"All things considered, do you think the world is getting better or worse, or neither getting better nor worse?"
In 2016, the global public opinion survey company YouGov asked people in 17 countries to answer that question. 58% thought the world was getting worse. 30% thought it was neither getting better nor worse. Only 11% thought the world was getting better. Other surveys with similar questions yield the same results. Most people around the world think things are getting worse, so that on the whole there has been no human progress.
This is especially remarkable if one considers that most of these surveys are online surveys, and the people answering such surveys are probably smart and well-educated people. So smart people around the world think things are generally getting worse.
They are wrong.
If one looks at the relevant factual evidence for global trends over the past few centuries, it is clear that the world is getter better, because human life is more satisfying for more people that ever before in human history. On the whole, people are living longer, healthier, and happier lives. Their lives are generally more peaceful--less exposed to violence--than ever before. They have more opportunity to live their lives as they wish. They have more chances to satisfy their natural human desires and thus to live a flourishing human life.
The reason for this is freedom. Over the past two centuries, there has been a progressive expansion of freedom around the world. It has been freedom at all levels: economic freedom, social freedom, political freedom, and intellectual freedom. This has been driven by the global spread of liberal free-market democracies.
We can call this the Liberal Enlightenment. I have written about the empirical data showing human progress through the Liberal Enlightenment throughout history--in ancient Athens, for example. But the accelerating growth in this progress has come over the past few centuries with the global spread of Lockean liberal ideas and institutions. Some of my posts on this are here, here, here, here, here, here. and here.
Much of this evidence for human progress through liberalism has been presented by Max Roser at his "Our World In Data" website, by Steven Pinker in his books--Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now--in the Cato Institute's Human Freedom Index, and in Marian Tupy's "Human Progress" website of the Cato Institute.
Now we have a new book that conveniently and beautifully presents this evidence--Ronald Bailey and Marian Tupy's Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know--And Many Others You Will Find Interesting (Cato Institute). They present 78 global trends showing that the world really is getting better. For each of these trends, they provide a one-page vignette accompanied with a one-page chart or graph displaying the data showing the progressive trend. In this way, they follow the example of Pinker in the deft use of the visually engaging presentation of data to support his argument for human progress through modern liberal enlightenment. (I must complain, however, that those of us with declining eyesight in our old age have to use a magnifying glass to read this book because of its tiny font.)
Here are their Top 10 Trends:
1. The world economy has grown more than a hundredfold since 1820.
2. While most people throughout history have lived in extreme poverty, today less than 10% of the global population lives in poverty.
3. We are not running out of natural resources, because resources have become more abundant relative to the demand for them.
4. We are moving towards a "Peak Population": the world population has grown from under one billion in 1800 to about 7.7 billion today, although this rate of growth is now slowing; and demographers are now projecting that the population will peak later this century at somewhere between 8.9 and 10.9 billion, and then it will probably decline.
5. Because of the growing supply of food around the world, there is very little famine.
6. The forested areas of the Earth have been expanding overall, despite the deforestation in the tropics, which shows that human beings are withdrawing from the natural world.
7. While throughout history, most human beings have lived in rural areas and engaged in agricultural labor, now most human beings live in cities; and this urban life brings economic, cultural, and environmental improvement.
8. Over the past 200 years, there has been a steep decline in the proportion of countries under autocratic governments, along with a steep increase in the proportion under democratic governments, which confirms Francis Fukuyama's claim that liberal democracy has become the final form of government for humanity.
9. Over the past half century, the number of interstate wars has declined; and this seems to be because capitalist democracies are more peace-loving than other regimes.
10. Because of increased wealth and technological progress, the deaths from natural disasters--such as earthquakes, floods, storms, wildfires, and epidemics--have declined dramatically.
Looking at such claims, a critical reader of this book might ask at least five questions. (1) Can Bailey and Tupy explain why so many smart people think the world is getting worse? (2) How do they explain the negative trends that apparently show historical decline? (3) How persuasive is their evidence for these 78 progressive trends? (4) Have they ignored some important trends--such as religious toleration and secularization? (5) If they are right about this human progress, have they explained its ultimate cause? I will take up each of these questions.
(1) WHY DO SO MANY OF US THINK THE WORLD IS IN DECLINE?
The answer, Bailey and Tupy suggest, is that the human mind suffers from some psychological glitches that mislead us so that we pay more attention to what's negative in our lives than what's positive. We are surrounded by the journalistic reporting of news, and news is generally bad news, because that's what grabs our attention.
So, for example, acts of violence--murders, terrorist attacks, killing in war--are dramatic news; but the fact that the rate of killing through homicide and war has been declining is not news. This is what behavioral scientists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman called the "availability bias": shocking events come easily to mind, but that there has been a slow decline in such shocking events does not catch our attention.
When Bailey and Tupy report that there has been a slow but steep decline over the past one hundred years in the rate of deaths from infectious disease, many of us will think: But what about COVID-19? The disturbing harm from this pandemic today so fills our minds that it's hard to believe the historical data showing the general progressive trend towards protecting us from infectious diseases.
