Victor Nuovo: Progress is a hallmark of liberalism

Belief in human progress has been a hallmark of liberalism. It is the expectation that the economic, moral and political circumstances of this most problematic of animal species, mankind, will improve indefinitely over the course of time for as long as there is life on earth.
Condorcet was confident of this. He believed that, through a careful study of history, the laws of human development would become evident, and that possessed of the knowledge of these laws, humanity would be empowered to achieve its own perfection through democratic means.
Condorcet did not have in mind a fixed idea of human perfection, like a Platonic form, even less did he imagine a supernatural state, like that of angels. He took human nature as he found it in everyday life, that of an intelligent creature with limitless desires and boundless curiosity, and asked how the life of such beings could be improved.
“Nature has set no bounds to the development of human faculties,” he wrote. “The perfectibility of man is absolutely limitless.”
He postulated two means of achieving human perfection: knowledge and freedom. The goals to be attained were three: equality among nations, equality within each nation, and a real improvement in the human condition.
Hence, perfection applied not only to individuals, but to societies and nations in every corner of the world. Condorcet also envisioned as a byproduct of human perfection the emergence of a human community of free and rational persons encompassing the globe, transcending national, linguistic and cultural boundaries. In this vein, he proposed invention of a universal language for the communication of scientific knowledge.
Condorcet envisioned no certain end of history. The historical process of perfection would be gradual, incremental and without limit. For knowledge and freedom are limitless, and as they increase, so does the human capacity to improve its situation, and to fashion economic systems, social organizations, and political regimes that promote quality of life for everyone.
Thus he envisioned that human beings would grow healthier and stronger, live longer, find new ways to prosper, increase in wisdom, become more devoted to peace, more compassionate, less resentful and envious of others, and all-in-all more content. Through all of this, however, they remain natural beings, mortal animals, subject to error, and dependent on experiment.
Condorcet’s idea of progress did not include the hope of immortality, which he regarded as the stuff of superstition that befouls human reason and retards the course of history. Nevertheless, he was sure that the duration of human life would be indefinitely extended.
Condorcet’s posthumous work, Sketch of a Historical View of the Progress of the Human Mind, is devoted to a narrative of this progress. After him, belief in progress became an article of liberal faith. But it was not so for him. It was a hypothesis for which he claimed to have found sufficient empirical evidence to warrant a theory.
The Sketch presents that theory not as a certainty, but as a reasonable prospect and a working program. Viewed in this way, it is a very impressive work, notwithstanding that it was hastily written and left unfinished and, in the end, that the theory it puts forth may be untenable, or at least parts of it. What is not untenable is the method of empirical rationalism he employs and the just outcomes that he hoped for.
He hoped for the end of European colonialism and the emancipation of the peoples who were its victims, the establishment of a community of free nations worldwide, and the increase of their wealth through industrial development and commerce. Accordingly, he proposed the abolition of unfair restrictive practices that favored rich nations over poor, the creation of fair markets, the breakup of monopolies and great fortunes, and the redistribution of wealth. Also in this vein, he proposed an equitable system of credit independent of the influence of rich nations and “great capitalists.”
To achieve equality among individuals he proposed a national life insurance, a common fund to which all would contribute, so that “by setting chance against chance” the fund “would secure support for persons in old age.” In short, he anticipated a system of social security.
He also envisioned a similar fund for families that would benefit widows and their children; he proposed that every youth, on reaching maturity, should be granted a personal endowment, “a benefit of capital sufficient to employ their interest.” These funds would derive from a common national account to which all citizens would contribute. Condorcet was confident that there was requisite mathematical knowledge to develop and manage these funds.
Education would become a principal means of achieving equality, which required that it be universal, and that it be designed to promote the peculiar talents of individuals and compensate for their deficiencies. Likewise, the art of medicine should be perfected and an equitable distribution of medical services enacted, so that every individual would be provided with the means and support for living a long and productive life.
Condorcet did not suppose that these efforts would invariably succeed, and he expected failures and declines, yet none so great as to reverse the progressive course of history.
Nonetheless, he was a naturalist, and he worried the human species might, after all, become so invasive that its progressive programs could become counter-productive. Human progress depended on a single resource, the planet earth, and that resource was finite. He worried about unanticipated consequences of human activity. In this respect, he was a realist and a fallibilist as well as a visionary, and an environmentalist.
The Sketch is Condorcet’s testament. He wrote it in haste in his refuge from political violence. In his concluding paragraph, he writes of himself and his hopes in the third person: “He dares to link these strivings to the eternal chain of human destiny; and in this persuasion he finds the true reward of virtue, the pleasure of having done some lasting good which fate can no longer destroy by a sinister stroke of revenge, by restoring the reign of slavery and prejudice. Such contemplation is for him a refuge where his persecutors cannot pursue him.”
Postscript: On March 25, 1794, during the French Revolution, Condorcet left his hiding place in search of a more secure hideout. He was recognized, apprehended, arrested, and two days later was found dead in his cell. The cause of his death remains unknown. His wife and his daughter survived him and produced posthumous editions of his writings.

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