All Commentary
Tuesday, November 1, 1960

The Common Sense of Progress

Reprinted from TheConstitution of Liberty by F. A. Hayek by permission of The Uni­versity of Chicago Press. ©1960 by the University of Chicago. 570 pp., $7.50.

Friedrich A. Hayek is an economic theorist of international reputation, perhaps best known for his 1944 classic, The Road to Serfdom. Formerly a professor at the Uni­versity of London, he has been at the Uni­versity of Chicago since 1950 as professor of social and moral science in the Committee on Social Thought.

The Constitution of Liberty, his most re­cent book, analyzes the ethical foundations of a free society, the laws and institutions developed to secure individual liberty, and the modern welfare-state departures from freedom. The October FREEMAN carried an excerpt from the book, presenting the case for freedom. This essay, concerning progress, is from the third chapter.

If today in the United States or western Europe the relatively poor can have a car or a refriger­ator, an airplane trip or a radio, at the cost of a reasonable part of their income, this was made possible because in the past others with larger incomes were able to spend on what was then a luxury. The path of advance is greatly eased by the fact that it has been trodden before. It is because scouts have found the goal that the road can be built for the less lucky or less energetic. What to­day may seem extravagance or even waste, because it is enjoyed by the few and even undreamed of by the masses, is payment for the experimentation with a style of living that will eventually be available to many.

The range of what will be tried and later developed, the fund of experience that will become avail­able to all, is greatly extended by the unequal distribution of present benefits; and the rate of advance will be greatly increased if the first steps are taken long before the majority can profit from them. Many of the improvements would indeed never become a possibility for all if they had not long before been available to some. If all had to wait for better things until they could be provided for all, that day would in many instances never come. Even the poorest to­day owe their relative material well-being to the results of past inequality.

In a progressive society as we know it, the comparatively wealthy are thus merely somewhat ahead of the rest in the material advan­tages which they enjoy. They are already living in a phase of evolu­tion that the others have not yet reached. Poverty has, in conse­quence, become a relative, rather than an absolute, concept. This does not make it less bitter. Al­though in an advanced society the unsatisfied wants are usually no longer physical needs but the re­sults of civilization, it is still true that at each stage some of the things most people desire can be provided only for a few and can be made accessible to all only by further progress.

Most of what we strive for are things we want because others al­ready have them. Yet a progres­sive society, while it relies on this process of learning and imitation, recognizes the desires it creates only as a spur to further effort. It does not guarantee the results to everyone. It disregards the pain of unfulfilled desire aroused by the example of others. It appears cruel because it increases the de­sire of all in proportion as it in­creases its gifts to some. Yet so long as it remains a progressive society, some must lead, and the rest must follow.

The contention that in any phase of progress the rich, by ex­perimenting with new styles of living not yet accessible to the poor, perform a necessary service without which the advance of the poor would be very much slower will appear to some as a piece of far-fetched and cynical apologet­ics. Yet a little reflection will show that it is fully valid and that a socialist society would in this respect have to imitate a free so­ciety.

Someone Has To Be First

It would be necessary in a planned economy (unless it could simply imitate the example of other more advanced societies) to designate individuals whose duty it would be to try out the latest advances long before they were made available to the rest. There is no way of making generally ac­cessible new and still expensive ways of living except by their be­ing initially practiced by some. It would not be enough if individuals were allowed to try out particular new things. These have their proper use and value only as an integral part of the general ad­vance in which they are the next thing desired. In order to know which of the various new possibilities should be developed at each stage, how and when particu­lar improvements ought to be fitted into the general advance, a planned society would have to pro­vide for a whole class, or even a hierarchy of classes, which would always move some steps ahead of the rest.

The situation would then differ from that in a free society merely in the fact that the inequalities would be the result of design and that the selection of particular in­dividuals or groups would be done by authority rather than by the impersonal process of the market and the accidents of birth and op­portunity. It should be added that only those kinds of better living approved by authority would be permissible and that they would be provided only for those speci­ally designated. But, in order for a planned society to achieve the same rate of advance as a free society, the degree of inequality that would have to prevail would not be very different.

How Much Inequality?

There is no practical measure of the degree of inequality that is de­sirable here. We do not wish, of course, to see the position of in­dividuals determined by arbitrary decision or a privilege conferred by human will on particular per­sons. It is difficult to see however, in what sense it could ever be legitimate to say that any one per­son is too far ahead of the rest or that it would be harmful to society if the progress of some greatly outstripped that of others. There might be justification for saying this if there appeared great gaps in the scale of advance; but, as long as the graduation is more or less continuous and all the steps in the income pyramid are reasonably occupied, it can scarcely be denied that those lower down profit ma­terially from the fact that others are ahead.

