Steven Pinker’s aim in Enlightenment Now, The case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, is “to restate the ideals of the Enlightenment in the language and concepts of the 21st century” and to show that those ideals have worked to enhance human flourishing.
In response to one of Pinker’s earlier books I was prompted to consider whether Enlightenment humanism is the coherent world view that he claims it to be. In this book Pinker makes clear that he views “the ideals of the Enlightenment” to be synonymous with the open society and classical liberalism. He argues that four themes tie the ideas of the Enlightenment together: an insistence on applying reason to understand our world; use of the methods of science; humanism, defined in terms of a focus on the happiness of individuals rather than the glory of tribes, races, nations or religions; and the hope for progress through political institutions that are conducive to human flourishing. Pinker regards liberal democracy as “an Enlightenment-inspired institution” and “a precious achievement”.
In my view Pinker succeeds admirably in showing that for the last two and a half centuries application of those Enlightenment ideals has enhanced individual human flourishing. Much of the book is devoted to evidence of the massive progress that has been made in the quality of life enjoyed by people on this planet over that period. I recommend this book and Max Roser’s Our World in Data web site (the source of much of Pinker’s data) to anyone who needs reminding that ‘the good old days’ were not so great.
Turning to the future, Pinker is more of a hopeful realist than an optimist. He recognises that “the darker sides of human nature – tribalism, authoritarianism and magical thinking – aided by the Second Law of Thermodynamics” have potential to push us back. In an early chapter he points out that in a world governed by entropy and evolution, the default state of humankind is characterized by disease, poverty and violence. A large and growing proportion of humanity have been able to escape from the default state through ongoing adherence to the norms and institutions fostered by the Enlightenment.
As I see it, the prospects for further progress in human flourishing in the liberal democracies will be strongly influenced the effectiveness of this form of government in delivering economic policies conducive to ongoing productivity growth. Productivity growth will obviously be required if people continue to aspire to have higher disposable incomes, but it will also be required to generate the additional taxation revenue needed to prevent public debt spiralling out of control. That is because spending on social welfare programs – particularly health care and retirement benefits - is likely to rise as the proportion of elderly people rises. Resort to higher tax rates would be likely to have adverse effects on incentives to work, save and invest, and thus reduce productivity growth.
Pinker notes that with stronger safety nets in place, the poverty rate for elderly people in the United States has plunged since the 1960s and is now below that for younger people. However, generous safety nets have a down-side. People in the liberal democracies face traumatic adjustments in the years ahead if governments are unable to meet public expectations of ongoing funding of existing programs at current levels.
Pinker recognizes low productivity growth and “authoritarian populism” as potential threats to human progress but does not draw out the links between these threats. Most of the populists that he is concerned about do not strike me as being particularly authoritarian, in the sense of enforcing strict obedience to authority. Nevertheless, they are stasists, seeking to undermine the Enlightenment values that have enabled technological progress and international trade to contribute massively to human flourishing since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Pinker’s discussion of the recent causes of low productivity growth is adequate, as far as it goes, but he fails to emphasize the potential for additional damage to be done by populist politicians seeking to capitalise on fears of the disruptive impacts of globalisation and technological progress.
Pinker makes the important observation:
“A challenge for our era is how to foster an intellectual and political culture that is driven by reason rather than tribalism”.
He is scathing in his description of current electoral politics:
“Here the rules of the game are fiendishly designed to bring out the most irrational in people”.
In support of this assertion Pinker cites: the rational ignorance of voters; the bundling of disparate issues to appeal to a coalition of voters with geographic, racial, and ethnic constituencies; and media that “cover elections like horse races, and analyse issues by pitting ideological hacks against each other in screaming matches”. He notes:
“All these features steer people away from reasoned analysis and towards perfervid self-expression”.
Pinker’s suggests that for public discourse to become more rational, issues should be depoliticized as much as possible. His discussion of the ways in which issues become politicised and proposals for depoliticization of issues was covered in my last post on the benefits of listening to opposing viewpoints. His discussion ends by noting that the discovery of political tribalism as an “insidious form of irrationality” is “still fresh and largely unknown”. He appeals to readers:
“However long it takes, we must not let the existence of cognitive and emotional biases or the spasms of irrationality in the political arena to discourage us from the
Enlightenment ideal of relentlessly pursuing reason and truth”.
Enlightenment ideal of relentlessly pursuing reason and truth”.
Pinker may not sound particularly optimistic about the future of liberal democracy, but he may well be too optimistic. Unfortunately, in addition to the irrationality he discusses, we are also confronted by widespread failure to adhere to the norms of self-reliance and reciprocity that underpin liberal democracy. As explained by James Buchanan (see this post for the reference) failure of the liberal order is becoming increasingly likely as a higher proportion of the population becomes dependent on government and voters increasingly seek to use the political process to obtain benefits at the expense of others.
We seem to be heading toward what might be described as a democratic tragedy. As noted in an earlier post, when interest groups view the coercive power of the state as a common pool resource to be used for the benefits of their members, the adverse impact of tax and regulation on incentives for productive activity is likely to result in outcomes that will be detrimental for everyone. The incentives facing individual interest groups in that situation are similar to those facing users of common pool resources in the absence of norms of restraint.
Perhaps, as more people come to recognize that liberal democracy is confronted by deep problems, efforts will be made to reform political institutions to produce better outcomes. It is not obvious how that can be achieved, but we should not allow ignorance to prevent us from seeking solutions.
In my view Seven Pinker is on the right track in urging people to be hopeful:
“We will never have a perfect world, and it would be dangerous to seek one. But there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing”.