Front Page Titles (by Subject) Progress in Economics - Literature of Liberty, January/March 1979, vol. 2, No. 1
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
Progress in Economics - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, January/March 1979, vol. 2, No. 1 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
This work is copyrighted by the Institute for Humane Studies, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, and is put online with their permission.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Progress in Economics
“Progress in Economic Life.” In Trial and Error and the Idea of Progress. LaSalle, Illinois and London: Open Court, 1978, pp. 123–156.
Thomas S. Kuhn alleged that our notion of progress correlates with science but this leaves “progress” unexplained. To attribute progress to science is straightforward because it is oriented toward an accepted end of greater ability to predict the observed universe. “Progress” is only intelligible in terms of aims, and wherever those aims are agreed upon (e.g., in science, but also in games, say golf), progress is most readily ascribable.
Attributing progress to a society is difficult, however, because of its members' unshared or changing aims. General progress can be claimed when advancement occurs toward one objective that most members of a society share; or a group can be said to make progress if its members, pursuing individual objectives, simultaneously approach them. The second kind of progress is possible (except in cases of coincidence) only if individuals' aims are self-referring, or do not require that others fulfill some objective. We can in this sense speak of collective progress. However, progress must be evaluated with respect to individual aims. Then, if only some but not all members of a group “progress” (in achieving their individual aims), there will be no common scale—because no common objective—enabling us to judge that the advance of some compensates for the regress of others (contra the utilitarians).
Individuals have personal, and disparate, economic aims. A society's economic progress amounts to most members advancing toward those aims. Self-referring economic aims tend to be comparative (a better house, a more efficient car) and thus achievable simultaneously by many individuals (since total wealth is not fixed).
As scientists improve their predictive power over nature by testing models and selecting better alternatives, business people improve consumer satisfaction by testing new and better products and processes in the market, where consumer preference is the ultimate test. In a market situation, individual competitive proposals and elimination of inadequacy thus increase consumer satisfaction. Such a system also allows for the pursuit of nonmaterial ends because it demands fewer resources for self-sufficiency.
Some claim that centrally directed economies eliminate waste and inefficiency implied in the market economy's testing of alternatives. But just as in science, only comparative testing shows which theory to prefer (so the scientist must “waste” time and resources on a later-to-be-rejected theory), so with economic goods, processes, and resource allocation: only testing shows which is preferable. To eliminate “wastage” is to eliminate the possibility of progress.
Some object that the market system emphasizes self-seeking. But the system does not generate ends; it merely excels at allowing pursuit of particular ends, whether individual or social, material or nonmaterial.
The market system is morally neutral since it allocates rewards on the basis of economic, not moral, worth. Some criticize this as unfair, but any attempt to impose moral ends on the economic system means frustrating some individuals from fulfilling their economic ends. Since ideological aims in the economic sphere are not self-referring, they cannot be pursued without disappointing personal aims. This frustrates consumer satisfaction and the fulfillment of noneconomic as well as individual objectives.
Autonomy refers to the individual's capacity and freedom to be psychologically, morally, and socially self-governing. It encompasses self-esteem, self-awareness, self-acceptance, self-responsibility, and self-assertion—values difficult to achieve and sustain. What further complicates or impedes the demanding exercise of personal autonomy are various forms of social paternalism, controls, and interventions. The following summaries examine how various are the infantilizing constraints that infringe or deny individual autonomy. The fields surveyed are various: mental health law, state institutional supervision, medical paternalism, educational dictation, the psychology of privacy and rewards, and the use of mercenaries. The dominant antagonist to the full flowering of autonomous self-governance in these fields is the state or other experts that would subordinate the individual to a child-like status “for their own good.” In the final summary dealing with the Ferrer Center we glimpse the possibilities for human growth and creativity when social institutions respect individual autonomy.