The following essay introduces a new website, Human Progress, hosted by the Cato Institute that debuts today, October 30, 2013. Human Progress seeks to document changes in living standards in the past and present while explaining and exploring the best ways to improve conditions for people.
The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary defines progress as “advancement to a further or higher stage, or to further or higher stages successively; growth; development, usually to a better state or condition; improvement… applied especially to manifestations of social and economic change or reform.”
In a world where we are constantly bombarded with bad news, it can sometimes be difficult to think of “progress” and “humanity” in the same sentence. Are there not wars taking place, people going hungry, children at work, women being abused, and mass poverty around the world?
In fact, for most of human history, life was very difficult for most people. People lacked basic medicines and died relatively young. They had no painkillers and people with ailments spent much of their lives in agonizing pain. Entire families lived in bug-infested dwellings that offered neither comfort nor privacy. They worked in the fields from sunrise to sunset, yet hunger and famines were commonplace. Transportation was primitive and most people never traveled beyond their native villages or nearest towns. Ignorance and illiteracy were rife. The “good old days” were, by and large, very bad for the great majority of humankind.
Average global life expectancy at birth hovered around 30 years from the Upper Paleolithic to 1900. Even in the richest countries, like those of Western Europe, life expectancy at the start of the 20th century rarely exceeded 50 years. Incomes were quite stagnant, too. At the beginning of the Christian era, annual incomes per person around the world ranged from $1,073 to $1,431. As late as 1820, average global income was only $1,274 per person. (Angus Maddison, whose income estimates I use here, gives his data in 1990 dollars. I have adjusted Maddison’s figures for inflation.)
Humanity has made enormous progress—especially over the course of the last two centuries. For example, average life expectancy in the world today is 67.9 years. In 2010, global per capita income stood at $13,037—over 10 times what it was two centuries ago.
Tribal warfare was nine times as deadly as war and genocide in the 20th century. The murder rate in medieval Europe was more than thirty times what it is today. Slavery, sadistic punishments, and frivolous executions were unexceptionable features of life for millennia, then were suddenly abolished. Wars between developed countries have vanished, and even in the developing world, wars kill a fraction of the numbers they did a few decades ago. Rape, hate crimes, deadly riots, child abuse—all substantially down.
4.9 billion people—the considerable majority of the planet – [live]… in countries where GDP has increased more than fivefold over 50 years. Those countries include India, with an economy nearly 10 times larger than it was in 1960, Indonesia (13 times), China (17 times), and Thailand (22 times larger than in 1960). Around 5.1 billion people live in countries where we know incomes have more than doubled since 1960, and 4.1 billion—well more than half the planet—live in countries where average incomes have tripled or more....
the rise of emerging economies has led to a dramatic fall in global poverty… [The authors] estimate that between 2005 and 2010, the total number of poor people around the world fell by nearly half a billion, from over 1.3 billion in 2005 to under 900 million in 2010. Poverty reduction of this magnitude is unparalleled in history: never before have so many people been lifted out of poverty over such a brief period of time. And using forecasts of per capita consumption growth, they estimate that by 2015 fewer than 600 million people will remain in poverty.
Similarly, the world’s daily caloric intake per person, an indirect measure of well-being, has increased from an average of 2,600 in 1990 to 2,840 in 2012. In sub-Saharan Africa, the caloric intake increased from 2,180 to 2,380. To put these figures in perspective, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that moderately active adult men consume between 2,200 and 2,800 calories a day and moderately active women consume between 1,800 and 2,000 calories a day.
The Internet, cell phones, and air travel are connecting ever more people—even in poor countries. More children, including girls, attend schools at all levels of education. There are more women holding political office and more female CEOs. In wealthy countries, the wage gap between genders is declining. Our lives are not only longer, but also healthier. The global prevalence rate of people infected with HIV/AIDS has been stable since 2001 and deaths from the disease are declining due to the increasing availability of anti-retroviral drugs. In wealthy countries, some cancer rates have started to fall. That is quite an accomplishment considering that people are living much longer and the risk of cancer increases with longevity. Our dwellings are larger and, in many ways, of better quality. Workers tend to work fewer hours and suffer from fewer injuries. Shops are bursting with a mindboggling array of goods that are, normally, less expensive and of higher quality than in the past. We enjoy more leisure and travel to more exotic destinations. To top it off, we enjoy more political freedom and economic freedom.
Progress Is Uneven