I have previously expressed the view on this blog 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. The improvement of society can, of course, be referred to as ‘social progress’.
When I did an internet search on ‘social progress’, the second item listed was the United Nations Declaration on Social Progress and Development adopted in 1969. This Declaration stands in stark contrast to the resolution sponsored by Bhutan and adopted in July last year calling on Member States ‘to pursue public policy steps that would better capture the importance of pursuing happiness and well-being in development’.
As might be expected, the 1969 UN declaration begins by asserting the value of humans and the rights of everyone to enjoy the fruits of social progress. Without attempting to define social progress it then goes on to assert that social progress requires the ‘full utilization of human resources’ and giving everyone the ‘right to work’. The declaration then proclaims the importance of economic growth to social progress:
‘The rapid expansion of national income and wealth and their equitable distribution among all members of society are fundamental to all social progress, and they should therefore be in the forefront of the preoccupations of every State and Government’.
I guess the authors were trying to make the point that growth in productivity and technological progress are central to meeting the aspirations of people to improve their living standards. In the preamble to ‘Part II Objectives’ it is asserted that ‘progress and development shall aim at the continuous raising of the material and spiritual standards of living of all members of society’. The recognition of spiritual needs is interesting, but the authors gave no hint of what they meant by ‘spiritual standards of living’. Considered as a whole, the document has the appearance of having been drafted by economic planners to foster greater recognition of their own importance.
Perhaps I should view the UN Declaration on Social Progress as a product of its times and be glad that the UN has moved on. I can’t help feeling, however, that the wording of the document is particularly crass, even given views that were prevalent at the time the document was written.
If the authors had wanted to emphasize the aspirations that people have for improvement of their material living standards it would not have been hard for them to come up with an appropriate definition of social progress in those terms. For example, they could have written a definition, along the lines I have drafted below, based on words used by Ludwig von Mises, leader of the Austrian School of economic thought, in his book ‘Theory and History’, which was published in 1957:
Most humans want to live and to prolong their lives; they want to be healthy and to avoid sickness; they want to live comfortably and not to exist on the verge of starvation. Advance toward these goals means progress, the reverse means retrogression.
If the authors had set their sights a little higher they might even have been able to benefit from the thoughts of another famous Austrian economist, Friedrich Hayek:
‘In one sense, civilization is progress and progress is civilization. The preservation of the kind of civilization that we know depends on the operation of forces which, under favourable conditions, produce progress. If it is true that evolution does not always lead to better things, it is also true that without the forces which produce it, civilization and all we value – indeed almost all that distinguishes man from beast – would neither exist nor could long be maintained’ (‘Constitution of Liberty’, 1960, 39-40).
Hayek saw progress as a process of learning, the cumulative growth of knowledge which when achieved becomes available for the benefit of all. He wrote:
‘It is through this free gift of the knowledge acquired by the experiments of some members of society that general progress is made possible, that the achievements of those who have gone before facilitate the advance of those who follow’ (p 43).