The Illusion of Social Progress

In the last 20 years, smoking has been transformed from something that seemed totally normal into a rather seedy habit: from something movie stars did in publicity shots to something small huddles of addicts do outside the doors of office buildings. A lot of the change was due to legislation, of course, but the legislation couldn’t have happened if customs hadn’t already changed.

—Paul Graham, The Acceleration of Addiction

“Whig History” is history rewritten to support a narrative of constant progress. The single best example I’ve found comes from David Brin’s essay on Lord of the Rings: JRR Tolkein — Enemy of Progress:

It’s only been 200 years or so — an eye blink — that “scientific enlightenment” began waging its rebellion against the nearly universal pattern called feudalism, a hierarchic system that ruled our ancestors in every culture that developed both metallurgy and agriculture. Wherever human beings acquired both plows and swords, gangs of large men picked up the latter and took other men’s women and wheat. (Sexist language is meaningfully accurate here; those cultures had no word for “sexism,” it was simply assumed.)

They then proceeded to announce rules and “traditions” ensuring that their sons would inherit everything.

Putting aside cultural superficialities, on every continent society quickly shaped itself into a pyramid with a few well-armed bullies at the top — accompanied by some fast-talking guys with painted faces or spangled cloaks, who curried favor by weaving stories to explain why the bullies should remain on top.

Only something exceptional started happening…

Inspiring stuff. Ludicrous, of course: divine-right monarchies using primogeniture to select new rulers were popular because they worked; a democracy in 1400 would have been a) terribly mismanaged and/or b) invaded and conquered in short order by a monarchy. Brin’s story has a simple plot—we started out evil, and then got good precisely in proportion to how much they started to resemble the thoughts of an enlightened modern being (such as, say, David Brin). That plot shows up in a few other places, too—elementary school history books and business profiles are particularly egregious offenders.

But the most pernicious form of Whig History shows up in social norms, and how they’re reflected in laws. And the big danger is that Whig History in that context is, technically, accurate: at any given time, most laws tend to reflect the views of the majority, who (of course) believe that prior laws, reflecting the views of prior majorities, were unjust.

Look at the trend in support for marijuana legalization: the era that produced Reefer Madness also produced the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. At last, we’ve been saved from the dangers of marijuana abuse!

In 2010, public opinion has shifted in the opposite direction: legalization has shown up on the ballot in California (and lost, 55% to 45%, in part due to the wording of the bill—did marijuana use really have to be a “protected class” like gender and race?). And pot has been effectively decriminalized by executive order. At last, we’ve been saved from the dangers of overreaching prohibitionism!

Because marijuana use as a social norm is somewhat arbitrary—like spitting in the street or swearing on TV, it’s possible to imagine happy societies where it’s common and happy societies where it’s forbidden—nearly every government action related to it will appear to be “progress,” even if that government action is cancelling out the last one.

This also shows up with other forms of prohibition, in the tradeoff between family stability and sexual freedom, and in personal preferences for financial stability versus leisure time. When people are opposed to it, it’s “progress” to restrict it; when most people are in favor of it, it’s “progress” to permit it.

Of course, we haven’t really made “progress” at all. Even if there is a “right” answer to these questions, it’s hard to determine it in advance.

If you want to avoid the Whig History trap, you’ll have to define progress in terms of what’s probably known as technological progress: something that makes it easier to get more outputs for fewer inputs, regardless of the end goals. If a new technology makes communication easier, it doesn’t fit this definition of “progress” unless it also makes censorship easier; if a new economic trend makes drug use more tenable, it’s not truly progress unless it also makes drug prohibition more cost-effective.

This is a dreary definition of progress, but it illustrates an odd paradox: not for the first time in history, we’ve managed to tread water while simultaneously patting ourselves on the back.

| November 9th, 2010 | Posted in economics |

2 Responses to “The Illusion of Social Progress”

  1. Web Design Firm Says:

    If it is not but it is going in natural way, we need to go with it.

  2. K Says:

    Well argued & insightful, especially with regard to progress being a mercurial manifestation of majority opinion.

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