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There's Never Been A Better Time to Be Alive

Ronald Bailey reviews Johan Norberg's new book celebrating Progress

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Sebastian/Dreamstime

Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, by Johan Norberg, Oneworld Publications, 256 pp. $27.99

Johan Norberg wrote his excellent new book Progress for three reasons. First, because something important happened. Second, because no one believes it. And third, because it's dangerous that they don't believe it.

Norberg's book comprehensively documents the myriad ways the state of humanity has vastly improved over the past couple of centuries. Global life expectancy was just 31 years in 1900. Now it has risen to over 71 years. In 1800, no country on earth had a life expectancy greater than 40 years. Now no country has a life expectancy under 40 years. And people aren't just living longer; they're living longer with fewer disabilities.

The World Bank has defined the level of abject poverty at the equivalent of $2 per day. In 1800, when world population was around one billion, 94 percent of our ancestors lived in abject poverty. In 1990, some 37 percent of people still lived below the abject poverty line. Since then, the percentage of people on earth living in abject poverty has fallen below 10 percent.

Global GDP increased as much in the past 30 years as it did in the previous 30,000 years. In 1986, global GDP stood (in inflation-adjusted terms) at $33 trillion. It now exceeds $73 trillion. Thirty years ago, global per capita GDP was $6,600. It is $10,000 today.

Being healthier has gotten cheaper. In 1900, for example, the infant mortality rate in countries with a per capita income of $1,000 was 20 per 100 live births. Today, in a country with exactly the same per capita income, the infant mortality rate is 7 per 100 births. "So even if a country had not experienced any economic growth in a 100 years, infant mortality would have been reduced by two-thirds," he writes. Spillovers in sanitation and medical knowledge help even the very poorest live longer and healthier lives.

We probably live at the most peaceful time in recorded history; your chances of being killed by another human being are far lower than in the past. For example, the annual homicide rate in medieval Europe was 32 people per 100,000. In the late 20th century, that rate dropped to about 1 per 100,000. The death rates of people being killed in wars have also fallen steeply, dropping from 195 people per million in 1950 to 8 per million in 2013.

The environments in which people live, especially as countries become wealthy, have dramatically improved. Thanks for modern farming, the world is approaching peak farmland, which means that millions of acres of land will be reverting to nature over the course of this century. Composite air pollution levels in the U.S. are 63 percent lower than they were in 1980. In a recent talk at the Cato Institute, Norberg presented a graph that showed the global progress made on hunger, poverty, illiteracy, child mortality, and U.S. pollution since 1990:

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Johan Norberg

Norberg also writes intelligently about tradeoffs in the environmental arena. For example, he points out that spending $10 billion to build natural gas electric generation plants could help lift 90 million people out of poverty. Spending the same amount on renewable sources of electricity would help only 20 to 27 million people, leaving more than 60 million still living and dying in poverty.

Norberg also celebrated the progress made on boosting education. In 1800, only 12 percent of adults could read. As late as 1950, the global literacy rate was just 40 percent. It is now 86 percent. The literacy differential between men and women is also shrinking. Among those aged 15 to 24, the international female literacy rate is almost 96 percent of the male rate.

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Oneworld

Educating women is key to even faster progress. Study after study finds that enabling girls and women to complete secondary education cuts the number of children they bear by between one-third and one-half. Basically, the desired number of children that couples want to have falls as women gain greater control over their fertility and participate in the wage economy outside of the home. A 2015 study by the McKinsey consultancy calculated that if women achieved parity with men in the labor markets, that would boost global GDP in 2025 by $28 trillion, or 26 percent.

Yet few people in rich countries actually believe all this amazing news. Max Roser, curator of the invaluable Our World In Data website, reports cluelessly depressing data from polls that asked if people think the world is getting better, worse, or neither. Only 6 percent of Americans said the world was getting better. Even fewer Britons, Germans, Australians, and French thought that world is improving.

One reason: People focus on the floods of bad news that clot our 24-hour news channels and social media platforms. Since people are psychologically constituted to focus on the negative, people get the impression that the world is falling apart.

