Although the news seems filled with the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind, the data points overwhelmingly to its steady improvement. More people than ever have access to enough food, better sanitation, & health. They lead longer, richer, less violent and better educated lives. Senior Cato Fellow, Johan Norberg, reminds us in “Progress” (Oneworld) of how far we have come.
Consider a ten-year-old girl 200 years ago. Wherever she had been born, she could not have expected to live longer than around thirty years. She would have had five to seven siblings, and she would already have seen at least one or two of them die. The chance that her mother would survive childbirth was smaller than the chance that the present generation will meet their grandparents.
She would have been brought up under conditions we consider unbearable. Her family would not have had access to clean water or a toilet. Chances are that they did not even have a latrine; they would have used a ditch or gone behind a tree. Her surroundings would have been littered with garbage and faeces, contaminating water sources and devastating lives. Her parents would live in constant fear that she would be taken away by tuberculosis, cholera, smallpox or measles – or starvation.
This little girl would have been stunted, skinny and short, since she lived in a world of chronic undernourishment and recurring famine, where people did not get the energy to grow and function properly. This would also have halted her brain's proper development. She would not receive any schooling, and would never learn to read and write. She would certainly have been put to work at an early age, perhaps as a domestic servant in another family's home. In any case she would have been blocked from almost all occupations, and would be considered the property of her father, until he married her away, at which point ownership would pass to her husband. If he beat her or raped her, there was no law banning it…
She lived in a brutal world, where the risk of a violent death was almost three times higher than today. England had 300 capital offences on the books, and she would see corpses displayed on gibbets. Torture and slavery were still common. Peacetime was an intermission between wars.
The progress was achieved by capitalism, not socialism. It was done by people prepared to forgo present consumption and to invest instead in technologies that increased productivity. It is one of the most benign things that people have ever done. It has uplifted the lives of billions, and is still doing so. Norberg’s reminder is a timely one.