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Matthew Slaboch and Marian Tupy discuss the idea of progress through the lens of German philosophy.

Matthew Slaboch: The Human Progress Podcast Ep. 8 Transcript

By Marian L. Tupy @HumanProgress

By Matthew Slaboch @MatthewSlaboch

The full interview between Marian Tupy and Matthew Slaboch is available here. The transcript is below.

Marian Tupy: Today, I’m talking to Matthew Slaboch, who is a visiting assistant professor of Political Science at Denison University in Ohio, about his 2017 book called, “A Road to Nowhere: The Idea of Progress and Its Critics.” So Matthew, why don’t we start with a very quick elevator pitch, what is the book about?

Matthew Slaboch: Sure. So my book begins with an observation that political slogans from recent presidential campaigns, if we think about them seriously, ask us to consider what the nature and trajectory of historical change is. So if we consider Ronald Reagan’s campaign theme of “Morning in America”, that sort of imagery presents a picture of a bright future, sunny days, has an optimistic ring to it. Years later, if we think about Barack Obama’s campaign and the message of “Hope and Change”, that too has an optimistic ring to it, presents an image of a brighter future, better days ahead. More recently, if we think of Donald Trump’s campaign, two campaigns, and the message of “Make America Great Again”, there the imagery is a little bit different, combining pessimism about the current moment, dissatisfaction with how things are, and optimism that things can be improved, hope to return to some unidentified prior great moment. So each of these campaign themes are really, again, if we take them seriously, asking us to consider how history unfolds.

Matthew Slaboch: Is history a tail of progress from worse to better? Or, does history follow instead a series of fits and starts, whether it’s improvement and decline, is it cyclical? These are the sorts of questions that I want us to consider. Is there a right side of history? That sort of lingo gets tossed around a lot these days, where adversaries of one idea or ideology paint their opponents of being on the wrong side of history. Again, thinking about that sort of language, does history have a right side or no? Is it just a series of events that unfold? And so that’s what my book is looking at, getting at serious thought regarding how history unfolds, how it’s supposed to unfold, and part of the impetus for looking at that is in the current moment, people by and large in the US and around the world, expressed through various public opinion polls or surveys that they think their own countries or the world at large are on the wrong track. That doesn’t mean that they think there isn’t a right track and that history doesn’t move in a direction from worse to better, but again, the popular impulse, the mood today seems to be that we’re not moving in a positive direction. So again, I want us to consider, especially some critics of the notion that we’re supposed to move in a direction or that history necessarily unfolds in a direction that is positive.

Marian Tupy: Right, and just to sort of make it clear where I come at the idea of progress at things is to say that I think that humanity has achieved a lot over the last 250 years, especially, but that there is no guarantee of progress. In other words, there isn’t some sort of an overarching force that is guiding us to a perfection, a perfect ideal state. I think of progress as a series of gradual improvements, but without guarantee of success. But let me actually start our conversation by reading something that you have written, and once again the book is really very good. I found your discussion of the 19th century German philosophers especially interesting. You explain Schopenhauer in a clear and concise way, more better than anything else I’ve read.

Marian Tupy: But here’s something that you wrote, “Since the Enlightenment, the idea of progress has spanned right and left-wing politics, secular and spiritual philosophy, and most every school of art or culture. The belief that humans are capable of making lasting improvements; intellectual, scientific, material, moral, and cultural, continues to be a common place of our age. However, events in the preceding century, including but not limited to world wars, wars in Korea and Vietnam, the spread of communism in Eastern Europe and Asia, violent nationalism in the Balkans, genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda, have called into question this faith in the continued advancement of humankind. Political theorists should entertain the possibility that long-term, continued progress may be more fiction than reality.” So those are your words. And let me posit to you that the 20th century was both the worst century but also the best century, which creates a bit of a paradox that maybe we can discuss. After a century of massacres, humanity ended up richer, longer living, better educated, more technologically advanced that at the beginning of the 20th century. So maybe we can look at the intellectual, scientific material, moral and cultural progress individually and see where the progress has been made, where it hasn’t been made, and what accounts for this tremendous paradox of the 20th century.

Matthew Slaboch: So I’d like to preface my response to that by saying that the figures that I talk about in my book, by and large, this is a book on critics of the idea of progress, and I’m careful in the book to use that phrase, because these are figures who are not critiquing or critical of progress. They’re critical of the idea of progress. And there’s a distinction there. So no one is going to criticize something having improved, no one is going to say, “Boy I really wish this thing that was bad had stayed bad,” that’s not what the figures in my book are doing what they’re doing is critiquing the notion that we should expect ever greater improvements over time. Sure, if we’d look at some of these things, intellectual technological progress, I think the figures in my book would have to acknowledge… Certainly, there have been advances. Scientific discoveries are real. Industrial advancement is real. Material wealth, improving. No doubt there.

