Reflections on Studying Human Flourishing and Progress: Shared Challenges and Shared Potential
By: Gonzalo Schwarz
The quest for human progress and flourishing has always been at the center of civilization. People always seek to live better lives and provide a better life for their kids. In the process, they seek to live lives of meaning and aspire to fulfill their potential. Although societies are made up of heterogeneous individuals with different preferences, people reliably organize themselves in groups, communities, or nations in an effort to improve the status quo (progress).
As Nicholas Christakis reminds us in his book, Blueprint, we have many more things in common than we have things that differentiate us. The quest to live better and more meaningful lives and to provide a better life for future generations, especially our own children, is as strong a commonality as there exists in the world.
The American Dream, Economic Mobility, and Progress
This sentiment is at the core of what could be thought of as the vision statement for the United States, the American Dream. One of the best definition comes from by James Truslow Adams in his 1931 book The Epic of America continues to be one of the most widely used:
[The American Dream] is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man and woman, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement… It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.
Despite the intangible nature of the American Dream, in our current political and policy circles when anyone, be it an academic, journalist, or policymaker asks about its status, income mobility is the primary measurement discussed — a stylized fact, used to quantify the Dream. Income mobility is primarily measured in how many people surpass the income of their parents as adults. The American Dream, and human flourishing more broadly, is clearly about more than merely earning more than your parents — as opinion polls have shown. But, for good or ill, that is the key metric driving the conversation on social mobility at the moment.
When we discuss the American Dream (and economic mobility) in this way, we tend to focus on the richer part of the dream in isolation. But the other components are just as important in living a better and fuller life. While these latter aspects speak to a future that includes a higher level of personal material well being, they also refer to a future in which we have more access to better healthcare, more quality educational opportunities, and more innovation that facilitate improvements in day to day life beyond consumer goods and services. In essence, the dream is about aspiration, meaning, opportunity, progress, and not just material comfort alone. Human flourishing in its broadest sense. And it’s about everyone having a chance to climb the ladder of success, invent the next big thing, solve the next big problem, and feel like you’re a part of something greater than yourself while still maintaining a strong sense of personal agency.
When discussing the American Dream and economic mobility, we’re fundamentally talking about how individual choices, the socioeconomic and institutional environment, and other circumstances affect people and their families on a micro level. The fundamental question involves understanding how individuals and their families succeed and climb further up the income distribution (and what barriers might hinder that process). However, these individual decisions ultimately translate into macro trends, behaviors, and measurable outcomes that enable a more expansive discussion on societal progress. Understanding these trends at a macro level is an important step in enabling the kind of improvements that are ultimately utilized at the individual, familial, and community levels. This big picture thinking is exemplified in a recent call for action by Patrick Collison, founder of Stripe, and economist and author Tyler Cowen, who propose a new field and science of progress, which they call Progress Studies. They define it this way:
By “progress,” we mean the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past couple of centuries.” …
Progress Studies… would consider the problem as broadly as possible. It would study the successful people, organizations, institutions, policies, and cultures that have arisen to date, and it would attempt to concoct policies and prescriptions that would help improve our ability to generate useful progress in the future.
As the authors, and also Diane Coyle at Project Syndicate, note, there is plenty of scholarship on some of these issues, but too much of it happens in academic silos and is conducted “in a highly fragmented fashion and fails to directly confront some of the most important practical questions.” This challenge is very similar to what we find in the human flourishing/social mobility field and is a common trend highlighted to some degree, at least in economics, by Nobel Laureate Ronald Coase. In his article Saving Economics from the Economists he issues a stern warning about scholarship disconnected from the real world:
In the 20th century, economics consolidated as a profession; economists could afford to write exclusively for one another. And more importantly, it is time to re engage the severely impoverished field of economics with the economy. Market economies springing up in China, India, Africa, and elsewhere herald a new era of entrepreneurship, and with it unprecedented opportunities for economists to study how the market economy gains its resilience in societies with cultural, institutional, and organizational diversities. But knowledge will come only if economics can be reoriented to the study of man as he is and the economic system as it actually exists.
