Progress

Lane Kenworthy, The Good Society
June 2018

The extent of human progress over the past two centuries is astonishing. The starting point is improvement in economic well-being. Economic historians have estimates of gross domestic product (GDP) per person back to the year AD 1 for France and back a few centuries or more for some other countries. For most of the past two thousand years — and by extension, for virtually all of human history — the quantity of goods and services we produced barely budged.1 Then, around the middle of the 1800s, nations such as the United States, Germany, France, and a handful of others stumbled upon an institutional framework featuring markets, government provision of property rights and public goods, and the scientific method. This configuration has proved conducive to rapid and sustained economic advance, as we see in figure 1.2

Figure 1. GDP per capita
Adjusted for inflation and converted to 2011 U.S. dollars using purchasing power parities. “k” = thousand. The line that extends back to 1 AD is for France. The data begin in 1500 for Germany and in 1650 for the United States. Data source: Maddison Project Database 2018, rug.nl/ggdc.

As societies get richer, they change in a variety of ways. Among them are shifts in what people want and what they prioritize. Three are particularly important.

First, people tend to dislike loss.3 The higher their income, the more insurance they are willing to purchase in order to minimize potential loss. Some types of insurance, such as insurance against low income in old age, are most effectively provided by government. Germany was the first country to create a public old-age pension in the late 1800s. Other industrialized countries began to do so in the first half of the twentieth century, with many introducing or expanding them during the Great Depression in the 1930s. While many nations now have this type of public program, richer countries tend to have more expansive ones, as figure 2 shows.

Government also tends to play an important role in the provision of health insurance. As we see in figure 3, public spending on health care tends to rise as nations get richer. The same is true for education, as figure 4 shows. (The association in this figure would be even stronger but for the fact that virtually all countries have a universal publicly-funded K-12 education system, which requires significant expenditure regardless of national wealth.)

Much of what governments spend money on is public insurance. Some programs protect against loss of income due to old age, unemployment, illness, disability, family needs, discrimination, and other conditions and circumstances. Others ensure widespread availability of schooling, health care, housing, job training and placement, transportation, and other services and goods. As countries get richer, the welfare state tends to grow.4

Figure 2. Affluence and public old-age pension coverage
Old-age pension coverage: share of statutory pension-age population. 2004-2013. Data source: United Nations Development Program (UNDP), “Human Development Data,” using data from the International Labour Office (ILO), World Social Protection Report. GDP per capita: converted to 2011 US dollars using purchasing power parities. 2005. Data source: UNDP, “Human Development Data.” Three small, rich city-states (Andorra, Luxembourg, and Singapore) are omitted. The line is a loess curve, calculated with five oil-rich nations excluded.

Figure 3. Affluence and public health expenditures
Public health expenditures: share of GDP. 2014. Data source: United Nations Development Program (UNDP), “Human Development Data.” GDP per capita: see figure 2. 2014. Three small, rich city-states (Andorra, Luxembourg, and Singapore) and four small island nations that have very high health expenditures are omitted. The line is a loess curve, calculated with eight oil-rich nations excluded.

Figure 4. Affluence and public education expenditures
Public education expenditures: share of GDP. 2010-2014. Data source: United Nations Development Program (UNDP), “Human Development Data.” GDP per capita: see figure 2. 2010. Three small, rich city-states (Andorra, Luxembourg, and Singapore) and two small island nations that have very high education expenditures are omitted. The line is a loess curve, calculated with four oil-rich nations excluded.

A second change in people’s desires as they get richer is to want more fairness in their society.5 Drawing on several decades of public opinion data from multiple countries, Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel find that once people can be confident of survival and a decent standard of living, they tend to shift away from a worldview that emphasizes traditional sources of authority, religious dictates, traditional social roles, and the well-being of the group or community rather than that of the individual. This is replaced by a “postmaterialist” or “emancipative” orientation.6 One element of postmaterialism is a desire for basic political rights. Another element is universalistic humanism, which deems all persons, including members of “outgroups,” as equally worthy of rights, opportunities, and respect. In the world’s rich nations, the shift from a traditional orientation to a postmaterialist one emerged in the generation that grew up after the Great Depression and World War II.7 As the rest of the world gets richer, we are beginning to observe it there too.8

We can see the growing embrace of fairness when we compare nations at varying levels of economic affluence. The richer the nation, the more important people tend to say it is to “to live in a country that is governed democratically,” as figure 5 shows. Similarly, a much larger portion of the populace in higher-income nations disagrees that “when jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women,” as we see in figure 6.9 And figure 7 shows a similar pattern when respondents are asked whether “when jobs are scarce, employers should give priority to [native-born] people over immigrants.”