Matthew Slaboch: Some of the other features or factors get more complicated there, I’d say moral progress is, if you’re in the figures in my book, would be hesitant possibly to outright endorse the notion that there has been sustained and lasting improvements in morality or cultural affairs, and I think looking at the 20th century, it is hard to overlook the two catastrophic world wars, especially the second there, it is hard to overlook fascism than the aftermath, the Cold War and Soviet totalitarianism there. Those aren’t just blips there that we can easily wash aside and say, apart from those, good century, those are things we really have to wrestle with there, and I think, again, the figures in my book aren’t going to say scientific progress or advancement isn’t real or material wellbeing having improved over time isn’t real, or standards and literacy, for instance, that’s a notable improvement there and something to acknowledge. What they would find problematic again, is some of the notion that there’s necessarily moral or political progress over time, that’s harder to…

Marian Tupy: Now, obviously, one of the biggest claims or one of the most controversial claims made by Steven Pinker in Better Angels Of Our Nature is that he argues for the long peace after the end of the second World War and the general decline of conflict, although I accept that that is a question of the last maybe seven decades and we need a longer time period to evaluate whether wars have indeed disappeared and all that, but he also points to things like the end of torture as a means of getting… Or rather as a means of processing witnesses at trials. He points to the end of child exposure, human sacrifice, wanton cruelty to animals like torturing cats just for fun, and he sort of sees the enlightenment, the 18th century, as the big flowering or maybe the genesis of this gentler, nicer humanity, what do you think about those arguments?

Matthew Slaboch: So some of those arguments are valid, but I think what you prefaced it with is something I would say as well, that we need a longer focus here. To say things have been going well for the past 70 years. Again, as you mentioned at the start, that’s no guarantee that the next 70 will continue on that trajectory. So if there has been improvement in terms of peace for the past 70 years, that’s no guarantee of what the next century will look like or anything like that, that would be one response there, and again, improvement on some of these moral things… Yes, treatment of animals, for instance, and the rise of humane societies that’s notable, but notable too is compared with previous century, something like factory farming as well, which wouldn’t have been possible to cram in chickens or cattle into tight spaces the same way is it’s possible to have these large factory farms now. So there’s always some sort of give and take, I would say not necessarily everything moving in an improved direction all at once, so it’s possible to make advances in one area while still making sacrifices or declining in another and I’d say we can see that with some sorts of these moral questions here on slavery, for instance.

Matthew Slaboch: Statistics, depending on your sources are going to say there are more slaves in the world now than there have been at any point in history, and that sort of slavery includes an expanded definition of slavery to include things like sexual slavery or people work, again, working tied to their employers but not receiving a wage. That sort of thing, again, some of the statistics point to slavery as being a phenomenon that even if made illegal, hasn’t been eradicated. So that would be my response on some of these.

Marian Tupy: Yeah. We are not going to get bogged down on this particular issue, although I note that that is an expandate definition of slavery. In other words, our success in largely eliminating chattel slavery has allowed us to create that as a new floor, and we judge everything that remains in contrast to that new floor rather than what it was. So we have expanded our definition of slavery, and that in itself, I would argue, is progress. But once again just to re-emphasize, we do agree that things can go terribly wrong and that there is no guarantee. Would you agree with me that optimism about the future, this idea of progress, originates during the Enlightenment, 18th century, in Western Europe, and that it is new in human history, and then that there is this backlash, especially from the German thinkers in the 19th century, to whom you devote a lot of time in your book? So I guess the question is why the backlash, and especially in Germany?

Matthew Slaboch: Okay, so I agree with the first part of that and less so with the second. I agree with the notion that the idea of progress really gains traction during the Enlightenment of Western Europe. And I think part of the reason for that is that if we consider when the Enlightenment is, it’s following on the heels of the Scientific Revolution and the great advances made during the 15th and 16th centuries there. So the notion comes to be if humans are capable of making such great strides forward in science and technology, why can’t we do that in other spheres of existence? So again, after the Scientific Revolution and those huge undeniable advances there, thinkers like Condorcet start to question, “Why just science and technology? Why not progress in morality and politics and art?” And that becomes the standard Enlightenment view, that, “Yeah, why not?” So the notion of progress really does take off in the Enlightenment.

Matthew Slaboch: As far as the backlash, I’d say the idea of progress still gains steam and runs around straight through the 19th century, there isn’t that strong a backlash. The 19th century in Germany is still… That’s the time of Hegel, that’s Hegel-mania, and Hegel definitely has a theory of progress. Is there critique of that idea? Yes. And you mentioned someone who plays a starring role in my book, and that’s Schopenhauer. But Schopenhauer doesn’t gain the prestige of Hegel. Schopenhauer, in his time, doesn’t really find much popular reception until near the end of his life in 1860. Why is there some popular reception of Schopenhauer then as opposed to earlier when he was writing? His master work was in 1818, so why is it only 1860 that he’s finding an audience? I think part of the reason for his reception comes from the failed revolutions of 1848 that swept across Europe. And so there is a sentiment of being dispirited that comes with those failed revolutions that makes a pessimistic philosophy like Schopenhauer’s potentially more appealing in a moment or a climate like that. But again, Schopenhauer in his day, or Nietzsche for that matter, doesn’t have the same influence as Hegel. So it’s still by and large a century that is putting emphasis on ideas of progress than… Even if there are some critics emerging…

Marian Tupy: Okay. That’s good to be corrected on that. You note that promoters of progress like Kant and Herder were cosmopolitans, but Fichte and Hegel were nationalist. So when and why progress stops being a sort of universalist idea and becomes infected with nationalism, and perhaps we can go further and say that it results in imperialism, racism and ultimately both fascism and communism. So what happens between Kant and Herder on the one hand, and let’s say Hegel and Fichte on the other.

