Do you live in the world’s most advanced nation? Or is it next to yours, or nearby?
Leaders from many nations are apt to declare theirs exceptional – perhaps the most prolific, the most righteous, the best positioned, or indeed the most advanced. Such declarations are often good politics, frequently are viewed internally as self-evident or sacrosanct, and naturally play well to local audiences, especially ones that have not considered these claims too carefully.
But which modern nation really is the best, or most advanced? It’s a question I take up in my book, The Seven Keys of Natural Life, and one I think is quite important and productive.
One answer of course is to hold that the question makes no sense, that it is impossible to answer, notably since nations are all complicated, distinctive, and thus incomparable. Other responses might involve the idea that the question is divisive and unhelpful, that none are foremost and therefore all are similar, or even that all are similarly flawed and unworthy of the label of most advanced. Importantly, each of these answers involves the assumption that such comparisons or rankings – whether involving nations or other complex entities – are inherently unreliable, dubious, or absurd.
By considering the specific question of the world’s most advanced nation, I will demonstrate that this thinking is generally unwise, dismissive, superficial, or naïve. Overall, and building on my recent piece Answering Hard Questions, I believe it overlooks the practical power and enormous natural learning opportunities reliably available to us by considering just these sorts of comparative (and comparatively hard) questions, even if our answers to them are always imperfect, controversial, and debatable – but thereby also improvable.
After all, we routinely compare things, even complex things, and often quite usefully, beneficially, and instructively. Our level of information and rigor in making these comparisons can of course vary widely, influencing the quality of our judgements. But this fact suggests the need and opportunity for care with our comparisons, rather than avoiding or downplaying them altogether, especially in crucial areas – and again especially since incisive comparisons can be quite helpful, even as they are always naturally incomplete or imperfect.
A more constructive, and ultimately more learning-rich, way of answering the question of the most advanced nation on earth today, or the most advanced anything at any point in time, is to begin from the idea that the answer inevitably depends on our criteria, our decision factors, or what is often called the foundational framing of our analysis. Not only does this approach at once aid, and wisely temper, comparisons of all kinds, the process of making our comparison criteria explicit and subject to review can be as instructive and beneficial as the specific conclusions we ultimately draw when employing them.