What is Progress?
Economic Development Is Progress -- Sometimes
Many people describe today's global economy with phrases like "the triumph of capitalism," or less hubristically, "the post-socialist world." The "post" in "post-socialist" is supposed to be a dismissive epitaph on the tomb of Karl Marx, author of The Communist Manifesto and avatar of European socialism, but whether Marxism will ever return to the global economy is conjecture. Some students of Marxism claim that revolution came too early to countries that were hardly capitalist, and that the truth of "Marxist determinism" is only now playing itself out as capitalism takes firm root worldwide.
But whatever the future, there is no denying that market capitalism has "triumphed" in giving birth to its first rich, advanced, non-Western children: South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore. They may look radically different from their siblings in continental Europe or in the Anglo-American world, but they sprouted from the soil of markets nonetheless. And there seems to be a tidal wave of new upstarts: China, India, Malaysia, Thailand, and others. Add some of the older industrialized -- but partly crippled -- economies of Latin America, such as Brazil, Mexico and Argentina, and you have a photo worthy of a UNICEF brochure.
Of course that brochure wouldn't depict the people of the remaining countries, which compose a nameless mass, a forgotten netherworld of poverty and disease that occupies only the margins and back pages of our newspapers -- and only when they have a massive flood or tourists die. Of course if oil is discovered in one of these countries, it will hit the front pages of business sections, and maybe some people will learn the name of the 'new' country with a long distinguished history, a thriving culture, and millions of people.
As I have just done, countries are frequently categorized into a schematic with four rough levels: advanced industrialized, newly industrialized, developing, and the remainder, undeveloped. Now, does this describe a real progression along a linear path to a developmental heaven, or are the four levels artificial constructs? Is economic development progress?
Modernization Theory and Its Progeny
In the heady years after World War Two, as America's white armor was cleansed of splattered Fascist blood and brilliantly polished as a beacon to the world, we witnessed the perfection of advanced capitalism. England was the Alpha and America was the Omega. Effusive optimism gave birth to an academic trend called Modernization Theory, which soon boasted a veritable army of knight-scholars: Rostow, Apter, Lipset, Deutsch, Almond, Levy and many others. Talcott Parsons was its Ivanhoe. Although there was variety among them, this dominant army of academics believed that countries followed a path from traditional to modern, and that the lucky souls in these countries would be transformed into a new species of humans: a people more rational, secular, affective neutral, and meritocratic. Although this school of thought was dominant at the time, and optimism reigned that the social sciences of psychology, economics, and sociology could be unified into a general theory, world events and new analyses arose to topple its hegemony.
For one, the "rational" West took the world to within inches of nuclear annihilation. Also, the undeveloped, but oil-rich, Middle Eastern nations brought the Western powers to their knees through cartelization. The world also watched as the mighty US Goliath lacked the will and capacity to defeat an already war-torn David of the East, who carried a shoulder pole and wore a conical rice hat.
In many ways, this old faith in modernization has simply been transmogrified into contemporary beliefs about development; and underlying the word 'developing' remains an assumption, again a faith, that countries do in fact progress. We have fancier statistical techniques, like econometrics, but undergirding this gigantic edifice is still faith, values, and morality, which are as old as abstract human thought. The simple question 'why,' when asked with unbending perseverance, will eventually expose this underlying faith. Yes, ultimately, progress is a faith. It is also a value that must be politically contested and endowed with meaning. It is not a technical set of formulas with an output at the bottom of the page.
Isn't Economic Growth Always Good?
OK, let's concede this: science, including the social sciences, rests on unproven, or even unprovable, foundations. Fine. Polities must contest over their goals.
But surely few would argue against increasing wealth and economic growth. Are there many people who would call for economic stagnation or even a reversal to less prosperity? And, if this is granted, then surely economists are best equipped to achieve this 'value-laden and politically contested' goal. Are you going to give this job to Dante scholars and metaphysicians?
But there are many counter-arguments to the notion that economic growth equals progress. First, there's the obvious objection that the world has limited resources and eternal growth is unsustainable. As behemoths like China and India grow at leaps and bounds, greater technological improvements for sustainable development are certainly a sine qua non of human life on earth. Let's hope we progress in this direction before reaching ecological collapse.