Matthew Slaboch: Sure. So I think one of the things that changes is simply the face of Europe at the time that these various authors are writing. So if we consider, for instance, Fichte’s day, the time that Fichte is writing is a time when Napoleon has started his march across Europe and has succeeded in reorganizing a lot of the German-speaking areas of Europe, and Fichte is writing in response to this. He is worried that German culture will be lost and that French ideas will be imposed, French laws, French language, French everything will be imposed on German speakers. And Fichte is one of the major thinkers to put forward a nationalist idea for Germans, specifically talking about German national identity as being ethnolinguistic as opposed to civic or something else. And Fichte puts forward an idea of German-speaking city states, which are what exists at that time, uniting into one Germany. In Fichte’s day, there isn’t a Germany. There’s a Prussia, there’s a Bavaria, there’s a Baden, but there’s no Germany. Fichte is one of the proponents of the German-speaking city states uniting to form a Germany to better defend against influence from neighbors like the French.

Matthew Slaboch: So part of what we’re looking at here is just the historical context that nationalism is a modern feature, it’s something that is arising by and large in the 19th century. And the reasons for the rise in nationalism have to do… There are all sorts of explanations for the rise of nationalism, but it includes things like improved modes of transportation. If formerly distant towns are now connected by rail, then I as a German speaker can visit someone more distant and see that this other German speaker is like me, and now we have a connection that couldn’t have been imagined in the past. Improved literacy makes it possible for nationalist doctrines to be printed and circulated in periodicals or newspapers or things like that. So the rise of nationalism in the 19th century has all of these components here, so that’s something we need to consider.

Matthew Slaboch: Why the connection of nationalism and the idea of progress? Why Kant as a cosmopolitan and Fichte and Hegel not? I think part of the story that’s unfolding here and that unfolds in the 20th century as well is that people expecting progress, expecting improvement, being told that things should get better, when they don’t see that better, or if that improvement doesn’t come quickly enough, they turn to an entity that they hope will bring about that improvement, that progress, and that entity tends to be the government. And again, in the 19th century, that’s when we see a shift towards the nation state emerging as the type of government that exists. Before that, again, it’s city states or empire. 19th century, that’s when we really start to see the crystallization of nation states. And so I see… What you see with Fichte and with Hegel is an emphasis on the nation state as the guarantor of progress, as something that is to be used for positive good, to bring about improvements that aren’t coming quickly enough or haven’t yet been realized.

Marian Tupy: That’s interesting, I want to talk more about the connection between the large governments and progress a little later in the interview, but for now, I want to turn back to Schopenhauer. So people like Fichte and Hegel believed both in progress and also in the big and powerful nation state, whereas Schopenhauer denies both progress and the nation state. Is he the first anti-progress philosopher? And can you tell us a little more about his philosophy and his attitude to both the nation state and to progress?

Matthew Slaboch: Sure. So as far as being the first anti-progress philosopher, of course we discuss this earlier about the idea of progress gaining steam in the enlightenment era. So before that we have philosophers who have philosophies of history that make no mention of progress. So they’re not actively critiquing a notion of progress that has gained steam. So if we consider the stoic philosophers in the ancient world, for instance, Marcus Aurelius talks about history as just being the same story unfolding on the world stage and just the actors changing, so it’s the same dramas repeated over and over again, and just new people born to play those roles, but he’s not combating an existing ideology of progress.

Matthew Slaboch: And likewise, other classical thinkers have cyclical theories, but they’re not actively critiquing or combating a dominant narrative that is putting forth an idea of progress, if we want someone who is critiquing the idea of progress as it’s come about in the enlightenment we could look to someone like Rousseau for instance, who has a critique in a way of progress and thinks that there’s been maybe too much civilization and that it’s led to jealousies and envy and fighting that comes out from more complex emotions, more complicated economic development leads to rivalries. Rousseau has that sense of, critiquing some aspects of progress, but then again, he puts forward a notion that he thinks will bring about progress in the future, so he’s got a critique of the past and the present, while in the social contract, putting forward a vision for brighter days, better days.

Marian Tupy: And this would be the general will?

Matthew Slaboch: Yes, right. Yeah, yeah, yeah, so the social contract acting to fulfill the general will, and then things improving there when everyone is fairly getting what they should have been, better days ahead can come about. But Schopenhauer, I’d say is really the most prominent of thinkers who are giving a sustained critique of optimism or optimistic theories. He is the pessimist philosopher bar none if you Google pessimism, Schopenhauer is going to come into play here. So his philosophy, in a nut shell what is he talking about? Yes, he has a philosophy that is not optimistic, its pessimistic and its anti-status. So where does this philosophy come from? What’s at root here? Schopenhauer has notable affinities with Eastern philosophies, particularly Buddhism, and he’s probably the first date name Western philosopher to take seriously Eastern philosophies.

Matthew Slaboch: So the way that Schopenhauer characterizes the world is one of ceaseless striving and the philosophical term that he uses to describe what animates the world is, he repeatedly talks about the will and as examples of the will in the world, we can think of something like gravity, why do things fall down because the Will wills it, or magnetism. Why are things connected or attracted to each other? Because the will wills it. Human actions too he says are motivated by this, again, philosophical idea that he’s put forth. The will, so you can do something because you wish to do it, but Schopenhauer would say, “Well, why do you wish to do it? What is animating you,” so say you take a drink because you want to take a drink. Well, why do you feel that need to take a drink? What is motivating you? He says, “That’s the will.”

