What Progress Looks Like

by Luke Muehlhauser on March 20, 2011 in Video

Ten years ago, if I had wanted to point to an example of human progress, I would have pointed to Iceland. But then they deregulated their banks and went bankrupt within a decade.

So instead I point you to Norway. Among other things, they hired a philosopher to figure out how to distribute the nation’s oil wealth, and preserve its value for future generations.


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{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

David Rogers March 20, 2011 at 12:18 pm

For your consideration:


Comment however you like.


Bill Maher March 20, 2011 at 12:50 pm
Thrasymachus March 20, 2011 at 12:55 pm

Sounds like a preposterously sensible country.


Zak March 20, 2011 at 1:53 pm

David, that number is not much different from America’s.



cl March 20, 2011 at 2:34 pm

Among other [Norway], they hired a philosopher to figure out how to distribute the nation’s oil wealth, and preserve its value for future generations.

You mean scientists aren’t the answer to everything?


Alex March 20, 2011 at 4:27 pm

David, for your consideration, I need to inform you that the numbers are high not because of something wrong with the country, but because the country’s culture have a high tolerance and compassion for mental health (and hence will report more freely on it). Other cultures and other countries do not talk about mental illness, as if that’s a weakness to fit for real men to deal with, and – somewhat sadly – I now live in one such country (and I can attest that the numbers reported here are just as high, but with an expected higher rate due to under-reporting, which is a problem specially dealt with). There’s a world-wide growing acceptance that mental health is something to be taken more seriously, but some countries are quantum leaps ahead in recognizing this, and Norway’s one of those. (“First step in avoiding a trap, is knowing of its existence”, or, progress comes after admittance of a problem)


Bill Maher March 20, 2011 at 5:16 pm

You mean scientists aren’t the answer to everything?  

Just all of the ones about what is.


mopey March 20, 2011 at 5:19 pm

cl wrote:
You mean scientists aren’t the answer to everything?

ya… surprised that Luke mention this, since the philosopher in question, Henrik Syse, argues that a robust natural law theory cannot be constructed successfully except on a “Christian, or at least a religious, basis”.

Syse’s book, Natural Law, Religion, and Rights, does provide a decent background on the history of rights, but his religious bias is palpable.


Alex March 20, 2011 at 5:45 pm


Syse is a mild form of the disease, mostly a deist but with a few laspses into God-of-the-gaps with special pleading for Jebus. Even though Norway has a state church, and even if the line between state and church are ever disputed, I think there could have not been a state philosopher at this time* in Norway had he not have had any link to the cultural religion of the country. I think Luke linked to this because there is a philosopher in there *at*all*, that there is a drive for asking questions about value, a few steps up from doctrinal assertion of value you’ll find in a lot of other countries. (Norway has a long tradition of [quite good] farmer philosophers, and this is an extension of that)

In the video it was mentioned by a conservative politician that he is as a conservative in Norway what in the US he would have been called a liberal. Transpose that same level of religiosity to this guy, a liberal theist with deistic lapses caused by the trauma of culture and context. :)

* Give it another 10-20 years.


Patrick March 20, 2011 at 11:01 pm

Another Norwegian contribution explains how the Christian work ethic and the Christian view of reality laid the foundations of progress in the Western world.



Curt March 21, 2011 at 1:46 am

Just a small quibble. Norway has a low population with lots of petro wealth.
It makes what they have done much easier to do.
Therefore I still perfer Cuba, Finland, Sweden, or even Switzerland as political models.
Of these four what Cuba DOES with what Cuba has compared to the other countries in quite impressive. That might upset the democratic sensabilities of some readers.
The thing is in a democracy only honest, mentally competent people should be allowed to vote. In some large so called democracies by the time all of the real unconvicted criminals, and undiagnosed insantiy cases, and real mentally handicaped cases were removed from the voting roles the only thing that would be left would be Marxists of one type or another.
I say this as a recovering member of the US Libertarian Party from 1979 to 1999.
I do not think that libertarians are bad people they just have an enormous blind spot in their brain when it comes to the practical consequences of their policies. I learned from reading your website that there is a philosophical reason for this.
Most of them are philisophical deontoligists not consequenstialists.
Crushed Cranberry Curt


Haukur March 21, 2011 at 3:50 am

Ten years ago, if I had wanted to point to an example of human progress, I would have pointed to Iceland. But then they deregulated their banks and went bankrupt within a decade.

We’re actually still doing fine. A bit poorer but just as happy or nearly so. Check this November 2010 poll (page 2). The question asked is: “On the whole, are you very satisfied, fairly satisfied, not very satisfied or not at all satisfied with the life you lead?”

