Is Progress Real?
Debate
Is Progress Real?
It could just be a story we tell ourselves.
Published on: Feb 3, 2022  

Editor's Note: Welcome to a Wisdom of Crowds "Debate." The goal is to explore why we believe the things we believe, working through the tensions and contradictions in real time. If you like this post, consider becoming a member to support our work.

What is “progress”? Does it even exist? This has become a recurring theme in Shadi and Damir's ongoing debates here at Wisdom of Crowds. It's not a semantic debate. To believe in progress is to believe in an arc of history, and this has profound implications. It shapes how we view human nature and whether individuals have an innate disposition that transcends time and place. This was the subject of Shadi and Damir's last debate—titled suggestively: “Is Democracy Good?

The debate over progress intensified during the second half of an epic, nearly two-hour conversation with Washington Free Beacon's Aaron Sibarium, who broke the story about race rationing in hospitals. The bonus portion of the episode is for subscribers only, but we wanted to share some highlights with all of you, included below in lightly edited written form. We hope you'll find it as fascinating as we did. If you do, you can subscribe here to get more of our somewhat raucous debates, which generally aren't meant for public consumption—and probably for good reason.


Shadi:

I'm pretty sure it's better to be a woman in the workplace today than it was in 1955. There has been—God forbid that I'm using this word, Damir will call me out—progress.

Damir:

Progress, good lord.

Shadi:

If I had to choose between what we have now in terms of workplace environments and what we had in the fifties or sixties, I think that's a pretty obvious choice.

Aaron:

Honestly, I would too, except I think what I would say is that a lot of these innovations, really the legal innovations, came in the late eighties and nineties. And I actually think, that had you kept the legal status quo, the same as the early eighties, over time you still would have seen cultural shifts, but you might not have created the bureaucratic coercive architecture that has now really spun out of control.

So, I agree with you. I don't want to go back to the fifties. I also think that we could have basically stopped the kind of legal clock relatively shortly after the civil rights movement, and even just what we had there would have been pretty successful at inaugurating cultural change. But we didn't stop the legal clock and we certainly didn't stop the bureaucratic administrative state clock. And that's where the kind of problems I'm talking about broadly came in.

Damir:

The thing for me is that on the one hand, Aaron, you can't stop the clock on these sorts of things. It's like some weird Buckleyite obsession that one can do such things.

Aaron:

Oh, I know.

Damir:

Where I really part ways on fundamental issues from Shadi, is that I really am deeply skeptical about this notion of justice.

Your concept of progress here is very contingent. You can throw it in my face, and say, "Ask any woman who had been the secretary in the fifties and ask her how her daughter is doing now and point to her testimony." And say, well, that's progress.

I think progress is entwined with this question of justice, which is just very poorly defined.

Shadi:

Wait, wait, wait. What's the argument for it not being better for women in the workplace today compared to the 1950s? I'm not even sure what that argument would be like.

Damir:

The argument is this: proponents of progress say, "we had a vision of social change that we're advocating for, that we put our minds to, and here we are. This is progress. And anything else that may have happened along the way, well, you know, these are the sorts of minor trade-offs." The narrative is one of uninterrupted progress for a better world. This is the good. We can identify the good if we point to it.

Shadi:

But Damir, I didn't say any of that. All I said is that if you're comparing between two phases, one is better than the other.

Damir:

But what's better? Again, you can point to some ill-defined category, and claim that women are better served in the workplace, and conclude that that's progress. I don't know. I find that insanely reductive.

Yeah, I guess I really do reject the concept of progress on the very point where one makes claims for justice. I think that's really what I'm getting at here. I reject the idea that we have any idea what the hell we're talking about when we talk about justice.

Aaron:

I would probably, if push comes to shove, agree with Shadi, that there is some fact of the matter about whether women are better off today than they were in the fifties. And yes, the answer is they probably are in some respects, there's something there.

Shadi:

This is undeniable. This is crazy that we're even having this conversation.

Aaron:

No, no, no. I'm saying yes, there are aspects in which it's undeniable. But to push on this, let me maybe give you a little more of a provocative example of where I think this gets tough. So yes, women are better off in the workplace now, but women also are kind of expected to be in the workplace.

And, in part, because we normalized two-parent families, that had economic effects that meant now it's harder to support a family on one income. So, women don't necessarily have as much of a choice to opt out of the workplace.

Shadi:

There's always fallout from any kind of positive change. There's no such thing as improvements on some metrics, and then every other metric simultaneously improves. I mean, part of life is that when good things happen in one area, there could be costs in another area.

But then you look at the cost-benefit and you decide what is better in the aggregate when you take everything into account. So sure. I mean, Elizabeth Warren is the one who quite literally wrote the book on the two-parent income trap. So, I don't think anyone would argue that there haven't been costs in the wake of these otherwise good things, but that doesn't negate the other positive outcomes.

Damir:

So Shadi, you know I really avoid heroic narratives in international relations. I mean, the more I talked to you about this domestic stuff, which really is not part of my bailiwick at all, I realized how much my instincts bleed over into this as well.

I really bridle at the notion of progress and the heroic sweep of things. I guess that's really what it comes down to for me. And so when you push me on something, like women in the workplace, I think it's easy to get me in a corner where I'm on the edge of saying something truly reprehensible.

