David R. Henderson  

Should We Fear Progress?

A Note on Johann Hari... John Nash, RIP...

As I mentioned in a comment on Bryan Caplan's response to Dan Klein, the further I get away from Dan Klein's piece on "designer babies," the less persuaded I am. That glide path has continued.

Virtually all of Dan Klein's objection was based on the idea of comparison with the past.

This paragraph from his post sums up his objection:

Designer babies would attenuate coherence with the past: One hundred years hence, people would say, "When you watch him on the old videos, he may not look like much, but back in the old times, Mike Tyson was considered a pretty menacing fighter." People in the new times would not know our sense of standard. And they would have difficulty knowing it. Everything preceding the break, from Achilles to Rafael Nadal, would be foreign and unintelligible.

We're not even sure that's true, given the trickiness of genetic engineering. But let's say it were true. Is that a problem?

Actually, although Bryan Caplan stated his objections to this point very well, another commenter on Dan's post stated the basic objection even more succinctly.

Katie wrote:

So the cons are that everyone would be so amazing that they wouldn't appreciate how less amazing people were in the past?

One thing I can think of is similar -- with the advent of vaccines, people don't even remember how bad diseases were, and therefore may sometimes not have their kids vaccinated. Do I wish that vaccines never happened because now people don't have an appreciation of historical disease outbreaks? NO! I'm happy most of them aren't dead.

Or think of it another way. Think about a technology that has come along that has not made babies stronger, more competent, or whatever, but has made our lives much easier. That also would attenuate coherence with the past. I'll give an example that I often used when I gave talks about the IT revolution in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
When I was a teenager in the 1960s, long-distance phone calls were very expensive. As a result, they were very rare. When we got one in our household, everyone got quiet so that my mother or father could listen carefully. In fact, I remember one such phone call in about 1964. My father said, "Shhhh" and we shushed. We learned that my great aunt in Peoria had died. Now, when we get long-distance phone calls, we often hang up on the caller.

In Dan's terms, the change in phone call technology with the resulting greater than 95% reduction in price "would attenuate coherence with the past." In my terms, it doesn't attenuate coherence with the past. It just makes me greatly appreciate the present.

Or take cell phones. When I used to land at an airport in another city and have a friend pick me up, we had to make sure in advance exactly where to meet. If he got stuck in traffic or if my plane landed late, that was a problem. The usual way to handle it would be for me to find a pay phone (remember those?) and call his home and hope there was someone there whom he could call when he found a pay phone. I need not tell you how we do it now. I don't miss those days at all. And, by the way, technological change plus deregulation have caused airline fares to fall (although not lately) making my flights much more frequent.

Or, fill in the blanks. Think of your own example of a technology that makes the past look unimpressive because it makes your life so much easier now.

Coherence or attenuation of coherence with the past just doesn't do it.

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CATEGORIES: Economic Philosophy

COMMENTS (9 to date)
NZ writes:

You've just rebutted what I'd say was Klein's weakest point. As other commenters said in the last post on this topic, most people have almost no sense of "historical coherence" anyway.

The short- and medium-term implications of the "designer baby" issue are not all that interesting: a few well-off Tiger Parents will get to slightly increase or reduce the chance of certain traits showing up in their kid--traits that were already there waiting in the genes--and even then, the impact of having done so will be hard to discern because those kinds of parents will tend to be so doting and attentive anyway. Was it the expensive genetic engineering that helped little Johnny do so well on his SATs or the (also expensive) rigorous after-school tutoring programs?

Meanwhile, Clevon and Trish will keep the planet filling up quickly, the old-fashioned way.

I think the grander argument Klein is making is in what his making an argument in the first place illustrates. We're always talking about how this or that new technology will improve the experience of the individual using it, but with the exception of a few (if you'll excuse my use of the phrase) "close to the bone" areas like genetic engineering we never stop to think about what impact the new technology will have in the aggregate.

It will take a few technological revolutions before genetic engineering will be capable of producing the doomsday scenarios people are worrying about, but I'm glad we're having these conversations now rather than later.

BC writes:

Indeed, the weakness of Klein's argument is that it applies equally well to non-genetic technologies and improvements. Those also distance us from the past.

I have yet to hear an argument that is not inherently a religious argument about why GE is different from any other technology. One could assert as a matter of faith that our genes/DNA represent "God's will" so that altering them is different from technology that alters other aspects of nature. But, such an assertion is tautological and axiomatic. One can accept it or not. Objections to GE are basically that it "feels" wrong.

