The Common Sense of Progress
NOVEMBER 01, 1960 by F. A. HAYEK
Reprinted from The Constitution of Liberty by F. A. Hayek by permission of The
Friedrich A. Hayek is an economic theorist of international reputation, perhaps best known for his 1944 classic, The Road to Serfdom. Formerly a professor at the
The Constitution of Liberty, his most recent book, analyzes the ethical foundations of a free society, the laws and institutions developed to secure individual liberty, and the modern welfare-state departures from freedom. The October FREEMAN carried an excerpt from the book, presenting the case for freedom. This essay, concerning progress, is from the third chapter.
If today in the
The range of what will be tried and later developed, the fund of experience that will become available to all, is greatly extended by the unequal distribution of present benefits; and the rate of advance will be greatly increased if the first steps are taken long before the majority can profit from them. Many of the improvements would indeed never become a possibility for all if they had not long before been available to some. If all had to wait for better things until they could be provided for all, that day would in many instances never come. Even the poorest today owe their relative material well-being to the results of past inequality.
In a progressive society as we know it, the comparatively wealthy are thus merely somewhat ahead of the rest in the material advantages which they enjoy. They are already living in a phase of evolution that the others have not yet reached. Poverty has, in consequence, become a relative, rather than an absolute, concept. This does not make it less bitter. Although in an advanced society the unsatisfied wants are usually no longer physical needs but the results of civilization, it is still true that at each stage some of the things most people desire can be provided only for a few and can be made accessible to all only by further progress.
Most of what we strive for are things we want because others already have them. Yet a progressive society, while it relies on this process of learning and imitation, recognizes the desires it creates only as a spur to further effort. It does not guarantee the results to everyone. It disregards the pain of unfulfilled desire aroused by the example of others. It appears cruel because it increases the desire of all in proportion as it increases its gifts to some. Yet so long as it remains a progressive society, some must lead, and the rest must follow.
The contention that in any phase of progress the rich, by experimenting with new styles of living not yet accessible to the poor, perform a necessary service without which the advance of the poor would be very much slower will appear to some as a piece of far-fetched and cynical apologetics. Yet a little reflection will show that it is fully valid and that a socialist society would in this respect have to imitate a free society.
Someone Has To Be First
It would be necessary in a planned economy (unless it could simply imitate the example of other more advanced societies) to designate individuals whose duty it would be to try out the latest advances long before they were made available to the rest. There is no way of making generally accessible new and still expensive ways of living except by their being initially practiced by some. It would not be enough if individuals were allowed to try out particular new things. These have their proper use and value only as an integral part of the general advance in which they are the next thing desired. In order to know which of the various new possibilities should be developed at each stage, how and when particular improvements ought to be fitted into the general advance, a planned society would have to provide for a whole class, or even a hierarchy of classes, which would always move some steps ahead of the rest.
The situation would then differ from that in a free society merely in the fact that the inequalities would be the result of design and that the selection of particular individuals or groups would be done by authority rather than by the impersonal process of the market and the accidents of birth and opportunity. It should be added that only those kinds of better living approved by authority would be permissible and that they would be provided only for those specially designated. But, in order for a planned society to achieve the same rate of advance as a free society, the degree of inequality that would have to prevail would not be very different.
How Much Inequality?
There is no practical measure of the degree of inequality that is desirable here. We do not wish, of course, to see the position of individuals determined by arbitrary decision or a privilege conferred by human will on particular persons. It is difficult to see however, in what sense it could ever be legitimate to say that any one person is too far ahead of the rest or that it would be harmful to society if the progress of some greatly outstripped that of others. There might be justification for saying this if there appeared great gaps in the scale of advance; but, as long as the graduation is more or less continuous and all the steps in the income pyramid are reasonably occupied, it can scarcely be denied that those lower down profit materially from the fact that others are ahead.
The objections spring from the misconception that those in the lead claim the right to something that otherwise would be available to the rest. This would be true if we thought in terms of a single redistribution of the fruits of past progress and not in terms of that continuous advance which our unequal society fosters. In the long run, the existence of groups ahead of the rest is clearly an advantage to those who are behind, in the same way that, if we could suddenly draw on the more advanced knowledge which some other men on a previously unknown continent or on another planet had gained under more favorable conditions, we would all profit greatly.
The problems of equality are difficult to discuss dispassionately when members of our own community are affected. They stand out more clearly when we consider them in their wider aspect, namely, the relation between rich and poor countries. We are then less apt to be misled by the conception that each member of any community has some natural right to a definite share of the income of his group. Although today most of the people of the world benefit from one another’s efforts, we certainly have no reason to consider the product of the world as the result of a unified effort of collective humanity.
