Lane Kenworthy, The Good Society
While there is plenty to bemoan about the human condition, from poverty to violence to climate change and more, the extent of our progress over the past two centuries is astonishing.
- Rising affluence
- The rising tide has lifted most boats
- Public insurance
- Personal liberty
- Progress in attitudes comes via cohort replacement
- Better societies, better lives
- It really is progress
- Our challenge
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 (a little earlier in Britain), 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
As societies get richer, they change in a variety of ways that yield progress. Four are particularly noteworthy: rising incomes, support for public insurance, desire for fairness, and prioritization of personal liberty.
THE RISING TIDE HAS LIFTED MOST BOATS
It could have turned out that owners and other rich individuals grabbed all of the gains from rising productivity and output. Owners have more power than workers, because there usually are fewer firms looking for workers than workers looking for an employer.
In practice, the gains have been shared to a nontrivial degree. Ordinary workers have gotten steadily higher wages, incomes, and living standards. One reason is that firms sometimes find it difficult to locate available workers, or ones with needed skills or experience. This gives workers enough leverage to secure a wage increase. A second is labor unions, which negotiate on behalf of large groups of workers and have the ability to strike, giving them considerably more power than individual employees have.
Since the 1930s, another contributor has been government minimum wages, which have tended to rise over time, along with regulation of hiring and firing procedures, work hours, working conditions, and more. And public insurance programs — unemployment insurance, sickness insurance, old-age pensions, and many more — ensure that some income is redistributed from the rich to those in the middle and below. In addition, in the period from 1945 through the 1970s, many employers were willing to acquiesce to steady wage increases in order to stave off a repeat of the decade-long depression of the 1930s and to discourage workers from embracing communism.
As a result, it isn’t only the rich who have experienced rising living standards. Nor is it just the rich and the middle class. There has been very significant improvement for the working class and even the poor. Figure 2 shows an estimate of the share of western Europe’s population in “extreme poverty.” Since the mid-1800s the share has dropped steadily and sharply.
The other three changes affluence generates are shifts in what people want and what they prioritize.
First, we tend to dislike loss.3 The higher our income, the more insurance we 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 3 shows.
Government also tends to play an important role in the provision of health insurance. As we see in figure 4, public spending on health care tends to rise as nations get richer. The same is true for education, as figure 5 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
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 survey data from multiple countries, Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel have found 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 6 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 7.9 And figure 8 shows a similar pattern when respondents are asked whether “when jobs are scarce, employers should give priority to [native-born] people over immigrants.”
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 9 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 10 shows. And more people view homosexuality as justifiable, as we see in figure 11. 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.
PROGRESS IN ATTITUDES COMES VIA COHORT REPLACEMENT
People’s value orientations tend to be established in their teen and early adult years and then persist through the rest of their lives, so at the societal level changes in attitudes often happen slowly, via new cohorts replacing older ones. Even so, the attitude 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
BETTER SOCIETIES, BETTER LIVES
Together, affluence, its causes (markets, stable and supportive government, and science), and its consequences (rising incomes, support for public insurance, desire for fairness, and prioritization of 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 12 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.17 Figure 13 shows that school completion tends to be greater in higher-income countries, and in figures 14 and 15 we see a similarly strong relationship for life expectancy and for homicides.18
Fairness outcomes also improve. Richer nations tend to be more democratic, as figure 16 shows.19 Women in more affluent countries tend to be better off on measures of inclusion, justice, and security, as we see in figure 17. Figure 18 shows that immigrants are much happier with their lives in richer countries.
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 19 shows that a composite index reflecting these freedoms tends to rise with countries’ GDP per capita.
IT REALLY IS PROGRESS
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 20, 21, and 22 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.
The formula for progress, then, is straightforward: Put in place the prerequisites for sustained economic growth. Get richer. This brings pressure (from individuals and from organizations representing them, such as labor unions) for better pay, 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.20 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.21
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.22 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?