Matthew Slaboch: So anything that we do is just an instance of the will directing our actions there. And the will as he presents it, is something that can’t be satisfied. So we have a goal, we have a strive and we have a desire, and as soon as we meet that striving or desire or goal, we may be satisfied for a minute or two, then we get bored, and then strive for something else, a new desire pops up. So he would say, think of endeavors in your life, you meet one of them because you feel some sort of longing, you feel some sort of lack, but then when you’ve reached that goal, you don’t stay satisfied, it’s not happily ever after at that point it’s, “Oh, now I feel like I’m missing X as opposed to y.” And so you go after X and you get it, you’re satisfied for a moment, and then, “Oh, there’s something else that I’m missing.” And he says, life, this is the imagery that he puts forward, life is a pendulum that swings between pain and boredom, so the pain from wanting something that we don’t have, and then the boredom that sets in once we’ve achieved what we were after. That’s his philosophy.

Marian Tupy: I think that’s a profound observation in many ways, recently I finished writing a manuscript of my second book, which took eight to 14 hours a day, and when I finished suddenly… Well, I was happy for a moment, and then suddenly there was this void, this emptiness for like two days, “Oh my God, what I’m I going to do with all these hours?” Now, I was dis-abused of that very quickly because other responsibilities, kicked in, but I remember evaluating that feeling and sudden feeling of being lost, like, “What’s next?” So I get that. What I would say though, is that striving, even if you cannot reach, or rather ceaseless striving is always better if you can do it on a full stomach and in a nice apartment, and you’re generally healthy and you know you have access to good hospitals and things like that, does that in any way impact that criticism that Schopenhauer has or, it’s just not that important because the striving trumps everything.

Matthew Slaboch: I think, in the end the striving trumps everything and the improved material well-being, that’s something that he would grant there, that there has been improved material well-being. And certainly, he was happy enough to defend the livelihood that he’d made and the wealth that he had inherited and was someone who was against the Revolutions of 1848, in part, because he wanted to defend the wealth that he did have there. So, he’s someone who does value his abode there in the end and isn’t going to say, “No, it doesn’t matter to me.” But the ceaseless striving, the constant going after more and more, again, his philosophy is one that say, in the end, does that make you a better person? Does it really make you happier to keep doing more and more ’cause you’re never satisfied. The good apartment with the good view isn’t going to be the end of the story there. It’s going to be a fleeting sort of satisfaction but, it’s not real. It’s not lasting there. It’s not a permanent happiness there and that’s really what his philosophy is getting at, is that, despite these improvements, some of the problems that we face are just simply intractable in the end, that no amount of material well-being or improved technology is going to get around some of the problems that we face in life.

Marian Tupy: It’s very interesting what you said about Schopenhauer and revolution because when I see a lot of dissatisfaction in the United States and in other Western democracies and people screaming, “Burn down the system,” which is the equivalent of the revolution, people simply assume that out of the ashes of the old society, something better will inevitably emerge and there’s absolutely no guarantee of that because of law of entropy or whatever else. Things go bad in many more ways than they can get good and it was just very interesting to see that observation. Where does his anti-statism come in? But I take it he was not a libertarian.

Matthew Slaboch: He was not a libertarian. He was a monarchist and, to be fair, I’d say his critiques of optimism and his critiques of the state are better than his defense of monarchy. The defense of monarchy boils down to… He thinks people are idiots and doesn’t trust their judgment. He talks about trial by jury and dismisses that and he said something like, “I’d rather be governed by a lion than one of my fellow rats.” I think he borrows that from Voltaire. So, it’s not a particularly insightful or strong defense of monarchy but, he is a monarchist, but a monarchist who doesn’t, in the end, want the state or the sovereignty to that much in the end. He doesn’t want that monarch who has political power to use it for a lot more than providing defense or security there. The anti-statism is because he doesn’t think that forcing people to behave a certain way makes them more moral. He thinks that morality is a personal thing and so, a lot of Schopenhauer’s work is focused on ethics there.

Matthew Slaboch: And so, the state forbidding someone from doing something doesn’t necessarily change a person’s character or impulse in the end. He wants people to be more altruistic on their own, to be more upstanding, more moral on their own without having to be forced to do it. He also sees an overreaching state as not only ineffective in changing people’s morality or disposition but dangerous in the end. He thinks that state overreach can have serious ramifications and cause more problems than good. Their giving too much power to the state means that an entity can become all-controlling, all-consuming. He is someone who is worried about the march towards totalitarianism there. So, he wants, instead, individuals to figure out their moral well-being, what’s good for them and to act on that rather than some big entity, big state, big government telling them how to act and behave. Large state is both ineffective in the end and dangerous.

Matthew Slaboch: It can’t make real, sustained, lasting improvements in the areas of life that matter to Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer is someone who has values and does prioritize some things as more important than others, but he doesn’t see the state as something that can lead to lasting and permanent improvements, and instead sees it as something that if the state were to try to create lasting and permanent improvements, that’s dangerous, because there are problems of the moment and new problems pop up, so to believe that the state is capable of solving all problems that exist for the individual or society is simply misguided, they’re a recipe for people giving up too much of their personal autonomy in the hopes that this big Leviathan is capable of making their lives better.

Marian Tupy: So I guess there are echoes of this problem in today’s government efforts too to, for example, foster progressive education or proper eating and eating habits or behaviors. And yet, I believe in progress, and I also believe in small government. So where am I going wrong? What is this unavoidable connection between progress and big government?