On another note, some people worry that GE will exacerbate inequality if only the wealthy can "afford" it. That argument also seems to apply to non-GE technology. Further, given assortative mating, which is more unequal: a world in which all poor kids are limited to the genes of their parents or a world in which at least some are not so limited? We cannot compare a GE world to one in which poor kids are uniformly likely to receive genes from the entire universe of parents because that is not the world in which we live. Also, if we can award financial aid to help poor kids afford college, then why would it be any less likely that we could award financial aid for GE?

Daniel Klein writes:

Thanks for the further commentary on the little piece that you kindly elicited and posted at EconLog. I wouldn't say the Mike Tyson paragraph sums up my post.

But in this little rejoinder the main point I offer is that we shouldn't boil down our attitude toward technological progress to either fearing all progress or not fearing all progress.

Yes, vaccines, cell phones, airplanes have turned out well, like most progress. But counterexamples can be given, the most notable of which is technological progress delivering capability of destruction. Even airplanes can be used that way. Technological progress will continue to lower the cost of destruction. Extrapolate the progress to a scenario in which any nutjob with a softball-sized device can take out a city block. There is a vast asymmetry between production and destruction, an asymmetry that should make us very concerned about the declining cost of destructive technology. You ask, "Should We Fear Progress?" In this matter, surely you agree we should have apprehensions about progress.

My designer-babies piece, which, like Thomas Schelling's essay "Choosing Our Children's Genes," posits a futuristic scenario of hyper-specialized inception of the embryo from a menu of myriad possibilities, says we should be apprehensive about such a development. That's not to say the government should ban it, and it is not even to say that on the whole we should lament such development. But I think that libertarians should rethink the attitude that, since cell phones and vaccines have turned out well, we should figure that that would, as well.

Toby writes:

Dentistry seems like an obvious contender. Josephine, Napoleon's love, had black stumps for teeth for eating lot's and lot's of sugar cane as a child. Most past beauties had not much better teeth, and teeth could be used to distinguish beauty.

I hope that our descendants are one day so fortunate to be physically as impressive as Mike Tyson.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Daniel Klein,
There is a vast asymmetry between production and destruction, an asymmetry that should make us very concerned about the declining cost of destructive technology. You ask, "Should We Fear Progress?" In this matter, surely you agree we should have apprehensions about progress.
Yes I do.
But I think that libertarians should rethink the attitude that, since cell phones and vaccines have turned out well, we should figure that that would, as well.
If some libertarians have that attitude, which, I bet, you’re right that they do, then yes, they should rethink. But I didn’t make that argument. I said that your argument was about coherence with the past--and it clearly was. So then I took other examples to show that coherence with the past per se is not a good argument. If you can argue that designer babies can be as destructive as soft-ball sized weapons, then, yes, you might have a good argument. But that’s not what you argued, Dan. You argued about how our standards would change. That’s why I quoted Katie’s comment because I think she was spot on.

Robert Schadler writes:

May I suggest the issue is a bit less shallow -- and less amenable simply to assessment with the tools of economics?
Calling it "progress" rather than the neutral "change" skews the argument. We know that some changes are improvements (aka progress) -- vaccines for example.
Many changes include both good and bad elements. One might cite John Nef's book: "War and Human Progress" -- without judging all wars as simply a good thing.
A great many "parents to be" might well decide that their offspring would be well suited to compete in their future world if they were: male, 6 feet tall, blond, right-handed and a raging heterosexual. Would, twenty years hence, that be judged as "progress" if two-thirds of those coming into the work force were like this? Maybe, but also maybe not.
The more complex a change is, the more difficult it is both to assess it and to predict its future course. One might well review Frank Knight's distinction between "risk" and "uncertainty" before rushing to judgment about what is "progress"

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

Should We Fear Progress? is incomplete and requires the destination point towards which we should fear or not fear progress.

NZ writes:

Let's say there was an explicit goal towards which this progress was marching. Would that be satisfactory to dispense with all "fear of progress"?

For me it wouldn't, because the march itself is not straight and instantaneous. Like a river, it meanders and changes the landscape as it takes its time getting to its destination, and the changes along the way aren't necessarily good.

Something is always lost when something else is gained. The problem is we don't know what is lost until it's gone (and even then it isn't always obvious), but yet we still have the task of weighing the two against each other to make sure we are "progressing" in a speed and direction that's healthy.

That's why I think it's good to have these kinds of conversations now. I wish we were having them about more topics than just genetic engineering.

Hasdrubal writes:

We don't need designer babies to make past physical accomplishments appear surprisingly mundane. We're experiencing that now due to modern training techniques and nutrition, but somehow cope:

These are separated by only 56 years.

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