The world is a gloomy place. It’s unjust and violent. With the horrors of Islamic State, terror attacks on major European cities and rape and corruption making headlines every day, it’s obvious that we live in an era plagued by viciousness and radicalism.
And it’s only getting worse. Right?
Well, no. Contrary to what most people believe, the world has become increasingly safe, equal and educated, according to Johan Norberg, a Swedish economic historian and author of a new book called Progress.
Norberg’s critically acclaimed work takes a view of the world through a glass that is decidedly half full. Where most of us see disaster and doom, he finds cause to cheer humanity’s triumphs. The Good Old Days, it seems, aren’t a sentimental and fictitious memory of times past. We’re living through them now.
• “This book is a blast of good sense,” the Economist
• Norberg reminds us “that life has been getting radically better in every way,” Stephen Pinker writing in the Guardian
• Read the introductory chapter of Norberg’s “Progress”.
Not all of us, to be sure. And the author wraps his optimism with a warning that we might still conspire to cock thing up.
The heart of the problem is that very few people see the progress humanity has made. Only 6% of Americans feel that the world is getting better. Even more worryingly, almost a quarter of people polled in Britain, Australia, Canada and the US fear the human race is on the brink of being wiped out.
Norberg’s contention is that our natural tendency to harbor these dark feelings has a profound impact on how we act and vote — with all the consequences that entails.
In a recent email exchange, the author told me more:
What’s the main message of Progress, and why did you write it?
“I wanted to give people a sense of perspective. It’s so easy to get swamped by the breaking news and lose all sense of proportion and background. The world has never seen the kind of social and economic progress that we’ve seen over the last few decades.
“Since 1990, world hunger has been reduced by 40%, illiteracy and child mortality by half and extreme poverty by more than two-thirds. Every minute that we complained, 100 people rose out of poverty.”
Living longer with fewer children.
You write that “pessimism has political consequences.” Could you explain?
“Global media, social media and populist politicians are giving us the impression that the world is falling apart. When that happens, people become fearful and frightened; people become more authoritarian and protectionist. They want protection at any cost, so they often turn to strongmen and big governments.
“This often results in intolerant policies and attacks on open societies and free trade – which happen to be the factors that I think contribute the most to human progress.”
Read: Why your bath tub is more deadly than terror attacks
Do you have any examples of these “populist strongmen?”
“Donald Trump is an example of this. He warned everybody about more violence and the horrors of trade and immigration, even though homicide rates have been reduced by half, trade has doubled the purchasing power of average Americans and Mexican immigrants seem less criminal and have higher labor participation rates than those born in the US. But he clearly managed to exploit the fear that is out there.
“There might be a silver lining. Now we have this populist in charge, and people will quickly see that he will not be able to go back to any kind of ‘good old days,’ and will not be able to stop globalization without seriously harming those he claims to speak for.
“So he will disappoint and, hopefully, that will take some wind out of the populists’ sails.
“The alternative would have been a victorious, but incredibly unpopular, Clinton in the White House. It would have resulted in four years of aggressive media campaigning from the extreme right. And that might have put a smarter and more ideological ‘Trump 2’ in the White House, who believed more in anti-globalization and isolation than Trump — who I think and hope is more of a pragmatist who just doesn’t care that much about anything else than winning.”
East Asian countries have experienced a unique leap. What are your main conclusions from the region?
“East Asia is the area that has benefited the most over the last few decades. The kind of progress that took western countries a century has been repeated here in not much more than a decade. Just look at poverty. In 1981, more than 80% of East Asians lived in extreme poverty, today around 4% do. It’s the biggest thing mankind has ever experienced.
“The lesson is that openness works. East Asian countries have integrated faster into the global economy than other regions, both in terms of trade and investments, but also mentally, by exchanging ideas and technologies. And as economists would predict, when poorer countries open up, they can develop much faster than rich ones, because from day one they can use ideas and technologies that it took other countries generations and billions to develop.”
Higher literacy with fewer children.
After decades of progress, President Xi Jinping has made China increasingly repressive and respect for human rights and rule of law have deteriorated. What’s your take on China?
“I think that there is a natural tension between the forces that have been unleashed in China and Communist Party rule. New economic power centers, the growth of the middle class and the incredible creativity in social media and technology, has made the situation unstable.
“It would be surprising if there weren’t attempts from the government to control this development with harsher methods. And paradoxically, some of it might be implemented because the leadership thought that it would make some reforms easier, like battling corruption and reforming state-owned companies and the financial sector.
“But I think it’s a mistake for many reasons, one of them being that a stronger and more independent civil society is exactly what China needs so that the transition when it comes does not result in chaos and violence.”
Where are we heading – both in terms of progress and fear?
“Well, as they say in financial markets, past performance is not a guarantee of future returns. I am convinced that human beings are able to create amazing things as long as they are allowed to explore, experiment and exchange, but I am not convinced that they will always be allowed to. I really fear the populist turn in Europe and America.
“On the other hand, I am more hopeful about the world today than ever, and the reason is that so many countries now participate in development. When Europe ruled the world it would have been enough if European countries screw up big time for progress to halt everywhere. That is no longer the case. Even if some countries fail, there are others who would carry on where they left.”
Johan Norberg, born in 1973, is a Swedish author and historian, devoted to promoting economic globalization and what he regards as classical liberal positions. More information about Progress is here.