Matthew Slaboch: Yeah, so I’d say you individually might not be going wrong, you might be internally consistent here and say, you believe in progress, you believe in further advancement and you also believe in limited government and you’re able to square those things. What I would say is, the problem isn’t in believing in those two things simultaneously, progress and smaller government. The problem might be for you in a generation or another generation following from the spread of the ideology of progress. It might have ramifications that are unforeseen at the moment, again, because if people are told to expect, and this is not how you’ve presented it at the get-go, you said progress isn’t guaranteed, it’s possible, but if what people hear is that progress should be expected, that tomorrow should be better than today, if they find that tomorrow isn’t better than today, or two days from now isn’t better than today was, they’ll wonder why. And they’ll start to ask, “Where is this progress that I was promised, where is this improvement that I was told I would see?”

Matthew Slaboch: So the danger comes in with, again, the idea of progress spreading, because people will become antsy or desperate if they are led to believe that they should see all sorts of improvements in their personal lives or in their societies, whether it’s at the city level or in their state or in their nation, if they don’t see those improvements, if they don’t feel that advancement, that’s when they might turn to bigger government as a possible remedy for what they think they are missing, what they think they’ve been promised and haven’t yet achieved. And that promise of ever better progress from the government was a way that, for instance, the totalitarian communist states of the 20th century legitimized themselves. And if I could, just a very brief quote from a Croatian writer.

Marian Tupy: Please go ahead.

Matthew Slaboch: Slavenka Drakulić from Café Europa, one of her better known pieces, she reflects on the Communist Party in Yugoslavia and how it justified itself. The word progress was always one of the key words in political speeches of my youth. Look what progress we have made from a poor peasant country, how many asphalt roads we have built, how many factories? You’re not starving any longer, your children go to school and have proper shoes, and everyone has electricity nowadays, isn’t that progress? And Communism brought you all that, and that is very much part of the rhetoric of Communist Party officials during the Communist period, to justify their endeavors in the name of progress there, industrialization in the name of progress, and if that’s done by using prison laborers, well, but we get the factories in the end, so, and the roads.

Marian Tupy: You can’t make a perfect society without breaking a few legs.

Matthew Slaboch: Right.

Marian Tupy: Right.

Matthew Slaboch: Yeah.

Marian Tupy: So I grew up under communism, and what I remember is something along the following lines. Looking back, it’s obvious that even under socialism, you could get spurts of growth, obviously, life in mid-1980 Czechoslovakia was better than in 1946 Czechoslovakia and all that thing. But what we did have was the example of Western Europe and the United States, which grew much faster and accomplished much more progress than we had, in other words, we had this comparison to make, and we could say communism sucks because our progress is only a fraction of what the western societies have accomplished, and I wonder if with the collapse of communism, people in the west don’t really have any way of comparing their progress to anything else. That we sort of see ourselves… We don’t have a relevant point of comparison. So, I wonder if some of that disappointment, and anxiety, and unhappiness that we see in the West is because we don’t have anybody relevant to compare ourselves to. We could be comparing ourselves to Venezuela, but we don’t because those people are far too different from us, and it could never happen here, right? But there isn’t really an alternative, so the dissatisfaction has to be generated or addressed from within, we turn on each other because there is no external enemy to compare ourselves with. Does that make any sense, what I just said?

Matthew Slaboch: Yeah, it does make sense there to say there was a time during the Cold War when westerners had a clear comparison there. A clear, “This is our way, this is the alternative, our way is better,” clearly. Not mass starvation, not empty shelves, not long lines for bread, those are comparisons that westerners would have been able to make during the Cold War. That imagery is harder to find now for the reasons that you spoke about.

Marian Tupy: In a sense, the only thing we can do is to compare the present life in the United States to the past life in the United States. And if you are uninterested in history, then you are not going to find a comparison of the United States in 2021 to 1950 particularly compelling. Similarly, if you are not interested in economics, you cannot identify the reasons why growth in the Western world today may be much more anemic than it was before. That maybe, some of the Vitalism of the economy we have lost precisely because the government has grown so large. So, in a sense, it brings back observations of Hayek, and Friedman, and the scholars of the classical-liberal school, which is that the bigger the government grows, the greater the retardation of economic growth, thereby leading to greater disappointment of people in terms of how much growth the economy can generate.

Marian Tupy: And it makes me think of Adam Smith’s famous quote when he said, “Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, than peace, easy taxes, and tolerable administration of justice; all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things.” Meaning, just a gradual improvement in the lives of individual people. And so I wonder if we can ever have that Smithian type of progress again, or whether the Western society unavoidably has to go down the route of ever-growing government, more promises, more disappointment, and more social strife. What do you think about that?

Matthew Slaboch: So, the quote you read there is an interesting one, and it has some broad connections to other political or moral theorists. And the formula that’s kind of presented there by Smith, of there being peace and then things that come from peace, like greater flourishing of various sorts, that’s something, for instance, that Thomas Hobbes put forth there when defending government and what its utility is. First, guarantee peace and then with peace can come the fruits of civilization that we all cherish, whether that’s literature or art or industry or material well-being, any of that is impossible without first there being a level of peace or security or stability there. The problem is, there’s always been the tension between the need for security on the one hand and the desire for liberty on the other.

