Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Progress

Progress – Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future by Johan NorbergNorberg - Progress

It’s hard to be an optimist these days. Not because the facts don’t back it up, but because there’s a strong social pressure to instantly caveat any praise with “but of course things aren’t perfect”.

I could tell you, following Johan Norberg’s excellent new book, that since 1981 extreme poverty has dropped from 44% to 9%. That in the 1960s people in 51 countries consumed under 2,000 calories per person, today it’s just one. That 63% of countries are now democratic and that 95% of the health and education attainment gap between men and women has closed. But of course, I feel compelled to pre-emptively say, things are not perfect.

In Voltaire’s satirical novel Candide, a series of unrelenting misfortunes are used to ridicule the naive optimism of Professor Pangloss —a stand in for philosophers of the time— and his claims that this is the ‘best of all possible worlds’. Many thinkers today however seem to make an inverse claim: ‘this is the worst of all possible worlds’.

Quite why they believe this is not clear. Across ten major issues, Food, Sanitation, Life Expectancy, Poverty, Violence, the Environment, Literacy, Freedom, Equality and Child welfare, Norberg shows that life is unarguably better than it has ever been in human history.

Not better by small fractions but revolutionary different. In tribal pre-agrarian societies 524 people per 100’000 died a violent death, today it’s between 5 (in the US) and 1 per 100’000 (elsewhere). Slavery has gone from common place in 1800 to banned and condemned —though not quite eradicated— everywhere in the world. And literacy has gone from 21% in 1900 to 86% today.

Yet still we choose to believe that this must not be so. In his conclusion, Norberg notes that only 10% of Brits and 5% of Americans know that global poverty has halved. Most believe it is much higher than when they were born. Even his own well-educated Swedes have more than 70% of their population believing hunger is getting worse and poverty is increasing.

This is partly an incitement of education institutions and the media (both of which tend to focus on the negatives of war and oppression). But both systems merely reflect what we want to get out of them. We are drawn to bad news, we want to hear about the sickening car crash or grisly murder and we have no time for slow, steady, and boring increases in statistics showing our world is healthier, safer, smarter, cleaner and more just and decent than ever before.

As such, we remain ignorant of the world we live in. The success of the modern world is therefore an orphan. It is unloved by conservatives who believe we’ve fallen too far. And it is fundamentally disappointing to progressives who don’t believe we’ve risen enough.

Despite the name, Progress is not a progressive book. Norberg seems to have a moderate libertarian bent, though he’s much more interested in detailing what has changed than making broad ideological assertions about why. When he does venture to offer an explanation, it’s largely uncontroversial: technology, ideas, markets.

These are necessary but not sufficient causes for progressives. Also vital though under-explored in this book is the increasing competence and responsiveness of government (which is far more important than its size). Competent government, as many libertarian thinkers have noted, is a foundation for free societies. It prevents exploitation and provides the basic rights and security necessary for development.

Yet, I suspect progressives will find this book harder to embrace than other parts of the spectrum. The idea that everything is crap is almost a uniting principle of the left of politics. Though quite why I’m not sure. Progressives have championed many of the reforms that have led to today’s conditions. These changes are precisely why so many have laboured for so long. They show not only reason to celebrate, but reasons why we should not fear future progressive change.

This however is not what the left publicly says or privately thinks. Yet if you don’t know and can’t say how far we’ve come, how can you know where to go? How can you persuade people to give up simplistic racial prejudices if you too hold onto the mistaken idea that there is a rich, white ‘West’ and a poor, black ‘Rest’.

In truth, there is not a developed and a developing world, a west and rest separated by a racial or cultural gulf. But one world with a short, but important sliding scale between the best and worst. One world where the real question is not ‘when will the ‘rest’ catch up?’ but ‘why did it take the ‘West’ so long to develop?

What that last question implies, though Norberg doesn’t quite say, is that if progress is transferrable, if ideas and technology can be implanted around the world, then they can also be protected around the world. Russia may be turning its back on gender equality but Norway isn’t. America may be turning its back on clean energy, but China won’t. And when the small and confused regressive movements that occupy our TV screens so frequently do splutter out, the ideas that work, for building healthy, wealthy and wise open societies will come flooding back in.

Ultimately, Professor Pangloss was wrong in 18th century Europe, and he is wrong today. But only because we can and almost certainly will continue to improve. There are big challenges, especially on the environment, but I remain an optimist. Not just by my nature, but because it is the truth

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