The Five Keys to Progress (Part 1): An Introduction to the concept and why it matters

This is the first post in a series of posts related to the concept of the “Five Keys to Progress”. If this is the first post that you have ever read on my blog, I would recommend starting with An Introduction to Progress: Mankind’s Greatest Accomplishment, and then moving on to this post.

We live in a world of progress. People living in Western nations today have a level of affluence far surpassing anything ever seen on planet Earth. Even the poor in Western nations have a level of affluence that is higher than all but the richest people had in 1970.

All across the world nations are being transformed from oppressive poverty to a level of affluence that was once only possible in Western nations. Japan, South Korea, China, India, Singapore, Botswana, Chile and Puerto Rico all transformed themselves within one generation. Even in some of the poorest nations of Sub-Saharan Africa levels of education, health, literacy, sanitation, longevity, transportation, communication, and housing are rapidly increasing.

Progress is mankind’s greatest achievement. It has transformed our lives in so many positive ways… But we take it for granted.

This is a startling transformation compared to how humans have lived over the past hundred thousand years. For most of human history, there was little if any progress. Most humans lived in societies that changed very little over the course of their lifetime. The vast majority of peoples in the past were trapped in circumstances that were very similar to their parents’ and their grandparents’. They knew that their children and grandchildren would live in very similar circumstances. The only changes that people experienced were wars, crop failures, droughts, epidemics and famines.

Virtually all of our ancestors lived in societies that were highly constrained by geographical limits. They lived in a world where acquiring food took up the bulk of their waking hours. Entire societies were structured around the quest to acquire enough food to survive and reproduce in their local environment. This quest was so all-encompassing that little time was left to solve other problems.

Humanity lived in a stable state because technological innovation occurred very rarely, and any increased wealth either went to expanding the population or lining the pockets of entrenched elites. Individuals experienced progress, but societies did not.

Then within a span of a few lifetimes, billions of people started to experience progress. An elderly European who died in 1920 saw more progress in their lifetime than all the other previous generations of Europeans combined. An elderly person today has seen more progress for the entire world in their lifetime than all of human history combined. It has been a stunning transformation.

Introducing the Five Keys to Progress

As I argue in my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humanity Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going, to transition from poverty to progress, a society needs to acquire and maintain the Five Keys to Progress.

I believe that the Five Keys to Progress is an essential unifying concept for understanding progress. The Five Keys to Progress are so critical because they are the fundamental preconditions needed for a society to transition from a state of poverty to a state of progress. Just as important, they are actionable in today’s world. In other words, the concept not only helps to understand the world, but also how to make it better.

The Five Keys to Progress enable us to cut through all the clutter of history and modern times so that we can focus on what really matters. The Five Keys to Progress enable us to answer some of history’s most difficult questions, as well as provide policy solutions and practices that can make the world a better place.

Using the concept of the Five Keys to Progress, it is easier to understand:

  • The historical origins of progress.
  • Why progress took so long to get started.
  • How and why progress started in Northwest Europe
  • How and why progress spread to different societies over time
  • Why so many poor nations were left without progress for centuries
  • Which forces threaten progress today.
  • What policies and practices wealthy nations need to adopt to keep their progress going
  • What policies and practices developing nations need to adopt to enjoy greater progress

So what are the Five Keys to Progress? To transition from poverty to progress, a society needs to acquire:

  1. A highly efficient food production and distribution system. This enables societies to overcome geographical constraints to food production so that large numbers of people can focus on solving problems other than getting enough food to eat.
  2. Trade-based cities packed with a large number of free citizens possessing a wide variety of skills. These people innovate new technologies, skills and social organizations and copy the innovations made by others.
  3. Decentralized political, economic, religious and ideological power. Of particular importance are elites being forced into transparent, non-violent competition that undermines their ability to forcibly extract wealth from the masses. This also allows citizens to freely choose among institutions based upon how much they have offer to each individual and society in general.
  4. At least one high value-added industry that exports to the rest of the world. This injects wealth into the city or region, accelerates economic growth and creates markets for smaller local industries and services.
  5. Widespread use of fossil fuels. The incredible energy density of fossil fuels inject vast amounts of useful energy into society enabling it to solve a wide variety of problems. Without this energy, life would return to the daily struggle for survival that dominated most of human history.