Figure 5. Affluence and desire for fairness in politics
Importance of democracy: average response to the question “How important is it for you to live in a country that is governed democratically?,” with 1 indicating “not at all important” and 10 indicating “absolutely important.” 2005-2014. Data source: World Values Survey. GDP per capita: see figure 2. 2005. Three small, rich city-states (Andorra, Luxembourg, and Singapore) and Haiti are omitted. The line is a linear regression line, calculated with two oil-rich nations excluded.

Figure 6. Affluence and desire for fairness for women
Women have equal right to a job: share disagreeing that “When jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women.” Other response options: agree, neither agree nor disagree. 2005-2014. Data source: World Values Survey. GDP per capita: see figure 2. 2005. Three small, rich city-states (Andorra, Luxembourg, and Singapore) are omitted. The line is a linear regression line, calculated with two oil-rich nations excluded.

Figure 7. Affluence and desire for fairness for immigrants
Immigrants have equal right to a job: share not disagreeing that “When jobs are scarce, employers should give priority to [native-born] people over immigrants.” Other response options: agree, neither agree nor disagree. 2005-2014. Data source: World Values Survey. GDP per capita: see figure 2. 2005. Three small, rich city-states (Andorra, Luxembourg, and Singapore) are omitted. The line is a linear regression line, calculated with two oil-rich nations excluded.

A third shift that comes with affluence is a growing emphasis on personal liberty. Most of us want the freedom to choose what to believe, how to behave, with whom to live, and so on. As material well-being increases, this desire for freedom comes to the fore.10

Here too we observe the progress when we look across countries. Figure 8 shows that in richer nations more people consider religion, which tends to restrict our beliefs and behavior, to be not very important in their life.11 More people say divorce is justifiable, as figure 9 shows. And more people view homosexuality as justifiable, as we see in figure 10. These advances in freedom come at some cost. As people come to value freedom more heavily, more choose to divorce or not to marry, so fewer children grow up with two parents.12 And as religion fades, a key source of community weakens.13 But these developments do enhance individual liberty.

Figure 8. Affluence and desire for freedom in personal beliefs
Not very religious: share of the population responding other than “very important” to the question “For each of the following, indicate how important it is in your life: religion.” Other response options: rather important, not very important, not at all important. 2005-2014. Data source: World Values Survey. GDP per capita: see figure 2. 2005. Three small, rich city-states (Andorra, Luxembourg, and Singapore) are omitted. The line is a loess curve, calculated with three oil-rich nations excluded.

Figure 9. Affluence and desire for freedom in personal behavior: divorce
Divorce is justifiable: average response to the question “Please tell me for each of the following actions whether you think it can always be justified, never be justified, or something in between: divorce,” where 1 indicates “never justified” and 10 indicates “always justified.” 2005-2014. Data source: World Values Survey. GDP per capita: see figure 2. 2005. Three small, rich city-states (Andorra, Luxembourg, and Singapore) are omitted. The line is a loess curve, calculated with two oil-rich nations excluded.

Figure 10. Affluence and desire for freedom in personal behavior: homosexuality
Homosexuality is justifiable: average response to the question “Please tell me for each of the following actions whether you think it can always be justified, never be justified, or something in between: homosexuality,” where 1 indicates “never justified” and 10 indicates “always justified.” 2005-2014. Data source: World Values Survey. GDP per capita: see figure 2. 2005. Three small, rich city-states (Andorra, Luxembourg, and Singapore) are omitted. The line is a loess curve.