The objections spring from the misconception that those in the lead claim the right to something that otherwise would be available to the rest. This would be true if we thought in terms of a single re­distribution of the fruits of past progress and not in terms of that continuous advance which our un­equal society fosters. In the long run, the existence of groups ahead of the rest is clearly an advantage to those who are behind, in the same way that, if we could sud­denly draw on the more advanced knowledge which some other men on a previously unknown continent or on another planet had gained under more favorable conditions, we would all profit greatly.

The problems of equality are difficult to discuss dispassionately when members of our own community are affected. They stand out more clearly when we consider them in their wider aspect, namely, the relation between rich and poor countries. We are then less apt to be misled by the conception that each member of any community has some natural right to a defi­nite share of the income of his group. Although today most of the people of the world benefit from one another’s efforts, we certainly have no reason to consider the product of the world as the result of a unified effort of collective humanity.

Although the fact that the peo­ple of the West are today so far ahead of the others in wealth is in part the consequence of a greater accumulation of capital, it is mainly the result of their more effective utilization of knowledge. There can be little doubt that the prospect of the poorer, “undevel­oped” countries reaching the pres­ent level of the West is very much better than it would have been, had the West not pulled so far ahead. Furthermore, it is better than it would have been, had some world authority, in the course of the rise of modern civilization, seen to it that no part pulled too far ahead of the rest and made sure at each step that the material benefits were distributed evenly throughout the world. If today some nations can in a few decades acquire a level of material comfort that took the West hundreds or thousands of years to achieve, is it not evident that their path has been made easier by the fact that the West was not forced to share its material achievements with the rest—that it was not held back but was able to move far in advance of the others?

Not only are the countries of the West richer because they have more advanced technological knowledge but they have more ad­vanced technological knowledge because they are richer. And the free gift of the knowledge that has cost those in the lead much to achieve enables those who fol­low to reach the same level at a much smaller cost. Indeed, so long as some countries lead, all the others can follow, although the conditions for spontaneous prog­ress may be absent in them. That even countries or groups which do not possess freedom can profit from many of its fruits is one of the reasons why the importance of freedom is not better understood.

Civilization Can Be Copied

For many parts of the world the advance of civilization has long been a derived affair, and, with modern communications, such countries need not lag very far be­hind, though most of the innova­tions may originate elsewhere.

How long has Soviet Russia or Japan been living on an attempt to imitate American technology! So long as somebody else provides most of the new knowledge and does most of the experimenting, it may even be possible to apply all this knowledge deliberately in such a manner as to benefit most of the members of a given group at about the same time and to the same de­gree. But, though an egalitarian society could advance in this sense, its progress would be essentially parasitical, borrowed from those who have paid the cost.

It is worth remembering in this connection that what enables a country to lead in this world-wide development are its economically most advanced classes and that a country that deliberately levels such differences also abdicates its leading position—as the example of Great Britain so tragically shows. All classes there had profited from the fact that a rich class with old traditions had de­manded products of a quality and taste unsurpassed elsewhere and that Britain, in consequence, came to supply to the rest of the world. British leadership has gone with the disappearance of the class whose style of living the others imitated. It may not be long before the British workers will discover that they had profited by being members of a community contain­ing many persons richer than they and that their lead over the work­ers in other countries was in part an effect of a similar lead of their own rich over the rich in other countries.

A Fast Pace for Progress

If on an international scale even major inequalities may be of great assistance to the progress of all, can there be much doubt that the same is also true of such inequali­ties within a nation? Here, too, the over-all speed of advance will be increased by those who move fast­est. Even if many fall behind at first, the cumulative effect of the preparation of the path will, be­fore long, sufficiently facilitate their advance that they will be able to keep their place in the march. Members of a community containing many who are rich en­joy, in fact, a great advantage not available to those who, because they live in a poor country, do not profit from the capital and experi­ence supplied by the rich; it is difficult to see, therefore, why this situation should justify a claim to a larger share for the individual.

It seems indeed generally to be the case that, after rapid progress has continued for some time, the cumulative advantage for those who follow is great enough to en­able them to move faster than those who lead and that, in consequence, the long-drawn-out column of human progress tends to close up. The experience of the United States at least seems to indicate that, once the rise in the position of the lower classes gathers speed, catering to the rich ceases to be the main source of great gain and gives place to efforts directed toward the needs of the masses. Those forces which at first make inequality self-accentuating thus later tend to diminish it.