It is also possible that we have an evolved instinct for negativity. If you're an ancient hunter-gatherer wondering whether that rustle in the grass is caused by a lion or the wind, it's best to assume it's a lion. So perhaps we have inherited from our evolutionary ancestors a propensity to see threats everywhere.
Moreover, Bailey and Tupy observe, progress tends to mask itself, because as we become better at solving our problems, our expectations are raised, and we are frustrated by any problems that are not yet solved. So, for example, it's hard to feel good when Bailey and Tupy report that there has been a big decline in hunger and malnutrition around the world, because we worry about the many people who are still hungry and malnourished.
(2) WHAT ABOUT THE NEGATIVE TRENDS?
The 78 global trends that Bailey and Tupy present in their book are all positive trends that show human progress towards a better life. But of course they have to admit that some global trends are negative. And so we must wonder whether they are justified in not giving prominence to those negative trends, and whether recognizing those negative trends negates their story of progress.
They respond to this concern by quoting Steven Pinker: "It's essential to realize that progress does not mean that everything gets better for everyone, everywhere, all the time. That would be a miracle, that wouldn't be progress" (1). So does this imply that true progress means that most things get better for most people, most places, most of the time? Must the positive trends outweigh or outnumber the negative trends? Or must we see evidence that the positive trends are likely over time to eliminate or slow down the negative trends?
Bailey and Tupy mention seven examples of global negative trends. Manmade climate change from increasing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide is creating serious problems for human beings in this century. Increasing plastic debris in the oceans is harmful to the environment. Many wildlife populations are declining. The areas of tropical rainforest are shrinking. Many people around the world are malnourished. Many are dying in violent conflicts. And we all know about the global coronavirus pandemic.
But then they try to show how some of their 78 positive trends can alleviate these negative trends. For example, while there has been no reduction in the absolute quantities of carbon dioxide emissions, they observe, there has been a decline in emissions per dollar, which they call "decarbonizing the economy," because there's an economic incentive for businesses to reduce their energy costs (115-16). And in the United States, over the past 50 years, although carbon dioxide emissions have increased by 22%, the total emission of six principal pollutants dropped by 74%; and during this period, the gross domestic product increased 275%. This shows that "richer becomes cleaner" (169-70).
Another positive trends is the accelerating speed of vaccine development (77-78). It took thousands of years before scientists developed vaccines for polio, smallpox, cholera, typhoid, and measles. But the vaccine for Ebola was developed only 43 years after the discovery of the virus. And human trials for a COVID-19 vaccine began only four months after the virus was discovered. Even if a COVID-19 vaccine is not discovered, Bailey and Tupy suggest, other treatments are likely to be developed quickly to end the pandemic.
As long as the positive trends outweigh the negative trends, we can see that on the whole the arc of history bends towards progress.
(3) ASSESSING THE EVIDENCE FOR THE POSITIVE TRENDS
For each of their 78 trends, Bailey and Tupy provide a chart or graph that displays the empirical evidence for that trend. The evidence comes from databases compiled by various scholars and reputable agencies--such the World Bank, the United Nations, and the Environmental Protection Agency.
I think that most readers will find this evidence to be reliable in most cases. But I did see a few places in the book where the evidence looks dubious.
For two of their trends--Trend 1 ("The Great Enrichment") and Trend 13 ("Global Income Is Rising")--Bailey and Tupy rely on the database for the statistics of economic history compiled by Angus Maddison. Maddison (1926-2010) was a scholar of quantitative macroeconomic history who spent his life collecting and analyzing statistical estimates for gross domestic product (GDP) and population for countries around the world and throughout history from ancient Rome to the present. When he died in 2010, his database was preserved and extended by people at the "Maddison Project" at the University of Groningen.
Using Maddison's data, Bailey and Tupy were able to design graphs showing the growth in the total world economy and in global GDP per capita from year 1 AD to the present. These are two of the most dramatic hockey-stick graphs in the book. Global GDP per capita starts in year 1 at $800 (as measured in 2011 US dollars), and the line stays flat until the year 1800, when it rises to $1,140 per person per year, then to $2,180 in 1900, and finally to $13,172 in 2008. Bailey and Tupy can point to this as showing that between 1800 and 1900, "humanity made over twice as much progress in 100 years as it did in the previous 1800 years." This also shows that "the real standard of living rose by more than tenfold between 1800 and 2008" (33).
Any careful reader will ask how Maddison came up with these numbers. By the middle of the 19th century, modern statistical offices and censuses were collecting statistics for the economies of Europe and North America. But for the thousands of years of economic history prior to 1800, it's hard to find documented economic statistics.
If one goes to Maddison's books, one can see that his estimates for GDP per capita in the year 1 AD in 20 countries as measured in 1990 international US dollars ranges mostly from $400 to $450. For example, for Sweden, Mexico, and North America, it's $400; for Belgium and Portugal, it's $450 (Maddison 2007, 382). One looks in vain for any explanation as to how he decided on these numbers. How does he know that in 1 AD the North American Indians were living on the equivalent of $400 per person per year?