The Need For a Consensus
There is currently no consensus on the main barriers to achieving upward economic mobility or progress (as discussed by Collison and Cowen). Without such a consensus, policies that could lift barriers to mobility and opportunity will remain elusive. If there is no concerted effort to bring about this consensus by engaging in a holistic and multidisciplinary approach to these issues, there will continue to be unnecessary material poverty around the world and arbitrary barriers that stifle human potential.
In attempting to identify the barriers to increased economic mobility, scholars and policy influencers on the political left tend to focus more on income inequality, while those on the right tend to focus more on economic freedom. The current academic literature fails to address relevant structural issues, leaving many gaps in the research. Many of the those gaps arise from a landscape of siloed fields of study, where different disciplines are seldom brought into discussion. Some of the most important research lacks a firm theoretical framework or the desire to seek consilience with past literature. Additionally, too much scholarship focuses on technical policies that, like fighting inequality, are typically short-term “band-aid” solutions, like a Universal Basic Income, or housing vouchers, that are unlikely to address foundational barriers to mobility or improve it in meaningful and lasting ways.
A useful consensus would be a robust agreement in mainstream circles of academia, policy, and the media about the specific barriers to and the leading causes of more economic and social mobility. But, as Tyler Cowen has accurately noted, these two issues have been inappropriately lumped together:
Consider the two concepts positively: Income equality is about bridging the gap between the rich and the poor, while economic mobility is about elevating the poor as rapidly as possible. Finding ways to increase economic mobility should be our greater concern.
Social mobility is one way to understand human flourishing on an individual micro level, while progress might be understood as development at a macro level. Our working assumption and leading motivation at the Archbridge Institute is that the highest end for individuals is human flourishing and, at a societal level, its progress, both leading to the betterment of the human condition. Cowen and Collison discuss, their motivation is as follows:
An important distinction between our proposed Progress Studies and a lot of existing scholarship is that mere comprehension is not the goal. When anthropologists look at scientists, they’re trying to understand the species. But when viewed through the lens of Progress Studies, the implicit question is how scientists (or funders or evaluators of scientists) should be acting. The success of Progress Studies will come from its ability to identify effective progress-increasing interventions and the extent to which they are adopted by universities, funding agencies, philanthropists, entrepreneurs, policy makers, and other institutions. In that sense, Progress Studies is closer to medicine than biology: The goal is to treat, not merely to understand.
Innovation Is Key For Both Progress and Social Mobility
The fields of human flourishing, social mobility, and progress studies are highly complementary and share many of the same leading indicators, problems, and, potentially, solutions. Ideas and policies informing one issue can likely also inform the other. There are many areas where there are clear intersections between these fields as an overall bodies of work, both — within economics, but also, and more importantly, in the need to take a multidisciplinary approach.
As I’ve discussed elsewhere, there is an immense role for discussing structural factors within these debates. For example, on the economic mobility front, the data supports the assertion that better ecosystems for entrepreneurs enable both more economic mobility and less income inequality. Scandinavian countries are often touted as excelling in both of those categories. However, contrary to the clichéd accounts of high income tax rates and generous welfare systems as being the key to success on these fronts, the conclusion that these countries thrive because they have a vibrant environment for entrepreneurship, job creation, and innovation is just as compelling (if not even more so). All of these countries excel in international indices such as the Doing Business Index, the Global Competitiveness Index, and the Global Innovation Index.
It’s also no surprise that some of the best countries in the world in terms of progress, economic mobility, and high living standards have better institutions and less corruption — as evidenced by their top rankings in the Rule of Law Index. These indices and the indicators behind them provide a good starting point for some basic measurable and comparable aspects of economic and institutional order that should be important aspects of what a science of progress could study.