The degree to which peoples have enjoyed progress is largely determined by long-run historical factors that go back centuries or even millennia. These factors determined the extent to which societies acquired the five keys to progress. For most of human history, there was no progress, because these Five Keys to Progress were either completely missing or were very underdeveloped.

Each of the Five Keys are necessary preconditions for a society to transition from a state of poverty to a state of progress, but none are sufficient by themselves. It is only when a society combined the first four keys that it created sufficient conditions for pre-Industrial progress. When a society adds the fifth key to the other four, it creates sufficient conditions for Industrial progress in the modern era.

What About All Those Other Competing Theories?

To the best of my knowledge, no other author has identified these Five Keys to Progress. Many have written about some or all of them and noticed their importance, but then chose to focus on other causes that they feel were more important. A few focus on one of the Five Keys to Progress and consider that one key to be the most important cause but ignore the other four. To the best of my knowledge, none have focused on all five and shown why other potential causes are not as important as they seem.

One needs to be leery about announcing a new breakthrough. The topic that I am addressing is one of the most controversial and heavily researched in all of history and social science. Dozens, if not hundreds, of books have been written on the subject. Among the causal factors that other authors have identified include: freedom, property rights, rule of law, free trade, patents, democracy, military competition, separation of church and state, railroads, education, literacy, Protestantism, Christianity, Western family structures, the fall of the Roman empire, the Enlightenment, useful knowledge, the scientific method, capital markets, communication technology, feudalism, manorialism, modern medicine, transportation, religious pluralism and many more. And the above list is far from comprehensive. If I made a comprehensive list of all the presumed causes in the literature, I could probably fill this entire blog post.

If you strongly agree with one or more of the above factors and find them more persuasive than my arguments, I would encourage you to carefully read “Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World” by Deirdre McCloskey. In her book she thoroughly demolishes all of the other competing explanations for what she calls “The Great Enrichment” or what I call “progress.”

I could not explain it all better, so I decided to not even try. Seriously, if you are at all interested in economic history or the origins of progress, you must read her book!

As an aside, I find her theory that the cause of progress are the ideas of Bourgeois Liberty and Dignity to be less compelling than her criticism of other theories. At its most fundamental level, I am a materialist and McCloskey is an idealist.

I would ask McCloskey: “So why did the idea of Bourgeois Liberty and Dignity arise when and where it did? And do you have evidence that it arose before the rise of Commercial cities in Northern Italy around 1300. And if it came from elsewhere, did it come before or after the bourgeois came to play an important role in those societies? And if it came from elsewhere, why did it not trigger the Great Enrichment there?”

I can find no logical reason why respect and admiration for the bourgeois would emerge in a society before the bourgeois started to play an important role in that society. What could possibly cause that change in public opinion? Nor can I find any evidence that it did (granted, without polling data, it is difficult to know what the masses thought 800 years ago).

I believe that respect and liberty for the bourgeois came after they showed results in the city/states of Northern Italy. I believe that McCloskey has identified yet another important result of progress, not a cause of it. It is the Five Keys to Progress that is the ultimate cause. As we will see, this cause-or-effect problem is common to virtually all the other proposed causes in the current literature.

If you do not believe me, go through the list that I made above and ask yourself for each of them: “Does the theorists explain where these supposed causes came from in the first place? What caused the cause?” Very few have an adequate answer to that question. So they just push back the problem to an earlier time.

Because my book includes a includes a full causal chain that goes back to forces that existed before modern humans existed- biology, geography, energy and evolution – my theory does not have the same problem as competing theories. But you will just have to buy the book, to read that part.

What Took Us So Long to Discover the Five Keys to Progress?

This should make you immediately wonder: if so many presumably intelligent writers who had a deep knowledge of history came to so many different conclusions, how will we ever know the real causes? And more importantly, why should I think that I have gotten it right and everyone else got it wrong. Why has no one else identified the Five Keys to Progress?

Here is the problem: almost all of the previous authors are partly correct, and none of them are entirely correct. They are all correct because each of the identified factors were necessary for continuing progress and long-term economic growth. Progress involves thousands of proximate (or most immediate) causes including technologies, skills, organizations, policy and many others.