These shifts in attitudes often occur gradually. People’s value orientations tend to be established in their teen and early adult years, so at the societal level worldviews change largely via cohort replacement. But the shifts are clearly visible in the cross-country patterns. Researchers also find them when comparing across cohorts within countries and when looking at changes over time in the few nations for which attitudinal data are available over a lengthy number of years.14

When a country’s economic performance weakens for a period of time, such as during recessions, the process of rising support for public insurance, fairness, and personal freedom sometimes stalls or even reverses. However, such backsliding has tended to be temporary.15

Together, affluence, its causes (markets, stable and supportive government, and science), and its consequences (desire for more insurance, fairness, and personal freedom) have produced societies that are not only richer but also more secure, better educated, healthier, fairer, and freer. Let’s take a look at some of the evidence that makes this clear.16

A common way to measure the extent of poverty or material deprivation in different countries is to pick a minimally-acceptable income level and calculate the share of the population that lives in households with an income below that level. Figure 11 shows that if we use $5.50 per day as the threshold, many low-income nations have very high poverty rates, while high-income nations have virtually no poverty. Figure 12 shows that school completion tends to be greater in higher-income countries. In figures 13 and 14, we see a similarly strong relationship for life expectancy and for homicides.17

Figure 11. Affluence and a decent income floor
Poverty rate: share of persons living in a household with an income less than $5.50 per day. Incomes adjusted for inflation and converted to 2011 U.S. dollars using purchasing power parities. Average over 2004-2015. Data source: World Bank. GDP per capita: see figure 2. 2010. Three small, rich city-states (Andorra, Luxembourg, and Singapore) are omitted. The line is a loess curve.

Figure 12. Affluence and education
Education: average years of schooling completed. 2015. Data source: United Nations Development Program (UNDP), “Human Development Data.” GDP per capita: see figure 2. 2015. Three small, rich city-states (Andorra, Luxembourg, and Singapore) are omitted. The line is a loess curve, calculated with eight oil-rich nations excluded.

Figure 13. Affluence and life expectancy
Life expectancy: years at birth. 2015. Data source: United Nations Development Program (UNDP), “Human Development Data.” GDP per capita: see figure 2. 2015. Three small, rich city-states (Andorra, Luxembourg, and Singapore) are omitted. The line is a loess curve, calculated with eight oil-rich nations excluded.

Figure 14. Affluence and safety
Homicides: per 100,000 population. 2010-2014. Data source: United Nations Development Program (UNDP), “Human Development Data.” GDP per capita: see figure 2. 2010. Three small, rich city-states (Andorra, Luxembourg, and Singapore) and three very-high-homicide countries (El Salvador, Honduras, and Venezuela) are omitted. The line is a loess curve, calculated with eight oil-rich nations excluded.

Fairness outcomes also improve. Richer nations tend to be more democratic, as figure 15 shows. Women in more affluent countries tend to be better off on measures of inclusion, justice, and security, as we see in figure 16. Figure 17 shows that immigrants are much happier with their lives in richer countries.

Figure 15. Affluence and democracy
Democracy: higher values indicate more democratic. Scale is -10 to +10. 2016. Data source: HumanProgress, “Democracy versus Autocracy Over Time,” using data from Polity IV Annual Time-Series. GDP per capita: see figure 2. 2015. Three small, rich city-states (Andorra, Luxembourg, and Singapore) are omitted. The line is a loess curve, calculated with seven oil-rich nations excluded.

Figure 16. Affluence and women’s well-being
Women, peace, and security index: a composite measure of inclusion (economic, social, political), justice (formal laws and informal discrimination), and security (family, community, societal) via 11 indicators. Scale is 0 to 1. Data source: Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security and Peace Research Institute of Oslo, Women, Peace, and Security Index 2017-18. GDP per capita: see figure 2. 2015. Three small, rich city-states (Andorra, Luxembourg, and Singapore) are omitted. The line is a loess curve, calculated with five oil-rich nations excluded.

