Thursday, January 19, 2012

Is Progress Inevitable?

Today Victor Davis Hanson reminds us of a deceptively simple idea. One hesitates even to mention something so easy, but Hanson is correct to bring it to our attention.

The idea: things do not always to get better. There is no universal law that naturally propels human civilization forward.

Civilization can go forward, but it can also regress.  As Hanson asks, would you rather live in Detroit in 1941 or Detroit in 2011?

Some years ago Francis Fukuyama had a vision and saw that Hegel was right: history moves inexorably toward liberal democracy.

The vision told him that the moment had arrived. Fukuyama saw a universal consensus being reached. Everyone around the world now knows that liberal democracy is the only right way for people to govern themselves.

All attempts to govern despotically have failed, so the people of the world now recognize the greatness of liberal democracy.  Therefore, the world is now well on its way toward a glorious democratic future.

Fukuyama made these claims before Islamic governance swept across North Africa. If anything, democratic elections in that region of the world are not bringing anything like the kind of liberal democracy that Fukuyama sees ascendant.

They are bringing a special kind of theocratic oppression.

Also, today’s most dynamic economy is in China, not in countries that are practicing liberal democracy.

Hegelian philosophers who look at contemporary China see a contradiction. They see a free market economic system co-existing with Communist Party rule.

Through the lens of their philosophy, this contradiction is inherently unstable. It will inevitably lead to the overthrow of the ruling class.

Of course, historians have been saying this for decades now. They remain confident in their prediction because they believe that history must follow a script and that the script leads to a happy ending.

Liberal democracy is a grand idea: it involves peoples who govern themselves by electing representatives in democratic elections.

Liberal democrats are something else. Nowadays they call themselves progressives, even though their policies consistently undermine progress.

If you think that progress is inevitable or if you believe that liberal policies will ensure the advance of civilization, you need but look at today’s California, a laboratory where liberal Democrats have had their way for decades now.

I continue to be amazed by the reality of everyday life in today’s California. Hanson describes it well:

“In my state, Californians for 40 years have hiked taxes; grown their government; vastly expanded entitlements; put farmland, timberland, and oil and gas lands off limits; and opened their borders to millions of illegal aliens. They apparently assumed that they had inherited so much wealth from prior generations and that their state was so naturally rich, that a continually better life was their natural birthright.

“It wasn’t. Now, as in Greece, the veneer of civilization is proving pretty thin in California. Hospitals no longer have the money to offer sophisticated long-term medical care to the indigent. Cities no longer have the funds to self-insure themselves from the accustomed barrage of monthly lawsuits. When thieves rip copper wire out of street lights, the streets stay dark. Most state residents would rather go to the dentist these days than queue up and take a number at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Hospital emergency rooms neither have room nor act as if there’s much of an emergency.

 “Traffic flows no better on most of the state’s freeways than it did 40 years ago — and often much worse, given the crumbling infrastructure and increased traffic. Once-excellent K–12 public schools now score near the bottom in nationwide tests. The California state-university system keeps adding administrators to the point where they have almost matched the number of faculty, though half of the students who enter CSU need remedial reading and math. Despite millions of dollars in tutoring, half the students still don’t graduate. The taxpayer is blamed in constant harangues for not ponying up more money, rather than administrators being faulted for a lack of reform.

“In 1960, there were far fewer government officials, far fewer prisons, far fewer laws, and far fewer lawyers — and yet the state was a far safer place than it is a half-century later. Technological progress — whether iPhones or Xboxes — can often accompany moral regress.”

Anyone who believes that progress is inevitable will tell you that regression is simply a step on the way to progress. In his eyes, world history takes two steps forward and one step back.

Anyone who believes this is never wrong. He will also be able to claim that he can do what he pleases and can count on history to bail out failed liberal policies.

Thus, it’s worth point out that things can get worse and that they can get a lot worse. They can even stay bad for extended periods of time.

Without the right kind of political leadership, the right kind of policies, and the right moral character, regression can take up near-permanent residence.


n.n said...
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n.n said...

Exactly. The concept of progress is ambiguous and needs to be qualified. The same is true for conservatism, which is why attempts to equate American conservatism with that found anywhere else in the world is an unproductive enterprise.

To be fair, there is more than one kind of "progressive". The classical "progressive" actually had positions which were worth considering. I think the failure of the contemporary movement is that they became generational, but especially that they strive to progress for its own sake. The resulting phenomenon is, ironically, what they claim capitalism is: cannibalistic; but, unlike material turnover, their unfortunate policies target and often undermine the foundation of our society: people.

JP said...

China is currently experiencing a "one-off" boom due to it's industrialization.

Let's see if China can do better than Japan.