In a new Atlantic essay, Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen suggest that, “We Need a New Science of Progress,” which, “would study the successful people, organizations, institutions, policies, and cultures that have arisen to date, and it would attempt to concoct policies and prescriptions that would help improve our ability to generate useful progress in the future.” Collison and Cowen refer to this project as Progress Studies.
Is such a field of study possible, and would it really be a “science”? I think the answer is yes, but with some caveats. Even if it proves to be an inexact science, however, the effort is worth undertaking.
Thinking about Progress
Progress Studies is a topic I have spent much of my life thinking and writing about, most recently in my book, Permissionless Innovation as well as a new paper on “Technological Innovation and Economic Growth,” co-authored with James Broughel. My work has argued that nations that are open to risk-taking, trial-and-error experimentation, and technological dynamism (i.e., “permissionless innovation”) are more likely to enjoy sustained economic growth and prosperity than those rooted in precautionary principle thinking and policies (i.e., prior restraints on innovative activities). A forthcoming book of mine on the future of entrepreneurialism and innovation will delve even deeper into these topics and address criticisms of technological advancement.
Of course, many other people have been thinking about Progress Studies for centuries now. Political scientists, historians, and economists have long studied what makes some countries and civilizations prosper while others falter or fade away. Business school scholars have also spent time thinking about what drives global competitive advantage and national prosperity. There also exists an entire field called Science and Technology Studies (STS) that incorporates a wide variety of “soft science” academic disciplines, including law, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, and others that analyze the relationship between technology, society, culture, and politics.
Taken together, these academic disciplines might already constitute the Progress Studies initiative that Collison and Cowen desire. The problem is that these different camps do not talk to each other as much as they should because existing scholarship often “takes place in a highly fragmented fashion and fails to directly confront some of the most important practical questions,” Collison and Cowen argue. That limits our understanding of what drives progress and prosperity.
Economists mostly talk about progress with other economists, and historians mostly hang out with other historians. What they might have to tell us about Progress Studies, therefore, will not be as rich had it been cross-saturated with lessons from each other’s disciplines. The same holds for many other academic fields.
In theory, Science and Technology Studies is supposed to remedy this problem by encouraging cross-disciplinary thinking and research integration. To the extent it accomplishes that objective, however, it is only because STS scholars tend to be hostile to technological innovation and traditional definitions of prosperity. For many of them, the benefits of innovation are dubious, and the metrics traditionally used to measure progress (like Gross Domestic Product and Total Factor Productivity) are considered bogus or secondary to other considerations.
When thinking about of technology, STS scholars commonly employ words like “anxiety,” “alienation,” “degradation,” and “discrimination.” Consequently, most of them suggest that the burden of proof lies squarely on scientists, engineers, and innovators to prove that their ideas and inventions will bring worth to society before they are deployed. In other words, STS scholars generally fall in the precautionary principle camp, and their policy prescriptions have grown increasingly radical over time.
Differing Conceptions of Progress
No one better analyzed the anti-technological radicalism of modern STS scholars than Samuel C. Florman. Chances are you never heard of him, but had Progress Studies been an official field of academic study over that past century, Florman would be considered one of its leading exemplars. Alas, Florman was an engineer writing about these issues in yet another very different fashion, and his work has not gained much currency among scholars in other fields.
In books like The Existential Pleasures of Engineering (1976) and Blaming Technology: The Irrational Search for Scapegoats (1981), Florman meticulously dissected the arguments made by STS scholars and other “antitechnologists,” as he called them. While STS critics are fond of labelling themselves “humanists” and suggesting that innovation-boosters are naïve, uncaring oafs, Florman pushed back with zeal and argued it was they who were betraying humanity by denying the fundamental link between innovative dynamism and human flourishing.
“Anyone who has attempted to defend technology against the reproaches of an avowed humanist,” Florman noted, “soon discovers that beneath all the layers of reasoning—political, environmental, aesthetic, or moral—lies a deep-seated disdain for ‘the scientific view.’” This makes conversations between STS scholars and other disciplines (especially economists and business theorists) quite challenging.
Florman’s critiques of STS scholars were trenchant, and lest you think he was exaggerating about the growing radicalism of that camp, one need only scroll halfway through Collison and Cowen’s essay to find the Atlantic recommending an earlier article the site ran by a historian with the title, “Is 'Progress' Good for Humanity?” The author blasted the “unstoppable way toward more growth and more technology,” and, “the assumption  that these things are ultimately beneficial for humanity.” It is hard to imagine that author being comfortable being part of Collison and Cowen’s Progress Studies program, but his perspective is widely shared throughout STS today.
So, getting scholars from different disciplines to talk to each other—even when they agree about the importance of innovation or what we mean by progress—will be a challenge. However, that also represents the greatest opportunity for Progress Studies to do some good. Progress Studies can also help us itemize some of the factors that mainstream scholars have long considered essential to growth and prosperity.
Collison and Cowen suggest that “there can be ecosystems that are better at generating progress than others, perhaps by orders of magnitude. But what do they have in common? Just how productive can a cultural ecosystem be?” Beyond gaining a better understanding of how innovation ecosystems work, they also want to nurture them. “Can we deliberately engineer the conditions most hospitable to this kind of advancement or effectively tweak the systems that surround us today?” they ask.
