Myth: The world is going to hell in a hand basket
Myth: The world is going to hell in a hand basket.
Fact: Society is constantly improving.
Society is not deteriorating, as conservatives would have
you believe. In the last 400 years, Western society has seen continual
progress under the Scientific Revolution. This has resulted in
social, scientific and economic miracles too numerous to mention.
Just a few examples include doubled lifespans, mass education,
rising standards of living, not to mention the abolition of slavery,
the Inquisition, the witch hunts, dueling, pogroms, serfdom, feudalism,
etc. The traditional meaning of "conservativism" is
the attempt to conserve the various aspects of society, but why
anyone would wish to preserve such a sick society is a mystery.
The traditional meaning of "liberalism," on the other
hand, is openness to progress and change, and the last four centuries
bear testimony to its success.
According to many conservatives, society has been degenerating
for many centuries now. Some go so far as to assert the impending
fall of Western Civilization. Quite often this belief also has
a religious cast, with predictions of the world ending in an Apocalypse
or a Time of Trouble. Is there any evidence to support such pessimism?
Yes, but it's always anecdotal, such as particularly horrifying
news stories about human behavior at the extremes. Conservatives
go on to blame this deterioration on society's growing liberalism,
collectivism and secularism.
Fortunately, this belief is sheer nonsense. The last 400 years
have been ones of astonishing scientific and moral progress, and
no one can seriously argue otherwise. The key to it all has been
the Scientific Revolution, which Galileo started in the early
1600s. Human knowledge has exploded since then, resulting in all
manner of scientific, economic and social miracles. Consider all
the advances that have occurred in the West during the last four
Any one of these by itself would constitute a major improvement.
Taken together, they provide overwhelming evidence of humanity's
- The West abolished slavery, serfdom, feudalism, the Inquisition,
witch hunts, theocracy, dueling, pogroms, polygamy, state-sanctioned
torture, censorship of the press, infanticide, child labor, and
capital punishment for misdemeanors.
- The West also greatly reduced infant mortality, bastardy, religious
persecution, racism, misogyny, discrimination, superstition, and
war. What few wars do occur tend to be tremendously more
violent, but it is also a long-term trend that they are getting
rarer. There has also been a sharp drop in institutionalized anti-Semitism
-- apparently, the Holocaust shocked Europe out of this 1,500-year
- The West has seen a clear rise in individual rights, civil
rights, human rights, sexual rights, global trade, travel and
telecommunications, computerization, sanitation, hygiene, free
markets, private property and increasingly sophisticated economic
institutions and banking practices.
- Democracy has replaced monarchy and aristocracy.
- Illiteracy once afflicted the vast majority of society, but
today has been almost completely wiped out, thanks to the rise
of mass education.
- Economic depressions used to visit the West once every generation
or two. But ever since World War II, depressions have been completely
eliminated in all nations practicing Keynesian monetary policies.
- Poverty and income inequality have both been considerably reduced.
Prior to the 18th century, peasants and serfs were
cruelly exploited under feudalism and manorialism. Even by the
turn of the 20th century, over 50 percent of all people
in the U.S. lived in poverty. Today, the poverty rate has been
reduced to 15 percent. In Europe, it's as low as 3 or 4 percent.
- Our standard of living is continually rising. Efficiency of
survival is greater than ever before.
- Advances in medical science have more than doubled our lifespans
-- from an average of 30 years to 75 years. Plagues that once
killed a third of Europe have been wiped out. Epidemics have dwindled
in both number and size. Each generation is taller, stronger,
healthier, and faster than the previous.
- Average IQs are rising 3 points per decade, in all nations,
races and classes worldwide.
Of course, the human race is not completely out of the woods yet.
Over-population, pollution, and nuclear war are serious threats
to civilization which may do us in yet. But there are global
organizations that are dedicated to fighting these threats and
educating the public about them. If historical trends are any
guide, we may be cheered by the prospect of continual improvement.
The above account simply describes the advance of Western Civilization.
Let's take a closer look now at the driving forces behind it:
science and society's increasing liberalism.
The forces of change
To put the last 400 years in perspective, we should define
"liberalism" and "conservatism" in the historical
sense. Traditionally, conservatism has meant the conservation
of past beliefs, culture, language, music, tradition, property,
family, religion, literature, history, architecture, symbols,
land, etc. Liberalism, on the other hand, promotes continual progress
and change in all these institutions. Indeed, such change has
been occurring at an accelerating rate.
The list of things conservatives would like to preserve may seem
quite unrelated at first, but ultimately they can all be boiled
down to one factor: information. Society's main activity is the
transmission of information from one generation to the next. It
does this in countless ways: genetic information is passed on
through our DNA, cultural information is passed on through traditional
practices, scientific information is passed on through education,
linguistic information is passed on through communication, productive
information is passed on through apprenticeship, property information
(who owns what) is passed on through inheritances (both living
and mortal) or market transactions.