Norberg argues that this incredibly dangerous. "Fear is the health of the state," he asserts. Or as newspaperman H.L. Mencken once observed, "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary." Such mistaken beliefs, Norberg warns, actually undermine support for the institutions of liberty that make progress possible.

"All of the progress that has been recorded in this book is the result of hard-working people, scientists, innovators and entrepreneurs with strange, new ideas, and brave individuals who fought for their freedom to do new things in new ways," Norberg concludes. "If progress is to continue, you and I will have to carry the torch."

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66 responses to “There's Never Been A Better Time to Be Alive

  1. I for the life of me can’t understand why someone can claim to be a Libertarian and then think that “progress” is measured by life span, wealth and other material quality of life measures. If over the next 20 years we all got fatter, longer lived and felt more secure but price of that was significant loss of freedom, how would that be “progress”? Yeah it is progress if you only care about material comforts and nothing else. If, however, you value freedom over those kinds of things, something which last I looked Libertarians claim to do, it sure as hell isn’t progress in any meaningful way.

    These sorts of things are nice. I certainly don’t want to have a shorter or more brutal life. They are, however, largely unimportant in the larger scheme of things. Comfort is a completely relative thing. You are happy and comfortable with whatever you are a used to experiencing. If I were suddenly transferred back to the world a hundred years ago, I would be utterly miserable because I am used to the comforts of modern living. The people who lived at that time would be in contrast perfectly happy because that level of comfort was all they knew. So measuring comfort and lifespan and material wealth is really a pretty illusory way to measure progress.

    1. Freedom, however, is absolute and objective. You can get more or less free in a way that means something no matter what your expectations. So what is really progress is becoming more free. To the extent material wealth and comfort make us more free, that is a good thing. But it is only good to that extent and certainly not worth trading our freedom for it, absent the most dire necessity.

      1. J: Apparently I have failed to be clear – progress of the sort described in Norberg’s book is ONLY possible because of liberty and its expansion. See his last chapter on Freedom for info on the positive trends in that direction.

        1. I disagree with that Ron. I would love to believe that material comfort is only possible through freedom but that is not true. We are much healthy and wealthier than we were even 20 much less 40 years ago. We are, however, much less free in many ways. There is more to freedom than the ability to trade and engage in commerce. That is a big part of it but not the only thing. And the freedom to trade and engage in commerce is what gives us improvements to our material comforts. The freedom to speak against the government, to have a private life, to openly hold an unpopular opinion or engage in some activity frowned upon by the wider culture and society contributes little to the increase in wealth. It may nibble at the margins but it is very possible to have a depressing, unfree and conformist society and still have a lot of neat technology and a good economy. Indeed, if you lower your expectations for the economy enough, we pretty much have that now.

          Can we have both a really free and open society and a lot of wealth and tech? Of course. And indeed an open society would give us wealth and tech. But you can have the wealth and tech without a whole lot of the freedom. So, i don’t consider wealth and tech to be much of a measure of freedom.

          1. J: it is not a coincidence that wealth technology and health started to improve and grow when Enlihgtenment open societies came into existence 2 centuries ago.

            1. …and just as importantly a concentrated form of energy that made the industrial revolution happen, allowed us to sidestep the Malthusian dilemma that formerly constrained growth.

            2. No it is not. But there was a lot of growth and improvement to the economy before the enlightenment. Economic growth and technological advance most certainly can happen in relatively unfree societies. The society doesn’t have to be free, it just have to be free enough and in the right ways to allow for technology and commerce. Will the growth in such a society be as fast as a truely open society? Probably not. But it can still happen. Think of it this way, as awful and horrible as the old Soviet Union was, the average Russian was better off in 1970 than the average Russian in 1900. They may have been desperately poor compared to the West, but they were in real terms better off than they were when they started.