Along with addressing climate change and other existential threats, these tasks are the most important ones facing 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. For all of their achievements, the world’s rich democratic countries have progressed unevenly toward the good society. These twenty or so nations are similar to one another 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 we’ve looked at here, they differ significantly on an array of outcomes.
Indeed, some trends in some of these nations have been going in the wrong direction in recent decades. In the United States, for instance, since the 1970s families have weakened, income and wealth inequality have increased, and civic engagement and trust have declined. And other trends, such as falling poverty and rising life expectancy, have continued but at a slower pace.23
Another key challenge, then, is to use these countries’ experiences to identify the configuration of institutions and policies most conducive to human flourishing and continued progress.24
- Angus Maddison, Contours of the World Economy, 1-2030 AD, Oxford University Press, 2007. ↩
- Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, Crown, 2012. ↩
- Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, “Advances in Prospect Theory: Cumulative Representation of Uncertainty,” Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 1992; Wikipedia, “Loss Aversion”. ↩
- 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; Beland, Daniel, Kimberly J. Morgan, Herbert Obinger, and Christopher Pierson, eds., Oxford Handbook of the Welfare State, Oxford University Press, 2022. ↩
- 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, Cultural Evolution, Cambridge University Press, 2018. ↩
- Inglehart, Cultural Evolution; Welzel, Freedom Rising. ↩
- Inglehart, Cultural Evolution; Welzel, Freedom Rising, ch. 3. ↩
- Welzel, Freedom Rising. ↩
- 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. ↩
- Inglehart, Cultural Evolution; Welzel, Freedom Rising. ↩
- See also Nigel Barber, “A Cross-National Test of the Uncertainty Hypothesis of Religious Belief,” Cross-Cultural Research, 2011. ↩
- Lane Kenworthy, “Families,” The Good Society. ↩
- Lane Kenworthy, “Religion,” The Good Society. ↩
- Inglehart, Cultural Evolution; Welzel, Freedom Rising. ↩
- Friedman, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth; Inglehart, Cultural Evolution; Welzel, Freedom Rising. ↩
- 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. ↩
- See also Michail Moatsos, “Global Extreme Poverty: Present and Past since 1820,” in OECD, How Was Life? Volume II: New Perspectives on Well-being and Global Inequality since 1820, OECD Publishing, 2021; Max Roser, “What Is Economic Growth? And Why Is It So Important?,” Our World in Data, 2021. ↩
- See also Angus Deaton, The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality, Princeton University Press, 2013; Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now, Viking, 2018; Michael Jetter, Sabine Laudage, and David Stadelmann, “The Intimate Link Between Income Levels and Life Expectancy: Global Evidence from 213 Years,” Social Science Quarterly, 2019. ↩
- See also Espen Geelmuyden Rød, Carl Henrik Knutsen, and Håvard Hegre, “The Determinants of Democracy: A Sensitivity Analysis,” Public Choice, 2020; Daniel Treisman, “Economic Development and Democracy: Predispositions and Triggers,” Annual Review of Political Science, 2020. ↩
- Paul Collier, The Bottom Billion, Oxford University Press, 2007. ↩
- 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. ↩
- Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom, Oxford University Press, 1999; Lant Pritchett, Michael Woolcock, and Matt Andrews, “Capability Traps? The Mechanisms of Persistent Implementation Failure,” Working Paper 234, Center for Global Development, 2010; Deaton, The Great Escape; Wolfgang Lutz and Endale Kebede, “Education and Health: Redrawing the Preston Curve,” Population and Development Review, 2018. ↩
- Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, American Amnesia, Simon and Schuster, 2016; Robert D. Putnam with Shaylyn Romney Garrett, The Upswing, Simon and Schuster, 2020; Lane Kenworthy, Social Democratic Capitalism, Oxford University Press, 2020, ch. 6. ↩
- See Kenworthy, Social Democratic Capitalism. ↩