Where Does Progress Come From?

According to economic historian Joel Mokyr, progress comes from technological change–which can’t happen without pro-technology and pro-change cultural values. Science is necessary but not sufficient; same with culture. It takes both. Societies with one but not the other have their merits, but ultimately fail to progress. New advances will either fail to stick, or will be repressed. While respect for tradition is a normal and good thing, most cultures throughout history have gone too far with it and become outright neophobic.

Cultural rejection of progress goes at least as far back as the Greek poet Hesiod, who lived between 800-700 B.C. He described history as a continuous process of decay. The initial Golden Age of the gods degrades down to a still-divine Silver Age, then a Bronze Age. This is followed by a Heroic Age (think mortal half-gods such as Perseus and Heracles). History finally reaches the dull, rusting Iron Age where people now live. This is a rather different worldview than one finds in Enlightenment thinking or, say, Wired magazine.

More recently, China showed a spark of valuing progress during the Song dynasty, which lasted from 960-1279 AD. But the succeeding Ming dynasty shut the experiment down by destroying trading ships devaluing innovation, raising up values such as security and tradition instead.

Joel Mokyr, on p. 248 of his 2016 book A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy, offers that a rebellious youthful streak can in fact be a good thing in the long run:

The idea of progress is logically equivalent to an implied disrespect of previous generations.

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