Johan Norberg, Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future (London, OneWorld, 2016).
“Nothing is more responsible for the good old days,” wrote Franklin Pierce Adams, “than a bad memory.” The good old days, in other words, weren’t so good. Indeed, if Johan Norberg is to be believed, the good old days are right now.
Drawing on a variety of social science data, Norberg points to ten ways the world has progressed over the last three centuries:
- Food is plentiful and cheap.
- Clean water and good sanitation are increasingly available.
- Life expectancy is longer.
- Poverty has fallen dramatically.
- War and violence blight fewer lives.
- Increasing wealth has benefited the environment.
- Literacy is widespread.
- People are increasingly free of arbitrary authority.
- Equality is increasingly experienced and demanded.
None of this denies specific counterexamples, of course. Hunger, pollution, terrorism, and poverty are facts of life for many throughout the world. Still, in historical perspective as well as in absolute terms, these ills are on the decline.
Take extreme poverty, for example. Norberg writes:
…In 1981, fifty-four per cent of the world lived in extreme poverty, according to the World Bank. This already marks an historic achievement. According to an ambitious attempt to measure poverty over the long run, with a $2 a day threshold for extreme poverty, adjusted for purchasing power in 1985, ninety-four per cent of the world’s population lived in extreme population in 1820, eighty-two per cent in 1910 and seventy-two percent in 1950.
But in the last few decades things have really begun to change. Between 1981 and 2015 the proportion of low- and middle-income countries suffering from extreme poverty was reduced from fifty-four percent to twelve per cent….
…By all our best estimates, global poverty has been reduced by more than one percentage point annually for three decades.
The next time you and your friends debate income inequality, keep that statistic in mind. Yes, there is income inequality in the world, but the floor of that inequality is no longer extreme poverty for the vast majority of the world’s population.
That’s good news, right? Of course it is! And it’s a reason—along with other improvements in the material conditions of humanity—to give thanks at this time of year.
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