The great story of our era? Underneath all the bad news that makes headlines, it’s been the steady and increasingly rapid increase around the globe of human flourishing, of human progress.
Despite what we hear on the news and from many authorities, the great story of our era is that we are witnessing the greatest improvement in global living standards ever to take place. Poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, child labour and infant mortality are falling faster than at any other time in human history. Life expectancy at birth has increased more than twice as much in the last century as it did in the previous 200,000 years. The risk that any individual will be exposed to war, die in a natural disaster, or be subject to dictatorship has become smaller than in any other epoch. A child born today is more likely to reach retirement age than his forbears were to live to their fifth birthday.
Indeed, in industrialised South Korea now the life expectancy for women is soon expected to be approaching ninety. Ninety! This was simply unimaginable even just half a century ago; yet now, this sort of news barely makes a ripple against the tidal wave of news telling us what industrialisation and global free trade is allegedly doing to the planet, ignoring what it is doing for human beings.
In his latest book, Progress, Johan Norberg suggests “three reasons for the massive improvements in global standards of living.”
First, he credits the intellectual Enlightenment, which replaced traditions and superstitions with reason and empiricism. Second, he points to the ideas of classical liberalism, which replaced serfdom and authoritarianism with individual liberty and liberal democracy. Third, he notes the role played by the Industrial Revolution in replacing hunger and poverty with prosperity and abundance.
To paraphrase economist George Reisman, it should be no more surprising that a good economist should promote all three than that a good surgeon would promote scientific research and a sterile surgery.
You’ll notice however that all three related sets of ideas are under attack. This might tell you that continued human progress is not inevitable, but does rely on the defending the ideas that make it possible.
Ideas are not a parlour game. In the end, it is ideas that move the world, for good and bad.