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World's Gone Right

Don't believe the hype, things are good and getting better.

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Islamist extremists on the loose in the Middle East, drug cartels running wild south of the border, Ebola, nuclear proliferation, ubiquitous surveillance, climate disasters, beheadings. It's easy to imagine things are worse than they have been in a long time. We don't have the benefit of hindsight, yet we can take a step back and try to take a more detached look at things. The world may seem like a scary place but it's also one full of promise, potential, and progress. Things are better than they've ever been before and they're getting better still.

Why is the world getting better? Not because of the work of governments. In fact governments and the unintended consequences their actions wreak around the world are a big reason why it seems like the world's gone wrong. It's important to remember the world is getting better in spite of governments, not because of them. The outbreak of Ebola in West Africa serves as a powerful example of how this works. Since the summer, the virus has spread in Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria. Only one of these countries has been able to snuff out Ebola so far—Nigeria, hardly a paragon of good government in Africa. But Nigeria receives far less Western aid than any other countries. Liberia, on the other hand, receives a lot of aid, which made its leaders more dependent on foreign aid and less likely to formulate their own solutions the way Nigeria did.

It's the same thing across the spectrum of humanitarian aid, an industry that's grown continuously since the end of World War II. The United Nations, the first institution of the post-war era, was meant to end wars but of course it did no such thing. The incidence of war eventually did go down. War-related deaths during the Cold War averaged 180,000 a year. In the 1990s it fell to 100,000 a year, and in the 21st century averaged just 55,000 per year. As Joshua Goldstein explained in Foreign Policy, much of this decline can be attributed to the way waging war has changed. The rapid advances in technology have made it more difficult for governments to run the kinds of campaigns that ran up the death toll in World War II—the diffusion of weapons technology contributed to asymmetrical warfare, which may, in the information age, create the perception of increased chaos and conflict but in reality limits the ability of governments to wage big wars.

Technology has had a similar effect elsewhere: either preventing centralization through tools that make challenging authority easier, or making centralization irrelevant through tools that simplify the task of bypassing authority entirely. Social media networks have helped spark revolutions, the spread of mobile phones in the developing world has spurred a level of economic integration no amount of government initiative could accomplish. The advance of technology and concomitant increase in access and decrease in prices has facilitated all kinds of other improvements in the human condition too, in ways government solutions have not been able to. The libertarian moment isn't just an American thing, and it isn't just a political thing: the same principle that underlies the operation of free markets—voluntary coordination based on distributed information and decentralized decision-making—works for a free society. New technologies make it possible to put the principles into practice by improving access to information and decision-making and challenging the monopolies held by government.

Like the "creative destruction" of a healthy capitalist system, a free world will see its share of creative destruction too. The same technologies that improve human life are also used to increase suffering. Look at the war example—at the same time that the proliferation of small arms has created new opportunities for people to participate in conflicts, it's also helped prevent governments from waging highly destructive wars against each other. The anonymity provided by the Internet is taken advantage of by participants in the black market as well as by those seeking to challenge their own governments' brutality. And advances in telecommunications have made it easier to connect with and learn about what's happening all around the world.

But the advances have also made it easier for an establishment losing grip on power to paint a picture of a world gone wrong, one that demands we cede more power to the establishment even as technology creates the opportunity to diffuse control in a way never before possible, and makes the world an even better place.