The proximate causes of ongoing progress are, in the words of social scientists, “over-determined.” In other words, there are so many causes that influence the transition from poverty to progress and its continuation, they interact with each other in complex ways, and it is almost impossible to separate their effects out to find the one key causal factor. Worse we often have a critical lack of datasets that make it difficult to apply sophisticated statistical techniques to untangle the causes.

Typically, previous researchers focused on one specific time period and geographical region, identified what seems to them to be an important factor that separates a specific nation or region from others during that time period, and then examined how that factor developed over time. Most focused on one cause, but others focused on a handful. Some of them used sophisticated statistical techniques to isolate the effects of individual variables.

The problem is that these methods are very sensitive to the time period and region that the author selects. When one “freezes” progress at any one time and place, there are a huge number of factors that “cause” that progress. But it is very difficult to separate cause from effect. It is also very difficult to separate proximate causes (those that are most immediate) from ultimate causes. Indeed, there is a common, though unconscious, practice of completely neglecting ultimate causes in favor of focusing on seemingly more relevant proximate causes.

I believe, however, that there is another way. Rather than looking at all the factors that a prosperous societies requires to continue its progress at any one specific time and place, we need to identify the few factors that are both necessary and sufficient to start progress in the first place. This makes it essential to identify when progress got started.

I view progress as an evolutionary process that was initiated by the establishment of certain preconditions: The Five Keys to Progress. We can call those preconditions “ultimate causes.” That progress continues as long as those preconditions persist.

Just like biological life, another evolutionary process, a society that is experiencing progress is composed of individuals that will find solutions to get all the other things that progress needs to survive, reproduce and expand. These solutions are the proximate causes of progress at a specific time and place. But they are not ultimate causes. They are, in fact, the result of ultimate causes. There are dozens, if not hundreds of proximate cause to progress, but there are only five ultimate causes.

Once a society acquires the Five Keys to Progress, society transforms from a relatively stagnant and poor society to a vast, decentralized problem-solving network. That network is full of individuals who have both the ability and the incentive to acquire all the other factors that are necessary to keep progress going. It may take a great deal of time, but those individuals are guaranteed to succeed if the necessary preconditions persist.

For example, a society does not need much literacy to start the transition to progress, but once the transition occurs, the society has a strong incentive to found schools and adopt literacy as a part of their curriculum. Having a skilled workforce is key to further development, so support rapidly builds to find a solution.

For the earliest societies to experience progress, this means inventing an educational system or at least radically reforming an existing one. For later societies they can merely copy what is already working in the richer societies that have experienced progress longer and then modify it to better fit local conditions. For these reasons, literacy is critically important proximate cause, but is not an ultimate cause.

Once society transforms into a vast, decentralized problem-solving network someone will find a way to either innovate or copy all the other factors that are needed to maintain progress. In other words, previous researchers have large focused on proximate causes and results/benefits of progress that will naturally evolve once progress initiates, whereas they have missed the Five Keys to Progress that are ultimate causes. Progress cannot start or continue without significant progress on all of those five keys.

So I believe that once progress starts, as long as the preconditions are maintained, all the solutions require to expand progress will inevitably be found given enough time. If I am correct, this undermines the vast majority of the supposed causes of progress. Indeed, I reconceive those supposed causes of progress as being the benefits of progress.

So should we dismiss the importance of these proximate causes and the results/benefits of progress? No, absolutely not. They are critical to understand. But particularly if we are focused on keeping progress going in wealthy nations and helping developing nations to transition from poverty to progress, we must focus relentlessly on ultimate causes (i.e. the five keys to progress) and remain confident that the other factors will take care of themselves.

This is a particular problem with those who focus on recent leading-edge technological innovation. They typically focus on a very small technological domain in a very small time period in only one nation: the United States. This is also a serious problem for typical economists who are not well-schooled in economic history.

All of this means that most researchers come to incorrect conclusions and give incorrect policy advise. Worse, they do not realize that they are doing basing their policy advise on flawed assumptions, and they encourage others to come to the same wrong conclusions.

Why have so many previous researchers made this mistake? I believe it is because they have not had a wide enough time frame, and they have not investigated enough societies or potential causes. Many investigators of progress and economic growth focus on this year or the last decade. A few more investigators focus on the last 50 years. Some go back as far as the Industrial Revolution and investigate the subsequent 200 years. Most modern investigators focus on Britain, the United States and Europe. Some focus on one nation or region outside the West.