Matthew Slaboch: How do you get the balance right, that is going to guarantee peace? That’s important, that’s necessary, without the state being overbearing and intruding too much on people’s lives. That’s a tricky tension there that has been difficult to reconcile in the end, and so I think there’s going to be a back and forth on that. But the other part of your formula there, the opulence part, that comes from stability or security for peace, that might be an instance where figures in my book would say, “Alright, even if we get the measure right, the balance right between Liberty on the one hand and security on the other, and bring about opulence. Is opulence the end of the story there? Is that in the end, most important?” And that goes back to someone like a Schopenhauer who’s going to say, “In spite of that improved material well-being, you’re still going to see striving, you’re still going to see dissatisfaction there.” And I think that’s a refrain that’s somewhat common to people. Talked about in my book here, that in spite of this…

Marian Tupy: Yeah, because…

Matthew Slaboch: There’s still going to be problems…

Marian Tupy: Yeah, you’re dealing…

Matthew Slaboch: Go ahead.

Marian Tupy: Yeah, you’re dealing with deeply rooted issues in the human psyche and the human nature. I mean, whenever I go out and give talks about human progress, I can give 70 trends of things improving. And the questions will invariably not focus on the improvement but will ask, “Ah, but what about that?” or “What about this?” And so the Q&A is always the same, which is, “Answer the problems that are on the horizon, don’t dwell on the successes of the past.” And that speaks to that human nature, which is fascinating. And once again, I think that the Schopenhauer discussion in the book is absolutely fabulous. But I want to switch now to Schopenhauer’s successors, Burckhardt and Nietzsche. When I was preparing for this interview, I noticed that Burckhardt is on the 1000 Franc note in Switzerland. So they do… They’re very proud of their native son, I take it.

Marian Tupy: So Burckhardt noted that history cannot stand variety, and he feared that in this progressive/all-powerful nation state future everything will be dead and colorless. And then Nietzsche observes that powerful governments have a repugnance of genius. So I want to ask you, is that the world that you think that we’ll live in, where we have no variety, where things are dead and colorless, where powerful governments have a repugnance of genius? Or is diversity everywhere, and we celebrate people like Musk and Jobs, Steve Jobs? In other words, maybe we should take your own personal view out of it and just focus on these German philosophers. If they came to the United States in 2021, would they see deadness and no variety or would they see diversity and vibrancy?

Matthew Slaboch: I think they would see deadness and what is commonly characterized as diversity. They would call… Or variety. They would call a superficial sort of variety or diversity. And they would see trends such that the world is becoming more diverse in all of the same ways, which is to say not diverse at all. So what do I mean by that? If you travel across the United States for instance, there’s a famous or infamous picture you can find on the Internet of a turnpike in Pennsylvania, and this image of this turnpike in Pennsylvania. So there’s a Shell gas station and a McDonald’s and a Wendy’s and I… Maybe a Lowe’s. And you look at that picture, and it could be at any stop in America. Because yes, there’s a variety, but it’s the same variety that you see at every city in the United States, it’s the same choices of chain restaurants that are popping up over and over and over again. And if we look at that on the world stage, it’s not just in the US, if you’re to turn to a country you mentioned here, your homeland, a trivia question for you that you’re… You can probably answer, “What’s the most popular fast food chain in the Czech Republic?”

Marian Tupy: I don’t know, but I assume it’s McDonald’s.

Matthew Slaboch: It’s not, it’s KFC.

Marian Tupy: Oh, is it?

Matthew Slaboch: There are KFCs all over Prague now, that have sprouted up in a country where I don’t think most people could identify where Kentucky is. Kentucky Fried Chicken is popping up everywhere. And I think for someone like Burckhardt or Nietzsche who valued aesthetics very much and valued distinctiveness, I think they would have a problem, for instance with there being a Starbucks next to the Jan Hus Memorial in Prague, I think that would be abhorrent to them. Or the Starbucks right on Prague Castle grounds. There are things that they would say, “These monuments or parts of culture shouldn’t be debased in such a way.” And to have something that is non-localized, that is just ubiquitous around the world as a Starbucks or a KFC as part of the landscape, Burckhardt and Nietzsche would, again, I think they’d be pretty appalled by that. Or for instance the loss of linguistic language variety, that’s something that is increasing over time. There’s a rapid clip of languages being lost to the world.

Matthew Slaboch: And the flip side of that is maybe that’s a good thing, that if we all speak the same language, then we don’t fight over language, because linguistic battles have been at the root of a lot of wars. But others are going to say, “No, there’s something valuable, there’s something meritorious in there being that sort of variety in the world, in there being… ” To use Switzerland, Burckhardt’s home, “To there being the existence of that very small language of Romansh being spoken there.” Now, not a lot of speakers, but it’s a language on the decline. There’s something valuable about having a smaller language like Romansh in the world.

Marian Tupy: Yeah.

Matthew Slaboch: Go ahead.

Marian Tupy: It also matters where you stand, or what is your perspective, where in the universe are you located to look at that Starbucks or that McDonald’s or that KFC. Because of course when I was growing in the mid-1980s, meat was a very rare commodity. You had to look long and hard for nice chicken and all that jazz. In other words for them, the variety has increased by importing the elements of Western capitalism such as KFC and McDonalds and that sort of thing, because they didn’t have it, I mean a perfect example of that would be when McDonald’s opened in Moscow in 1990 or 1991, there were lines for hours and hours. Because the Russians had never seen anything so beautiful as a McDonald’s in the dreary communist paradise, which they had created, not to mention that all the food which was served to the Russians in McDonalds had to be flown into Russia from the United States because they actually couldn’t produce the buns and the beef patties and the tomatoes and whatever else, in order to create that McDonalds.