Clearly, there was a time when information did not change all
that much, and it was possible to conserve it, even for millennia.
Property stayed pretty much in the family; science crawled ahead
at a glacial pace; the Catholic Church preached the same theology
for 1,500 years; even genes differed no more than the local region's,
since individuals spent their entire lives in one village. But,
as we've seen above, this all started to change about 400 years
ago. Increasing ease of travel (especially by ocean) resulted
in global trade, travel and communication. People with different
ideas, cultures, philosophies, religions and, yes, genes came
into contact with each other. The Scientific Revolution began,
leading to the Industrial Revolution, and then the Communication
Revolution. The Protestant Reformation shattered Catholic hegemony
over religious ideas -- and it is no accident that this occurred
shortly after the invention of the printing press, which disseminated
its ideas. Property became less transmitted by family and more
by market transactions in a dynamic economy. And the driving force
behind this accelerating change was the growth of information
of all types, especially as embodied by science and technology.
The conservative approach to science has been to claim that there
are timeless truths, such as Christianity, family values, the
work ethic, and patriotism. Hans Morganthau (a famous conservative
political scientist in the 20th century) found timeless
truths in the work of Thucydides (a Greek historian in the 5th
century B.C.) who described the power politics of states and their
desire for military security. Morganthau then made the classically
conservative statement that the extreme age of a theory is not
a weakness, but a strength. (There are many refutations to this
sentiment, most notably slavery, which has been almost universally
supported by both state and religious leaders since the dawn of
recorded history.) When confronted with the argument that science
is obviously improving, many conservatives argue that the best
knowledge is already known -- for example, in the Bible. Science
is just playing "catch-up" to these revealed truths,
they claim. (Again, the fact that these ancient sources of "truth"
advocated slavery refutes the contention that they are perfect.)
Liberals, on the other hand, believe that information of all types
is constantly evolving. Theories are overturned in the light of
new findings. People once believed the earth is flat; now they
believe it is round. Liberals question those audacious enough
to call themselves the "final authority," because they
know their knowledge will almost certainly change or improve.
They agree with the words of Socrates, who admitted that he was
the wisest of philosophers in that he knew he was not wise. (Conservatives
should not take false comfort in this: ironically, Socrates was
wiser than those who claimed they knew everything.)
Undoubtedly, the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes.
Even the most biased political observer can see that life is a
mixture of both constancy and change. This mix itself, however,
has not remained constant throughout history. In the last 2,000
years, the number of constant factors in life have grown smaller,
as more and more things in our lives have become changeable. At
a rate greater than ever before, humans are changing their culture,
religious beliefs, political beliefs, careers, work practices,
education, class, station in life, geography, environment, mates,
possessions, health, friends, entertainment, hobbies, language,
even personal appearance and gender -- you name it, it is coming
under increasing change. In the future, people will be able to
change their very DNA. This is a mind-boggling possibility. Science
is opening new doors to the human experience, allowing humans
to do things never before possible. Once, Leonardo Da Vinci regretted
that humans could not fly like birds. Now, thanks to science,
they not only fly, they are exploring space.
When conservatives argue for the preservation of society (or worse,
a past form of society), what they really mean is that they want
to arrest or even reverse all progress. They hearken back to a
simpler time, usually with rose-colored glasses to avoid seeing
the slavery, exploitation, tyranny and misery that existed back
then. Here is but one example from the Almanac of American
Politics, written by conservative political scientists Michael
Barone and Grant Ujifusa. After the Republicans took control of
Congress in 1994, the authors ecstatically declared:
"The 1994 election, the first time Americans have selected
national officeholders with terms extending into the 21st Century,
has also marked a return to old traditions -- in government a
restoration of constitutional order, in society a return to a
Of course, De Tocqueville's famous critiques of America were hardly
complimentary; he described a nation which preached freedom but
practised slavery, prohibited women from voting, and committed
atrocities against Native Americans. The young republic was not
truly a government of the people, but of rich white male property-owners.
It is not surprising why modern conservatives -- who are still
primarily rich white male property-owners -- would so eagerly
desire to return to a Tocquevillian America. Clearly, what the
far right wishes to conserve most is their privilege.
"Americans are looking to government not so much for economic
but for the maintenance of basic order --
not some authoritarian order, it must be added, but to an orderly
framework in which people can make their livings, raise their
families and work together in their communities." (1)
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1. Michael Barone and Grant Ujifusa,
The Almanac of American Politics, 1995.