The numbers for Iceland are:

63% very satisfied
36% fairly satisfied
1% not very satisfied
0% not at all satisfied

An unhappiness rate of 1% routes everyone else in this poll. The runner-ups are Denmark (3% unhappy) , Sweden (4% unhappy) and the Netherlands (4% unhappy).

And again, this is in post-financial meltdown Iceland – what Paul Krugman called “one of the great economic disaster stories of all time”.

Average happiness in the European Union is:

20% very satisfied
58% fairly satisfied
16% not very satisfied
6% not at all satisfied


Patrick March 21, 2011 at 3:56 am


The article in the following link calls into question what you claim.



Curt March 21, 2011 at 7:14 am

like the bailout of the bangsters is not a case of socialism preventing the collapse of capitalism?
By the way did I forget to mention that for 20 years I was the lover of Murray Rothbard, and Ron Paul, Lew Rokwell, CATO, and Reason.
You may think that my economic positions were right then and that I am wrong now but I I do not think that any one has any thing new that they can tell me in reference to the socialism-capitalism debate.
Creedence Clearwater Curt


Patrick March 21, 2011 at 4:33 pm

Not only to the technological progress did Christianity contribute, but also to the concept of Human Rights, which also may be seen as an example of human progress. The connection between Christianity and the concept of Human Rights is explained in the following links:




http://www.social-europe.eu/fileadmin/user_upload/journals/Vol3-Issue2/SocialEurope-10.pdf (pp. 59-67)


Kyle Key March 21, 2011 at 4:40 pm

The article you link to applies only, as it says in the title, to “welfare states.” How about us (libertarian) socialists that are against the State?


Patrick March 21, 2011 at 5:23 pm

Kyle Key

It’s not may aim here to argue against the welfare state. I don’t regard myself as a libertarian. Living in Europe I just wanted to draw people’s attention to the fact that in many European countries the welfare state faces severe problems, and that things are not everywhere as ideal as the film about Norway might suggest. In fact, as has already been mentioned, Norway due to its oil wealth and low population certainly is a special case. Another European state that the article in the link doesn’t mention and that had to change its welfare policy is Germany, where the reform of the welfare state resulted in the “Hartz concept” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hartz_concept).


juhou March 22, 2011 at 6:16 am

The wierd thing about that prison example in the clip is that in Finland we have the exact same system. The longest time penalty is about 12 years. There is a life sentence but most of those with a life sentence get pardon at about 15 years. The results of our system (copied from sweden btw in both cases) are not even nearly as good. Finland has the second highest murder rate in western (by that I mean rich) world after united states. Evidence here: http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/cri_mur_percap-crime-murders-per-capita

I don’t think the prison system actually has as much to do with it as maybe cultural, genetical and psychological factors have.

The per capita income thing has without a doubt a lot to do with oil in norway. Norway is the third largest exporter of oil in the world which makes the whole green thing a bit wierd also. Just identifying some of the flaws.


Luke Muehlhauser March 22, 2011 at 6:23 am


Yup, good points. That all sounds right to me.


juhou March 22, 2011 at 6:23 am


Take a look at this: http://www.taxfoundation.org/blog/show/27134.html

There is information about how much of the tax burden is being payed by the rich in different countries. In the US rich pay the highest tax burden as a percentage of total taxation. This would mean that European countries actually can increase taxation on the rich to pay of some of that debt burden that our countries have. For example Finland could increase tax burden to the rich by up to 13% to be on the same level as US.


Patrick March 22, 2011 at 7:57 am


It seems to me that a decisive difference between the USA and European countries in this respect is that that the former is much larger and that rich people there are more reluctant to move to other places when the taxes are too high for them. In Europe on the other hand it is not unusual that rich people when faced with such a situation move to other countries with lower taxes or at least they try to hide their money from the state by transferring it to tax havens. Liechtenstein, my home country, is such a tax haven. Another example is Switzerland, which for a long time also benefitted from money brought to it by rich people from abroad, due to the bank secrecy and the distinction between tax evasion and tax fraud (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banking_in_Switzerland#Banking_privacy). In both countries things changed dramatically about three years ago (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2008_Liechtenstein_tax_affair). But there is still the opportunity to move to another country where the tax for rich people is lower.

It seems to me that things such as oil wealth or a specific bank or tax policy may be useful to gather wealth for a certain time. But in the long run increase in productivity as well as innovation, as explained in the article mentioned in my first comment, may be more important. A good example of the role of technological innovation is the watch industry in Switzerland (http://www.fhs.ch/en/history.php).


juhou March 22, 2011 at 8:29 am


I agree that productivity is the key to GDP growth in the long run. I also agree that tax havens and the like are a problem to what I just said. However I think it is a EU wide problem and therefore it can be dealt with on that level. Tax havens and funds and the like are also a problem in the US but they do not seem to significantly affect the tax burden that rich pay.