              If a Society that is based on terror and oppression can advance, a society that is very unfree by our standards most certainly can as well

            3. Like a good progressive you have started in the middle, and claimed absolute victory at the end.

          2. John,

            We are seeing our freedom shrink in the US. But considering how much more free the people are in China, Russia, E Europe, India, parts of S America and Africa , WORLD freedom is increasing.

            What Ron ignores is the shrinkage in inequality, i.e. we are becoming more equal as Chinese, Indians etc rise above poverty. Of course the MSM gets that wrong as well.

            Kudos, Ron, for my fav Mencken quote.

            1. China, Russia, E Europe, India, parts of S America and Africa , WORLD freedom is increasing.

              No World Freedom increased significantly in the 90s and 00s. I think it is no longer increasing or if it is not nearly as fast. Parts of Africa are much less free now than they were even ten years ago. Russian most certainly is less free today than was in the decade following the collapse of the USSR. The same is true of China. China is more free today than it was in 1975. It is not more free than it was in say 2000. The Chinese government has very much consolidated its control over the internet and dissent. Moreover, the populations of both China and Russia are much more nationalistic and more willing to support government oppression than they were at the turn of the century.

              1. John, you must be a riot at parties.

                1. I am. Remember, I don’t go to parties with stupid people and thus don’t have to explain stuff like “there is more to life than how many toys you have” to them.

        2. You may have to forgive those of us, who through our apparent ignorance, don’t feel more free or have many empirical reasons to do so. If I’m able to sneak an extra couple ounces of lubricant on board a plane than is allowed by the TSA because they’re in no position to stop me, I don’t call that “freedom”. The empirical fact is that the Sword of Damocles hangs over everyone’s head owing their however-manyeth felony of the day and the presence of the Sword is only possible because we’re not freer.

          1. If I’m able to sneak an extra couple ounces of lubricant on board a plane

            Free Society joins the Mile-High Club… by himself.

            1. He masturbated in Denver?

      2. I’m not sure I agree that freedom is an absolute as it relates to happiness. As you said, people adapt to what they are used to.

        Material well being isn’t the only measure of progress, but it is one measure, and it’s easier to quantify. That doesn’t mean we should ignore freedom but neither should we ignore material well being.

        My grandparents lost a child in 1959. It was preventable with modern medicine. They’re lives would have been better if they could have saved her. That fewer people have to endure is real progress.

        My wife and I have spent many years of our relationship living apart due to college and jobs. IM and Skype helped us stay close during those times. Without those things I don’t think we would have stayed together, or one of us would have had to give up something else that we highly value for the other. That we didn’t have to do that is progress.

        I have the money to travel the world and the means to do it quickly and safely. If that weren’t the case maybe I’d be just as happy in my ignorance, but I’ve been able to see and do things my parents and grandparents didn’t even know were possible. That’s also progress.

        1. And while I absolutely am aware of the ways in which governments are making us less free, I also try to maintain some perspective. The number of times I have avoided doing something that I wanted to do because it was illegal or otherwise prohibited are very, very small. Not everyone is as fortunate as I am, and that injustice certainly upsets me, but things could be much worse for more people, and it wasn’t that long ago that they were.

          1. that I wanted to do because it was illegal or otherwise prohibited are very, very small.

            That is probably true. That, however, just means you are fortunate and have no need to pull at the chains that bind you. It does not however mean you are free. If all I desired to do every day was sit in a room alone and read, I could be “free” in a maximum security prison. What would there be that I wanted to do that was prohibited?

            This society is wildly conformist. It is just conformist about things you like. Understand, however, that won’t last forever. Once conformity starts, it has a bad habit of not stopping. It will get around to the things you like. Just give it time.

            1. John is coming out with a Reason Commenter Freedom Index, which will tell each of us just how unfree we are. So nobody make any claims about your freedom until you get your score.

              1. You are plenty free Chipper. To be unfree requires being able to understand how you are. Ignorance really is bliss.

            2. It does not however mean you are free.

              I’d argue differently. On a personal level, if I can do all the things I want to do without interference, I am free. That is separate from more abstract concepts of freedom or freedom at the societal level.

