Progress Is Difference


Progress is difference. So wrote Herbert Spencer, the great English philosopher, scientist, and defender of individual liberty a century ago. Spencer’s insight is simple—one might even say obvious—yet profound. He lived in an age, as do we, which took progress for granted, and very few people ever stop to analyze the essential nature of that which is taken for granted. Spencer did. What he is telling us is that if people are not at liberty to try something different, something out of the ordinary, if they have always to follow the traditional or approved course of action, then we would never discover any improvements at all.

Without difference, our products, services, and institutions would never have advanced beyond the level of our most primitive ancestors. Indeed, Spencer would point out, the physical advancement of the human species itself from a comparatively small-brained, ape-like creature to its present state has come about entirely due to the beneficial effect of differences. Changes which improved our chances for survival were incorporated; those which did not were selected against. That is the way natural selection works.

Unfortunately, as I said before, we live in an age which has seen so much progress that progress has come to be taken for granted. The danger in this is that we seem to be losing sight of the fact that progress is not a dependable, eternal given like the sun rising in the east. For there to be progress, there must be freedom to try new approaches. This explains why the communist bloc nations have such low standards of living and never invent anything which is useful to man in his striving to live his life comfortably. Under tightly controlled and centrally planned societies, deviations from the standard are not permitted. Unwittingly (in most cases), the advocates of increased government ownership and regulation (which is de facto ownership) are taking us down this same path. The leftist intellectual fad of governmentally- enforced standards would put the creativity of human beings in a strait jacket. It would stamp out progress.

Differences Outlawed

Several examples will help to confirm the continuing relevance of Mr. Spencer’s observation on the need for liberty to be different. Consider first the phenomenon of building codes. One finds them in virtually every locality; they tell the builder in minute detail how he must construct his building. The reason given for the enactment of such laws is that they protect the purchaser or any other occupier of space in a building against its collapse or other mishap due to the employment of improper methods or materials. To accomplish this objective, which could be achieved without any coercion through contracts and the invocation of tort law when necessary, the government sets up a standard. Failure to comply in any respect with this standard gives the building inspector the power to forbid further work on or use of the structure until the violation has been remedied.

Most people think this entirely good and proper. Protection against hazards always sounds beneficial, but we must look not only at what is seen, but also at what is unseen. As Bruce Cooley writes:

What (building codes) actually do is “protect” the consumer from any construction practice, faulty or not, which differs from those spelled out in the building codes. And in the process they make housing more expensive. One veteran builder, Sol Sylvan of Kennewick, Washington, puts it this way, “[the codes] tend to become treated by the officials who enforce them as religious dogma.” This, he argues, limits the introduction of innovations in building materials and designs.[1] (Emphasis mine.)

Thus, by prohibiting differences in building, we prohibit the use of human ingenuity which could lead to better and less costly housing. As with all regulation by government, imposing conformity in order to prevent some harmful acts serves to filter out a large number of beneficial but nonconforming acts.

Another illustration of how prohibiting difference gets in the way of progress can be seen in the regulation of railroads in the United States. That the railroads have been regulated almost to death is well known. Here is a specific example. The Federal Railroad Administration is a part of the Department of Transportation. Among other duties, the FRA oversees railroad safety, and therefore has the power to approve or forbid the use of advanced railroad technology.

In 1976, the Bi-Modal Corporation, of Greenwich, Connecticut, began development of a vehicle which could be either pulled as a truck trailer or as a freight car, depending upon whether its inflatable tires or railroad wheels were down. Bi-Modal named its creation the “Road-Railer.” The advantages of the RoadRailer are obvious: compared with the standard “piggyback” train (trailers riding atop flatcars), RoadRailer trains reduce weight and wind resistance, thus conserving fuel. When tested, RoadRailers passed the stress tests of the Association of American Railroads.

But then the FRA entered the picture. The safety tests and potential cost savings did not matter in the least to the bureaucrats. They refused to approve the RoadRailer. Why? The official line went as follows: All railroad equipment must conform to the specifications of the Rail Safety Act, passed in 1893 and last amended in 1910. Since the Rail Safety Act was passed before the invention of the RoadRailer, the latter could not possibly meet the requirements. Unofficially, the reason for disapproval may well have been pressure from existing equipment suppliers who feared loss of business to the RoadRailer, perhaps combined with the usual animosity which bureaucrats have for the entrepreneur.

Eventually, the FRA’s obstructionism was by-passed. A special act of Congress amended the Rail Safety Act to permit the employment of the RoadRailer. However, the Government’s hostility to difference delayed its introduction by two years, and the FRA’s aversion to innovation—progress—in railroad technology remains as strong as ever.[2]

Medical Education Controlled

A third example of this phenomenon of governmentally-imposed conformity stifling progress is found in education, specifically medical education. At one time, medical schools were completely free of state regulation. The focus was on the output of the school, namely the competence of the physician, rather than upon the school’s curriculum.

All of this changed after the famous Flexner Report of 1910. This most unscientific study found many of the medical schools in the United States to be “substandard.” When the state legislators heard about this alleged problem, they swiftly set about remedying it. How? By estab lishing standards recommended by the American Medical Association. The AMA’s interest in the matter is not difficult to see. Fewer medical schools and longer, more expensive training periods mean less competition, hence higher earnings for those in the profession. Of course, the rationale presented to the public was that the standardization of medical education was for their protection.

What effect did this have on medical education in the United States? By now, it should be easy to predict the answer. With the imposition of rigid specifications, medical schools became hidebound and conservative. As Professor Reuben Kessel states, “There was a hiatus of over forty years in the search for better curricula and training methods, and in the utilization of the talents of scientists outside of medical schools for the training of physicians.”[3]

Innovations—in anything—most often come from newcomers to the field who must do something different in order to compete with those already established in the field. But government standards prevented this in medicine. Any new school which dared to deviate from the orthodoxy risked loss of certification. Progress was arrested for over forty years, as Professor Kessel points out.[4]

The cult of standardization enforced by the power of the government has become deeply entrenched in the United States. Examples such as those discussed above could be multiplied almost endlessly. There is no need for that, though, as the principle at work here should be quite clear. Progress is impossible unless people are free to be different. This is an inescapable reality, and it applies to every aspect of human existence.

Those people who clamor for more control and regulation of our lives are necessarily advocating an end to experimentation and innovation. We owe our present lofty standard of living to the large measure of freedom enjoyed by our ancestors, and if we are to overcome the problems which now beset us, we too must have the liberty to use our greatest asset—ingenuity. The world is far from perfect. Progress is a necessity. And progress we will have, as long as people are free to be different.

1.   "The Shortage in Housing,” Libertarian Review, August, 1981, p. 39.

2.   For the complete story of the RoadRailer, see William D. Burt’s article, “The Plot to Take Over America’s Railroads” in Reason, March, 1981, pp. 20-28.

3.   Reuben Kessel, “The AMA and the Supply of Physicians,” Law and Contemporary Prob lems, Spring 1970, p. 270.

4.   For a fine discussion of the entire spectrum of problems caused by governmental regulation of medicine, see John C. Goodman, The Regulation of Medicine: Is the Price Too High?, Cato Institute, 1980.

George Leef is assistant professor of economics, Northwood Institute, Midland, Michigan.


December 1981



George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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