Progress Studies Exegesis

I’m not convinced anyone has actually read Stubborn Attachments. I’ve seen all your reviews [1], but they seem to be of a different book than the one I read.

Mason Hartman thinks the moral is to “find awe in a grand human tradition”. For Noah Smith, the tome “reads to me more like a manifesto for basic research and green technology.” Bryan Caplan urges us to “reject [Tyler’s] applied moral moderation.”

Again, I don’t know what book they were reading. For reference, here’s how it actually opens:

Or as Tyler summarizes:

The only non-growth–related values that will bind practical decisions are the absolute side constraints, or the inviolable human rights. In other words, the dual ideals of prosperity and liberty will be central to ethics… we have a relatively straightforward, exclusive (“worship no other gods”), and practicable formula of "Growth and Human Rights.

It’s one thing to write an interpretation with a personal slant, or to use a book review to peddle your own pet causes. But my sense is that readers have not only misinterpreted Stubborn Attachments, they’ve completely forgotten that it exists.

Most recently, when prominent Progress Studies community members were asked about the ethical basis for their work, I was shocked to see not a single mention of the book. Even Tyler Cowen himself, linking to their answers, makes no mention of his own work.

To me, the foundational importance of Stubborn Attachments to the Progress Studies movement has always felt obvious. But maybe that’s actually a fairly niche view. Maybe most people just engage with Progress Studies as an intellectual subculture without any particular normative force, and just ignore the fact that one of the movement’s founders had previously published a book about the ethical imperative of economic growth.

That would be pretty strange!

I think the obfuscation is much more justified than it initially appears, and driven by a series of non-trivial core tensions:

  1. The meta-ethical structure of Progress Studies
  2. Intentional semantic vagueness
  3. The mystery of human rights and individual liberty

Though none of these resolve cleanly, they do resolve well. In the end we’ll be rewarded with a clearer understanding of some foundational issues, and yes, an ethical basis for Progress Studies.

1. The meta-ethical structure of Progress Studies

In the cited thread, Patrick Collison responds:

My bias is that PS should be catholic (small c) rather than prescriptive in its ethical underpinnings.

Uncapitalized, catholicism just refers to universality, though a better definition in this case might be “all-inclusive”. Prescriptivism, meanwhile, refers to normative obligations, e.g. Progress as a thing to be valued for its own sake, or the pursuit of progress as a desired end.

One interpretation is that like economics, Progress Studies simply aims to be value neutral. Just as economics makes predictions about, say, the price of goods given supply chain disruptions, Progress Studies could make predictions about which interventions might resolve those disruptions, with no particular qualms about which goods are being distributed or about their inherent worth.

That’s a reasonable interpretation, except that it’s at odds with the seminal Progress Studies agenda which uses normative language throughout. Consider the phrasing:

  • “Progress Studies is closer to medicine than biology: The goal is to treat, not merely to understand.”
  • “the world would benefit from an organized effort to understand how we should identify and train brilliant young people…  and many other related issues besides.”
  • “viewed through the lens of Progress Studies, the implicit question is how scientists (or funders or evaluators of scientists) should be acting.”

Even the title itself “We Need a New Science of Progress” suggests some kind of imperative. Or at greater length and as explicit as can be:

We know that, to some readers, the word progress may sound too normative. However, it is the explicit bedrock upon which Vannevar Bush made his case for postwar funding of science… we must affirmatively make the case for the study of how to improve human well-being.

So the value-neutral interpretation of Progress Studies debunked, and the prescriptivism interpretation of Progress Studies outright denied, what are we left with?

If you take the time to read Stubborn Attachments, it’s fairly clear. As Patrick uses it, catholic doesn’t mean “in the service of all ethical frameworks”, but something closer to “dominant over all ethical frameworks”. As Tyler writes:

The truth is that economic growth is the only permanent path out of squalor… Even if you don’t regard material wealth as central to human well-being, economic growth brings many other values, including, for instance, much greater access to the arts and education…

The bottom line is this: the more rapidly growing economy will, at some point, bring about much higher levels of human well-being—and other plural values—on a consistent basis.

