Progress Studies: Tensions of the Liberal Order

This is a part of a series explaining the background, stakes and future of Progress Studies as I understand it. The previous post was A Question in Search of a Discipline. Fair warning: This post is not exactly my beliefs, but it is an earnest attempt to summarize the context of an ideological movement.

In the last year, bloggers have mastered the art of the post-covid rant [1]:

  • The elites have failed us
  • We need new institutions
  • This is a serious matter of life and death

Though it post-dates the coining of the term, this writing is fundamental to my understanding of Progress Studies. Until 2020, the easy rebuttal “why isn’t this just economic history” still had force. Today, it feels irrelevant. Whatever failed us in 2020 will fail us again tomorrow.

Collectively, these posts walk us through the last 12 months, viewed through the lens of crisis management.

As Milton Friedman put it, the promise of liberal capitalism is to put “freedom before equality”, and still “get a high degree of both”. And yet, throughout Covid, we’ve had neither liberty nor prosperity. Instead, liberalism has resulted in twin failures:

  • Authoritarian lockdowns and coercive quarantines dramatically outperformed voluntary social distancing. [2]
  • Our leading institutions failed, first to take Covid seriously, then to promote the use of masks, then to enable distribution of the vaccine. In fact, they worked actively against these causes. [3]

Perhaps worst of all, the US did not even perform well with regards to individual liberties. Though we were able to avoid truly coercive quarantines, we did deploy numerous lockdowns, shutdowns and curfews. And yet, as our Covid cases continue to rise, it appears that we’ve gotten the worst of both worlds.

These points present a serious crisis for the US. More broadly, they threaten the continued dominance of liberalism as our default political ideology.

As in all crises, these weaknesses have not been a discovery, so much as as the revelation of open secrets. In 1992, Fukuyama’s The End of History claimed:

with the ascendancy of Western liberal democracy… humanity has reached “not just … the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: That is, the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” [emphasis mine]

Of course, that is not what happened.

Since 1992, China’s (reported) GDP has grown 35x, from 0.4 trillion, up to 14 trillion today. During this same period, the US grew less than tenth as much (6.5 trillion to 21 trillion). China is now within spitting distance [4], yet rather than confront our impending slip into second place, we seem to be in denial. From Thiel:

I do think it’s interesting that the questions about China are being asked less often in the US today than they were a decade ago. In 2005, it was a very widespread question, in what year will China overtake the US? A decade later, it’s reasonable to think that it’s a decade closer to when this will happen. It’s a much less commonly asked question.

Meanwhile, the US has undertaken what Ben Thompson’s post calls “China-lite without any of the upside”. We won’t take authoritarian action to prevent a pandemic, but we will censor your speech [5]. It is not a coincidence that cultural limitations on free speech co-occur with broader institutional failures. If we were not so deeply in denial, we could at least properly acknowledge and take action against the latter.

Instead, we’ve gone through years of cancel culture by mob, now enshrined by our largest media companies as opaque, unilateral deplatforming. You could probably justify the coordinated ban of the US President, it is not so easy to justify Youtube’s ban on content that contradicts the WHO.

On one hand, the WHO is still ostensibly the world’s leading health organization. On the other hand, their highlights over the last 12 months include leading the charge against face masks, refusing to acknowledge the efficacy of Taiwan’s success, refusing to acknowledge Taiwan’s existence, and issuing the now regrettable claim:

"DON’T - talk about people “transmitting COVID-19” “infecting others” or “spreading the virus” as it implies intentional transmission & assigns blame [6]

Which alone might not sound so bad, had the Director-General not doubled down with:

The stigma, to be honest, is more dangerous than the virus itself. And let’s really underline that. Stigma is the most dangerous enemy. [emphasis mine]

Viewed in this light, our institutional failures and culture wars are intertwined. While the US was busy arguing about whether to vaccinate by age or occupation and how seriously to weigh racial equity, Israel went ahead and vaccinated 7 times as many people.

Note that this goes both ways! If the US were capable of vaccinating that many people in the first place, we would not have felt the need to waste time fighting for crumbs.

This all ends up presenting a serious ideological challenge, not just to our current crop of leaders, but to the institutions that put them there. As Alvaro writes:

if Carlsen is fake that also implicates every player who has played against him, every tournament organizer, and so on. The entire hierarchy comes into question. Even worse, imagine if it was revealed that Carlsen was a fake, but he still continued to be ranked #1 afterwards. So when I observe extreme credential-competence disparities in science or government bureaucracies, I begin to suspect the entire system.

How deep does the rot go? Is the problem the Director-General of the WHO? The entire organization? The liberal international order that legitimized them?

Progress Studies aims to find out, and cannot do so by relying on existing methods. Though its lack of established disciplinary base is a weakness, it is also a necessity.

In the next posts, I’ll look into what’s required to build a discipline from scratch, what we’ve tried so far, and where we ought to go next.

[1] Most recent in the series is Ben Thompson’s New Defaults. For the best of this genre, see Mark Lutter’s COVID Radicalized Me, Alvaro’s Are Experts Real? and Tanner Greer’s On Cultures that Build.

[2] China’s authoritarian lockdowns worked miraculously, even thought it was the epicenter of the pandemic and didn’t benefit from advance warning. The only sizable countries to perform similarly are either islands, South Korea (effectively an island), or Singapore (tiny city-state), both of which used coercive lockdowns.

[3] Failures on mask usage were not merely a matter of prioritizing supply for healthcare workers. US Surgeon General “STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus” and WHO: “There is no specific evidence to suggest that the wearing of masks by the mass population has any potential benefit. In fact, there’s some evidence to suggest the opposite in the misuse of wearing a mask properly or fitting it properly”. I am not sure how badly and unnecessarily FDA delayed vaccine rollout, but it was not 0 days. More details here.

[4] If you look at those numbers and take solace in the fact that we’re still 50% larger, Covid has not yet instilled in you a proper appreciation for exponential growth.

[5] I understand that the former is up to the federal government, while the latter is a question for private actors. Like I said, these are not really my views, but I don’t disavow them either.

[6] Surfaced via Mark Lutter’s aforementioned post.