But, the fact is that if you take it quite seriously—the idea that moral progress is a kind of illusion, and that it's a political tool that we all use to bludgeon each other, for whatever set of preferences and whatever set of moral priors we may seem to have as individuals that are actually grounded in not much apart from education and circumstance—if you take it seriously that these things are not founded, or not provable, outside of faith... The concession I usually make to you on these sorts of things—that outside of a grounding and faith, these things are grounded in nothing, are standing on air. I think putting a line under the whole concept of moral progress is a healthy pose overall.

So, therefore, yeah, you're right, by denying that things happening are good, I think it takes away a lot of the heroism of the civil rights movement. It takes away a lot of the heroism of the emancipation of women. It takes away a lot of the heroism of the forward march of democracy, and the individual being liberated from the trappings of feudal immiseration and things like that.

I just think all those claims for these things being the good are bullshit though. Ultimately.

Shadi:

Ok, but I'm not concerned with whether something is healthy or unhealthy. I'm concerned with whether something is accurate or inaccurate. So, I think what you're suggesting, if we take it to its logical conclusion, we're left with: we can't actually measure metrics. We can't actually judge whether something is better in one time period compared to a previous time period.

Let's take the state of the Muslim minority in America. I think on any conceivable metric, Muslims are better off in 2021 than they were right after 9-11. We can talk about the state of Jews and antisemitism in America. Antisemitism is obviously in some ways becoming worse than it was say five years ago, but if we compare today versus say 1900, I think it's reasonable to say that Jews in America are in a better position today than they were in 1900. We should be able to make judgments on those kinds of questions. Otherwise, how do we know anything then? Then nothing is real. Nothing is true.

Damir:

I don't think that's fair.

Aaron:

No, on this one I'll side with Shadi. I basically think that that's correct.

Damir:

I mean, I think it just blinds you, this adherence to moral progress. Because first, you create categories like Muslims in America, or you even create a category like Jews, and then measure across this sort of thing.

Shadi:

But that is a category.

Damir:

And again, you're telling yourself a nice story.

I'm reminded of a conversation I had with my former colleague. I guess I won't identify him, but he grew up as an Orthodox Jew in Washington DC. And on the one hand, as you were just alluding to Shadi, he said, "I was the first person in my family to go to college. My parents were working class, and in growing up I've seen progress that's happened across all sorts of parts of society, especially for people like me, for Jews in this country. In many ways, the arc of my life is nothing short of miraculous on that sort of stuff."

But at the same time, he would say that this kind of heroic story of progress really does blind us to stuff that someone like Sam Huntington in his racist old dotage was worried about: that the kind of glue that kept society together has been ebbing away. That one thing that has given some coherence to American society has been a certain kind of Protestant elite that no longer exists. It has been replaced with certain kinds of meritocracy, which is weaker and shittier in a lot of ways. Now look, that's a category too. Meritocracy is just as much a category as a WASP elite that controlled things before.

Shadi:

Yeah, but that's a different category.

Damir:

They're all in many ways made up, is what I'm getting at. When we talk about society, I think it's healthier to be less heroic about progress, just generally bracket progress in as many ways as possible, because ultimately, I don't think you have grounds to stand on, apart from a just-so story that you're telling. Apart from your faith in moral progress.

Going back, I don't think that your criticism is correct of what I was getting at just now—that as a result of denying moral progress narratives, we can't say anything about the world. This anecdote that I just told you, about talking to my former colleague about growing up and seeing “progress” for Jews and other minorities, about looking at the Supreme Court and seeing the difference in representation since the 1950s, and how profound that is. That's all true. At the same time, if you just reject the idea that this is progress, then you're allowed to ask yourself about things that you're otherwise blind to. Because you're committed to this idea of good outcomes, of seeking good outcomes, and telling a progressive story about society, you don't see trade-offs, or you just brush them away.

I don't think that prevents you from talking about facts, understanding that they're very contingent in a lot of ways, and arguable. I think most social science is contingent. Being much less confident about any claims to progress, you can still have a conversation that's based on history and based in sound argument. You can still have a debate with another person.

Aaron:

I guess what I would say is I think progress can be an appropriate description of a particular discrete timeframe, which has a beginning and end. I'm more on Shadi's side of that, but where I share some of your skepticism in certain ways is, we can't see the future.

There have been times in human history where not only did it seem to people like things were getting better, but they were getting better. In the roaring twenties, there was actively a lot of prosperity and economic growth and it was great. And then there was the Great Depression.

So in hindsight, people will argue that the logic and economy of the 1920s laid the seeds for the 1930s. Which is to say that, thinking about it now, I'm maybe more okay than Damir is with just conceding Shadi's point when push comes to shove. Sure, maybe I'm willing to say women are better off, or there has been some kind of moral progress in how we treat minorities. I mean, I think that's probably true. But I think the issue is we'll extrapolate from that into thinking that it will continue forever. And therefore every additional kind of measure that is done under the banner of progress, or the banner of civil rights, will be good.

And that I just flatly reject. In fact, I think there's good reason to believe that often something that can be good for a period of time can eventually decay and contain the seeds of its own destruction. So, looking out at the future, I'm like, yeah, I think that a lot of the things I was criticizing as being part of a hollow and even dangerous sort of mainstream identity-based liberalism were good for a while, but now those ideas and institutional logics are being pushed farther and farther, and now they're going to be bad. I'm just not convinced that the United States, in 20 years, is going to be a better place to live, all things considered, than it is now. I hope I'm wrong.

Shadi:

Oh, I agree with that. I think that in some sense, progress has reached its natural limit. So, I agree with a lot of what you said, Aaron, and maybe it's a good way to end. To say that Shadi is partially right, and Damir is partially right. Because we both have wisdom.