Although the fact that the people of the West are today so far ahead of the others in wealth is in part the consequence of a greater accumulation of capital, it is mainly the result of their more effective utilization of knowledge. There can be little doubt that the prospect of the poorer, "undeveloped" countries reaching the present level of the West is very much better than it would have been, had the West not pulled so far ahead. Furthermore, it is better than it would have been, had some world authority, in the course of the rise of modern civilization, seen to it that no part pulled too far ahead of the rest and made sure at each step that the material benefits were distributed evenly throughout the world. If today some nations can in a few decades acquire a level of material comfort that took the West hundreds or thousands of years to achieve, is it not evident that their path has been made easier by the fact that the West was not forced to share its material achievements with the rest—that it was not held back but was able to move far in advance of the others?
Not only are the countries of the West richer because they have more advanced technological knowledge but they have more advanced technological knowledge because they are richer. And the free gift of the knowledge that has cost those in the lead much to achieve enables those who follow to reach the same level at a much smaller cost. Indeed, so long as some countries lead, all the others can follow, although the conditions for spontaneous progress may be absent in them. That even countries or groups which do not possess freedom can profit from many of its fruits is one of the reasons why the importance of freedom is not better understood.
Civilization Can Be Copied
For many parts of the world the advance of civilization has long been a derived affair, and, with modern communications, such countries need not lag very far behind, though most of the innovations may originate elsewhere.
How long has Soviet Russia or
It is worth remembering in this connection that what enables a country to lead in this world-wide development are its economically most advanced classes and that a country that deliberately levels such differences also abdicates its leading position—as the example of Great Britain so tragically shows. All classes there had profited from the fact that a rich class with old traditions had demanded products of a quality and taste unsurpassed elsewhere and that
A Fast Pace for Progress
If on an international scale even major inequalities may be of great assistance to the progress of all, can there be much doubt that the same is also true of such inequalities within a nation? Here, too, the over-all speed of advance will be increased by those who move fastest. Even if many fall behind at first, the cumulative effect of the preparation of the path will, before long, sufficiently facilitate their advance that they will be able to keep their place in the march. Members of a community containing many who are rich enjoy, in fact, a great advantage not available to those who, because they live in a poor country, do not profit from the capital and experience supplied by the rich; it is difficult to see, therefore, why this situation should justify a claim to a larger share for the individual.
It seems indeed generally to be the case that, after rapid progress has continued for some time, the cumulative advantage for those who follow is great enough to enable them to move faster than those who lead and that, in consequence, the long-drawn-out column of human progress tends to close up. The experience of the
Short-term Gain: Long-term Loss
Therefore, there must be two different ways of looking at the possibility of reducing inequality and abolishing poverty by deliberate redistribution—that is, from a long-term or a short-term point of view. At any given moment we could improve the position of the poorest by giving them what we took from the wealthy. But, while such an equalizing of the position in the column of progress would temporarily quicken the closing-up of the ranks, it would, before long, slow down the movement of the whole and in the long run hold back those in the rear.
Recent European experience strongly confirms this. The rapidity with which rich societies here have become static, if not stagnant, societies through egalitarian policies, while impoverished but highly competitive countries have become very dynamic and progressive, has been one of the most conspicuous features of the postwar period. The contrast in this respect between the advanced Welfare States of Great Britain and the Scandinavian countries, on the one hand, and countries like
It is curious that, while in the case of a primitive country every detached observer would probably recognize that its position offered little hope so long as its whole population was on the same low dead level and that the first condition for advance was that some should pull ahead of the others, few people are willing to admit the same of more advanced countries. Of course, a society in which only the politically privileged are allowed to rise, or where those who rise first gain political power and use it to keep the others down, would be no better than an egalitarian society. But all obstacles to the rise of some are, in the long run, obstacles to the rise of all; and they are no less harmful to the true interest of the multitude because they may gratify its momentary passions.
With respect to the advanced countries of the West it is sometimes contended that progress is too fast or too exclusively material. These two aspects are probably closely connected. Times of very rapid material progress have rarely been periods of great efflorescence of the arts, and both the greatest appreciation and the finest products of artistic and intellectual endeavor have often appeared when material progress has slackened. Neither western Europe of the nineteenth century nor the
This is, of course, only one and perhaps not even the most important aspect of rapid material progress that makes many of those who are in its van skeptical of its value. We must also admit that it is not certain whether most people want all or even most of the results of progress. For most of them it is an involuntary affair which, while bringing them much they strive for, also forces on them many changes they do not want at all. The individual does not have it in his power to choose to take part in progress or not; and always it not only brings new opportunities but deprives many of much they want, much that is dear and important to them. To some it may be sheer tragedy, and to all those who would prefer to live on the fruits of past progress and not take part in its future course, it may seem a curse rather than a blessing.