Figure 17. Affluence and immigrants’ well-being
Immigrant life satisfaction: average response to the question “Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?” 2005-2017. Data source: Gallup World Poll, via the World Happiness Report 2018, online appendix. GDP per capita: see figure 2. 2015. Three small, rich city-states (Andorra, Luxembourg, and Singapore) are omitted. The line is a loess curve, calculated with six oil-rich nations excluded.

Finally, not only do people tend to want more freedom as their societies become wealthier; they often get it. Researchers at a libertarian think tank, the Cato Institute, have compiled data on an assortment of freedoms, including legal protection, security, freedom of movement, freedom of religion, freedom of association/assembly/civil society, freedom of expression, and freedom in relationships. Figure 18 shows that a composite index reflecting these freedoms tends to rise with countries’ GDP per capita.

Figure 18. Affluence and personal freedom
Personal freedom: average score for legal protection, security, freedom of movement, freedom of religion, freedom of association/assembly/civil society, freedom of expression, and freedom in relationships. Scale is 0 to 10. 2015. Data source: Ian Vasquez and Tanja Porcnik, The Human Freedom Index, Cato Institute. GDP per capita: see figure 2. 2015. Three small, rich city-states (Andorra, Luxembourg, and Singapore) are omitted. The line is a loess curve, calculated with seven oil-rich nations excluded.

Could it be that what we see in these charts isn’t progress but instead the exceptionalism of twenty or so rich, democratic, mostly-western countries? Have those nations always stood apart from the rest for reasons having to do with culture or biology? No, they haven’t. We’ve already seen, in figure 1, the dramatic shift in economic productivity that began in the 1800s. Before then, these nations looked much like the rest of the world in their level of affluence. Figures 19, 20, and 21 show similar over-time patterns for government social spending, education, and life expectancy. In each case these nations had low levels 150 years ago. As they’ve gotten richer, they’ve steadily enhanced their commitment to a public safety net, schooling, and health care.

Figure 19. Public social expenditures
Share of GDP. Data source: Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser, “Public Spending,” Our World in Data, using data for 1880-1930 from Peter Lindert, Growing Public, volume 1, Cambridge University Press, 2004, data for 1960-1979 from OECD, “Social Expenditure 1960-1990: Problems of Growth and Control,” OECD Social Policy Studies, 1985, and data for 1980ff from OECD, Social Expenditures Database. “Asl” is Australia; “Aus” is Austria.

Figure 20. Education
Average years of schooling completed. Population aged 15-64. Data source: Lee and Lee Long-Run Education Dataset, barrolee.com. “Asl” is Australia; “Aus” is Austria.

Figure 21. Life expectancy
Years of life expectancy at birth. The vertical axis doesn’t begin at zero. Data source: Max Roser, “Life Expectancy,” Our World in Data. “Asl” is Australia; “Aus” is Austria.

The formula for progress, then, is straightforward: Put in place the prerequisites for sustained economic growth. Get richer. This brings pressure for government services and supports, for fairness, and for personal freedoms. Together, changes in material well-being and in popular attitudes improve the likelihood of good outcomes.

Achieving sustained economic growth has proved difficult for many of the world’s poorer nations. A key challenge for social scientists is to improve our understanding of how to kick-start and sustain economic growth.18 In the past several decades there has been considerable progress: for the first time, poorer countries containing a large portion of the world’s population — particularly China and India but some others as well — have been growing rapidly. During this period more people have escaped poverty than ever before in human history.19

While affluence makes progress in other areas more likely, it isn’t a precondition. An equally important challenge for social scientists is to figure out ways to speed up the implementation of services, cushions, fairness, and freedom even before nations become rich.20 How can we get more children in good schools for longer? How can we improve health outcomes before a fully modern health care system is in place? How can we reduce deep poverty in advance of full-scale national affluence?

These tasks are arguably the most important ones for researchers and policy makers, because they affect a large share of the world’s people, including its least well-off. However, they aren’t our only challenge. The world’s rich democratic countries haven’t yet achieved paradise. These twenty or so nations are similar in some of their institutions and policies, but they also vary quite a bit. And while it isn’t always easy to spot in the charts here, they differ significantly on an array of outcomes.

