A widely-accepted definition of progress is that it is the improvement in the standard of living of the greatest number of people, and by that definition the world has progressed much since the beginning of civilisation.
As a crude indicator of progress, in the last 2000 years per capita GDP (gross domestic product) has increased from a few hundred dollars to about $7000 (in 2000). Even if on average humanity has been progressing rapidly, most of that progress has happened in fits and starts—in different times it has benefited different groups of people.
Consider, for example, the fact that real incomes in the UK scarcely doubled from the beginning of the common era to 1570. They then tripled from 1570 to 1875, and more than tripled from 1875 to 1975. Yet, from 1770 to about 1830, during the industrial revolution, real wages in Britain remained stagnant.
Ryan Avent, economics correspondent for The Economist, makes a case that technological progress disproportionately benefits those with capital, before raising everyone’s income in the long term. During these short periods of high innovation, the creation of inequality in society may be inevitable. (He further argues that we may be in just such a phase right now.)
This is why techno-optimists (including myself) need to be careful. There is an expectation among this breed that technology will always lead to progress within their lifetimes—say that to the textile workers of the industrial revolution. When slagging off technocritics, like Evgeny Morozov, it is worth keeping in mind that neither extremes of the argument are correct.
Neither left nor right
Another place where disillusionment is common is on the left-right political divide. Those on the left think progress will come through reducing inequality and providing everyone with the same opportunities. Those on the right think survival of the fittest through competition is the only way humanity has progressed so far. History proves both of them wrong.
Take the example of US presidents. Republican presidents, widely representing the right, have had 88 years in power, whereas Democratic ones, widely representing the left, have had 85. In the UK the corresponding numbers for prime ministers are skewed slightly to the left, but not by a lot.
More often than not, however, in new elections people elect a party with an opposing ideology as they get fed up with the policies of the ruling party. Continuous power of the same ideology at the top for a long time is an exception than the norm.
This signifies that progress is often achieved by a mixture of left and right policies. Competition is good, but it can lead to crony capitalism. Egalitarianism is great, but it can lead to stagnation as the history of communist governments make clear.
(An exception here is that of the likes of China and Singapore, which have single party rule and have still done spectacularly well when it comes to “progress”. So what I’m proposing here must be taken to be applicable to countries which conduct free and fair elections, at least to a large extent.)
Being in the middle is not cool
Politicians on the left and right bring their own baggage of biases during their time as leaders. The flip-flop between the ideologies of those elected to lead, in some ways, shows that people try to correct for the biases of their leaders. When the left-leaning party pushes a country far to the left, say, by making it less competitive in the global market, people elect a right-leaning party to correct the situation. (There may be other factors at play, including randomness, but I would argue on the whole pre-election voter sentiment seems to agree to this hypothesis.)
So if this is the case, why is the following among centrist parties of the world so small? I’m not sure, but I think the answer may lie in the fact that human herd behaviour works best when people believe in a certain set of tenets very strongly. This must work better when there is a left-right divide than when those in the middle take beliefs from either side.
Another reason may be that it is easier to act in unison on certain kinds of beliefs, say by being a blind techno-optimist, than it is to be in a position where one is continuously re-evaluating which side to lean to. In other words, rationality among an individual or a small group matters less than rationality of a crowd which may be split into two moderately extreme sides.
All this leads me to conclude that, for a thinker, it may be good to wallow in the middle ground. But for a doer, it would be better to choose one side and stick to it.
Thanks to Alex Flint and Deeksha Sharma for reading a draft of this article.