There seems to be a lot of talk about progress, or lack of it, at the end of each year. I tend to get caught up in this even though a year is far too short a period to measure the kind of progress that most interests me.
Two years ago I wrote a post entitled ‘What is progress?’ This was the first post I had written with the ‘progress’ label on it. At the time I intended to read several books and articles relating to the concept of progress and then to write something more definitive about the meaning and measurement of progress.
Since then I have read several books and articles about progress – from an historical perspective and looking towards the future – and have written 38 posts related in some way to the concept of progress. However, I don’t think I have written anything as definitive as my first post on this subject.
The main point I made in that first post about progress is that if progress is to have any meaning from a public policy perspective it must mean movement toward a good society or movement from a good society to a better society.
A fairly obvious response that might come to mind is that it could be just about as difficult to define what we mean by a good society as to define what we mean by progress. As things happened, however, I had just spent a few months in 2009 thinking about the characteristics of a good society.
I had reached the conclusion that just about everyone should be able to agree that a good society is good for its individual members. Such a society would enable its members to live together in peace. It would provide its members with opportunities to flourish. It would also provide its members with some security against threats to their flourishing. I had also come to the conclusion that these characteristics of a good society are measurable.
It follows, or so it seems to me, that the best way to measure progress is to bring together relevant indicators of the peacefulness of societies, opportunities for flourishing (including consideration of economic, environmental and social capital indicators) and security (including consideration of security against misfortunes such as ill health and unemployment).
The approach I am suggesting is similar to that followed by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) in its ‘Measure of AustralianProgress’ (MAP). The difference is that ABS offers a smorgasbord of social, economic and environmental indicators which could, in principle, cover everything that anyone has ever suggested might have some relevance to the question of whether life is getting better. I think attention should focus on indicators that nearly everyone would agree to be closely related to important characteristics of a good society.
I strongly support the ABS’s approach of recognizing that progress is multidimensional and refraining from any attempt to combine indicators into a single measure. It seems to me that so called ‘genuine’ progress indicators which reflect the value judgements of individual researchers relating to such matters as income distribution and environmental values are useless. The relative importance of progress in various dimensions must remain a matter for public discussion and judgement by individual citizens. If a collective judgement is required about the priority that should be given to various dimensions of progress, we have constitutional processes including elections and parliamentary processes to perform this task.
Since the combining of progress indicators must involve individual value judgements, why not just ask individuals to make an evaluation of their own lives (on a scale of 1 to 10), combine these evaluations in some way and use this as our measure of progress? There are several problems with measurement of subjective well-being in this way, as discussed elsewhere on this blog. As I see it the main one is in ensuring that respondents have an appropriate benchmark in mind for measuring progress when they make their evaluations. If you ask people to assess their own lives relative to ‘the best possible life’ as in the Gallup surveys, the results of successive surveys cannot provide a measure of progress because perceptions about ‘the best possible life’ can be expected to rise as a result of progress. If I am climbing a ladder that is attached to a helicopter, my height above sea level depends on the height of the helicopter as well as on my ability to climb the ladder.
So, I think our measurement of progress should focus on widely accepted criteria that are relevant to the question of whether we are making progress toward more peaceful societies that offer greater opportunities and more security. There is also a more fundamental question, however, of whether the institutional drivers of progress – for example, institutional factors leading to productivity improvements - are also moving in the right direction. Perhaps I should write more about that next year.