What Is Progress?

August 6, 2008 – Human beings seem to be on an eternal treadmill of “starting over,” suffering under growing oppression, and ultimately collapsing in tragic ruin. Perhaps the problem is government itself. While the idea of government sounds appealing because it promises to offload from the individual the dreary burden of running society, in the end the “cure” is worse than the disease.

By The Cerebral Aesthetic Vagabond

It’s a simple enough question: “What is progress?” Is it tall buildings, expansive highways, indoor plumbing, missions into space, sophisticated medicine, a pervasive communication infrastructure? These represent technological progress. What I want to know is, what constitutes social progress? For the thousands of years of recorded human history there has apparently been no social progress! People will defensively and stridently contest my assertion, pointing to all manner of bells and whistles that we’ve tacked onto an ossified socio-political blueprint over the millennia: public retirement benefits, public health care, environmental protection, etc. These all sound nice and progressive, although the benefit of these enhancements is never weighed against the cost. After all, these enhancements are paid for by stealing the wealth of others or oppressing freedom. Has the undercarriage of civilization changed at all in the last several thousand years?

Regardless of whether one calls their socio-political system a democracy, a republic, communist, socialist, or a monarchy; regardless of whether a country is headed by a Führer, a Prime Minister, a President, a Party Chairman, a Dear Leader, or a Queen or a King, the essential structure is always the same: a small group of elites sits atop the system, enriching itself, dictating to the rest of us how to live and acting as though it owns our lives. Courtiers buzz around these elite rulers like so many flies, angling for a chance to feed on the realm. Gradually the system becomes bloated, unproductive, capricious and tyrannical, stifling society, commerce and freedom, until collapse ensues and the same structure is rebuilt with a different name. Where is the progress in this interminable pattern?

The word progress means to move, advance, change. Ironically, every politician running for office promises “change,” underscoring how much people value change (because the right kind of change represents progress). Yet as soon as the election is past, the promise of change is quickly forgotten by all.

Where do we see ourselves another millennium from now? Still squabbling about whether to preemptively attack another country? Still being oppressed by our government? Still lamenting our exploitation by the privileged classes? If we continue to resist taking dramatic and thoughtful steps to improve our society, but instead continue to rely on happenstance to produce evolutionary progress, then in a thousand years we’ll be in the same place we are now, which is the same place we were a thousand years ago.

Do We Really Need Government?

“Do we really need government?” This is a question I innocently posed recently on a so-called progressive web site, hoping to open peoples’ minds to the idea of real progress – change. To my surprise, the door I attempted to open was swiftly slammed shut, the respondents recoiling as if it were heretical to merely entertain the notion that government was not essential, and this attitude from so-called progressives! Some of my critics seemed to think that government was necessary to enforce the law; others said that without government, thugs and gangs would dominate our society. Totally lost on these respondents was the irony that government has become the biggest of lawbreakers (routinely violating the Constitution, domestic and international law) and that many people working for government today can be charitably described as thugs, and the agencies they work for as gangs. So how would the absence of government make life any worse than it is today? Today we suffer oppression from legitimized lawbreakers and thugs and pay for the privilege with our taxes! In any case, I don’t view such cautionary observations of the respondent as insurmountable obstacles in the way of creating a new structure for society. These observations are simply criteria that need to be addressed when formulating a new design.

We now have a couple of generations worth of evidence that our system is badly broken and getting worse, yet people desperately cling to the fantasy that a little tweaking around the edges and electing a savior will rehabilitate the system. One respondent asked if I would prefer the law of the jungle over our present system. Although I didn’t say so, I would prefer that! Animals voluntarily exercise far more restraint in their application of violence than humans do; we would be well served to emulate them.

What would I consider real progress for humanity? Imagine a harmonious and tolerant world in which everyone was a totally free individual; free to do whatever they wanted; free to travel wherever they wanted; free to speak their mind without fear of reprisal; with one simple constraining principle: one’s freedom stops where it infringes on the freedom or rights of another. Interestingly, this is the law of the jungle, which seems so abhorrent to the respondent mentioned above. Animals instinctively understand that should they initiate violence against another there may be repercussions, so they avoid doing so indiscriminately. For the most part animals live freely and in harmony with each other and their environment. Violence is minimal and usually justified. Animals commit violence in order to eat, but only to the extent necessary to sate their hunger. By contrast, humans inflict the most inhumane and egregious acts of barbarity on their prey and hoard resources far beyond their needs. Animals commit violence in order to secure a mate or defend a territory, both of which are essential to the primary purpose of life, reproduction. However, this type of violence is seldom lethal and is usually brief; the loser of such a battle simply slinks off to find another territory or mate. Wicked, needless violence in the animal world is rare, mostly being confined to the primates, especially our close relative the chimpanzee. So I ask, “Are human beings incapable of living as peacefully as the lowly animals?” Wouldn’t such a world as free as I described at least be an ideal worth working toward, even if we never quite get there? It seems few even want to entertain the possibility.

Many people believe others need to be forcibly controlled, as if they would run amok if not kept on a short leash. I ask the reader, “Would you run amok?” Is fear of retribution from government or god the only thing keeping you moral? If you would not run amok then why do you assume others would? I believe cities in both The Netherlands and Germany have experimented with rescinding all traffic rules, and rather than producing chaos, these initiatives in freedom resulted in cooperation, respect and civility. Why could this experiment not succeed if applied to the broader society?

Central Planning

There’s a reason why every individual organism has a brain, and that’s so that each individual can evaluate their own particular circumstances and make the best decision for their self based on those circumstances. Through millions of years of trial and error nature discovered that central planning does not work so it endowed each one of us with a powerful brain. If, in fact, such central planning were superior, then a tiny minority of our species would possess powerful brains and the rest of us would have brains capable of little more than running our heart and lungs.