Maddison says: "Before 1500, the element of conjecture in the estimates is very large indeed" (Maddison 2001, 259). He uses the words "conjecture" and "assumption" a lot. He assumes that prior to the year 1000, most people in most countries lived close to subsistence levels of income, which he sets at $400 per capita per year. But he does not explain how he arrived at this $400 number.
Some of his colleagues at the University of Groningen have said that "his strategy was to produce numbers even if a solid basis for them did not always exist" (Bolt and van Zanden 2014, 628). They correct Maddison's estimate for subsistence by lowering it to $250-$300, but they don't explain how they arrived at this new number.
Economic historian Gregory Clark identifies this "element of conjecture" in Maddison's numbers as the problem at the core of the whole Maddison Project. "All the numbers Maddison estimates for the years before 1820 are fictions, as real as the relics peddled around Europe in the Middle Ages" (Clark 2009, 1156).
For this reason, I think Bailey and Tupy are mistaken in relying on Maddison's fictitious database for the economic history prior to 1820. Remarkably, they are not alone in this. Many economists and economic historians have used Maddison's data for developing and testing theories of economic development while remaining silent about the "element of conjecture" in his numbers.
There are a few other points where Bailey and Tupy make conjectural projections about future trends that cannot be decisively confirmed by empirical evidence. Two examples of this are "Peak Population" (Trend 4) and "Peak Farmland" (Trend 48).
The demographic data show that there has been a stunning growth in world population over the past 200 years, so that now the world population is around 7.7 billion. The demographic data also show that over the past 75 years the growth in population has continued, but the rate of growth has slowed, because as people become wealthy and well-educated, their fertility rate tends to decline. As women gain social and economic freedom, they choose to have fewer children, so that they can invest resources in those children, allowing them to flourish in a modern economy. This is called the "demographic transition," and I have written about it (here).
This demographic database provides empirical evidence for the growth of human population--first rapid and then slowing--up to the present. But of course it does not allow us to precisely predict the future. If there is going to be a "peak population," as Bailey and Tupy claim, identifying it requires a speculative projection that cannot be settled by empirical evidence. The United Nations' World Population Prospects 2019 projects that the world population will reach 10.9 billion in the year 2100. Bailey and Tupy say that this is too high, because it does not put enough weight on the demographic transition that will lead more and more women to choose to have few children, which is likely to keep the peak population well below 10 billion; and after that peak, the world population will decline. This seems plausible to me, but this can only be a conjectural projection that cannot be confirmed by present evidence.
Similarly, their "Peak Farmland" trend is a speculative prediction that has some plausibility based on some evidence, but the evidence cannot precisely confirm the prediction. Here's the figure used by Bailey and Tupy that presents the data showing the gradual rise of global arable land from 1961 to 2009, followed by projections of a drop of global arable land to 2060.
This figure comes from Jesse Ausubel and his colleagues (Ausubel 2014, 2015; Ausubel et al. 2012). Ausubel is often identified with "ecomodernism"--the idea that the best way to reverse environmental degradation and restore natural wildness is to liberate technological innovation in response to free-market incentives to solve environmental problems. So, for example, he foresees that advances in farming technology along with changes in consumer tastes and a slowing growth in human population could bring about what he calls Peak Farmland, which would allow for a large global restoration of land to Nature.
Compared with what they were doing 40 years ago, American potato farmers grow about 40% more tons of potatoes, while planting about 20% fewer acres. Similarly, American corn farmers now grow about five times as many bushels as they did in 1940 on the same land. Because of the technological ingenuity of farmers, less land can produce more calories, so that agricultural food production can increase while farming acreage decreases. At the same time, there has been rising demand for chicken and corn and falling demand for potatoes and beef. Depending on how these and other trends play out, it is possible that over the next 40 years we could see nearly 988 million acres restored to nature, which is twice the size of the United States east of the Mississippi.
That's the optimistic projection in the figure above. But while this is based on the empirical evidence for some trends in recent history, this projection for the future is conjectural.
To be continued . . .
Ausubel, Jesse H. 2014. "Peak Farmland and Potatoes." Plenary address to the 2014 Potato Business Summit of the United Potato Growers of America, San Antonio, 8 January.
Ausubel, Jesse H. 2015. "The Return to Nature: How Technology Liberates the Environment." Breakthrough Journal 5 (Summer).
Ausubel, Jesse H., Iddo K. Wernick, and Paul E. Waggoner. 2012. "Peak Farmland and the Prospect for Land Sparing." Population and Development Review 38 (Supplement): 221-242.
Bailey, Ronald, and Marian L. Tupy. 2020. Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know, and Many Others You Will Find Interesting. Washington, DC: Cato Institute.
Bolt, Jutta, and Jan Luiten van Zanden. 2014. "The Maddison Project: Collaborative Research on Historical National Accounts." The Economic History Review 67 (3): 627-651.
Clark, Gregory. 2009. Review of Angus Maddison, Contours of the World Economy, 1-2030 AD. Journal of Economic History 69: 1156-1161.
Maddison, Angus. 2001. The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective. Paris: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Maddison, Angus. 2007. Contours of the World Economy, 1-2030 AD: Essays in Macro-Economic History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.