The Cult of Economic Progress Isn’t Always Progress

I always dismissed “people before profits.” It sounds reactionary, an economically ignorant slogan rather than anything meaningful. Hippies or “artists” living in the city on trust funds from suburban parents shout it at rallies. However, it deserves more than flippant disregard.

Uttered in a more nuanced light, it’s a commentary on progress. Or, as Orwell understood the definition of progress in The Road to Wigan Pier, “machine-worship.” The concept of progress reigns, omnipotent and unapproachable. It resides on the mountainside, sending new prophets with new stone tablets to lead the people to the promised land. It cannot tolerate questions. Why do we desire progress? The question answers itself. Progress is a means and an end, a self-completing circle.

That blinds us to nuance and societal evaluation.

We measure progress by economic growth, innovation, and mechanical advancement. Are we better off now than 30 years ago? Of course! Look at what I can do on my iPhone! We’re supposed to choose a job—sorry, “career”— based on one phrase: “do what you love.” Following that Nicolas Sparks-like cliche, we ignore the self-righteousness and privilege tied up in such a sentiment. Support a family by doing what you love? Work as pleasure, not work as necessity, is an absurd concept to some of our parents and grandparents. It ignores the struggles they had to create wealth. Doing what you love isn’t necessarily bad, but as career advice, it implicates us in the idea that we are defined by our work.

What is the end of progress, defined as economic advancement, industrialization, and mechanization? Orwell saw industrialization as reducing work to provide leisure, but making us soft and helpless as we advance toward “the paradise of little fat men.” Can we even reduce work? The line between “work” and “not work” is quite vague and individualistic. And, as Orwell noted, “man is not … a kind of walking stomach; he has also got a hand, an eye and a brain. Cease to use your hands, and you have lopped off a huge chunk of your consciousness.” When we reduce work for leisure, to what end shall we use leisure time? Vague progress threatens man with a looming atrophy by frustrating the need for effort and creation. Lacking a holistic conception of progress, the vulgar hedonist gains the mountain to guide the masses.

I’m not pessimistic about the future, but I am cynical about the fealty toward ill-defined “progress” that controls the populace. Caution should be exercised when we prefer Thursday over Wednesday because it is Thursday. Russell Kirk’s statement that “the conservative is concerned, first of all, with the regeneration of the spirit and character … upon which any life worth living is founded” helps splice what progress is. If progress is understood as improving the spirit and character of life, it goes beyond the economic, and we cede that it cannot be some united entity; it must be a complex interaction within society that ebbs and flows.

The atomic bomb represented scientific progress, but the ability to destroy hundreds of thousands of people, of communities, of economies, doesn’t establish much of an ethical understanding of life. “Can we?” gets divorced from “should we?” and we label anyone who dares question the advancement a troglodyte. We recognize the wisdom of Thomas Sowell’s “there are no solutions, only trade-offs,” but we refuse to entertain the idea when GDP increases 3 percent.