Another important, if often overlooked, aspect relevant to the economic mobility and inequality debate is the crucial importance of a culture of entrepreneurship and economic growth. Economic historians like Deirdre McCloskey and Joel Mokyr have done extensive research into the role of culture, rhetoric, and institutions in economic development. Their research contends that what preceded the great industrial revolution and gave way to our modern economy were institutional and cultural changes that affected how we viewed entrepreneurship, innovation, and value creation. Entrepreneurship, trade, and the commercial society have been around for thousands of years across the globe. The essence of what changed is our perception of how noble, virtuous, or dignified it was to engage in those vocations. Essentially, it was a change in rhetoric and culture that changed how we appreciated the role of entrepreneurship in society that brought about the industrial revolution. This shift enabled individuals to rise in status and climb the social and income ladders by being a merchant or a trader, which was suddenly seen as a sign of prestige and success. In the past, the most admired individuals were kings, public servants, or soldiers. This shift in cultural attitudes and perceptions could be an immense area of research and focus for both human flourishing and understanding progress.
These arguments date back to an essential lesson from the father of economics, Adam Smith. In his iconic treatise An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith presents the argument that the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market:
As it is the power of exchanging that gives occasion to the division of labour, so the extent of this division must always be limited by the extent of the market. When the market is very small, no person can have any encouragement to dedicate himself entirely to one employment.
Smith notes that this dynamic mostly depends on the size of the population and the riches of a country. Put simply, as Tyler Cowen discusses in his book Stubborn Attachments, “a larger market size supports a greater division of labor, which in turn makes the economy more productive.” This insight is important for both progress studies and social mobility. In terms of progress, if there are structures, institutions, and a culture in place that foster an expansion of markets and reverence for new ideas, this will lead to more innovation and further improvements in the standard of living as people discover new problems to solve and new opportunities to develop new products and services. In terms of mobility, a job is one of the main, if not the only, vehicles for people to climb the income ladder. More and bigger markets will lead to the creation of more jobs, more opportunities for people to explore their passions, and a wider set of options for potential career paths. This expansion will also lead to more fulfilling lives as people, who have a diverse range of personal aspirations, preferences, and skills, will be able to flourish as a result of the expanding set of options.
Diving deeper into the role of innovation in human flourishing and mobility, there are great examples of what innovation can mean for wellbeing. The book The Prosperity Paradox, by Clay Christensen, Efosa Ojomo and Karen Dillon, the authors discuss how market-creating innovations have lifted millions out of poverty and enabled more social mobility. This has been achieved by making day to day essential tasks easier and enabling the creation of many jobs and opportunities to climb up the income ladder. Sometimes that rise can happen in an extremely rapid fashion, depending on the specifics of the innovation. For example, the rise of tech companies creating entire new industries and improving efficiency in many others, liberated resources that were once devoted elsewhere, but also created new lines of jobs and enabled the rise of developers — an occupation that enabled a new generation to earn more income than their parents (in many cases), increasing their social mobility.
In a Ted talk viewed more than 3 million times, the late physician Hans Rosling discusses the power of the washing machine and how it enabled mothers and women to free their time to dedicate themselves to their kids, to work and bring a second income to the household, and to just free themselves from the hours of work per week required by doing them by hand. With mothers now able to read to their kids and engage with them more, they were also able to add more value to society and to their kids directly. Nobel Laureate James Heckman’s pioneering work on human flourishing and early childhood education clearly shows the immense positive impact of parental engagement and family structure in early childhood education, which is itself a leading factor in the development of both cognitive and non cognitive skills, which lead to more social mobility later in life.
In our policy conversations, neither side has the right questions in mind. The left focuses too much on inequality which, in and of itself, is nothing more than a statistical measurement that, at best, can alert us to potential barriers standing in the way of the poor being able to climb up the income ladder. And the right focuses too much on economic freedom and liberty as an end itself, and not enough on how it is a means to enable human flourishing.
Increasing human flourishing and reaching our fullest human potential will be achieved when we’re able to reach a rigorous multidisciplinary consensus on what drives progress, understand how people and nations escape poverty, and what the main barriers to social mobility consist of. The synergies among these areas are key to building a robust, anti-fragile policy agenda for the 21st century and centuries to come. Progress and mobility studies share similar challenges but also potential. Both are keys to solving some of the world’s biggest challenges.
Gonzalo Schwarz is the Founder and CEO of the Archbridge Institute, a Washington, D.C. based public policy think tank focused on removing barriers to human flourishing.