Knowledge and Progress

The ideal of Progressivism, so far as I can see, is the conceit that as human knowledge progresses governments can use this improved knowledge to govern society.

The assumptions behind this are all false.

  1. Knowledge does not necessarily progress. Physics might progress by jerks and starts, but governments are not run by physics. The humanities do not progress- no one has improved on Homer. Economics as a science is trapped in the same arguments as were had in the 19th century. Social “sciences” are anything but scientific.
  2. What constitutes progress is subjective. One man’s progress is another’s regress. For example, in the early 20th century it was considered quite progressive to ban the sale of alcohol and to surreptitiously sterilize Indians. Today, the belief that a person can change his gender by mutilating himself is considered progressive, while a century ago this would be seen as something like sympathetic magic, akin to manipulating reality with a Voodoo doll.
  3. Even if correct data exists, it is not actionable. No one in government can know if he has the knowledge to govern. They necessarily rely on third and fourth hand information, usually in the form of summarized white papers. The only way for a non-expert to decide if the information is trustworthy is to accept it on authority. This is generally an exercise in confirmation bias.

To bring up an old quote from Bernard Lonergan:

A civilization in decline digs its own grave with relentless consistency. It cannot be argued out of its self-destructive ways, for argument has a major theoretical premise, theoretical premises are asked to conform to matters of fact, and the facts in the situation produced by decline more and more are the absurdities that proceed from inattention, oversight, unreasonableness, and irresponsibility.

The short version: stupidity creates more stupidity. You can’t say “Hey, everyone stop being stupid” because they don’t have any way of knowing they are stupid. As they see it, they are quite correct. You can’t appeal to reality, because the reality their stupidity has created demands they be stupider still.



  1. And that’s why the solution is in the paternalist attitudes of yesteryear. When the BBC was created, it was meant to “guide” the public. And it did. No Kardashians, many documentaries.
    As much as I may complain about religion, there are certain good things about old-school Catholicism (minus the child rape, obviously)- just look at the sense of family and community that got Spain through the financial crisis. That was from Catholicism.
    Progress is/should be finding the best way forward. Not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    1. I would not say paternalist, that implies the people attempting to govern are smarter or more virtuous than the governed, which is not generally the case.

      1. …but there are smarter people in society- they just need to be listened to. We need better media scrutiny. Better scrutiny in general. Have you read about Rubio’s financial history? The repossession et al. And at one point people were voting for this man to preside the biggest power in the world. Seriously?

      2. Yeah but it just becomes a circular argument. How do you define smart? How do you know which smart people to listen to? Usually by reference to what the larger culture considers smart, which many in fact be quite stupid.

      3. Not if we measure results. If you get cancer are you going with chemo, homeopathy or animal sacrifice?

      4. Medicine is science. Politics is not, nor can it be, because there are such divergent goals involved. One person’s ideal political state is very different from another’s.

      5. except quality of healthcare, security and general living standards can be measured. Would you prefer to be a citizen of Norway or Somalia?
        That means we could take a more scientific approach- but we’re choosing not to.

      6. So if you took Norways laws and gave them to Somalia, would Somalia be like Norway?

      7. Not immediately. There would have to be a process of transition that would take time and money- that being said, Spain transitioned from dictatorship to democracy quite smoothly. And just look at post-war Germany. Progress can happen.

      8. Norway is Norway because it is full of Norwegians… that and the sea is full of oil. Stick them anywhere and give them a sea full of oil they will be alright. Stick Somalians in Norway (or Minnesota, next closest thing) and they sign up for ISIS.
        The U.S. constitution has been copied by plenty of countries. They don’t turn into America.
        Culture determines pretty much everything.

      9. Yes, but laws (and their proper enforcement) help shape culture. People don’t pay taxes in Greece because it’s possible not to. Try that in France and you’ll end paying double. That’s the why having good leaders is important. They’re the ones who can ensure the proper functioning of a system.

  2. And stop reading sectarian stuff. It’s not good for the mind. Your best voice is when you’re independently critical- like that comparison between the two conservative authors a little while ago.
    Read stuff like this:
    Boring on the surface, but brilliant when you can bridge it to real life.

    1. I’ve known that for a long time. One of the reasons I started the blog was to develop my own voice and not have other people think for me, but I always end up taking the easy way.

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