The point is not merely that a rising tide lifts all boats, but that it does so exponentially, such that trying to raise any one boat in particular (pursuing more narrowly conceived ethical values) is self-defeating. Even if economic growth correlates only weakly with plural ethical values, on a sufficiently long time-horizon, it is better to make an investment with compound interest than to engage in the moral equivalent of one-off consumption.

To answer the original question, the ethical basis for Progress Studies is any reasonable ethical theory at all. You can value whatever you want–beauty, utility, hedonic happiness–and it will still make sense for you to operate under the umbrella of Progress.

More prosaically, Progress Studies really is value neutral, it’s just that it’s so persuasive and powerful as a meta-ethical framework for promoting arbitrary values that figuring out how to do things better will always be the foundational question for your narrow aims.

Finally, you might object that the phrasing “reasonable ethical theory” is doing far too much work. Isn’t that assuming away approximately the entire debate? Not at all. From Tyler again:

Some rules, such as “never lie,” face embarrassing counterexamples if lying can bring about significant practical benefits in particular instances. But a rule of “maximize the rate of sustainable economic growth” does not face a comparable problem. By definition, the rule is telling us to follow outcomes with a preponderance of benefits over costs. So practical costs may overturn or modify some rules, but they will not limit the Principle of Growth.

2. Intentional semantic vagueness

Up to this point, I’ve been a bit duplicitous in equating what are basically different terms. Stubborn Attachments is about growth and wealth, but Progress Studies is about, well, progress. Those are similar in common usage, but within their respective specific contexts, refer to different ideas.

But which ideas exactly? It’s hard to say, and the task is made more difficult by the strategy of leaving both terms ambiguous.

Throughout Stubborn Attachments, Tyler insists that he’s not talking about “economic growth” as GDP exactly, but about Wealth Plus more generally:

The total amount of value produced over a certain time period. This includes the traditional measures of economic value found in GDP statistics, but also includes measures of leisure time, household production, and environmental amenities, as summed up in a relevant measure of wealth.

We can best understand this simply as including everything that’s good, and none of what’s bad.

But if you think that’s trite or trivial, you’re missing the point. Again, it’s intentionally vague. It’s not about any particular set of values, the point is simply to maximize the thing that is recursively-self improving, while also proxying for a broad set of plural ethical values, whatever that thing is. He calls it “economic growth” for shorthand, but it’s best understood through what it accomplishes.

As for Progress, its proponents contend that figuring out what it entails is precisely the issue at hand. As Patrick explains:

I hold strongly that “there is some basket of phenomena that we collectively designate ‘progress’ that is real, valuable, and tremendously important, and whose evolution is subject to human influence”; most everything else [is] less certain to me.

Again, it doesn’t really matter what “progress” is in particular. It’s again a definition through purpose. “Progress” is whatever is real, valuable, tremendously important and subject to human influence. Accordingly, “Progress Studies” is simply the field that attempts to understand, cultivate and promote that basket of goods.

3. The mystery of human rights and individual liberty

Up to this point, I’ve caricatured Stubborn Attachments as a book about the promotion of wealth over all else, but that’s not at all how Tyler frames it. Throughout, there’s another value lurking in the shadows:

  • “It sounds so simple: prosperity and individual liberty. Who could be opposed to that?”
  • “We need to develop a tougher, more dedicated, and indeed a more stubborn attachment to prosperity and freedom.”
  • “the dual ideals of prosperity and liberty will be central to ethics”


The only non-growth–related values that will bind practical decisions are the absolute side constraints, or the inviolable human rights. In other words, the dual ideals of prosperity and liberty will be central to ethics… we have a relatively straightforward, exclusive (“worship no other gods”), and practicable formula of “Growth and Human Rights.” [emphasis original]

Throughout the book, there really are only these two principles:

  • The Principle of Growth: We should maximize the rate of sustainable economic growth, defined in terms of a concept such as Wealth Plus.
  • The Principle of Growth Plus Rights: Inviolable human rights, where applicable, should constrain the quest for higher economic growth.