Curiously, I’ve long believed that 90% of people would just as soon shut off their brains and let somebody else do the thinking and direct their lives for them. Such people can usually be found vegetating in a bath of mesmerizing rays emitted by the television. Happily for them, approximately 5% of humans possess authoritarian tendencies and are perfectly happy to dictate to the rest of us how to live. These people are often the very ones who end up at the top of the infinitely repeated socio-political pattern that adopts so many seemingly different guises. What the masses never seem to figure out is that when they cede control to central planners, those people do not make decisions that are in the best interests of the masses, but in the best interests of the central planners. It’s only because their comfort is not too severely impaired by the sacrifices they make to the central planners that the masses tolerate this state of affairs. Revolutions occur when the masses start to suffer too greatly, which seems to inevitably occur because the masters of the system are never satisfied; avarice and lust for power can never be satisfied. The remaining 5% of people neither want to dominate nor be dominated and often describe themselves as “libertarian,” or something equivalent.

Recognizing the benefits of decentralized decision-making, the authors of the U.S. Constitution went out of their way to prevent the U.S. Government from becoming a central planning regime. That’s why very few powers were delegated to the federal government and virtually everything else was explicitly reserved for the states and the people. Nevertheless, over time and in direct conflict with the spirit and letter of the Constitution, the U.S. Government has usurped more and more powers, at last becoming a central planning regime, no different from the erstwhile Soviet Union or modern China. What we have today is heavy handed central planning, entrenched corruption, declining real productivity, popular apathy and drug abuse, and a growing likelihood of shortages of all kinds of things in the not too distant future. Thanks to the bursting of the housing bubble and the deepening recession it appears that we will be living in more densely-packed dwellings from now on as well. Such a a state of affairs could have described the Soviet Union of the early 1980s, shortly before its demise.

Progressives And Conservatives

To my disappointment, I’ve discovered over the years that “progressives” aren’t really progressive at all. So-called progressives are often just authoritarians of the left. It’s amusing to read such people railing against “conservatives,” whom they demonize as authoritarians of the right. Of course, often it’s those who are most similar who seem detest each other the most. I view the political spectrum as a circle, like this:

Political spectrum
Political spectrum

So-called progressives aren’t really interested in change; they, just like their counterparts on the right, simply want to use the force of government to coerce people into behaving a certain way, their way. “Conservatives” want to force people to support militarism, religion and unfettered free enterprise (only for the elites); “progressives” want to force people to conserve resources and be politically correct. Both persuasions are authoritarian, both abhor freedom, both see government as absolutely essential to accomplishing their goals, and neither will even momentarily entertain the idea of a world without government. One thing I find common in both “progressives” and “conservatives” is their envy of people who indulge in “forbidden” freedoms. For example, progressives envy those who have large houses and cars, forgetting that the owners are paying for their higher consumption. Conservatives, on the other hand, envy what they see as the carefree lifestyles of certain people, such as gay people, perhaps wishing to subject such people to their own rigid, pious way of life. Both progressives and conservatives would be most comfortable in a world in which everyone was identical, enjoyed equal standards of living, behaved the same way, harbored the same thoughts and was devoted to the same ideals.

While the question I posed above was not intended to be a blueprint for an alternative social structure – such a design would be complex and require much time to devise – the ensuing discussion didn’t go far enough to even begin addressing alternatives to government, save the derisive and dismissive comment about adopting the law of the jungle. The terrified respondents seemed eager to close the door on any such discussion. Interestingly, nobody disputed my examples of government malfeasance – they simply glossed over them, accepting them as necessary evils in the pursuit of a greater good. Hence, it’s not surprising that I’ve also been reluctant to call myself progressive, although I have done so in the past. However, what I mean when calling myself progressive is that I want to make progress.

Conclusion

I don’t deny that government is capable of doing good or that it has done good deeds in the past. I question the merits of government solely on the grounds of cost-benefit analysis. While government is capable of doing good, what is the cost? It seems to me that government causes far more harm than good, so on balance it’s a losing proposition. If government did as much good as harm, would it then be justifiable? I still don’t think so because of the enormous economic cost of government. The various levels of government in the U.S. today consume something like 50% of the nation’s GDP. Even if government had a neutral effect on the nation, what’s the point of spending 50% of our productive effort on something that yields no net positive results? Wouldn’t we be better off having double the resources at our disposal and making our own decisions regarding its disposition?

I am not an ideologue. I have no devotion to any sort of political schema or social structure, not even libertarianism, even though I frequently call myself a libertarian. I’m a pragmatist and my observations of history have convinced me that never in human history has a government actually “worked” for very long. Even the famous democracy of classical Greece found itself embroiled in many wars; in any case, even that government did not endure. Why? Could it be that the concept of government is fundamentally flawed? It appears to me that every government has eventually devolved into despotism and tyranny. This outcome is what the U.S. Constitution sought to prevent, and it failed. If one of the best written such documents in human history could not prevent this outcome, then what makes us believe that government can ever succeed?

Perhaps real progress for humankind could finally be made after all these thousands of years if people finally recognized that fact of history, stopped naively hoping for a miraculous rehabilitation of government, and gave serious thought to what a world without government might look like and how it might be effected. The contemporary vernacular definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Well, I think we have accumulated enough examples of government throughout human history to conclude that recreating this same socio-political design over and over again is not likely to produce different results. Maybe it’s time to take that first step toward real progress.

The End