These affluent democratic nations are in a position, economically and politically, that the rest of the world aspires to reach. What can they teach us about the good society? What, according to their experience, are the institutions and policies most conducive to human flourishing?


  1. Angus Maddison, Contours of the World Economy, 1-2030 AD, Oxford University Press, 2007. 
  2. Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, Crown, 2012. 
  3. Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, “Advances in Prospect Theory: Cumulative Representation of Uncertainty,” Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 1992; Wikipedia, “Loss Aversion”. 
  4. Theodore R. Marmor, Jerry L. Mashaw, and Philip L. Harvey, America’s Misunderstood Welfare State, Basic Books, 1990; Nicholas Barr, The Welfare State as Piggy Bank, Oxford University Press, 2001; Peter Lindert, Growing Public: Social Spending and Economic Growth since the Eighteenth Century, Cambridge University Press, 2004; Theodore R. Marmor, Jerry L. Mashaw, and John Pakutka, Social Insurance, CQ Press, 2014. 
  5. Benjamin M. Friedman, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, Knopf, 2005; Ronald Inglehart, “Changing Values among Western Publics from 1970 to 2006,” West European Politics, 2008; Christian Welzel, Freedom Rising: Human Empowerment and the Quest for Emancipation, Cambridge University Press, 2013; Ronald Inglehart, “Modernization, Existential Security, and Cultural Change: Reshaping Human Motivations and Society,” in Handbook of Advances in Culture and Psychology, volume 7, edited by Michele J. Gelfand, Chi-yue Chiu, and Ying-yi Hong, Oxford University Press, 2018. 
  6. Inglehart, “Changing Values”; Welzel, Freedom Rising; Inglehart, “Modernization, Existential Security, and Cultural Change.” 
  7. Inglehart, “Changing Values”; Welzel, Freedom Rising, ch. 3; Inglehart, “Modernization, Existential Security, and Cultural Change.” 
  8. Welzel, Freedom Rising. 
  9. See also Carly R. Knight and Mary C. Brinton, “One Egalitarianism or Several? Two Decades of Gender-Role Attitude Change in Europe,” American Journal of Sociology, 2017. 
  10. Inglehart, “Changing Values”; Welzel, Freedom Rising; Inglehart, “Modernization, Existential Security, and Cultural Change.” 
  11. See also Nigel Barber, “A Cross-National Test of the Uncertainty Hypothesis of Religious Belief,” Cross-Cultural Research, 2011. 
  12. Lane Kenworthy, “Families,” The Good Society. 
  13. Lane Kenworthy, “Religion,” The Good Society. 
  14. Inglehart, “Changing Values”; Welzel, Freedom Rising; Inglehart, “Modernization, Existential Security, and Cultural Change.” 
  15. Friedman, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth; Inglehart, “Changing Values”; Welzel, Freedom Rising; Inglehart, “Modernization, Existential Security, and Cultural Change.” 
  16. How can we be sure that both affluence and attitudes contribute to these good outcomes? In some instances, simple statistical analyses suggest that both matter. For example, both GDP per capita and the share of people who disagree that when jobs are scarce men should have more right to a job than women predict countries’ scores on the women, peace, and security index. The same is true for education, life expectancy, immigrants’ life satisfaction, and personal freedom. Democracy is a more complicated case, though here too it appears that both affluence and citizen attitudes have a causal impact. See Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel, “Changing Mass Priorities: The Link between Modernization and Democracy,” Perspectives on Politics, 2010; Welzel, Freedom Rising, chs. 8-9. 
  17. See also Angus Deaton, The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality, Princeton University Press, 2013; Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now, Viking, 2018. 
  18. Paul Collier, The Bottom Billion, Oxford University Press, 2007. 
  19. David Dollar, Tatjana Kleineberg, and Aart Kraay, “Growth Still Is Good for the Poor” European Economic Review, 2016; Johan Norberg, Progress, Oneworld Publications, 2016; Pinker, Enlightenment Now, ch. 8. 
  20. Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom, Oxford University Press, 1999; Wolfgang Lutz and Endale Kebede, “Education and Health: Redrawing the Preston Curve,” Population and Development Review, 2018.