The Remarkable Human Progress of the Last 200 Years II. What Has Caused It?


In my last post, “The Remarkable Human Progress of the Last 200 Years,” I presented the findings of a new book by Johan Norberg, “Progress: ten reasons to look forward to the future.”  Mr. Norberg details how much human welfare has progressed in such fundamental ways as food availability, improvements in sanitation, increased life expectancy, poverty reduction, gains in literacy, decline of slavery, and equal rights for all.
This raises the obvious question: What is responsible for all of this enormous progress?

capture52An answer to this question is provided by Matt Ridley in his book, “The Rational Optimist: how prosperity evolves.”  First of all, Mr. Ridley points out that since the year 1800, income per capita has increased nine times (in constant dollars) and even though the rich have gotten richer, the poor have done even better.
But in addition it is the “invention of invention” attributed to the evolution of human nature which has led to the explosion of innovation in the past two centuries.  So what propels this explosion of invention?  According to Mr. Ridley:

  • It is not Driven by Science. In fact science is more like the daughter than the mother of technology.
  • Money is important to innovation but not paramount. For example, the pharmaceutical industry often simply buys small firms which have developed big ideas, rather than large companies developing their own products,
  • There is little evidence that Intellectual Property, i.e. patents, is what drives inventors to invent.
  • Government is bad at innovation. In fact it is more likely to crowd out resources which could be put to better use by the private sector.
  • In fact it is the ever-increasing Exchange of ideas which causes the ever-increasing rate of innovation in the modern world.

Conclusion. “The more you prosper, the more you can prosper. The more you invent, the more inventions become possible. … There is an inexhaustible river of invention and discovery irrigating the fragile crop of human welfare.”

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The Remarkable Human Progress of the Last 200 Years


About a month ago I had a post, “Optimism or Pessimism for the Future: Which is More Justified?” in which I referred to the book, “The Rational Optimist,” by Matt Ridley to point out all of the positive trends in present day society. I come back to this topic today because of another remarkable new book, “Progress: ten reasons to look forward to the future,” by the Swedish economic historian, Johan Norberg. The following brief illustrated comments give the flavor of Mr. Norberg’s book:

  • The Good Old Days Are Now, referring to the rapid rise in global wealth starting in about the year 1800.capture43
  • Food. In 1968 Paul Ehrlich wrote in The Population Bomb that “in the 1970s, the world will undergo famines and hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.” Yet just the opposite happened.capture44
  • Sanitation. Consider that in 1980 only 24% of the world’s population had access to proper sanitation and today this has increased to 68%.capture48
  • Life Expectancy. Consider that smallpox was totally eradicated in 1980 and that the number of annual cases of polio has been reduced from 350,000 in 1988 to just 416 today.capture49
  • Poverty. Between 1981 and 2015 the proportion of the developing world population living in extreme poverty (less than $2 per day) fell from 54% to 12%.capture50
  • Literacy. The global ratio of female literacy to male literacy increased from 59% to 91% between 1970 and 2010.capture45
  • Freedom. In 1950 31% of the world population lived in democracies, increasing to 58% in the year 2000. Today that number has increased to 64%.capture46
  • Equality. Minority rights, women’s rights and gay rights have all increased enormously during the last 100 years.capture51

The author concludes, “Even though wealth and human lives can be destroyed, knowledge rarely disappears. It keeps on growing.  Therefore any kind of backlash is unlikely to ruin human progress entirely.  But progress is not automatic.  It is the result of hard-working people and brave individuals. If progress is to continue, you and I will have to carry the torch.”

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