But we should always remember what progress means at a deeper level for every individual. Innovation and economic growth are important because they allow us to live lives of our own choosing and enjoy the fruits of a prosperous, pluralistic society.  Progress “is not just bigger piles of money,” as Hans Rosling once noted. “The ultimate goal is to have the freedom to do what we want.”  Accordingly, we should aim to broaden the range of opportunities available to all people to help them flourish.

What are the most significant barriers holding back further progress?

The most significant threat to continued progress is the risk of stagnation accompanying efforts to protect the status quo. As Virginia Postrel taught us in her wonderful book The Future & Its Enemies, we should reject stasis-minded thinking and instead shoot for a world of dynamism, which cherishes and protects the freedom to think and act differently. 

Progress hinges upon the growth of knowledge. Knowledge comes from experience, and the most important experiences involve trial-and-error learning. Public attitudes and policies that restrict people and ideas from intermingling freely are a recipe for intellectual, social, and economic stagnation. Accordingly, when we consider public policies toward progress, we should first seek to identify and remove legal and regulatory impediments that limit risk-taking, entrepreneurialism, and technological innovation. As science writer Matt Ridley provocatively puts it, to unlock more growth and prosperity, we must first remove obstacles to “ideas having sex.” 

The free movement of people and capital is essential to this process. Openness to immigration is the easiest way for a nation to expand its potential for innovation and growth. But domestic labor skills and mobility are equally important. For entrepreneurs and workers, we need to reframe the battle for progress as “the freedom to innovate” and “the right to earn a living.” 

Unfortunately, many barriers exist to advancing those goals, like occupational licensing rules and permitting processes, cronyist industrial protectionist schemes, inefficient tax schemes, and many other layers of regulatory red tape. Reforming or eliminating such rules is crucial for broadening opportunities. 

Finally, we need to address cultural barriers to progress. Technology and entrepreneurs often get a bad rap in the media and popular culture. Fear and pessimism dominate their narratives. We must do a better job communicating the benefits of openness to change and give people more reasons to be optimistic about a dynamic future. 

If those challenges can be overcome, what does the world look like in 50 years?

I agree with Yogi Berra that “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Nonetheless, history shows we can achieve remarkable things when we get the prerequisites for progress right and let people tap into their inherent inquisitiveness and inventiveness. Moving the needle on innovation and growth even just a little will yield compounding returns to future generations. But we should dare to dream bigger and think what progress means for each person today and in the future. 

A pro-progress agenda will help us lead longer lives and significantly expand our capabilities because that is what people have always desired most. Accordingly, I believe the most significant advance of the next 50 years will be a radical increase in life expectancy and dramatic improvements in our physical and mental capabilities while we are alive. 

Today’s tech critics often claim that technological innovation somehow undermines our humanity. They couldn’t be more wrong. There are few things more human than acts of invention. When we take steps to address practical human needs and wants, we enrich our lives and the lives of countless others. The future will be wonderful, so long as we are free to make it so. 

Jason Crawford, Founder of The Roots of Progress. Follow Jason on Twitter @jasoncrawford and check out The Roots of Progress website.

What is progress?

Ultimately, progress means improvements in human well-being: the ability to live longer, healthier, happier lives, full of choice and opportunity; the chance to fulfill our highest potential. 

What are the most significant barriers holding back further progress?

To make progress, we have to believe it is possible and desirable, we need the freedom to invent and build, and we need a wide variety of experiments. The biggest barriers I see are that research funding comes from a small number of massive centralized agencies, experiments (whether in science, technology or business) are hampered by many layers of obstructive bureaucracy and regulations, and most profoundly, society is deeply conflicted about the reality and value of progress itself.

If those challenges can be overcome, what does the world look like in 50 years?

No one knows! But here are some things I’d hope to see: cures for cancer, heart disease, and aging itself; abundant, reliable, cheap, clean energy—enough to double or triple per-capita energy usage;  new super-strong materials (and the amazing structures we could build with them); faster ways to get around, such as supersonic passenger planes, civilian rocket travel, or flying cars; AI systems that can provide everyone with a world-class tutor, doctor, or lawyer for an affordable price; and the continued enrichment of people around the world, including an end to extreme poverty.

