Human Action, Progress, and Our Unique Opportunity

January 9, 2015 § Leave a comment

This post was inspired by part II of Ludwig von Mises’ Theory and History. Individual sections of this book have enough information to keep most minds busy for years. This is the type of work that would need to be read multiple times before the gravity of the ideas presented could be fully appreciated. That said, small chunks of Theory and History can inspire interesting ideas immediately upon reading . These ideas are nothing more than me “riffing” on what amounts to a miniscule part of what Mises presents in his work. But given that I’m a 24 year old engineer with no professional philosophy background and a full time job, this is going to have to suffice.

Human history is the story of progress. It is undeniable that all individuals strive for “progress”. In this context progress can be roughly described as “conditions which individual actors consider to be preferable to a previous set of conditions”. Put simply, individuals act in order to attain a set of conditions they find superior to their current condition. That is the end of all human action. This is apodictically true (self-evident).

Different individuals chose different ways of obtaining this ultimate end. That is to say their means may vary. Two individuals faced with the same exact conditions may (and likely will) chose two different means. This is what “free will” describes. However, the means that individuals decide upon are not selected in a vacuum. All human action is guided by previous ideas discovered by earlier generations. It is the job of future generations to build upon this knowledge.

Human history has provided mankind with a growing number of ideas and facts that were unknown to previous generations. Although the breadth of human knowledge is now far too great for any individual to ever understand all of it, it remains true that the average human being’s knowledge has grown rapidly (perhaps exponentially?). The overall growth in human knowledge has spurred a great increase in technological advancement which in turn makes an unprecedented amount of information easily accessible to average people.

With a growth in knowledge and the technological advancement that follows comes an increase in the ability of mankind to fulfill its ultimate end: “progress”. With this progress comes an increased ability to sustain more human life. Better agro science leads to increased crop efficiency. Improved biopharmaceuticals help cure numerous diseases and ailments which might otherwise cause large scale death. More efficient energy sources make it easier and cheaper to provide power to more people. Put simply, progress increases the ability to support human life.

It’s rather obvious that we’re at the very beginning of what will be a large scale increase in the standard of living of millions of people across the world. It’s impossible for the human mind to grasp the concept of time at such grand scales, but I’m of the opinion that the next millennium might be the real “sweet spot” for the average human looking to get the most out of life.

Hear me out: the average middle class American professional has the ability to save enough cash to buy a significant plot of land as well as access to technology which would allow him about as much independence as he could as for. The United States has a plethora of cheap, fertile land and the average American has enough wealth to tap into the increasingly advanced and available technology necessary to live a more independent lifestyle. For the first time in human history, the educated middle class doesn’t need to live in the city to survive. And with the clear example of the rotting (and short lived) modern American suburban experiment fresh in his mind, the answer seems abundantly clear.

Yes, modern progress has led to urbanization. And there is no doubt that urbanity is one of the cornerstones of civilization. But certain western nations (in North America especially) have a unique set of circumstances which allow for the average citizen to have the best of both worlds: the culture and education of modern civilization alongside the peacefulness and serenity of the beautiful countryside.

I made a somewhat tongue in cheek comment above that our current epoch is a “sweet spot”. That’s because, without going full Malthusian, it’s clear that eventually the growth in human population with outgrow the land mass available. Given the massive amount of open land in North America and the continuing trend toward urbanization this would likely take a long ass time (hence my earlier “out of my ass” prediction of a millennium – which is a blink of an eye in terms of the history of the earth).

The take away here is that we live in a unique historical crossroads. We’re at a point in time where human knowledge has provided the average middle class citizen the ability to buy cheap land and live a moderately independent lifestyle. There will soon come a time when the growth in human population which results from these technological and scientific advancements will cause a scarcity of land and this window of opportunity will close. All it takes is a steady professional income and a good amount of financial foresight and this new “American dream” can be yours.

As a 24 year old making almost three times as much as the average high school graduate, I plan on taking full advantage of this opportunity. 🙂

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