              This society is wildly conformist.

              Hmm….I don’t think I agree with that either, namely because society is made of up so many subcultures and subgroups. The internet has helped in this regard by making it easier for people to connect across vast distances. In my workplace there is a fairly clear divide between the conservative and liberal groups (mostly falling along specialty), but that’s a blunt description. Within each group there is a wide range of views and tastes in things as disparate as politics, entertainment, music, sports, food, recreational activities (hunters and hikers and bikers and book nerds and hippie co-op members and opera lovers) — there is even some diversity inf fashion choices. And we are mostly white men! And while there is definitely social sorting, people genuinely get along and there is no pressure to conform.

              1. Now I’ll readily admit that in the political sphere people tend to push for conformism along either conservative or progressive lines, but outside of an election season most people really don’t pay attention, and will interact with just about anyone. Friends sort, but they always have, always will, and probably should. There are signs that the upcoming generation is much more conformist, but how much of that is a few loudmouths? More than we probably usually admit.

                Again, perspective is important.

    2. Re: John,

      how would that be “progress”?

      Compared to the sad sight of seeing your little child dying of diphtheria or malnutrition?

      YES, that IS progress.

      Compared to stepping of filthy muck all the way to the grain mill while avoiding the piss pots being emptied from above?

      YES, that IS progress.

      1. Compared to the sad sight of seeing your little child dying of diphtheria or malnutrition?

        YES, that IS progress.

        So basically there is no amount of freedom you won’t surrender in the name of material comfort? Good to know.

        If the alternative of your child dying of dyaherria was giving up all of your privacy and freedom to the government, you would not only consider that a necessary trade but “progress”. If you would, you are a bigger fool than I thought you were and I think you are a pretty big fool.

        Compared to stepping of filthy muck all the way to the grain mill while avoiding the piss pots being emptied from above?

        YES, that IS progress.

        If the government became so oppressive that the only way to keep your dignity and morality was to fight it and doing so required living under such conditions, you would say no? If you actually believe that “compared to sleeping in the muck…”, then you would.

        You really don’t value your freedom very much it appears. Or more likely, you really don’t think too much about what you say.

        1. So basically there is no amount of freedom you won’t surrender in the name of material comfort? Good to know.

          So many fallacies crammed into such a short sentence.

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    4. “Yet few people in rich countries actually believe all this amazing news. Max Roser, curator of the invaluable Our World In Data website, reports cluelessly depressing data from polls that asked if people think the world is getting better, worse, or neither. Only 6 percent of Americans said the world was getting better. Even fewer Britons, Germans, Australians, and French thought that world is improving.

      Norberg argues that this incredibly dangerous. “Fear is the health of the state,” he asserts.”

  2. They keep us alive longer just so they can fuck us deep into old age. DOOM IS UPON US!

  3. most people erroneously believe that the world is going to hell; There’s never been a better time to be alive

    The reason there is a gap between these 2 statements is because you’re referring to 2 entirely different groups of people.

    The people whinging are not the ones who have benefited from declines in Hunger, Illiteracy, Child Mortality, etc.

    All those benefits have accrued entirely in the developing world.

    All the people who think the world is going to hell live in the already-developed world. They are probably wrong about that – but not because of the improvements cited in the developing world;

    You can point to declines in crime, reduced number of hours people need to work to meet minimum sustenance levels, increased longevity, increased quality of live, etc. Those make a better 1-1 case.

    But this idea that 1st world people should stop bitching…because Sanjay in Bhopal doesnt live in a grass hut anymore…. is sort of dumb.

    1. That is an excellent point. Things have gotten a lot better for those at the bottom. They also have gotten significantly worse for many in the middle. It is easy for Ron to say everything is peachy. He hasn’t seen his real wages and purchasing power decline year after year for decades.

      1. J: Actually Norberg shows that the so-called Elephant Graph allegedly showing the decline in middle class incomes is wrong. Cheer up man!

