What counts as progress and what makes it possible?

First Published: 2018-01-06

by Dr. Jaana Woiceshyn

At the end of the year, the media is teeming with reviews of the past 12 months. With their focus on the positive, compilations such as “99 Reasons 2017 Was A Great Year” catch my eye. But often such long lists of arguably positive statistics and achievements are a mixed bag of the positive and the negative.

I argue that the standard we should use for assessing the positives and negatives is human flourishing—because only that standard makes happy, healthy, and prosperous lives possible for all.

That is the standard Johan Norberg used in his 2016 book Progress, in which he tells the story of human progress, backed up with statistics, in the last 100 years or less, in areas such as food, sanitation, life expectancy, and poverty. That is why I liked his book so much (you can read my review here).

However, lists such as the “99 Reasons” do not use human flourishing as the standard, and therefore almost half of the statistics it includes are either harmful or irrelevant to human well-being.

The “99 Reasons” starts with a promising subheading, “An incredible year for global health,” which notes a new, affordable vaccine to end cholera, a 25% drop in cancer rates, and the disappearance of the Zika virus, among other positives. But even this section reports government intervention in our lives as a positive—yet it is a drain on human flourishing—such as new sugar taxes in the United States. Presumably, taxing sugar (as opposed holding people responsible for their own choices) would stem obesity and diabetes.

Among the positives, the “99 Reasons” also lists a number of statistics on improved living standards and reduced violent crime and terrorism, but the remainder of the report is either mixed or anti-human flourishing.

While nature conservation can be consistent with human flourishing—such as setting up parks for human enjoyment and recreation, preventing water pollution, or reforestation to prevent soil erosion—government running national parks or banning commercial fishing and fur farming again violate the principle of private property rights and therefore people’s ability to thrive. (Under private ownership, most property owners manage their resources responsibly, whether fish or forests. And those who don’t, will suffer the consequences).

The greatest contradiction in the “99 Reasons” is its treatment of energy, reporting (with some dubious sources) as progress “a terrible year for the fossil fuels industry” with governments phasing out carbon emissions, banning gas-fueled vehicles, and subsidizing unreliable sources of energy: solar and wind power. Yet, at present, only the fossil fuels provide the abundant, affordable and reliable energy that human flourishing depends on.

What reports such as the “99 Reasons” fail to realize is what constitutes human progress and what makes it possible.

Any progress we make in flourishing—all the advances in human health and prosperity listed in these reports—depends on one source: the thinking human mind. Inventing vaccines, restoring eye sight, developing new and more efficient food sources, increasing productivity, reducing poverty, all depend on human ingenuity: our exercising reason to solve problems and to create.

The mind to exercise reason and to think has one crucial requirement: freedom. Freedom—not government regulations and bans—is required for the discovery of new knowledge. Imagine how much more progress there would be in human health if there were more freedom in medicine and the pharmaceutical industry, or how much poverty would be further reduced under more freedom? If you are not convinced, I highly recommend reading Johan Norberg’s Progress—and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, for a fictional dramatization of what human progress requires.

Government attempts to control the discovery of knowledge and the development of innovations through funding and restrictions (on energy sources and emissions, for example) reduce human flourishing, as politicians or bureaucrats  lack the accountability and expertise in “picking the winners.” Government regulation to restrict freedom also creates disincentives to fund discovery of knowledge, as it diminishes the return on such investment.

Government does have a crucial, although a very limited, role in making human flourishing possible: it must ensure freedom by protecting individual rights against the initiation of physical force and fraud.

Such protection of liberty and property will leave people free to pursue their own flourishing, voluntarily trading with others, leading to progress for all. Let’s hope for more of that in the new year, to make our lives even better.

Jaana Woiceshyn teaches business ethics and competitive strategy at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Canada. She has lectured and conducted seminars on business ethics to undergraduate, MBA and Executive MBA students, and to various corporate audiences for over 20 years both in Canada and abroad. Before earning her Ph.D. from the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, she helped turn around a small business in Finland and worked for a consulting firm in Canada. Jaana’s research on technological change and innovation, value creation by business, executive decision-making, and business ethics has been published in various academic and professional journals and books. “How to Be Profitable and Moral” is her first solo-authored book.

Visit Dr. Woiceshyn’s archive here…

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