Marian Tupy, Editor of Human​Progress​.org, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity at the Cato Institute, and coauthor of The Simon Abundance Index. Read more at humanprogress.org.

What is progress?

Progress is a long-term, gradual, and continuous process of improvement in human flourishing. This process has a material component (i.e., higher standard of living, better education and health care) and a moral component (i.e., equal dignity for all human beings, greater equality before the law, higher levels of tolerance). While progress has been on a sustained upward trajectory for at least two hundred years, the process of improvement in human condition is neither smooth nor guaranteed: there are occasional and serious setbacks, such as wars and pandemics, and it could come to an end or be reversed. Finally, progress is an open-ended process without a definitive culmination point, where everything will be optimal for everyone, everywhere.

What are the most significant barriers holding back further progress?

Material progress is heavily dependent on the speed and scope of technological advancement. This advancement, in turn, depends on a high degree of freedom to think, speak, publish, associate, and disagree; and to save, invest, trade, and profit. When those freedoms are undermined—as they were in Ming China and are currently in Xi’s China—stagnation and even retrenchment follows. Moral progress depends on the spread and internalization of the values of science, reason, and humanism, which put intrinsic value on every human life and maintain that more value can be derived from tolerance and cooperation than from conquest and domination.

If those challenges can be overcome, what would the world look like in 50 years?

Nuclear fusion will make energy too cheap to measure and that energy abundance will translate into a dramatic decline in the cost of goods and services. People, including those living in poorest countries, will grow much richer. Advancement in medical sciences, especially the study of senescence, will expand our lifespans and, importantly, add years to our healthy old age. Automatization will decrease the number of physically demanding and dangerous jobs in, for example, agriculture, mining, and manufacturing. More intellectually stimulating jobs in, for example, services and entertainment, will be created. The exponential spread of information will ensure that more people will want to emulate life in successful countries and demand human dignity and equality before the law.

James Pethokoukis, Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of the Faster Please newsletter. Follow James on Twitter @JimPethokoukis and check out his newsletter Faster Please.

What is progress? 

Progress isn’t about fetishizing numbers and charts. Economic statistics such as “per capita GDP growth” and “total factor productivity” are merely ways of measuring the pace of progress, and by that I mean: How rapidly is society increasing the ability of each human to maximize their potential and create a life worth living for themselves? And the best way to create a socioeconomic ecology where such progress is possible is one where technological progress drives long-term economic growth. Progress isn’t about creating a problem-free Utopia, but rather creating the ability for humanity to solve problems even as we keep moving forward.

What are the most significant barriers holding back further progress? 

There are many aspects of public policy that slow technological advance and economic growth. But why do we tolerate such barriers? As Dutch futurist Frederick Polak famously put it, any culture “turning aside from its own heritage of positive visions of the future, or actively at work in changing these positive visions into negative ones, has no future.” Our image of the future influences and inspires our intentions and actions. A half century of cultural pessimism has eroded our ability to imagine what a better tomorrow might look like.

If those challenges can be overcome, what does the world look like in 50 years?  

Next-generation hydrothermal (or even fusion!) make energy generation far cleaner and cheaper. Declining rocket launch costs usher in a vibrant space economy and greater presence on the Moon and Mars. Artificial intelligence eliminates the most mundane tasks, making work more productive and fulfilling. Perhaps the greatest leaps will come from biotech, which will unlock the secrets of aging, deliver 3D-printed organs, and maybe even bring back the woolly mammoths. It is a world of greater wealth, health, and opportunity. The most techno-optimist forecasts of the 1960s finally look achievable.



Profectus Magazine
Profectus Magazine
Profectus is a periodic web-based magazine featuring thoughtful essays and interviews on the intersection of academic literature, public policy, civilizational progress, and human flourishing.