As 2016 draws to a close, now is a good time to take stock and reflect upon the state of the world. With so much negativity in the news and much fear mongering by politicians, it’s easy to believe that everything’s getting worse, but that’s not true. Despite what many mainstream intellectuals declare, humanity continues to progress in the most important ways, i.e. in terms of reducing human suffering and increasing length and quality of life.
That’s the good news. Actually, that’s amazing news because the human population is over three times what it was only a century or so ago. Even though the human population is still increasing rapidly, the standard of living of everyone continues to rise wherever economic freedom is increasing and capitalism is functioning to some extent.
Not so long ago in the grand scheme of things, the world’s intellectual elite thought an increasing standard of living for an increasing population was literally impossible. Thankfully, they were wrong.
You see, the picture painted of the world by politicians, mainstream media and intellectuals is far too Edvard Munch and not nearly enough Georges Seurat. Consider the following chart and you’ll see why this is so.
These downward trends for bad things are good, but it’s only when you look at the ‘big picture’ that you realise just what astounding progress humanity has made in the last few centuries. Consider the next graph.
Humanity was flat-lining in terms of wealth production until serfdom (and other forms of slavery) was replaced by individual economic liberty (the right to keep the products of one’s labour and to dispose of it or exchange it according to one’s will – in short, property rights). But even after this profound political improvement, the standard of living only very slowly improved over a couple of centuries as the graph shows.
It was only when mass production by machines became a reality that the standard of living of the common man improved to a degree unimaginable by people a few centuries before. Mass production required mass labour and so the productive energies of the masses, which until then had remained untapped, could be unleashed and utilised. Mass production by the masses for the masses, relatively quickly, enabled the common man to raise himself out of a life of survival and into a life of flourishing.
Without mass production, most of us wouldn’t be here today because our ancestors wouldn’t have lived well or long enough to have children and to keep them alive. Yet many people today speak of mass production with a certain loathing as if it isn’t a force for social good.
This is a sign of how confused many of us have become about how we, as common people, arrived at a standard of living exponentially greater than all the kings, queens and emperors of the past who had the power to hoard for themselves almost all the wealth in the world.
Lots of people seem to think that, politically, the world took a sharp turn for the worse this year due to Trump becoming president and the British people voting to leave the EU. But, in the coming decades as the negative economic and social consequences of the EU’s powers become obvious to most and when the Euro and the European central bank collapses, I suspect that the narrative of Brexit will flip. And intellectuals and politicians of the future will speak of Brexit as a wise and courageous act by the British people.
As for Trump, we will have to wait and see how much damage he does to the standard of living of Americans and what his foreign policy does for the prospects of world peace. We might be surprised, we might be horrified, no one knows what’s going to happen. But whatever Trump does we shouldn’t forget that it was the ‘good guy’ Barack Obama who created or expanded much of the police state apparatus and presidential power that Trump now has at his disposal.
If progress continues at its current rate, then global extreme poverty (defined as people living on less than $1.25 a day) could be eradicated by 2030. Considering how little wealth humanity was creating only a few centuries ago, this would be an astonishing achievement. It would be a state of human affairs that the most benevolent or powerful rulers in history never came close to achieving through laws and military might. And it will have been achieved by free men with minds occupied not with being humanitarian heroes, but with pursuing their own selfish ends.
Take a look at this tool from HumanProgress, which shows how much progress has been made in your country since you were born. Even though the UK is already a developed country and one of the wealthiest societies in the world, I’m surprised at the degree of improvement in my lifetime alone (see below).
furthermore, consider these global improvements from just the last fifty years.
- In 1966, average life expectancy was only 56 years. Today it’s 72. That’s an increase of 29 percent.
- Out of every 1,000 infants born, 113 died before their first birthday. Today, only 32 die. That’s a reduction of 72 percent.
- Median income per person rose from around $6,000 to around $16,000, or by 167 percent – and that’s adjusted for inflation and purchasing power.
- The food supply rose from about 2,300 calories per person per day to over 2,800 calories, an increase of 22 percent, thus reducing hunger.
This is the big picture and it’s a bright, positive one. The key point is that this progress is being achieved, not through creating and enforcing laws to direct people’s lives, but through the spread of free market economics and the reduction of authoritarianism (mostly in developing countries) – i.e. the increasing absence of Authority controlling, directing and limiting people’s economic choices and freedoms.
To us in the developed world, the biggest obstacle to our standard of living continuing to rise is the stealthy but steady increase in economic authoritarianism in the form of increasing government regulation and legislation. This threat is expanding state power, which is a poisonous by-product of the political left and right’s misguided efforts to make the world a better place by using the coercive apparatus of the state to control people. But the evidence shows that the most progress happens wherever people’s legitimate freedoms are least restricted by Authority, not most restricted.
State power is like a muscle. The more the left and the right exercise it the more it grows. But, unlike a muscle, it doesn’t atrophy during periods of less use. The body of laws just sit there as potential evil until someone, an individual whom the public see as a political hero, comes along and exercises it.
To stay positive about the future we should keep in mind the progress that humanity continues to make. Many leftist intellectuals scare themselves and their audience by imagining a bleak, Mad Max-like future in which goods are scarce, only robots have jobs and the environment is poisonous.
But society will only get worse to the extent that government improves its ability to control our lives. As long as capitalism continues functioning globally, the general standard of living will continue to rise, technology will continue to advance and enhance our lives and pollution will continue to decrease.
Lastly, we must realise that the struggle is not between political left and right, it’s between freedom and power. It always has been.