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

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 December 2017

Daniel Austin Green
Affiliation:
Templeton Religion Trust
Roberta Q. Herzberg
Affiliation:
Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, Mercatus Center, George Mason University

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.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation 2017 

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References

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.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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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.

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10 Ibid., 121.

11 Ibid., 121.

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16 Wooten, Invention of Science, 527.

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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.

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

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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.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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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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