There is a second counter-argument: money isn't necessarily happiness. If happiness is an ultimate goal, growth might not necessarily be progress towards the goal. High rates of depression and suicide in advanced industrialized countries may be an indication that the equivalence of wealth and happiness is a false one. This is a thorny, disputed question, but at least it should raise doubts.
Nonetheless, if national wealth is accompanied by better nutrition, higher literacy, less disease, longer lifespans, less physical suffering, and greater stability, who wouldn't take a ticket on that train? These correlations are neither thorny nor disputed. Further, it would be two-faced to sit in our material splendor, sipping margaritas on the beach, while simultaneously telling the poor countries of the world that they should not desire our material wealth because we are just 'not happy.' It matters not the number of Prozacs we need to wash down with our margaritas. It is the height of presumption to describe the life of peasants as 'blissful simplicity,' when many eke out a life of backbreaking work to avoid famine and starvation.
There is still a third counter-argument: growth does not necessarily mean development, and the latter is the preferable goal. Development looks a lot more like real progress on the ground than does mere growth. The two are often equated, and certainly growth is almost always a component of development, but states and societies can have multiple goals, beyond growth. For instance, the Indian government clearly aims for economic growth, but during certain historical periods it has also aimed for economic self-reliance, the eradication of poverty and exploitation, and balanced, equitable development. These other goals often conflict with growth in ways that reveal that sheer growth isn't always the best choice. These other less material goals have benefits that in the long run may (or may not) pay off.
Answers and Conclusions
So, putting aside the environmental concerns, the questions of happiness, and the definitions of development, Is development progress?
The answer is... sometimes.
In the four-level schematic above, for countries on the bottom two levels, development, in its narrow sense of sheer growth and accumulation, may be a good target worthy of high political priority. During the high-speed growth periods of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, all people rose with the tidewaters as material wealth penetrated deeper and deeper into the population. But there's never any guarantee that growth will be equitably distributed. Plenty of wealthy nations have incredible disparities of wealth and status -- between professions, between geographical regions, and between rural and urban environments. China, as it has moved away from communism over the past 25 years, has gone from one of the most egalitarian societies in the world, to having, by some measures, disparities similar to those of the US.
But even in countries where development is not equitably distributed, most of the population often receives some benefits of overall growth. Of course there are also significant costs to sheer growth. For poor countries, many things often must be sacrificed to this avaricious god: environmental concerns, social welfare, material consumption, human and civil rights, sometimes even democracy. We in the West see these as core inalienable values never to be sacrificed; but they are in fact expensive luxuries that require enormous resources. European countries, during their own transition to industrialization, lacked these wonderful ideals; they have enjoyed them as eventual products of industrialization, rarely as concomitant developments.
Likewise in East Asia: The history of development in 'successful' growth countries like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan demonstrates these points nicely. For all three countries, environmental concerns did not arise until after high growth periods; savings rates were off the charts, indicating delayed consumption; rights, even where they existed on paper, were ignored or unenforced; and democracy was delayed until after industrialization (South Korea and Taiwan) or took the form of a dominant one-party system (Japan).
So perhaps for poor countries we can say that 'growth is progress,' so long as we add a string of qualifications like those mentioned above. And this will be progress toward politically contested goals, even as it happens. With a hamstrung democracy -- or no democracy at all -- 'political contestation' will not necessarily be the vote; it can instead take many forms, including those that are violent or disruptive, as the people become determined to get the attention of, and express their dissatisfaction to, those at the helm. Development is not a dinner party.
A Different Answer At Home
Long after advanced industrialized countries have achieved the capacity to produce unimaginable wealth, they still seem to believe in the old god of growth.
Look at us. Without a doubt the aforementioned luxuries -- democracy, environmental concerns, social welfare, material consumption, and human rights -- are now part of our everyday lives here in the US, even if they are imperfect. Some growth is necessary to sustain these luxuries, but growth is still valued here in its own right. Growth is still considered an unqualified Good, as something to strive for -- even without specific goals to which the resultant wealth should be applied. Some may argue that more growth would lead to more wealth and allow us to spend more on education and healthcare, both of which are sorely under-funded in America. This is undoubtedly true, but a far better way of achieving this end is to redistribute the wealth and goods we already produce each year in a manner more reflective of our values. Even if higher growth rates were achieved, our current imbalance of distribution means little would change. Again, political contestation must produce a nation's economic goals.