Oil wealth, tax policies, protectionism and such things in my opinion do help countries grow in the short run but in the long run productivity growth seems to be the key. That is when countries hit the technology frontier. There it seems to me that the welfare state has a lot to offer as a solution of how to get the most skilled people to work on appropriate levels. In the US this seems to have been done via immigration. It seems that more and more foreigners are studying in the US and some of them stay there which benefits the nation.


Patrick March 22, 2011 at 11:35 am


As far as I can see in European countries neither the welfare state nor immigration contribute to economic wealth, at least not for the time being. As the average age of the population rises, immigration would be an important means to ensure retirement pensions. But as immigrants tend to be uneducated and professionally unqualified they live on social welfare above average, which makes things worse. On the other hand there is a shortage of qualified people, especially engineers. As you said, qualified emigrants tend to go to the US rather than to Europe, which for all I know also has to do with bureaucratical obstacles. So, attracting qualified immigrants and enhancing the average educational level may be a good long term strategy in this respect.


Patrick March 22, 2011 at 2:17 pm

That there is a correlation between the average level of education and economic growth was shown in a paper entitled “When did Modern Economic Growth Really Start: The Empirics of Malthus to Solow”, written by Alvaro S. Pereira (http://www.uoguelph.ca/~cneh/pdfs/pereira.pdf). On page 47 we can read:

“… the paper presented some cross-country evidence for two main periods: 1500-1820 and 1820-1870. Cross-country regressions show that: 1) literacy was highly correlated with the level of economic development and the rates of per capita growth, 2) the average number of children per woman was negatively correlated with per capita GDP growth as well as literacy rates, and 3) urbanization was positively correlated with literacy.”

That Christianity may have played an important part in the spread of literacy can be seen from the following link:


A case study about literacy and the level of education in the Canton of Zurich in Switzerland in the 17th and 18th centuries, entitled “Alphabetisierung und Lektüre: Untersuchung am Beispiel einer ländlichen Region im 17. und 18. Jahrhundert” (Berne 1981), written by Marie-Louise von Wartburg-Ambühl shows that between 1625 and 1774 the rate of literacy grew from about a quarter to about three quarters of the population.


juhou March 22, 2011 at 3:33 pm


Well I think you just showed some evidence that education level increases labor productivity and therefore increases economic growth. I think welfare state with free schools and such increases education level of the population as a whole and therefore increases productivity of the workers in the population. Therefore welfare state is good for growth at least partly. There are other areas in which welfare states are bad for growth. Too high unemployment benefits and poverty traps as a couple of examples.


Patrick March 23, 2011 at 2:24 pm


You may be right. But I must admit that I’m not the great expert on the welfare state.


Curt March 24, 2011 at 2:53 am

I am probably to late with this comment as I suspect that no one will come back to this thread. I wished that this had come to mind a few days ago. I guess that I was unneccissarily distracted. The subject of education has come up as a key to improving productivty.
I would like people to consider how much, or little, the standard of living in the industiralized world would have risen in the last 150 years had not not been able to exploit the cheap energy of the labor of the third world and even more importantly the even cheaper energy provided by coal and oil.
WE take these things for granted because they are invisible to us.


Mike Young March 26, 2011 at 2:12 am

It,s easy to have a high standard of living when you have 4.9 million people and produce 2.9 million barrels of oil per day. Norway is the third largest exporter of oil in the world right now (up from 9th on 2006). They could not have fucked this up if they tried desperatly. It is not that they have figured out an ingenius managment scheme, it is that they have so much oil that they can’t help but be fabulously wealthy. Given that standards of living correlate closely with crime rates this video is no surprise. Norway is not a study in progress, it is a study in have vaste oil reserves in comparison to a tiny population.
In order to help you avoid another blunder I hereby introduce two rules.
1. Do not attribute to political ideology what can be explained by geography, economy and demographics
2. Follow the materials.

Luke see your exchange with juhou for why we follow the rules. Finland and Norway are similer in size, pupoulation, culture (reletively similer anyway) and government. The difference? GDP of Norway 433 billion. GDP of Finland 183 billion.
This is why we dont use norway as a political model, no other country on earth has that combination of oil wealth and sparse population.


piero March 27, 2011 at 6:03 pm

Mike Young:
I disagree with your argument. It is not only a matter of availability of resources; if that were the case, we should expect Saudi Arabia and the Arab Emirates to be paragons of civility. In case this is news to you, they are not.


Mike Young April 5, 2011 at 6:34 am

Piero, Saudi arabis and the ARab emerites do not have the per capita wealth that norway has. Remeber, Norway crushes them in per capita wealth. Its not just the amount of total resources, it is the ratio of total resources to number of people


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