Others researchers come from the opposite end and examine pre-Industrial history, but they do not apply what we know from more recent history to their findings. Researcher of the distant past (say more than 1000 years) tends to focus on biology, culture, geography, religion, language, philosophy, state-building and wars. Researchers of today and the last 200 years tend to focus on technological innovation, science, institutions, and economics.

Very few researchers cover both pre-Industrial and Industrial history and focus on all the potential causal factors listed above. So they have not been able to find the right answer because they have looked in the wrong places and started with the wrong assumptions.

Another key part of the problem is the widespread belief that progress started with the Industrial Revolution in Britain some time between 1750 and 1850. Most researchers start with an assumption that there was a pre-Industrial era and a very different Industrial era. Typically those researchers have only a basic knowledge of the pre-Industrial era and use the theories of Thomas Malthus to explain the time before the Industrial Revolution. They then focus on the incredible innovations of the Industrial Revolution and the following centuries.

This focus on the Industrial Revolution is very useful, as it was one of the most impactful developments in world history. A huge number of books and articles have investigated the causes and effects of the Industrial Revolution. The list of proposed causes is almost as long as the earlier list that I mentioned earlier. Though they often disagree, our knowledge of progress has been greatly advanced by these researchers. But all their work rests on assumptions that are partially flawed.

I believe that progress started centuries earlier, and it started because four of the five keys to progress evolved during that time period in a few geographical areas. The reason why that earlier progress has been obscured is that it was restricted to a few small commercial city/states in Northern Italy and then Flanders. It then expanded to relatively small nations of the Dutch Republic and southeastern England. These regions were dwarfed in size by France, Spain, Russia and what later became Germany.

In addition, there are very few researchers that have focused on all four of those societies at once. There are a huge number of books about pre-Industrial England and a much smaller number of books on Northern Italy and Flanders in the Late Middle Ages and the Dutch Republic. Almost no books examine at all four societies, notice their strong resemblance with each other and their strong differences with other societies in Europe and Asia at the same time.

Unless a researcher focuses on those specific Commercial societies, it is very easy to miss early progress. Even European historians of the period often miss it or underestimate its relevance to today. In particular, many specialists of this time period underestimate the differences of the Commercial societies that invented progress and the Agrarian societies that dominated the politics, wars and population of Eurasia. Indeed, they do not even apply the essential terminology of Commercial and Agrarian as labels for these societies. They do so because they underestimate the differences between the differences between those two types of societies.

Previous progress in Northern Italy, the Low Countries and pre-Industrial England have often be hand-waved away as being mere temporary “efflorescences.” This term brings to mind a beautiful flower that wilts after only a few days or weeks. But these efflorescences before the Industrial Revolution lasted centuries. Some of them lasted longer than the time period between now and the Industrial Revolution. They were no more temporary or short-term than the progress of today.

And these researchers ignore the fact that these periods of very real progress ended, not because of inevitable internal causes, but because of military invasion by more powerful kingdoms. If Nazi Germany had won WWII or the Soviet Union had won the Cold War and invaded Western Europe and the United States, killing progress and economic growth, we might consider the Industrial Revolution to be a temporary efflorescence as well. Military power can often destroy progress, but that does not mean that progress never existed.

The real reason that the Industrial Revolution was so critical was not because it created progress, but because it radically accelerated it and spread it to geographical regions where progress was not previously possible. Just as important, the Industrial Revolution radically changed the balance of military power between societies experiencing progress and those that did not. This lowered the threat of military conquest that had previously killed progress in militarily weaker societies.

Before the Industrial Revolution, progress was restricted to very small city/states or small nations. Those nations had relatively small populations. They had very effective armies and navies, but they were typically smaller in size than their rivals. These nations were always under threat from larger and more populous Agrarian regimes. Those Agrarian regimes had powerful militaries that threatened the very existence of those city/states and, therefore, threatened the continuation of progress. The Industrial Revolution turned Britain and particularly the United States into powerful military machines that played a critical role in winning World War I, World War II and the Cold War.

