- The Washington Times - Friday, December 31, 1999

One century from now, the 20th century will be remembered as an epic age of human progress unrivaled in the history of mankind. It also will be chronicled as the American century.

In fact, the objective historical evidence indicates that there has been more improvement in the human condition in the United States over these past 100 years than in all the previous centuries combined since man first appeared on the Earth.

To measure this century of progress, consider the most awesome statistic of all: life expectancy. Anthropologists inform us that for thousands of years the average human being could expect to live about 25-30 years of age. Throughout most of human history, life was, as Thomas Hobbes famously described it, nasty, brutish and short. But since the late 19th century, life expectancy has risen to 77 years in the United States an increase of more than 30 years in just one century. An epidemic of life is how the respected American Council on Science and Health summarizes the health improvements of the 20th century.

Here’s the second most breathtaking statistic. Throughout most of the past millennium, real incomes across the globe crept forward almost imperceptibly, by less than 0.1 percent per year, according to economic historians. But in this century living standards almost miraculously increased fivefold. The average factory wage in 1900 was only about half what today we regard as a poverty wage.

Wages have risen because of a surge in the productivity of American workers. In 1900 about 1 in 3 Americans worked on the farm. Today, 1 in 40 Americans are farmers, yet we are the best fed people in human history. Why? A farmer in 1900 could produce in an hour of work a mere 1 percent of what his counterpart is capable of growing and harvesting today.

Today, in many ways even the poor have routine access to a quality of food, health care, consumer products, entertainment, communications, and transportation that even the Vanderbilts, the Carnegies the Rockefellers, and the 19th century European princes, with all their combined wealth could not have afforded. No mountain of gold 100 years ago could have purchased the basics of everyday life in 1999: a television set, a cellular telephone, vaccination against small pox and polio, a Haagen Dazs ice cream bar, a sinus tablet, contact lenses (to say nothing of laser surgery), or the thrill of seeing Michael Jordan majestically soar through the air as if defying gravity while dunking a basketball. Today, almost all Americans can afford these things.

A century ago, among the leading causes of death were tuberculosis, typhoid, diarrhea, pneumonia and small pox. In the first three decades of the 20th century, before the era of acid rain and global warming, pollution killed people lots and lots of people. Deadly diseases and viruses commonly referred to back then as “pollutions” were transmitted byrancid food, milk, and what then qualified as “drinking water.” The rate of death from infectious diseases was some 15 times higher than today. Thanks to modern drugs and vaccines, almost all of which were invented in this century, most of the great killer diseases throughout history have been almost entirely eradicated.

Medical care prior to the 20th century was astonishingly primitive by today’s standards. The famous Flexner report on medical education in 1910, commented that up until then, a random patient consulting a random physician only had a 50-50 chance of benefiting from the encounter.

So what accounts for the quantum leap forward in progress in this century? And why did so much of the progress originate in the United States? The shorthand answer to both questions is: Freedom works. The unique American formula of individual liberty and free enterprise has cultivated risk-taking, experimentation, innovation and scientific exploration on a grand scale unparalleled in history.

In the United States, the government has set down a reasonable rule of law, provided a well-balanced equilibrium between liberty and order, and then gotten out of the way. America also enjoys an advantage over other nations because we are a nation that remakes itself through the new blood of immigrants.

The 40 million immigrants to America in this century have truly represented the skim off the cream of the rest of the world. Americans are a people who have been self-selected as problem-solvers and progress-seekers.

Some people wonder whether the great American economic dynasty of the last 100 years will soon falter in the 21st century the way the Greek, the Roman, the British and other great empires have crumbled in the past. Not likely. The dual quest for freedom and progress is imbedded in our genes and national character. It is more likely that the 20th century is the beginning, not the end of America’s superpower status. And the United States will remain what historian Paul Johnson once described as the first, best hope for the human race.

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