Progress is never guaranteed

Published 8:22 pm Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Veterans Day 2018 marks 100 years since the end of World War I. Veterans Day was Armistice Day until America learned that we had not fought the war to end all wars. The Great War profoundly challenged the dominant ideology of the time, liberalism, with far-reaching consequences.

We now call the 19thCentury’s liberalism “classical liberalism” to distinguish it from the modern version. Classical liberalism provided the foundation for liberal democracy, and began with the premise that individuals’ happiness matters, not the fame and fortune of rulers. This was a radical idea; kings and emperors used people to build pyramids, fight wars, or otherwise serve them.

If individuals are not means to anyone’s ends, then their interactions should be voluntary. In economics, this means economic freedom and free markets. Adam Smith explained how many of our institutions – including money, business and language – arose spontaneously from voluntary interaction between people. John Locke and others extended voluntariness to government, maintaining that legitimate political leaders must serve the people, not the other way around.

And reason allows us to make sense of the world. Modern science emerged with the Enlightenment, and its application to production yielded the Industrial Revolution. Classical liberals were not against religion, but did care about well-being in this world. The application of reason over time would produce progress and civilization, not regression.

Liberalism dramatically improved the world. Economic historian Angus Maddison dates the takeoff of economic growth to England around 1700. For the first time in history, the average standard of living rose above subsistence. A dramatic increase in life expectancy and the diffusion of literacy and education followed.

Britain and America developed political institutions limiting government and ending authoritarian rule. Britain never abolished its monarchy, but Parliament slowly exercised power. In America, our constitution limited government.

The most explicit form of human servitude, slavery, was abolished in the 19thCentury. Classical liberalism led to recognition of the immorality of slavery and demands for its abolition. Equal rights were extended to women. Progress was regrettably slow, particularly for African-Americans following abolition, but these accomplishments must be evaluated relative to thousands of years of dismal history.

And then came World War I. The horrors of the Great War included trench warfare, disease, poison gas, and senseless slaughter. Nineteen thousand British soldiers were killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme to capture three square miles of territory from the Germans. The U.S. suffered 116,000 military deaths, double our losses in Vietnam, in one year of fighting.

Classical liberals saw international trade as an important means of maintaining peace. The saying, “When goods don’t cross borders, armies will,” captures the liberal view. Economic and cultural ties encourage recognition of our common humanity, making conflict less likely. And the potential disruption of trading relations during war creates political demands for peace. Yet Western Europe was highly integrated before World War I; not until the 1970s did its volume of international trade return to pre-1914 levels. Economic and cultural integration did not prevent war.

The Great War seriously challenged the classical liberal worldview. Civilized nations surely could never perpetrate or tolerate the horrors of the Western Front. The ensuing malaise, voiced by the writers of The Lost Generation, contributed to the rise of fascism and thus to World War II. Professors can debate whether classical liberalism can be reconciled with the War; the start of the war can be blamed on illiberal Austria, Serbia, and Russia. What I find more significant is that educated contemporaries in Europe and America, who were quite familiar with liberalism, interpreted the War as a refutation.

Progress has arguably resumed since the end of World War II. The incidence of extreme poverty across the world has fallen by more than half since 1990, and wars between nations have become less frequent. Hopefully progress will continue. But the Great War warns us that progress is never guaranteed.


Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.