        1. The perception is otherwise. And sometimes that matters more than reality. Moreover, we currently have 94 million able bodied people who are not even trying to find a paying job. There are real societal consequences to such a number and none of them are good or anything more gadgets and high speed internet is going to solve.

          1. J: It’s the point of the book to correct doomsaying misperceptions of the sorts you are citing – read it and cheer up!

            1. Dissatisfaction is sometimes the gap between one’s desires and one’s situation. In recent times we have been exposed to many more things to desire, so even with the same goods, we think we are losing ground. I.e. everyone is trying to keep up with the Kardashians.

            2. You might conceivably read it, find that the one study purporting to support your Pollyanna view of the world is a crock of bullshit and still reject the premise.

              “Break out the bubbly! My Medicaid doctor that I had to wait 8 months to see has put me on chemotheraphy that will allow me to live an extra 11 months bald, decrepit and puking my guts out… and if I move to Denver I can even smoke some $300/oz weed to help with the symptoms… which I could almost afford if I reverse mortgage my $450k 2 bedroom condo and default on my 30 year old student loans.”

              “B-b-b-but… your grandparents would have died 2 years sooner than you did!

              Plus, we’ve got South Park…”

          2. Even worse than that is whole new generations of kids getting substandard education. Public schools have dumb-down millions of young people. Add 94 million not looking for jobs and millions of new adults coming into the job market that are stupid (being generous).

            Overall the human existence is getting better in some ways. I equate it to the housing bubble. Houses got bigger, nicer and more expensive and more and more people moved in…until. More people live longer and are less free than decades past…until.

      2. They also have gotten significantly worse for many in the middle.

        That’s ridiculous. Any issues (if they are even real) the middle are having are just a blip on the longer timescales that you have to consider.

        …with the proviso that things could get worse in a hurry if something catastrophic were to happen nuke war/asteroid strike/some really evil turn in the gov/ etc.

        1. Any issues (if they are even real) the middle are having are just a blip on the longer timescales that you have to consider.

          Keynes’ prescription was wrong, but he was right when he said “in the long run we’re all dead”.

          “Cheer up, your kids will probably do a lot better!” isn’t any more comforting than “Once you loosen up a little this won’t hurt so much”.

  4. They have just fattened us up to make the Hunger Wars more profitable.

    1. Who’s they? What’s an aluminum Falcon?
      -Robot Chicken

  5. I remember when abject poverty was less than $1 a day. Now you need me than $2 to escape it. It’s PROGRESS that abject poverty pays better than it used to.

    1. “more than $2”

  6. I say more bread and circus (with clowns!) for everyone and pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!

  7. If everything is so peachy then why are so many preaching doom about the state of the climate? If everything is so peachy then why are so many preaching doom about how fat people are getting?

    1. Did you read the Mencken quote?

      Memorize it and recite it daily.

      1. What if my hobgoblins are all the assholes telling me there are a bunch of hobgoblins everywhere?

    2. Because progressive power comes from sweeping government interventions into perceived societal problems.

      Also, it is perhaps a sign of human nature that we seek struggles to fight against to find meaning in life. Hence, micro-aggressions and critical race theory replace actual racism and prejudices.

  8. In the future two things are almost certainly true: there will be times that are significantly better than right now and there will be times that are significantly worse. The future is a long time.

    1. Yes it is. And the needle doesn’t always move one way. Things can and sometimes do get worse. And since the future is as you say “a long time”, they can get worse and stay worse for a very long time before it gets better.

  9. I’ve read it. Where the hell did that push for a carbon tax come from? Shit was out of the blue.

  10. Matt Ridley has been writing about this kind of stuff for awhile, nothing really new…AFAIK.

    1. I vaguely recall some guy named Bailey also writing a similar book. Didn’t hear much about it, though 😉

      1. Well all three are correct, the world has been and is getting better at a fairly healthy pace.

        1. Don’t forget Pinker. That’s four, it’s an optimist moment!

  11. Clearly Hillary or The Donald are an improvement over King John and maybe even FDR. We couldn’t ask for better leaders!

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