Marian Tupy: So it very much matters where you stand and I wonder if this aesthetic stand that you described and that you associate with philosophers is really something unique, in other words, that Burckhardt and Nietzsche and Schopenhauer can [1:00:21.8] ____, these small… These expressions of commercialism precisely because their own heads and their own thought processes are elsewhere, they are thinking about aesthetics, they are thinking about linguistics, about philosophy, about the soul. And maybe the ordinary person, and I count myself among them, is satisfied with what we have, including KFC and McDonald’s. What do you think of that?

Matthew Slaboch: I think there’s something to that. So in social-scientific studies that make use of the world values surveys, which are conducted globally and measure people’s attitudes and behaviors on a variety of things related to religion, or politics, or belonging in clubs or organizations, economic considerations, any number of things. One of the results from these surveys has noted that as people have their material needs met, meaning if they’re doing sufficiently well off to have their stomachs full and have a solid roof over their heads, that’s when they turn their attention to other things like environmentalism or aesthetic endeavors and saving art or things like that. So the ordinary person, if he or she doesn’t have those basic needs met, doesn’t have a solid guarantee of income and food and shelter, they might not care about aesthetics or something like that. But I don’t think it’s purely a philosophical thing, I don’t think that’s too high and head’s in the clouds type of thinking to be concerned about art or something bigger than fast food and commodities there. I think it becomes possible again to be interested in things like aesthetics, when your basic needs are met.

Matthew Slaboch: And so, returning to the idea of progress here then, if humanity is moving in a direction where more and more people’s material needs are being met, then we might see a shift towards people caring as Burckhardt did and Schopenhauer and Nietzsche did about other things about artistic endeavors. And maybe it’s then possible to square things about having the fast food and the choice and the variety of meals, and also be concerned about artistic variety and the little ornate details that existed on buildings in the past, as opposed to being just kind of boxing structures here.

Marian Tupy: Or it could potentially lead to more conflict. Let me try to explain myself. So we are talking about Maslow’s pyramid here at the bottom, we have things like shelter, food, basic material needs, and right now people in the developing world are doing a very good job at meeting those at an increasing pace, and they will be moving up the pyramid, but in the West, we have met those basic needs some time ago, and we have moved up that pyramid, and what’s at the top? At the top of that pyramid are issues of self-expression, are issues of caring about the type of society that I want to live in, these are values, I forget the word now, but they’re about expression about social values and things like that. And once you reach that point, I wonder if that actually is going to result in more peace and more stability, or more instability and more conflict, because of course, we cannot agree on what a good society is, some of us have more risk aversion, some of us are more risk taking, some of us put greater emphasis on equality of outcome, others on equality before the law, some value Liberty, other people value stability, the church, family, whatever.

Marian Tupy: And so if you want to be really controversial, let me be controversial for a second, well, maybe capitalism by being so good at meeting those basic needs at the bottom results in people focusing more and more on these values on the top of the pyramid, where there is a massive amount of disagreement. And that in itself then leads toward greater explosion of disagreement and animosity. So capitalism could actually be the creator of its own destruction, by allowing people to spend a lot of time thinking about the sorts of things that Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Burckhardt did.

Matthew Slaboch: That’s possible too, that, once needs are met, once basic needs have been fulfilled, it’s possible to turn attention to other subjects, other areas of debate and those areas of debate might be on problems or disagreements that are fairly intractable. And we’ve seen such polarization in the US recently where you’re right, by and large we haven’t completely eradicated of course, hunger, but this is a prosperous society where shelter is something that’s common. And jobs are fairly, widely available. And income, though not guaranteed there are social safety nets, and we do have strife nevertheless, in spite of these very good things having been achieved here. So, and being controversial, I won’t say that you’re wrong there. I mean, I think we’re seeing elements that speak to the truth of what you’re saying here that people are fighting over things, in spite of having it good and having it good compared to maybe other times in history, and the politicization of everything. Now, I think that’s one of the things that the figures in my book would be aghast at, is a lot of them are anti political in the end, and to see so much politics and everything now, where there’s a Republican pillow company, and a Democrat pillow company, there’s something messed up with that there.

Marian Tupy: In a sense, the German philosophers have won, everything has become ethical and aesthetical. I don’t want to have Trump signs in my neighborhood, I don’t want to have Obama car stickers in my parking lot. When everything is politicized then having a powerful government is tremendously dangerous, because whichever faction gets hold of the government can then impose their own views of progress and a good society on everybody else. So in a sense, we go back to your most important sort of concern in your book, which is the power of government and its relationship to progress, that progress could potentially flourish, but it cannot have… When we have reached this top of the Maslow pyramid, and now we are debating about these different values. This is where a big government is at its most dangerous.