It’s not surprising that this second principle has been completely neglected in nearly every review. It’s inconvenient, nebulous, and in contrast to the succinct and overwhelming logic of the first, comes off as arbitrary.

As Vitalik critiques:

The weakest part though IMO was the defense of human rights. It felt very tacked on, as in “growth is good for reasons A, B and C, but oh by the way I like this thing too”, and didn’t really manage to present it as a complementary part of a coherent philosophy.

So how do we resolve the mystery? Why, in this concise, deliberate, and otherwise elegant philosophy, is there this weird side constraint?

The easiest explanation is that it’s a diversion intended to make the absolutist stance on growth more palatable. Hardcore utilitarians are always stuck with having to defend the view that some number of nearly imperceptible harms can somehow add up to being worse than intense torture, so Tyler just short-circuits that whole conversation and effectively says “look, don’t throw any of those stupid thought experiments my way.”

Alternatively, it’s Straussian. When Tyler says inelegantly that “only semi-absolute human rights will be strong enough to place any constraint on pursuing the benefits of a higher rate of sustainable economic growth”, he must really mean the opposite: “since there’s obviously no such a thing as semi-absolute rights, economic growth is necessarily unconstrained.”

Though tempting, neither of these explanations hold up to even the most basic authorial deference:

We need not defend such rules-based perspectives on the grounds that they are a highly practical “noble lie.” It is nice to see the practical benefits of rules recognized, but the noble lie approach is too cynical. It assumes that rules are philosophically weak to begin with when they are not. So rather than viewing belief in strict rules as a noble lie, view it as a very important noble truth.

It’s one thing to read beyond the literal text, quite another to read directly against it.

A more elegant synthesis is Milton Friedman’s. In this view, liberties are essential to growth, and should be seen as fundamental to the whole project of prosperity. Without liberty, we will not have prosperity, so we might as well opt for both.

That’s appealing, and would play nicely into both Tyler’s libertarian proclivities and known appreciation for Friedman in particular, but again isn’t quite sufficient. Promoting individual liberty in general is far weaker than placing a strict prohibition on all violations of rights.

It’s worth taking a moment to appreciate just how awkward that principle is. Some rights are inviolable? Really? Is it not a strong abuse against basic rights to keep someone in jail? Or to allow even a single murder? And isn’t economic growth, in expectation, perhaps the strongest guard against future rights violations? After all, as Tyler himself explains, wealthier countries tend to have more liberty, and the world as a whole historically became more prosperous and more free in tandem.

So seriously, what’s going on?

Even though it admittedly has the flavor of an asinine thought experiment, allow me to offer a simple scenario:

  • A population of 8 billion that grows at 2% for 100 years will become a population of 58 billion
  • A population of 8 billion that grows at 2.1% for 100 years will become a population of 64 billion
  • So a 0.1% increase to the population growth rate is “worth” around 6 billion lives
  • Therefore, we should happily sacrifice up to 5.9 billion lives to achieve a 0.1% increase in the growth rate

Again, sorry, it’s stupid. But it’s that same hyper-stylized form of argumentation that made the growth principle so compelling in the first place. So look, it’s not exactly true that the Growth Principle alone advocates for offering up 5.9 billion people at the altar, but it does excuse an awful lot of harm for seemingly tiny gains. The fundamental problem is that any theory which promises gigantic ethical gains, risks being used to justify nearly-equally gigantic harms.

And if we really do continue growing at an exponential rate, we also increase the risk of seeing harms of unprecedented scale.

To date, the largest anthropogenic disaster was World War II, which killed around 80 million people. That’s 3.5% of the then-extant 2.3 billion humans. Many of these deaths involved enormous suffering, including approximately 6 million Jews killed through “pogroms and mass shootings; by a policy of extermination through labor in concentration camps; and in gas chambers and gas vans”, 4.2 million Soviet citizens starved to death [2], and countless other war crimes.