Just as important, the Industrial Revolution created an entire suite of revolutionary technologies powered by fossil fuels that enabled progress to expand to much of Europe, North America and Japan. More recently, progress has expanded to most of East, Southeast and South Asia, where the bulk of human population live. Even Sub-Saharan Africa has experienced very real progress over the last generation. This trend has had an enormous effect on the material standard-of-living for the bulk of humanity. It is an achievement that cannot be underestimated.

But the incredible importance of the Industrial Revolution blinds us as to the ultimate causes of progress. It was during the time period between 1300 and 1830 that a few small societies in Northwest Europe gradually evolved four of the Five Keys to Progress. Studying those societies enables us to realize that much of what we associate as causes of progress are actually the result of progress.

So Why Are the Five Keys Useful?

History matters. Humans have a natural tendency to focus on factors that seem the most relevant today. It seems so obvious that current factors are more important than the distant past. But we need to be aware that this “recency bias,” as psychologists called it, often causes us to miss very important factors that are better understood from a historical perspective.

Ironically, by looking further back in the past, we also become more relevant to the present. Those of us who are interested in keeping progress going in the wealthy nations and starting it in developing nations need to be careful of not being dazzled by the blinding light of the Industrial Revolution. Doing so very easily causes us to give the poor policy advice. If we focus on getting more of the results of progress, we are unlikely to cause positive change and this will undermine the credibility of progress researchers and policy advisors. By pushing back our time horizon from today or 1830 to 1300, we can get a much better understanding of the actual preconditions for progress that are very relevant today.

If we focus exclusively on more recent proximate causes, we are unlikely to give useful policy advise, and this will undermine the credibility of progress researchers and policy advisors. By pushing back our time horizon from today to long-term history, we can get a much better understanding of the actual preconditions for progress that are very relevant today.

From a more theoretical perspective, the five keys to progress are a critical concept because they enable us to better understand history. We can understand why it took so long to achieve progress. There were simply too many preconditions for them to occur randomly in many places.  In particular, agricultural innovation is really difficult, risky as well as highly constrained by geography and short-term variations in weather.

The Five Keys to Progress also enable us to see why some nations today have had such difficulty creating long-term economic growth, while others have been able to suddenly transform within one generation. Economists and development experts typically advice developing nations to establish free trade, lower corruption, establish the rule of law and build institutions. Worse, many environmentalists are advising them to radically cut their use of fossil fuels at a time when they most need them.

While some of this is not entirely incorrect, I believe that this is not very helpful advice. Nations generally acquire free trade, lower corruption, the rule of law and “good” institutions after progress has been well established. Those factors can stabilize economic growth, but they cannot start it. Many newly industrialized nations as well as the ancestors of nations that are rich today followed very different advice from what is currently the conventional wisdom. We should copy what worked and modify it for current conditions.

The Five Keys to Progress also help us to understand what wealthy, Western nations need to do to keep progress going. I believe that the foundations of progress in Western nations are being undermined by an ideological group-think mentality, over-centralization, over-regulation, bureaucratization of institutions, and policies that attempt to abolish fossil fuels, limit agriculture productivity and make our cities unaffordable and less livable.  All of these current problems stem from a neglect of the Five Keys to Progress. If one does not understand the Five Keys, it is easy to miss both the problem and the solution.

My type of logic is very similar to what a large number of free-market economists believe about capitalism. They argue that if you establish free trade, property rights, rule of law and “good” institutions, free people will find a way to solve problems given enough time. Those economists are not interested in explaining every technology, organization or policy that goes along with economic growth. The economist assumes that, given the right preconditions, someone will figure out a solution.

To explain where I differ with those economists, I would ask them the next logical follow-up question: Where do all of those factors come from? What creates free trade, property rights, rule of law and “good” institutions? Why did they evolve in Northwest Europe? How do you transfer those things to other societies? It is not clear the field has answers to those questions.

In my next post in this series, I will explain the first key: Highly Productive Agriculture.

If you would like to learn more about this and other related topics, read my book From Poverty to Progress.


Michael Magoon is the author of the “From Poverty to Progress” series of books. The first book in the series is already published with many more to follow.

The writings above are under the same copyright as the main book “From Poverty to Progress”
Copyright © 2021 Michael Magoon

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