The World Is Not Static
There are, especially, in all countries and at all times groups that have reached a more or less stationary position, in which habits and ways of life have been settled for generations. These ways of life may suddenly be threatened by developments with which they have had nothing to do, and not only the members of such groups but often outsiders also will wish them to be preserved.
Many of the peasants of
Progress Requires Change
The changes to which such people must submit are part of the cost of progress, an illustration of the fact that not only the mass of men but, strictly speaking, every human being is led by the growth of civilization into a path that is not of his own choosing. If the majority were asked their opinions of all the changes involved in progress, they would probably want to prevent many of its necessary conditions and consequences and thus ultimately stop progress itself. And I have yet to learn of an instance when the deliberate vote of the majority (as distinguished from the decision of some governing elite) has decided on such sacrifices in the interest of a better future as is made by a free-market society. This does not mean, however, that the achievement of most things men actually want does not depend on the continuance of that progress which, if they could, they would probably stop by preventing the effects which do not meet with their immediate approval.
Not all the amenities that we can today provide for the few will sooner or later be available to all; with such amenities as personal services, it would be clearly impossible. They are among the advantages which the wealthy are deprived of by progress. But most of the gains of the few do, in the course of time, become available to the rest. Indeed, all our hopes for the reduction of present misery and poverty rest on this expectation. If we abandoned progress, we should also have to abandon all those social improvements that we now hope for. All the desired advances in education and health, the realization of our wish that at least a large proportion of the people should reach the goals for which they are striving, depend on the continuance of progress. ‘We have only to remember that to prevent progress at the top would soon prevent it all the way down, in order to see that this result is really the last thing we want.
We have so far concerned ourselves mainly with our own country or with those countries which we consider to be members of our own civilization. But we must take into account the fact that the consequences of past progress—namely, world-wide extension of rapid and easy communication of knowledge and ambitions—have largely deprived us of the choice as to whether or not we want continued rapid progress. The new fact in our present position that forces us to push on is that the accomplishments of our civilization have become the object of desire and envy of all the rest of the world.
Regardless of whether from some higher point of view our civilization is really better or not, we must recognize that its material results are demanded by practically all who have come to know them. Those people may not wish to adopt our entire civilization, but they certainly want to be able to pick and choose from it whatever suits them. We may regret, but cannot disregard, the fact that even where different civilizations are still preserved and dominate the lives of the majority, the leadership has fallen almost invariably into the hands of those who have gone furthest in adopting the knowledge and technology of Western civilization.
While superficially it may seem that two types of civilization are today competing for the allegiance of the people of the world, the fact is that the promise they offer to the masses, the advantages they hold out to them, are essentially the same. Though the free and the totalitarian countries both claim that their respective methods will provide more rapidly what those people want, the goal itself must seem to them the same. The chief difference is that only the totalitarians appear clearly to know how they want to achieve that result, while the free world has only its past achievements to show, being by its very nature unable to offer any detailed "plan" for further growth.
A Delicate Dilemma
But if the material achievements of our civilization have created ambitions in others, they have also given them a new power to destroy it if what they believe is their due is not given them. With the knowledge of possibilities spreading faster than the material benefits, a great part of the people of the world are today dissatisfied as never before and are determined to take what they regard as their rights. They believe as much and as mistakenly as the poor in any one country that their goal can be achieved by a redistribution of already existing wealth, and they have been confirmed in this belief by Western teaching. As their strength grows, they will become able to extort such a redistribution if the increase in wealth that progress produces is not fast enough. Yet a redistribution that slows down the rate of advance of those in the lead must bring about a situation in which even more of the next improvement will have to come from redistribution, since less will be provided by economic growth.
The aspirations of the great mass of the world’s population can today be satisfied only by rapid material progress. There can be little doubt that in their present mood a serious disappointment of their expectations would lead to grave international friction—indeed, it would probably lead to war. The peace of the world and, with it, civilization itself thus depend on continued progress at a fast rate. At this juncture we are therefore not only the creatures but the captives of progress; even if we wished to, we could not sit back and enjoy at leisure what we have achieved.
Our task must be to continue to lead, to move ahead along the path which so many more are trying to tread in our wake. At some future date when, after a long period of world-wide advance in material standards, the pipelines through which it spreads are so filled that, even when the vanguard slows down, those at the rear will for some time continue to move at an undiminished speed, we may again have it in our power to choose whether or not we want to go ahead at such a rate. But at this moment, when the greater part of mankind has only just awakened to the possibility of abolishing starvation, filth, and disease; when it has just been touched by the expanding wave of modern technology after centuries or millennia of relative stability; and as a first reaction has begun to increase in number at a frightening rate, even a small decline in our rate of advance might be fatal to us.
Alexis de Tocqueville
Nothing is more fertile in prodigies than the art of being free; but there is nothing more arduous than the apprenticeship of liberty….