Suppose we increase the population growth rate up to 2% a year, for the next 500 years. Were a travesty of similar relative magnitude to occur, it would inflict equivalent suffering on 5.5 trillion humans. We might further worry that the scope of maximally horrific events is not stable at 3.5% of the global population, but actually grows over time as we make “progress” on such fronts as surveillance, biological warfare and nuclear weapons. And sure, the population grows in tandem, but it is difficult to imagine a denominator of any size that makes this imagined mega-holocaust anything less than so repugnant as to poison any principle that enabled to its creation.

You might object that mass genocide is bad for GDP, and so the principle of stable growth alone is sufficient for avoiding these outcomes. That is a hopeful argument, but not one we should bet trillions of lives on. China is currently embarking on a genocide of over one million people. I’m not precisely sure what the CCP believes they’re getting out of this event, but presumably some combination of stability and intimidation that they believe is worth the cost.

Closer to home, we can consider the advent of American slavery as critical not only to our nation’s “original sin”, but also to our economic engine. As David Graeber once wrote, “It is the secret scandal of capitalism that at no point has it been organized primarily around free labor.”

This is all to say: the principle of growth alone does not ensure even the most basic of human rights. And so the defense of human rights is not an arbitrary side-constraint, but the keystone that allows the whole argument to work.

That’s as clear as I can make it, but it’s still not quite satisfying. And it’s definitely not elegant.

So here’s a final thought: Either you take moral intuitionism seriously, in which case human rights require no further elaboration, or you don’t, in which case the inelegance of a theory is no grounds for its dismissal.

Conclusion: On Authorial Intent and Straussian Reading

In his celebrated essay, Roland Barthes criticized the hermeneutic approach to literary theory:

We know that a text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God), but is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture.

And he explains, meaning is intersubjective, and thus deeply social. It is absurd to consider the text merely as the author’s own work, or as a scripture upon which they have ultimate authority. The high school essayist’s mandate to explain “what the author meant” is thus as useless as it is juvenile.

That was in 1967. Perhaps at the time, authors were more inscrutable, but things have since changed. These days, authors go on book tours. They give interviews. They are guests and hosts on numerous podcasts. Their writing is elucidated time and time again.

None of this contradicts Barthes’s more contextual approach, it simply renders it conspiratorial. Sure, the Iliad should be understood within its cultural landscape, but if your reading of Stubborn Attachments differs substantially from Tyler’s own living exegesis, something has likely gone wrong.

Unless, that is, the author is a Straussian. Within their tradition, authorship is necessarily duplicitous. A writer is not merely conveying ideas, they are doing so in a discriminatory fashion, sending one message to would-be censors, and another to inquisitive readers. Conspiratorial readings are thus more than justified, they are obligatory. The text itself becomes a red herring: the truth must be hidden elsewhere.

At greater length, here is Peter Thiel’s account of the art:

On an exoteric level, this historian will make a passionate defense of the state-sponsored view, but esoterically, between the lines, “he would write three or four sentences in that terse and lively style which is apt to arrest the attention of young men who love to think.” It would be enough for the attentive reader, but not enough for the invariably less intelligent government censors.

When I first read that passage, I was awestruck. I thought it must take a writer of great skill to succeed at such a feat. And yet, the truth is more mundane. It turns out that the art of Straussian writing isn’t difficult at all. If you’re Tyler Cowen, you can espouse over and over again in perfectly literal terms the virtues of prosperity, rights and individual liberty… and still no one will listen.

See Also:
The Moral Foundations of Progress

[1] Seriously, every review: Agnes Callard, Eli Dourado, Joshua M. Kim, Strange Loop Cannon, Michael, Coleman Hughes, Steven Lee, Stuart Whatley, Art Carden Gonzalo Schwarz, Noah Smith, Will Compernolle, Alex Zook, Luis Pedro Coelho, Robin Hanson (2), Scott Sumner (2), Sean Patrick Hughes, Vitalik Buterin, Arthur Johnston, Bryan Caplan, and Mason Hartman.

Of these, only Coleman Hughes seems to be describing the book I read.

[2] Presumably deaths are double-counted across these statistics, but still.

Thanks to Basil Halperin and Leopold Aschenbrenner for comments on an earlier draft.