Highlights on the Study of Progress, Part 4
Interesting New Ideas from the Roots of Progress Fellows
Below are selections from a fourth batch of fellows.
Jennifer’s beginning contribution is to compile a “Commonplace Book of Progress”—a set of quotations about the history and nature of progress.
Here is my favorite, because I hadn’t heard it before.
“My mother explained the magic of the washing machine the very first day. It was a miracle for my mother and me too. She said, “We have loaded the laundry. And now we can go to the library.” In went the laundry, and out came books. Thank you industrialization, thank you steel-mill, thank you power station, thank you chemical processing industry, for giving us the time to read books.” - Hans Rosling
The Financial Times just posted an interesting piece about the theory that we are “talking ourselves out of progress.” (More on that some other time.) If this is true, then we’re going to need to start promoting inspirational ideas that celebrate progress.
We have set up rules around environmental reviews, housing, and too many other topics, so that a tiny minority can stop nearly everything from moving forward….
Vetoes against new housing means fewer places for people to live. Housing costs price out low-income people and make living in successful places harder. Being locked out of these successful places also usually means being locked out of the best educational and job opportunities. So it’s a struggle for people to break out of poor situations.
In energy policy and environmental policy, endless reviews kill projects before they start. The key issue is that projects need to document every potential harm, or face a challenge. So they write longer and longer reports to justify their choices. If anything is left out, then almost anyone can bring a suit against the project.
This pairs well with a recent report in the New York Times about the crisis of construction in Britain.
Laws that give local planning authorities considerable power are blamed for Britain’s shortage of housing and blocking the construction of pylons needed to carry electricity from offshore wind farms. Residents’ objections to noisy construction and changes to the landscapes have been a stumbling block.
Planning and grid connections are the very basics on which everything else builds, Mr. Ruparel said. A functioning grid that delivers reliable low-cost energy and a planning system that allows all types of infrastructure to be built are “fundamental to having a productive economy and having a more efficient economy,” he added.
The United States is not far behind.
This connects to the work of another Progress fellow.
Ryan’s newsletter is called, which kind of sums it all up.
Ryan writes beautifully and clearly about zoning and housing issues, particularly in Austin, Texas, and the need for cities to say “yes.” But he writes particularly well about why we should care about these local issues and give them more attention than we do now in this era of hyper-nationalized politics.
Against a backdrop of foreign wars, a border crisis, persistent inflation, and the never-ending how-is-this-not-satire government-shutdown circus in Congress, local elections can seem like small beer. But as important as all those issues are, if you take a step back, how many of them have a direct impact on your day-to-day life?
President Biden has the power to launch a nuclear warhead, but he can’t find you childcare, or dispatch an ambulance, or cut your property taxes, or make it easier to build more housing. He can’t pick up the trash on your street or lower your utility bill. He can’t solve your city’s homelessness problem or make the buses run on time.
Joe Biden can’t pave your potholes.
Perhaps these issues seem trivial in the face of global catastrophes, but when you’re faced with real life-and-death emergencies—well, suddenly what’s important seems a little closer to home. Shouldn’t more people care about who we put in charge of the vital city functions that impact our everyday lives? Yet most of us focus more on elections where our vote is a rounding error and ignore the local races where, as Austin’s example shows, every vote counts.
Ryan makes a great case for localism, and it has inspired me to track down more information about the local politics in my home county, which is particularly difficult because it is a rural area with a low population and not much in the way of media to cover it. But that’s all the more reason to try, because if your vote counts for more in Austin elections than it does in national elections, it sure as heck counts for more when you are one of only a few thousand people—literally, this is the total number of votes in many races—who decide local elections in rural Central Virginia.
The issue of localism leads me to a piece by Elle Griffin, who takes this idea perhaps a bit too far, calling for us to entertain the idea of splitting the US into city-states.
For a long time, the city-state was our best and only form of government—Rome, Athens, Florence, and Venice became beacons of art and philosophy, of intellectual study and scientific progress….
We’ve talked about the benefits of self-governing US states, and that is perhaps the more practical entity, but if we narrow to the city we can see communities that could clearly decide for themselves how to live. And are there any who would rather the finer details of their lives be decided by a much larger (and more conflicted) government?...
There are many benefits to the larger polity, and we’ll talk about those in a future essay, but we have left the smaller polity behind in pursuit of it. The EU was perhaps the rare political entity that managed to unite smaller countries even as it maintained their sovereignty, but that balance strains beneath the weight of each new treaty it signs, taking ever more power from its countries as it consolidates them into a larger one.
