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 centuries:

Any one of these by itself would constitute a major improvement. Taken together, they provide overwhelming evidence of humanity's upward trend.

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: 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.

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1. Michael Barone and Grant Ujifusa, "Introduction," The Almanac of American Politics, 1995.