Is the World Getting Better and, if so, Why?


From a reader of my blog:

I admire your efforts to discuss issues. However, it seems your worldview is to defend the “status quo”, to say “things are pretty good”, to denigrate the critics, to downplay the negative. Perhaps this is one of the characteristics of a “conservative”.  I, and many others, on the other hand, look at the world and our country, and see many problems, much injustice, much that needs changed. … In addition, the “free market” is largely a myth. Finally, to the extent our country has many positive attributes, who do you think was responsible—those satisfied with the status quo or those who worked and struggled and protested and brought about change?

The above statement is an intelligent criticism of the point of view expressed on this blog. I will respond to it by more fully describing where I’m coming from.
First of all, I am a non-ideological (i.e. registered independent) fiscal conservative and social moderate. Furthermore, I have had much good fortune in my life. I am a citizen of a free and prosperous democratic country. I come from a loving and supportive family. I have received a good education and, in fact, have been a long time tenured university professor (now retired).
Secondly, perhaps as a result of my own good fortune, I tend to be optimistic. I believe that the world is getting better. Not in a straight line, of course, but slowly and surely, even if there are many twists and turns.
There is much objective evidence for overall optimism as I have previously demonstrated, see here and here.
To briefly summarize:

  • The good old days are now, referring to global wealth rising steeply from about 1800.
  • Freedom. In 1950 31% of the world lived in democracies. Today it is 64%.
  • Equality. Minority rights, women’s rights and gay rights have all increased enormously in the last 100 years.

Conclusion. I am not Panglossian (i.e. this is not the “best of all possible worlds”) nor do I believe that progress just occurs on its own. But progress is relentless, nevertheless. Stay tuned!

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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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