I see no reason why both couldn’t exist—could we continue to unite for matters of war, currency, and economic trade, even as we separate for matters of life?
That’s what I would do. If I could re-imagine the United States I would divide it into “metropolitan areas,” rather than states. That’s already where our economies take place (90% of our GDP comes from metropolitan areas) and where our population lives (86% of our population lives in metropolitan areas), and I see no reason why the remaining rural populations couldn’t form their own much smaller metropolitan areas and govern themselves as they see fit.
Elle’s blog is devoted to trying reclaim “utopianism” and to entertaining ideas for how the future could be radically better. I like the spirit of that, and she asks some very interesting questions, even though I often disagree with her answers—mostly because I find them a little too utopian, in the bad sense of being impractical.
There are some narrowly practical problems with this particular idea of radical localism. She suggests elsewhere, for example, that states could be responsible for their own immigration policy. But so long as we have freedom of internal movement within the United States, immigration to one city or state is immigration to all the states. And freedom of internal movement and trade was a basic goal of our constitutional order, in an attempt to keep the states united and at peace with one another. The Founders knew that all of the examples Elle cites as successful city-states—Rome, Athens, Florence, Venice—had one other thing in common: They were constantly at war with their neighbors.
More deeply, the appeal of the small city-state is that it allows a greater degree of “unity” in values and lifestyle. But is that actually such a good thing? Unity seems appealing if you think all your neighbors want exactly the same thing you do. Not so much if they don’t.
My impression is that Elle wants to use this as an answer to current tensions between urban and rural voters and between left-leaning and right-leaning voters (which tends to track with urban versus rural). But I think she’s underestimating what is helpful about the way the current system counter-balances the values of interests of a diverse population.
Much as I like the idea of focusing more of our political energy on local politics, I think we also have to guard against what you might call “dark localism”: cases in which state and local governments are unified enough to enforce narrow prejudices and protect “peculiar institutions.” See an article I linked to a while back about Christian activists trying to use small towns located next to Texas highways to impose an interstate travel ban on women who might be seeking abortions. Is it good that these small towns can enact their own values—or would it be better if they were counterbalanced by the value and interests of people in the rest of the state, and the nation as a whole?
OK, I’ll get off my soap box now and just tell everyone, once again, to go read Federalist No. 10, where James Madison addresses this issue of a large republic versus a small one.
But like I said, this is an interesting question because it directs us to think about what should be dealt with on the national level versus the local level—and how the current system came to be how it is. In fact, my wider answer to this piece is that what Elle describes is to a large extent how things already work, including states and localities as the “laboratories of democracy,” and it’s certainly how they were supposed to work.
Another interesting angle on this debate comes from Grant Dever at his blog, where he makes a point I would like to see more often.
Grant calls for “Techno-Optimism for Townies.”
My best friends do not aspire to found billion dollar companies or perfect the application of a new technology and forever change the course of history. They have only ever thought about laws and regulations when confronted by a harsh reality in their personal lives. Red and blue lights dancing in their rear-view mirror. A letter from a busybody telling them that the new shed they built in their backyard is illegal. A vision of progress which describes a future of artificial general intelligence, cyborg immortality, and asteroid mining is alien to them.
Techno-optimists tend to talk in terms which inspire an existing and relatively small, yet powerful, base. But progress is not only for transhumanists who live in cities and spend their days and nights planning to colonize Mars. A better world is one where humans with a diverse set of preferences have greater opportunity to meet their needs and realize their dreams….
The future we should imagine and share is not all interplanetary spaceships, robots, and chaotic dynamism. That’s a part of it but it’s not the whole story. It will also be a world of broader prosperity and opportunity that's fueled by positive advancements in technology and policy. A world where there are many more ways for people to afford to live and to thrive. True progress will not only allow people to live in big cities and build spaceships but make it easier for people to buy a house in their home town and build a dynasty.
A lot of the discussion of futurism and “techno-optimism” tends to come from people who live in cities and work in high-tech fields. But for a pro-progress view to spread and prosper, it has to have something to offer that reaches across these rural versus urban, tech worker versus blue collar divides.
That’s most of the Progress fellows. I may have a few more to add, and I’ll be keeping track of what all of them write in the future—and I hope you will, too.