Progress studies: many hard questions

Words by Jason Crawford
11th September 2020

What is the goal of progress studies and how broad should its scope be? Jason Crawford riffs off John Myers’ proposal that it should focus on ways to engineer societal progress.


In a recent post on this blog, John Myers proposes that we need to focus on “how to engineer societal change to get more progress.”

I am broadly sympathetic to this idea. I agree with Myers that there are a number of major areas that are obviously broken: he lists housing, public transit, education, and (US) health care, among others.

I also agree that it would be valuable to learn more about how to engineer social change. In particular, many reforms and advances run into opposition from special interest groups. For instance, Marc Levinson’s The Box tells the story of how the longshoreman’s unions opposed containerization. Progress was eventually unlocked via a compromise in which the cost savings were shared with the unions in order to protect workers’ incomes. Of course, unions aren’t the only parties who oppose advances; opposition can come from any entrenched interest, such as competing businesses, or the owners of assets that will fall in value.

It would be helpful to have a taxonomy of such tactics, and a study of where they work and how they can be applied. Suppose we want to remove needless occupational licensing, say, for florists. Licensed florists would likely oppose this, and arguably they would be justifiably upset at having invested in a license that was soon to be worthless. We could resolve the conflict by compensating them as part of the legislative change. A good theory of such tactics would give guidance on how much compensation to offer, and when this approach is worth it.

But I also think we need more than a theory of political engineering. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of things I think we need for reform on the issues Myers mentioned:

  • Better diagnosis and prescription: Housing, education, and US healthcare are pretty clearly broken. But what exactly has gone wrong? And what are the most high-leverage reforms that would significantly improve the system?
  • Leadership and execution: How much do we need a better theory of change, vs. just a competent leader and team who are ready and willing to put in grinding, unglamorous effort over years to push it through? For instance, even in one of the most challenging political environments—California housing reform—State Senator Scott Wiener has been able to implement some improvements through diligence, competence, and persistence. (One example is Senate Bill 35, which streamlines the housing approval process in cities that aren’t meeting state construction requirements.)
  • Ideological reform: Many of the areas Myers mentions are politically difficult because the needed reforms go against deeper ideological issues. To return to the issue of housing, in the San Francisco area, new developments are often opposed on the grounds that that would only benefit the wealthy or that they would damage the character of the neighborhood. In the US, health care reform is an ideological battleground that pits social welfare against economic freedom. We need more than political engineering: every cause needs a moral argument as well.

Finally, I want to address a broader question. Myers argues that progress studies should focus on how inefficient systems can be reformed. My conception of progress studies, and the progress movement, is much broader than that.

We should be thinking big. Yes, there are areas of the economy that are clearly inefficient, but there’s so much more. What about the revolutions that were begun and then aborted or drastically curtailed: nuclear power, supersonic passenger jets, space exploration? What about the dreams that have not yet arrived, such as genetic engineering, nanotechnology, or quantum computing? What about big unsolved problems, such as cancer, heart disease, and aging? What about science itself? Why does physics seem to be “stuck”, and what can be done about it? And what about all the inventions, discoveries, and even new fields of industry and research that didn’t happen, that are invisible to us now, but that might have happened, had we taken a different path? If progress studies only focuses on current, visible inefficiencies, it might miss bigger, long-term revolutions.

Progress studies should consider a wide variety of questions. What was the cause of the Industrial Revolution? What leads to golden ages such as those of ancient Athens, the Song dynasty, or Renaissance Italy? What is the impact of science fiction on the next generation of scientists and inventors? How do we structure research organizations and funding mechanisms so as to avoid consensus and groupthink? Why were so many math and physics geniuses born in Budapest around the turn of the last century? How do we find talented people distributed around the globe and help them fulfill their potential, for their own sake and for the world?

Political engineering is important and valuable, but to my mind, it’s only the tip of a very large iceberg. Unblocking science or inspiring brilliant youth may be far more valuable in the long run. The concerns of the progress community should be as vast and as grand as the term “human progress” implies.

For more on the history of technology and the philosophy of progress, consider following The Roots of Progress.