Short-term Gain: Long-term Loss

Therefore, there must be two different ways of looking at the possibility of reducing inequality and abolishing poverty by deliber­ate redistribution—that is, from a long-term or a short-term point of view. At any given moment we could improve the position of the poorest by giving them what we took from the wealthy. But, while such an equalizing of the position in the column of progress would temporarily quicken the closing-up of the ranks, it would, before long, slow down the movement of the whole and in the long run hold back those in the rear.

Recent European experience strongly confirms this. The rapid­ity with which rich societies here have become static, if not stag­nant, societies through egalitarian policies, while impoverished but highly competitive countries have become very dynamic and progres­sive, has been one of the most con­spicuous features of the postwar period. The contrast in this respect between the advanced Welfare States of Great Britain and the Scandinavian countries, on the one hand, and countries like Western Germany, Belgium, or Italy, is be­ginning to be recognized even by the former. If a demonstration had been needed that there is no more effective way of making a society stationary than by imposing upon all something like the same aver­age standard, or no more effective way of slowing down progress than by allowing the most success­ful a standard only a little above the average, these experiments have provided it.

It is curious that, while in the case of a primitive country every detached observer would probably recognize that its position offered little hope so long as its whole population was on the same low dead level and that the first condi­tion for advance was that some should pull ahead of the others, few people are willing to admit the same of more advanced countries. Of course, a society in which only the politically privileged are al­lowed to rise, or where those who rise first gain political power and use it to keep the others down, would be no better than an egali­tarian society. But all obstacles to the rise of some are, in the long run, obstacles to the rise of all; and they are no less harmful to the true interest of the multitude be­cause they may gratify its momen­tary passions.

With respect to the advanced countries of the West it is some­times contended that progress is too fast or too exclusively ma­terial. These two aspects are prob­ably closely connected. Times of very rapid material progress have rarely been periods of great efflor­escence of the arts, and both the greatest appreciation and the fin­est products of artistic and intel­lectual endeavor have often ap­peared when material progress has slackened. Neither western Europe of the nineteenth century nor the United States of the twentieth is eminent for its artistic achieve­ments. But the great outbursts in the creation of nonmaterial values seem to presuppose a preceding improvement in economic condi­tion. It is perhaps natural that generally after such periods of rapid growth of wealth there oc­curs a turning toward nonmaterial things or that, when economic ac­tivity no longer offers the fas­cination of rapid progress, some of the most gifted men should turn to the pursuit of other values.

This is, of course, only one and perhaps not even the most im­portant aspect of rapid material progress that makes many of those who are in its van skeptical of its value. We must also admit that it is not certain whether most people want all or even most of the re­sults of progress. For most of them it is an involuntary affair which, while bringing them much they strive for, also forces on them many changes they do not want at all. The individual does not have it in his power to choose to take part in progress or not; and always it not only brings new op­portunities but deprives many of much they want, much that is dear and important to them. To some it may be sheer tragedy, and to all those who would prefer to live on the fruits of past progress and not take part in its future course, it may seem a curse rather than a blessing.

The World Is Not Static

There are, especially, in all coun­tries and at all times groups that have reached a more or less sta­tionary position, in which habits and ways of life have been settled for generations. These ways of life may suddenly be threatened by de­velopments with which they have had nothing to do, and not only the members of such groups but often outsiders also will wish them to be preserved.

Many of the peasants of Europe, particularly those in the remote mountain valleys, are an example. They cherish their way of life, though it has become a dead end, though it has become too dependent on urban civilization, which is con­tinually changing, to preserve it­self. Yet the conservative peasant, as much as anybody else, owes his way of life to a different type of person, to men who were innova­tors in their time and who by their innovations forced a new manner of living on people belonging to an earlier state of culture; the nomad probably complained as much about the encroachment of enclosed fields on his pastures as does the peasant about the encroachments of industry.

Progress Requires Change

The changes to which such peo­ple must submit are part of the cost of progress, an illustration of the fact that not only the mass of men but, strictly speaking, every human being is led by the growth of civilization into a path that is not of his own choosing. If the ma­jority were asked their opinions of all the changes involved in prog­ress, they would probably want to prevent many of its necessary con­ditions and consequences and thus ultimately stop progress itself. And I have yet to learn of an in­stance when the deliberate vote of the majority (as distinguished from the decision of some govern­ing elite) has decided on such sac­rifices in the interest of a better future as is made by a free-market society. This does not mean, how­ever, that the achievement of most things men actually want does not depend on the continuance of that progress which, if they could, they would probably stop by preventing the effects which do not meet with their immediate approval.

