It’s a cliche as old as the Internet. If you log into Facebook or Twitter this time of year, you’ll inevitably find friends wishing 2019 good riddance. “Last year sucked, but this year will be better” seems to be a modern attitude hardwired in our human DNA. But, when it comes to the course of human progress, it is completely misguided.
The fact of the matter is that we are living in the most prosperous time in human history, and the past decade has been a triumph for free markets and individual rights.
Let’s take a look at the numbers. According to the World Bank, the rate of extreme poverty has halved since 2010. Just over 50 percent of the world has enough discretionary income to be “middle class” or “rich,” as defined by the Brookings Institution. Beyond money in the bank, the benefits of this global rise in wealth for public health and human rights are truly jaw-dropping.
The infant mortality rate has declined by two-thirds since 1990, according to the U.N. Global life expectancy has jumped from 66.5 to 72.0 years since 2000, according to the World Health Organization — the fastest increase since the 1960s. Here in the United States, the FBI reports that violent crime has also halved since its peak in the 1990s.
Meanwhile, the global literacy rate is up to 91 percent, according to the U.N., and access to primary schooling is near-universal. Governments are getting wiser about the treatment of women and minorities as well. The World Bank reports that the number of countries with laws protecting women from domestic violence now exceeds 76 percent. Moreover, the number of countries that criminalize same-sex relations has steadily dropped over the last decade.
Perhaps most surprisingly, this global growth in wealth and freedom has made us better stewards of the environment. Andrew McAfee, an MIT researcher and author of “More from Less,” explains the trend at Reason.com:
“Energy use went up in lockstep with economic growth in America for more than a century and a half, from 1800 to 1970. Then the increase in energy use slowed down, and then it turned negative — even as the economy kept growing. Over the last decade, we’ve gotten more economic output from less energy. Greenhouse gas emissions have gone down even more quickly than has total energy use. This is largely because we have in recent years been using less coal to generate electricity and more natural gas, which produces 50–60 percent less carbon per kilowatt-hour.”
This trend also extends beyond energy and carbon to material goods. Americans are consuming less “stuff” like steel, paper and fertilizer year after year as market innovations allow us to extract, well, more from less.
So, there you have it. The world is getting richer, safer and more humane. It’s easy to forget that after turning on the six o’clock news — as the saying goes, “if it bleeds, it leads.” But the curmudgeons that think the world is ever on the edge of apocalypse are simply missing the forest for the trees.
That’s not to be dismissive of hardship. Poverty, addiction, abuse and so many other ills still exist in the world and, sadly, they always will. Progress is never an excuse to declare victory: Just because humans are doing better than ever before doesn’t mean we can’t go further. We will certainly face our challenges in the 21st century.
For starters, there has been a noticeable uptick in anti-democratic populist movements on both the far-left and far-right in recent years, particularly in Europe and South America. Moreover, the pace of technological innovation has caused great concern over mass unemployment for blue-collar jobs like drivers and factory workers in the coming decades. These challenges shouldn’t be glossed over just because we’ve had it good so far. Yesterday doesn’t predict tomorrow.
However, the path of human progress is enough to underline an attitude that should be upheld for policymaking in the future: Freedom works. Markets have shown themselves to be a phenomenal tool in overcoming poverty, sickness and even environmental waste. The formula of property rights, rule of law, low taxation and regulation, and individual rights like free speech should not be meddled with, lest this progress comes undone.
Policymakers certainly have a role to play in overcoming the challenges of today and tomorrow. But cries for radical government overhauls — be it Medicaid for All or the Green New Deal — should be met with a healthy dose of skepticism. We know the best solution: Freedom. The answer to most policy problems is more of it, not less.
• Casey Given is the executive director of Young Voices.