Progressives’ obsessing about race is not only undiminished by decades of improvements in race relations (e.g., approval of interracial marriages was 4 percent in 1958 and 94 percent in 2021), it is inversely related to improvements. There are vocal interests with large political and lucrative financial stakes (e.g., the “diversity” consultants industry) in the myth of nonprogress. Similarly, portions of the government have an interest in insisting on its failure, despite trillions spent, to substantially improve economic equality: Hence the government’s practice of not counting transfer payments and tax rebates (the earned income tax credit) as income for those of modest means. Counting those augmentations of income would reveal that the 2021 poverty rate was not 11.6 percent, but 2 to 3 percent.
In “Life After Capitalism,” George Gilder, citing Marian L. Tupy and Gale L. Pooley in the Cato Institute’s volume “Superabundance,” writes that “between 1980 and 2022, workers have been able to buy some 300 percent more goods and services with their hours and minutes.” The secret sauce is applied knowledge. Economist Thomas Sowell is right: “The cavemen had the same natural resources at their disposal as we have today.” They lacked only know-how. As did the nail-maker before the Industrial Revolution, making one nail a minute. Today’s nail maker can produce 3,500 per minute.
Economic growth has not just coincided with, it has been caused by, population growth — more brains, more trade in knowledge. There are, however, those who consider people a plague, and who favor ever-larger regulatory government to prevent ruinous human ingenuity and planet-threatening dynamism. Such people resent the time-price metric of economic (and hence social) progress because it measures the results of millions of unplanned and uncoordinated decisions, cooperations, inventions and refinements.
The metric frustrates those who believe, and who benefit from, pessimistic predictions that the supposedly retrograde present is a harbinger of a stagnant future of scarcities — unless government plans a better future. The time-price metric blows to smithereens the idea that progressivism is conducive to progress.
In his book “The Invention of Improvement,” Paul Slack writes that a belief in a steady rate of improvement began to take hold in 17th-century England. No more did England think that prosperity and well-being would come from returning to some better past. Instead, it would come from applying human ingenuity to improve skills, work the land better and engage in trade and industry. Indeed, the very word “improvement” was of recent coinage, first applied to broader areas than agriculture in the mid-17th century. In his interpretation of the Enlightenment, Peter Gay explains: “Fear of change, up to that time nearly universal, was giving way to fear of stagnation; the word innovation, traditionally an effective term of abuse, became a word of praise.”
This perspective was expressed in many works—for example, in John Locke’s founding document of classical liberalism, 1689’s “Two Treatises of Government.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau famously expressed the zero-sum theory of economics in 1755, saying that the great robber of mankind was “the first person who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say ‘this is mine.’” In fact, 65 years earlier, John Locke had already refuted such assumptions, with the much more modern idea that productivity and market exchange create prosperity for both sides: “he who appropriates land to himself by his labour, does not lessen but increase the common stock of mankind.” Since the individual who encloses land increases its production by some hundred to one, according to Locke, the agricultural entrepreneur does not take one acre from mankind, but gives it 99 acres.
In fact, by directing resources toward specific (and often large) companies, generally for the benefit of those companies’ shareholders and high-skilled workers, industrial policy is the opposite of populist. In fact, industrial policy in practice unavoidably fuels cronyism since it requires the government to artificially direct resources toward certain industries (semiconductor, green energy, manufacturing) and, hence, away from others. Also, once the government is in the business of providing support to businesses, it becomes attractive for more and more companies to build political connections and lobby for their own government granted privileges.
No, it’s not right to do it — civilized people do not torch or desecrate the sacred books of others. But that does not mean it shouldn’t be legal to do it. However depraved, hateful, or offensive such behavior may be, there is no question that it expresses an idea. And in free societies, the expression of even contemptible ideas must be protected. “In Sweden, you have the right to say almost anything you want,” the government website affirms, and the right to stage public demonstrations is guaranteed by the Swedish constitution.
For Americans, steeped in the culture of the First Amendment, the right to express even the most odious ideas is a core value as well. No element of our legal system “more imperatively calls for attachment than . . . the principle of free thought,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in 1929. “Not free thought for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought that we hate.”