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PROGRESS AND REGRESS: UNDERSTANDING COMPLEX SOCIAL MEASURES AND THEIR TRADE-OFFS

  • Daniel Austin Green (a1) and Roberta Q. Herzberg (a2)

Abstract:

What is progress and what is not progress? We can talk about progress in lots of different arenas; we will focus primarily on economic and scientific progress, but also make brief reference to cultural and moral progress. In our discussion, we want to distinguish, especially, between overall, long-term progress and narrower, shorter-term progress or regress. We will refer to these as “global” and “local” progress, respectively. Of course, one can also regress; therefore, we will also look at instances where progress, along some dimension, slows or even moves backwards. Generally, such regress is local, and often still in a context of broader, global progress. In scientific progress, for example, there are many instances of short-term progress which, if not completely discarded or disproved, are at least substantially modified or fundamentally challenged. And yet, those research paths, even when later abandoned, still contributed to the overall progress of the field. In that sense, the regress (that is, rejection or modification of previous theories) is corrected by, but not in conflict with, the overall progress. In the case of economic progress, the concept of regress usually takes on a different form in which things that aren’t advancing progress don’t necessarily stop it, but are simply retarding progress — that is, making the rate of progress less efficient. The consequence, we suggest, is that when talking about economic progress, objections to certain consequences of economic progress (for instance, income inequality — a type of regress, in our terminology) should not be cordoned off and dealt with independently, but should be incorporated into the way we think about economic progress itself — as instances of local regress within a context of global progress. We explore the effects of these different relations between progress and regress to suggest some of the challenges those seeking to broaden the standard measure, GDP, to incorporate other social values of well-being will face moving forward.

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1 John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy with Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy, William J. Ashley, ed. [1909] Library of Economics and Liberty. 13 Feb. 2016. <http://www.econlib.org/library/Mill/mlP61.html>.

2 For example, see Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, Inc. 2007), 30–71; And F. A. Hayek, “The Subjective Character of the Data of the Social Sciences” in The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek, Volume 13: Studies on the Abuse and Decline of Reason, Bruce Caldwell, ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 88–98.

3 Macklin, Ruth, “Moral Progress,” Ethics 87, no. 4 (1977): 370–82.

4 Ibid., 373.

5 Ibid., 370.

6 For example, in Fillippo Radicchi, “Papers Criticized in Comments Have High Scientific Impact” Nature: Scientific Reports 2, Article # 815, (2012). Accessed at <http://www.nature.com/articles/srep00815>, Radicchi notes that controversy in science is common and can even be beneficial to the scientist. As he argues:

Either resolving in favor or against the scientific findings that originated the disputes, scientific controversies are thought to be necessary for scientific progress. Even if not all the greatest achievements in science have passed through a dispute, as for example the unification of electricity and magnetism by Maxwell, many major steps in science have been controversial. Revolutionary changes are per se controversial because they reverse previous scientific paradigms, and thus necessarily encounter some resistance before getting accepted.

7 Wooton, David, The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution (New York: Norton Books, 2015), 4.

8 Ridley, Matt, The Evolution of Everything: How Ideas Emerge (New York: HarperCollins, 2015), 123.

9 Ridley, Evolution of Everything, 119.

10 Ibid., 121.

11 Ibid., 121.

12 Richard John Neuhaus, “The Idea of Moral Progress,” First Things (1999), 1–2. available at http://www.firstthings.com/article/1999/08/the-idea-of-moral-progress.

13 Pinker, Steven, The Better Angels of Our Nature (New York: Viking, 2001).

14 Kenneth Arrow kicked off an entire field (Social Choice Theory) dedicated to exploring the challenges of a diverse society in reaching social agreement under a reasonable set of conditions. Certainly, when the decision is over issues in the value realm, we can expect even greater problems.

15 Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010, (London: Crown Forum, 2013).

16 Wooten, Invention of Science, 527.

17 F. A. Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty Volume 1: Rules and Order (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978); and F. A. Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty Volume 2: The Mirage of Social Justice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978).

18 Diana Coyle, GDP: A Revised but Affectionate History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015).

19 Ibid., “Introduction.”

20 Ibid., 5.

21 The debate between John Maynard Keynes and F. A. Hayek was largely a debate about the appropriateness of government intervention to offset economic declines that continues to this day. Over time, the influence of Keynes’ theory led politicians to intervene more frequently and more extensively to offset economic declines.

22 Mises, Human Action, 279.

23 Hayek, F. A., The Pretense of Knowledge, The Market and Other Orders, ed. Calwell, Bruce (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund Inc., 2014).

24 F. A. Hayek, “Use of Knowledge in Society,” American Economic Review 35, no. 4 (1945): 519–20.

25 Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (New York: Penguin Books, 2009).

26 Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty.

27 Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haight, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” The Atlantic (2015).

28 Riccardo Natoli and Segu Zuhair, “Measuring Progress: A Comparison of the GDP, HDI, GS and the RIE,” Social Indicators Research 103, no. 1 (2011): 33–56.

29 Rudi Verburg, “John Stuart Mill’s Political Economy: Educational Means to Moral Progress,” Review of Social Economy LXIV, no. 2 (2006): 225–46.

30 Aiyar, Shekhar, Dalgaard, Carl-Johan, and Moav, Omer, Technological Progress and Regress in Pre-industrial Times, Journal of Economic Growth 13, no. 2 (2008): 127.

31 Michael J. Boskin, “Economic Measurement: Progress and Challenges,” accessed at http://www-siepr.stanford.edu/papers/pdf/99-15.pdf

32 Quoted in Luca D’Acci, “Measuring Well-Being and Progress,” Social Indicators Research 104, no. 1 (2011): 47–65.

33 Bleys, Brent, “Beyond GDP: Classifying Alternative Measures of Progress,” Social Indicators Research 109 (2012).

34 Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, and Jean Paul Fitoussi, Report by the Commission on Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, 2009.

35 Stiglitz, Sen, and Fitoussi, Report by the Commission of Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, 11.

36 Brent Bleys, “Beyond GDP.” Bleys identifies and classifies dozens of the current measures of progress, breaking them down based on their treatment of three major categories — well-being, economic welfare, and sustainability.

37 Mises, Human Action, 33.

38 Neuhaus, “The Idea of Moral Progress,” 2.

39 McCloskey, Deirdre, “Tunzelmann, Schumpeter, and the Hockey Stick” Research Policy 42 (2013): 1706–15.

40 Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Edwin Cannan, ed. [1904], Library of Economics and Liberty. Retrieved September 3, 2016 from the World Wide Web: http://www.econlib.org/library/Smith/smWN.html; and AdamSmith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments [1790], Library of Economics and Liberty. Retrieved September 3, 2016 from the World Wide Web: http://www.econlib.org/library/Smith/smMS.html

41 Deirdre McCloskey and Arjo Klamer, “One Quarter of GDP is Persuasion,” American Economic Review 85, no. 2 (1995): 191–95.

42 McCloskey, “Tunzelmann, Schumpeter, and the Hockey Stick.”

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