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Yet progress can sometimes be derailed. Europe, for example, experienced an unprecedented period of peace and rapidly improving standards of living between the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Between 1820 and 1914, real or inflation-adjusted income per person rose by 127 percent in Western Europe. In Great Britain, for example, life expectancy at birth rose from 41 years 1818 to 52 years in 1914. In Sweden, the improvement was even more dramatic, with life expectancy rising from 39 years in 1814 to 58 years in 1914.
The period between the start of the 20th century and the outbreak of World War I saw the introduction of such life-changing technologies as the radio, the vacuum cleaner, air conditioning, the neon light, the airplane, sonar, the first plastics, the Model T motorcar and more.
On June 28, 1914, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. The murder led to the outbreak of World War I, in which some 39 million people lost their lives. Incomes in Western Europe fell by 11 percent between 1916 and 1919. Life expectancy in Great Britain, one of the war’s main participants, collapsed from 52 years in 1914 to 40 years in 1918.
Other horrors followed. The devastation of World War I undermined the Russian monarchy, leading to the rise of communism and the establishment of the USSR. Globally, well over 100 million people died because of purges and socialist economic mismanagement in communist countries. Defeat in World War I and harsh reparation demands led to resentment in Germany. That contributed to the rise of National Socialism, the outbreak of World War II, and the subsequent Holocaust. Some 73 million people died in World War II. After the war ended, communist dictatorships and free-market democracies fought in a variety of proxy conflicts as part of the Cold War, including the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
In spite of all that suffering, people’s lives continued to improve. New technologies were introduced. They included the microwave oven, the mobile phone, the transistor, the video recorder, the credit card, the television, solar cells, optic fiber, microchips, lasers, the calculator, fuel cells, the World Wide Web and the computer. Medical advances included penicillin, cortisone, the pacemaker, artificial hearts, the MRI scan, HIV protease inhibitor, and vaccines for hepatitis, smallpox, and polio.
Over the course of the 20th century, the income of an average Western European rose by 517 percent. In terms of life expectancy, a typical Frenchman could expect to live 34 years longer in 1999 than in 1900.
The United States escaped much of the devastation of the two world wars, but suffered the Great Depression and carried many of the burdens of the Cold War. Between 1929 and 1933, the average U.S. income declined by 31 percent. It was not until 1940 that incomes returned to their pre-Depression levels. Over the course of the 20th century, however, average American income rose by 581 percent and life expectancy by 28 years.
In Asia, average per capita income rose by 473 percent between 1913 and 1999. Chinese incomes rose by 427 percent between 1820 and 1999. Indian incomes rose by 212 percent between 1821 and 1999. In China, life expectancy rose from 32 years in 1924 to 71 years in 1999—an increase of 39 years. Indian life expectancy increased from 24 years in 1901 to 61 years in 1999—an increase of 37 years.
The story of Africa is more complex and disheartening, but still, on balance, positive. Between the time of the European colonization in 1870 and African independence in 1960, a typical inhabitant of the African continent saw his or her income rise by 63 percent. Incomes increased by a further 41 percent between 1960 and 1999. While Africa had underperformed relative to the rest of the world, Africans were better off at the end of the 20th century than they were at the beginning. Moreover, since the start of the new millennium, Africa has been making up for lost time. In the 12 years from 1999 to 2010, African incomes rose by 36 percent.
When it comes to life expectancy, Africa has experienced serious progress. However, increases in life expectancy vary, mostly depending on the harm caused by the spread of AIDS. Life expectancy in South Africa rose from 34 years in 1930 to an all-time high of 62 years in 1990. But by 2011, life expectancy declined to 52 years. Ghana was less affected by the epidemic, which allowed life expectancy in the country to increase from 28 years in 1921 to 64 years in 2011.
The Great Recession reminds us that progress is uneven. In the United States, a country that was both originator and victim of the recession, per capita income, adjusted for inflation and purchasing power parity, decreased by 3.1 percent, from $46,760 in 2008 to $45,305 in 2009. This relatively small fall in average income does not make the suffering of millions of Americans, especially those who lost their jobs and homes, any less real. Thankfully, at the time of writing, the economy appears to be on the mend, with average incomes rising of an all-time high of $49,965 in 2012.
Progress Is Not Inevitable
We must keep human development in proper perspective. The present, for all of its imperfections, is a vast improvement on the past. Understanding and appreciating the progress that humanity has made does not mean that we stop trying to make the future even better than the present. That said, we should avoid making two mistakes.
First, we should correctly identify, preserve, and expand those policies and institutions that have made human progress possible. If we misidentify the causes of human progress, we could put the well-being of future generations at risk. One way of avoiding serious policy mistakes in the future is to avoid concentrating power in a single pair of hands or in the hands of a small elite. Instead, we should trust in the choices made by free-acting individuals. No doubt, some of those individual choices will turn out to be bad, but the aggregate wisdom of millions of free-acting individuals is more likely to be correct than incorrect.
Second, we should beware of utopian idealism. Utopians compare the present with what might be called the future perfect, not the past imperfect. Instead of seeing the present as a vast improvement on the past, they see the present as failing to live up to some sort of an imagined utopia. Unfortunately, the world will never be a perfect place because the human beings who inhabit it are themselves imperfect. Today, it is difficult to imagine the emergence of a powerful new utopian movement. But few people in 1900 foresaw the destruction brought on by communism and Nazism. We cannot rule out that utopian demagogues akin to Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao Zedong, or Pol Pot will emerge in the future.