In my last book and in essays like “Embracing a Culture of Permissionless Innovation,” I argue that, to some extent, leaders and institutions can help create conditions more hospitable to progress by understanding the importance of getting “innovation culture” right. No two modern scholars have written more eloquently and voluminously on this point than Joel Mokyr and Deirdre McCloskey.
Mokyr has argued that technological innovation and economic progress can be viewed as “a fragile and vulnerable plant, whose flourishing is not only dependent on the appropriate surroundings and climate, but whose life is almost always short. It is highly sensitive to the social and economic environment and can easily be arrested by relatively small external changes.” McCloskey’s work has shown that cultural attitudes, social norms, and political pronouncements have had a profound and underappreciated influence on opportunities for entrepreneurialism, innovation, and long-term economic growth.
We can be more concrete about the various attitudes, ideas, institutions, and policies that create the building blocks of a vibrant innovation ecosystem. Many scholars have surveyed the elements that contribute to a successful innovation culture and their lists typically include:
trust in the individual / openness to individual achievements;
positive attitudes towards competition and wealth-creation (especially religious openness toward commercial activity and profit-making);
support for hard work, timeliness, and efficiency;
willingness to take risks and accept change (including failure);
a long-term outlook;
openness to new information / tolerance of alternative viewpoints;
freedom of movement and travel for individuals and organizations (including flexible immigration and worker mobility policies);
positive attitudes towards science and development;
advanced education systems;
support for property rights and contracts;
reasonable regulations and taxes;
impartial administration of justice and the respect for the rule of law; and,
stable government institutions and transfers of power.
Each of these factors has been studied and refined to identify the necessary ingredients of a vibrant innovation ecosystem. There really isn’t any great mystery to what belongs on this list anymore. Instead, the two hard questions that remain are which factors are most important and how do we foster and sustain social and political support for those ideas and institutions?
What’s the Goldilocks Formula?
The first question leads to heated debates, even among scholars who generally agree on most other matters. Everyone seems to have their own favored idea or institution which they believe is most vital to unlocking opportunities for growth and progress. But how do we dial-in those ingredients, and in what measure? Are advanced education systems more important than strong property rights or R&D funding? Does the rule of law matter more than societal willingness to take risks? And so on.
It is tempting to respond that all these things are important, but that is not a very satisfying answer. We should be able to better determine which factors are most important. On the other hand, imagining that there is Goldilocks formula for getting things just right and “engineering progress” seems a bit hubristic. While Collison and Cowen’s Progress Studies initiative should make unlocking that formula a priority, it is important to acknowledge the limits of our knowledge and understand that this will continue to be a highly inexact science. Only through ongoing experimentation (and plenty of failures) with different systems and policies can we gain greater wisdom.
The second question is even harder to address. How do we shift cultural and political attitudes about innovation and progress in a more positive direction? Collison and Cowen explicitly state that the goal of Progress Studies transcends “mere comprehension” in that it should also look to “identify effective progress-increasing interventions and the extent to which they are adopted by universities, funding agencies, philanthropists, entrepreneurs, policy makers, and other institutions.”
But fostering social and political attitudes conducive to innovation is really more art than science. Specifically, it is the art of persuasion. Science can help us amass the facts proving the importance of innovation and progress to human improvement. Communicating those facts and ensuring that they infuse culture, institutions, and public policy is more challenging.
To solve that conundrum, Collison and Cowen’s Progress Studies initiative should devote more energy to gleaning insights from fields like communications studies, rhetoric and argumentation theory, as well as marketing, advertising, and even psychology. What Progress Studies needs is a better plan for communicating what we already know to be effective in advancing the progress and prosperity of peoples, cultures, institutions, and nations. That is no easy task, but when the future of humanity depends upon it, it seems like a challenge worth undertaking.
In the meantime, perhaps we can at least start developing a curriculum of important books on these topics. Here are 20 books that I think can help us develop a more holistic understanding of what we mean by Progress Studies and the values and policies than can drive it.
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty (New York: Crown Business. 2012).
Amar Bhidé, The Venturesome Economy: How Innovation Sustains Prosperity in a More Connected World (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).
Tyler Cowen, Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals (San Francisco, CA: Stripe Press, 2018).
Arthur M. Diamond Jr., Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).
Samuel C. Florman, The Existential Pleasures of Engineering (New York, St. Martins Griffin, 2nd Edition, 1994).
Robert D. Friedel, A Culture of Improvement: Technology and the Western Millennium (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007).
Lawrence Harrison and Samuel Huntington (eds.), Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress (New York: Perseus Books Group, 2000).
Calestous Juma, Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).
David Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some are So Poor (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1998).
Deirdre N. McCloskey, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).
Joel Mokyr, A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017).
Joel Mokyr, Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).
Richard R. Nelson and Sidney G. Winter, An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1982).
Robert Nisbet, History of the Idea of Progress (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1994).
Douglass C. North, Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance (Cambridge University Press, 1990).
Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (New York: Viking, 2018).
Michael Porter, The Competitive Advantage of Nations (New York: Free Press, 1990).
Virginia Postrel, The Future and Its Enemies (New York: The Free Press, 1998).
Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (New York: Harper Collins, 2010).
Nathan Rosenberg and L. E.. Birdzell, How the West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation of the Industrial World (New York: Basic Books, 1986).