Cato analyst Chelsea Follett to share patterns in human rights advances

Progress is neither linear nor inevitable, yet trends in past advancements in human rights can indicate when it might fluctuate, according to policy analyst and managing editor of Chelsea Follett.

At 10:45 a.m. Wednesday, July 13, in the Amphitheater, Follett will take the lectern to examine what exactly human progress is, and how society can apply the lessons of the past to correct current human rights abuses in her lecture “Human Progress, Humility and the Problems that Remain.”

“My lecture is a broad overview of progress throughout history,” Follett said. “What is progress? Have we made any progress? What kind of progress? Material progress and moral progress: How do those relate? What are the causes of progress? What has allowed people to make progress in the past, and what social conditions have furthered their advocacy? And how can we apply those lessons to the problems that remain today, and how can we use that to tackle the very severe human rights abuses that remain?”

Follett will be the third Chautauqua Lecture Series speaker to talk about human rights in Week Three’s theme “The Future of Human Rights.” is a project of the Cato Institute, an American liberatarian think tank, that provides the public with free empirical data collected from reliable sources that focus on global trends in human progress. 

Follett believes that free access to empirical data about past human rights movements is crucial not only to understanding how the world has become this way, but also to keep perspective in times of political, economic and social strife. 

“I think (the data) helps to counteract the sort of declension narrative view of history that is very unfortunately common, both in just public discourse and in academia where we live in the dregs of the ages, and everything is getting worse,” Follett said. “It’s very easy to get that impression when you just turn on the news and you see headlines reporting truly despicable human rights abuses (and) all of the problems that remain: wars, rising authoritarianism, environmental degradation, inflation.” 

Follett’s career with the Cato Institute began with an internship she held with the think tank in graduate school at the University of Virginia in 2014. Having been inspired by authors Steven Pinker and Matt Ridley (both of whom she now works with at Cato Institute) in her undergraduate years at the College of William & Mary, Follett’s passion for empirical data began. 

“​​I just loved the data-based, evidence-based approach to history that it promotes, and its approach to current events,” Follett said, “(and the) problem-solving mode of thought, where people don’t get into despair, but rather look to history for clues on the policies and institutions that we can adopt to promote progress, both material progress and moral progress, in areas such as human rights.”

Within her eight years at the Cato Institute, Follett made the Forbes’ 30 under 30 list under the category Law & Policy in 2018. Her writing has been published in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Forbes and other news outlets. 

Her lecture will take shape from her upcoming book, Centers of Progress, in which she explores major human advancements in the past in specific cities that can help readers understand how to navigate the current political and social climate. 

“I don’t, in any way, want to downplay the transformative efforts of individuals who have moved progress forward throughout history,” Follett said. “But what we do see is that certain places at certain times in history have contributed disproportionately toward human progress. I believe that is because human rights advocacy and a campaign, or other modes of progress, are the most effective when certain conditions are met.”

Follett says she looks forward to speaking at Chautauqua for the first time, and she hopes to bring a fresh perspective to Chautauquans about the current state of human rights in the United States. 

“I hope that people will come away from the lecture with a renewed sense of hope in the struggle for human rights, (and) that they will take to heart from the reality of moral progress to date, and that it will help them to further promote progress,” Follett said. “While understanding that utopia is forever out of reach, we can show curiosity about the causes and conditions that brought about human progress and morals in the moral realm in the past, and continue that important work of cultivating those conditions to promote human rights going forward.”

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The author Skyler Black

Skyler Black is a rising senior at Miami University studying journalism and emerging technology and business design. At Miami, she reports for UP Magazine and The Miami Student newspaper while also serving as an undergraduate assistant to several journalism classes. This summer, Skyler will report on the environment and Bird, Tree & Garden Club. When not writing, Skyler enjoys listening to music and skiing in her home state of Michigan during winter.