Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has a good op-ed today, "The Most Important Thing, And It's Almost a Secret" in which he documents the "secret" that global poverty rates have been falling steeply in recent decades. Kristof cites a poll that found that the majority of Americans believed that global poverty rate has doubled in the past 20 years. Most of the remaining respondents more optimistically believed that global poverty has remained steady.
So Kristof argues that the "most important thing" that journalists never seem to report is the fact that the lot of poor folks in many developing countries has been steadily improving. I will not forbear to point out that these Americans would not have been so mistaken about the trajectory of global poverty if they had read my new book, The End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the Twenty-First Century.* More on that in bit, but let's first savor the good news Kristof reports:
• The number of extremely poor people (defined as those earning less than $1 or $1.25 a day, depending on who's counting) rose inexorably until the middle of the 20th century, then roughly stabilized for a few decades. Since the 1990s, the number of poor has plummeted.
• In 1990, more than 12 million children died before the age of 5; this toll has since dropped by more than half.
• More kids than ever are becoming educated, especially girls. In the 1980s, only half of girls in developing countries completed elementary school; now, 80 percent do. …
The world's best-kept secret is that we live at a historic inflection point when extreme poverty is retreating.
Kristof cites data showing that poverty reduction leads to women choosing to have fewer children, thus abating "overpopulation" fears still peddled by some doomsters. He then references the new United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as supposedly showing the way forward and concludes by urging:
So let's get down to work and, on our watch, defeat extreme poverty worldwide. We know that the challenges are surmountable — because we've already turned the tide of history.
Indeed, but not because of U.N. has set out some elaborate economic development goals. Kristof and most other commentators miss the crucial fact we have reached the "inflection point" where poverty has been receding at the same time that economic freedom has been rising around the globe. As the Fraser Institute's 2015 Economic Freedom of the World Report notes the…
…economic freedom rating for the 102 countries with continuous ratings since 1980 has increased from 5.31 in 1980 to 5.77 in 1990 before jumping to 6.74 in 2000 and finally to 6.86 in 2013. The global average increased slightly this past year.
It is no coincidence that poverty falls when human ingenuity is unleashed in voluntary markets. With regard to global population trends I report in The End of Doom:
In 2002, Seth Norton, an economics professor at Wheaton College in Illinois, published a remarkably interesting study, "Population Growth, Economic Freedom, and the Rule of Law," on the inverse relationship between prosperity and fertility. Norton compared the fertility rates of over a hundred countries with their index rankings for economic free- dom and another index for the rule of law. "Fertility rate is highest for those countries that have little economic freedom and little respect for the rule of law," wrote Norton. "The relationship is a powerful one. Fertility rates are more than twice as high in countries with low levels of economic freedom and the rule of law compared to countries with high levels of those measures."
Norton found that the fertility rate in countries that ranked low on economic freedom averaged 4.27 children per woman, while countries with high economic freedom rankings had an average fertility rate of 1.82 children per woman. His results for the rule of law were similar: fertility rates in countries with low respect for the rule of law averaged 4.16, whereas countries with high respect for the rule of law had fertility rates averaging 1.55.
Economic freedom and the rule of law occur in politically and eco- nomically stable countries and produce prosperity, which dramatically increases average life expectancy and lowers child mortality; this in turn reduces the incentive to bear more children. As data from the Heritage Foundation's Index of Economic Freedom shows, average life expectancy for free countries is over eighty years, whereas it's just about sixty-three years in repressed countries.
With regard to the efficacy of U.N. goal-setting, I note:
There is only one proven way to improve the lot of hundreds of millions of poor people, and that is democratic capitalism. It is in rich democratic capitalist countries that the air and water are becoming cleaner, forests are expanding, food is abundant, education is universal, and women's rights respected. Whatever slows down economic growth also slows down environmental improvement. By vastly increasing knowledge and pursuing technological progress, past generations met their needs and vastly increased the ability of our generation to meet our needs. We should do no less for future generations. …
What well-meaning activists and UN bureaucrats are trying to do is centrally plan the world's ecology. History suggests that that would work out about as well for humanity and the natural world as centrally planned economies did.
*Did I mention that I have a new book for sale?