Matthew Slaboch: Yes, yeah. Absolutely. No other response there other than to say I agree and that I think that the major figures in my work would accept the way that you’ve characterized them and their fears here that, what they’re worried about is this notion of progress being abused, of states or governments or those who have political power doing things in the name of progress, justifying their actions because of their particular visions of progress, which might not be universally accepted visions of progress, but nevertheless, the government or those in power feel as if they need to move, again to use the language of the right side of history, that they understand the direction that society should go, and therefore they not only have the right to move society in that direction, but a duty to do it because they are so certain of what progress should look like, what the future should be that they feel that it’s legitimate to use state power and all the apparatuses that come with state power to reach the objective of whatever their vision of the future is.

Matthew Slaboch: That’s what the figures in my book are worried about there that, again, not critiquing actual progress, not critiquing improvements that have happened but critiquing the notion that tomorrow is definitely going to be better than today or that a decade from now should be better than this decade and governments coming along and saying, “Here we are, we’re here to help you and make the future better.” And in doing so, being heavy-handed and going down the road of totalitarianism there.

Marian Tupy: And also asserting that they know how to get there and what a good life should be. Maybe let’s conclude this conversation by me proposing that there is a… Well, it’s certainly not an original observation, but there is a split that emerges within the enlightenment. I would probably call it the Scottish versus the French, but maybe you would put it differently. But essentially the Scotts argued that in an atmosphere of freedom, which is the opposite of a big repressive government, people will try out different things and the better ways of doing things will sort of bubble up through the process of discovery then other people seeing that some folks are flourishing will adopt their innovations, be it political or economic, or just technical, medical, whatever. And that essentially progress is something that happens organically, that bubbles up from the bottom up through the desire of individual men and women to better themselves and their families.

Marian Tupy: And that’s a very different type of progress and a very different type of idea of progress and the directionality of progress, which is that there is no directionality. That’s very different from, let’s say the French idea of progress, which is we know that humanity can be molded into something better. We have an idea of what the better is, and now we are going to force everybody to basically comply with that. And we are going to force everybody to comply with an idea of progress and with the ultimate destination that we know what it is, and we know how to get there. Would you agree with that?

Matthew Slaboch: Yeah. So I’d say there is that split there between the more classical liberal view of progress and maybe some other views of progress that have a more socialist tint to them and see more of a place for the state to intervene to bring about progress. With the Scottish enlightenment view there, and that particular kind of classical liberal idea of progress. I’d say that that’s closer to something that the figures in my book would endorse that sort of view that is anti-statist, and that allows for trial and error in the way that you described. So one individual trying something out, and if others see that it has worked for them, for him or her, then others adopt that same practice and that’s a way of growing and improving there and fair enough.

Matthew Slaboch: The more pessimistic of my authors would say, that’s fine to allow that freedom by all means that should be encouraged there to let people see how they can meet their own challenges or how a local community can overcome its problems. And maybe provide a guide for other localities. But the more pessimistic thinkers would say, returning to your point about human nature, there might probably be some figure or party who comes along in the future who wants to assert his or her will, or their will and messes things up. The improvements are made and then there’s that retraction or debasement because some party or group nevertheless emerged due to some underlying discontent or problems in human nature that don’t allow for people to be totally satisfied with the improvements that have come. They would appreciate, the figures in my book, the more cautious attitude towards progress that you’ve given here rather than presenting it as a certainty in the end.

Matthew Slaboch: But I think they would still say rather than focusing on the future, rather than focusing on the notion that there will be improvement ahead, fix the problems of the day, focus on those. Focus on making things better for the moment and not pretending that the solution that you’ve introduced is a permanent one, or that you’ve found a permanent solution to problems that are intractable and that are going to arise again. And so they would just urge further caution to the enlightenment figures that you’ve mentioned. And Schopenhauer, for instance, had great respect for the Scottish enlightenment figures there, those were people he read. But the caution would be then again, to not present problem-solving as something that is permanent, we’re fixing problems of the moment. Good, do that, and maybe you focused on fixing the challenges of your locality, but then don’t pretend that what’s worked for you now and here will necessarily work when applied elsewhere and don’t impose your vision of improvement on other places. So these figures would still be worried then that because progress has come about in some places that where it has come about those who believe in the idea of ever-better might feel justified in imposing their view of how to bring them out further progress.

Marian Tupy: And that goes both at a national level in the way that I may force my own views of what is a better life on you.

Matthew Slaboch: Right.

Marian Tupy: Of course, I would never do it because I’m a libertarian and it can work also at a global level where the “More advanced” nations spread across the world, conquering other people and slaughtering them in order to force them to adopt the ways of progress.

Matthew Slaboch: Right.

Marian Tupy: So there is that danger. Well, I think this may be a good place of agreement that we can end on. And I just want to hold out your book once again, A Road to Nowhere: The Idea of Progress and Its Critics, by Matthew Slaboch. I enjoyed reading it very much and I loved your exposition of the German authors of the 19th century, the German philosophers. And I think that in spite of what it may seem like we are actually in agreement on a lot of things, including that there is no directionality to history. Including there is no guarantee that 10 years from now will be better than what it is now, and that it is up to every individual to try to make the best choices possible. Fix the problems of today rather than focusing on building some sort of an ideal future where a lot of people might not be particularly satisfied.

Matthew Slaboch: Right. Right. I think we’ve reached common ground in a lot of areas, too. I’m very glad to see that.

Marian L. Tupy is a senior fellow in the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity and editor of HumanProgress.org.

Matthew Slaboch is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Denison University and a postdoctoral research fellow at Princeton University.

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Michela Wrong: The Human Progress Podcast Ep. 11 Transcript