As I see it, properly ordering priorities should always precede a mindless striving for growth. European polities, with far lower growth rates than the US and far smaller economies, have been capable of providing significantly more for their populations with a less productive workforce. This European propensity has recently been under attack, and more adjustments may happen there, but the tendency towards abundant social welfare remains. For instance, France has legalized a 35-hour workweek. Marveling at that, we should remember that those white knights of 1950s American academia envisioned a world in which the super-abundance of industrial wealth would engender a blossoming of human potential; humans, they predicted, would work only 20 hours a week in exchange for a surfeit of material comfort. So how is it that the $10 trillion US economy, larger than the economies of Japan, England, France and Germany combined, creates such shameful poverty, malnutrition, and inadequate education and healthcare?
One reason is that residing within our modern democratic polity are Kings and Queens with fortunes that outshine the royalty and aristocracy of old Europe. This royalty is not simply a quaint family at the top of the hierarchy of wealth. It is the 5-10 million people who compose the very top percentiles of our national wealth. And it is these elites that push for ever increasing growth. Thus, despite our enthusiasm for globalization and our new rhetoric about transcending the nation-state, in many ways, we still behave like a mercantilist power. We sacrifice much to keep our multinationals competitive against the multinationals of Europe, Japan and the developing world. And so do they. And if the developing giants, like China and India, can catch up to an already crowded field of competitors, things will not be pretty, no matter how much these countries can consume. The strife caused by the rise of Japan and the East Asian tigers is a tiny appetizer to the main entr�e. The drive to increase national wealth and power is a function of the open competition with other nations.
Many argue that competition is healthy and the engine of progress. But competition also requires severe hardship and sacrifice from some members of our society: millions work 70-hour weeks in exchange for less than 'livable wages' and no healthcare, amidst the greatest accumulation of wealth in world history. This unfortunate mass of our population doesn't get margaritas, beaches, or Prozac. It can be argued that Europe's welfare state is under assault not because of the inherent unsustainability of high taxation, but because welfare is unsustainable in a world where the behemoth $10 trillion US economy persists in growing in leaps and bounds. To remain competitive, things must be sacrificed. That is, continued sacrifice for the sake of more wealth in societies that already have unimaginable wealth. And we persist in growing and sacrificing in order to remain competitive with other countries that must also continue to grow and sacrifice to compete with us! Progress!
Building Momentum For Solutions
The difficulty is not in identifying the huge disparities of wealth or identifying the problems with priorities and political contestation; nor is the difficulty in identifying the ills of excessive and unwarranted market competition. The difficulty is in solving how to travel from point A to B. Figuring this out should be our new definition of progress. How do we go about redistributing wealth and reordering our political priorities? Even more difficult, how do we manage world competition among advanced countries?
World market competition is nearly intractable because there is no authoritative power, such as a world government, to identify problems and enforce solutions. And the problems are massive. Besides environmental degradation, the global maldistribution of wealth, as illustrated in the four-level schematic, has gone from a gap to a canyon in the past century, and has become the most destabilizing long-term problem in our world today.
We have had moderate social movements for civil rights, against wars, and for suffrage, many with very beneficial and tangible results. But social movements for major wealth redistribution have historically been called "social revolutions," and as Lenin said, these too are not dinner parties.
Ideally we will see a massive, peaceful movement to solve these problems. Tragically, in large collective groups, humans seem to need a crisis before seeking new solutions or reordering priorities. In the event of a sizeable crisis, momentum will hopefully come in two places:
- First, from the medley of globally-oriented, interconnected, grassroots organizations, which are mostly based in advanced industrialized countries. Ameliorating global disparities can only occur with the political will of these countries, and thus these organizations can help facilitate economic development. But development is a long-term proposition (Taiwan and Korea raced to the top faster than any country thus far -- in a mere 40 years), so the goals and aims of development must be substantiated within a second group of organizations -- global institutions.
- Global institutions, such as the UN and WTO, must be structured to exclude capital interests as much as possible, and they must be more thoroughly democratic, not simply via more equal representation of national governments, but accountable to sub-state entities as well. And we need to realize that the best means to amend global wealth maldistribution is through greater foreign aid and more open migration. International trade and finance, even if done fairly, are only second best.
True progress will be building momentum in these organizations to create more balanced growth and development.
Mark Dallas is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley.
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