Not all the amenities that we can today provide for the few will sooner or later be available to all; with such amenities as personal services, it would be clearly impos­sible. They are among the advan­tages which the wealthy are de­prived of by progress. But most of the gains of the few do, in the course of time, become available to the rest. Indeed, all our hopes for the reduction of present misery and poverty rest on this expecta­tion. If we abandoned progress, we should also have to abandon all those social improvements that we now hope for. All the desired ad­vances in education and health, the realization of our wish that at least a large proportion of the peo­ple should reach the goals for which they are striving, depend on the continuance of progress. ‘We have only to remember that to prevent progress at the top would soon prevent it all the way down, in order to see that this result is really the last thing we want.

We have so far concerned our­selves mainly with our own coun­try or with those countries which we consider to be members of our own civilization. But we must take into account the fact that the con­sequences of past progress—namely, world-wide extension of rapid and easy communication of knowledge and ambitions—have largely deprived us of the choice as to whether or not we want con­tinued rapid progress. The new fact in our present position that forces us to push on is that the accomplishments of our civiliza­tion have become the object of de­sire and envy of all the rest of the world.

Regardless of whether from some higher point of view our civilization is really better or not, we must recognize that its ma­terial results are demanded by practically all who have come to know them. Those people may not wish to adopt our entire civiliza­tion, but they certainly want to be able to pick and choose from it whatever suits them. We may re­gret, but cannot disregard, the fact that even where different civilizations are still preserved and dominate the lives of the majority, the leadership has fallen almost in­variably into the hands of those who have gone furthest in adopt­ing the knowledge and technology of Western civilization.

While superficially it may seem that two types of civilization are today competing for the allegiance of the people of the world, the fact is that the promise they offer to the masses, the advantages they hold out to them, are essentially the same. Though the free and the totalitarian countries both claim that their respective methods will provide more rapidly what those people want, the goal itself must seem to them the same. The chief difference is that only the totali­tarians appear clearly to know how they want to achieve that result, while the free world has only its past achievements to show, being by its very nature unable to offer any detailed “plan” for further growth.

A Delicate Dilemma

But if the material achievements of our civilization have created ambitions in others, they have also given them a new power to destroy it if what they believe is their due is not given them. With the knowledge of possibilities spreading faster than the material benefits, a great part of the people of the world are today dissatisfied as never before and are deter­mined to take what they regard as their rights. They believe as much and as mistakenly as the poor in any one country that their goal can be achieved by a redistribution of already existing wealth, and they have been confirmed in this belief by Western teaching. As their strength grows, they will become able to extort such a redistribution if the increase in wealth that prog­ress produces is not fast enough. Yet a redistribution that slows down the rate of advance of those in the lead must bring about a situation in which even more of the next improvement will have to come from redistribution, since less will be provided by economic growth.

The aspirations of the great mass of the world’s population can today be satisfied only by rapid material progress. There can be little doubt that in their present mood a serious disappointment of their expectations would lead to grave international friction—in­deed, it would probably lead to war. The peace of the world and, with it, civilization itself thus de­pend on continued progress at a fast rate. At this juncture we are therefore not only the creatures but the captives of progress; even if we wished to, we could not sit back and enjoy at leisure what we have achieved.

Our task must be to continue to lead, to move ahead along the path which so many more are trying to tread in our wake. At some future date when, after a long period of world-wide advance in material standards, the pipelines through which it spreads are so filled that, even when the vanguard slows down, those at the rear will for some time continue to move at an undiminished speed, we may again have it in our power to choose whether or not we want to go ahead at such a rate. But at this moment, when the greater part of mankind has only just awakened to the pos­sibility of abolishing starvation, filth, and disease; when it has just been touched by the expanding wave of modern technology after centuries or millennia of relative stability; and as a first reaction has begun to increase in number at a frightening rate, even a small decline in our rate of advance might be fatal to us.



Ideas on Liberty

Alexis de Tocqueville

Nothing is more fertile in prodigies than the art of being free; but there is nothing more arduous than the apprenticeship of liberty…. Liberty is generally established with difficulty in the midst of storms; it is perfected by civil discords; and its benefit cannot be appreciated until it is already old.

  • Friedrich Hayek  (1899 – 1992) was an economist and philosopher, author of seminal works that changed intellectual history, who won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his pioneering work in the theory of money and economic fluctuations and penetrating analysis of the interdependence of economic, social and institutional phenomena. He taught in Vienna, London, and Chicago.