September 1, 1995 essays

The State of Humanity: Steadily Improving

Simon refutes the commonly-held view that the world is becoming a worse place to live, arguing that all available data paints a much more optimistic picture.

The 1980 Global 2000 Report to the President began by stating that “if present trends continue, the world in 2000 will be more crowded, more polluted, less stable ecologically, and more vulnerable to disruption than the world we live in now.” In the Introduction to The Resourceful Earth, which I edited in 1984 with the late Herman Kahn, we rewrote that passage, stating, “If present trends continue, the world in 2000 will be less crowded (though more populated), less polluted, more stable ecologically, and less vulnerable to resource-supply disruption than the world we live in now.”

The years have been kind to our forecasts—or more important, the years have been good for humanity. The benign trends we then observed have continued. Our species is better off in just about every measurable material way. And there is stronger reason than ever to believe that progressive trends will continue past the year 2000, past the year 2100, and indefinitely.

When we widen our scope beyond such physical matters as natural resources and the environment—to mortality, the standard of living, slavery and freedom, housing, and the like—we find that the trends pertaining to economic welfare are heartening also. Please notice that this benign assessment does not imply that there will not be increases in some troubles—AIDS at present, for example, and other diseases in the future, as well as social and political upheavals. New problems always will arise. But the assessment refers to broad aggregate measures of effects upon people rather than the bad phenomena themselves—life expectancy rather than AIDS, skin cancers (or even better, lifetime healthy days) rather than a hole in the ozone layer (if that is indeed a problem), and agriculture rather than global warming.

We have seen extraordinary progress for the human enterprise, especially in the past two centuries. Yet many people believe that conditions of life are generally worse than in the past, rather than better. We must therefore begin by discussing that perception, because it affects a reader’s reaction to the facts. Pessimism about the environment and resources is so universal that it needs no documentation. The comparison one chooses is always crucial. A premise of The State of Humanity is that it usually makes sense to compare our present state of affairs with how it was before. That is the comparison that is usually relevant for policy purposes because it measures our progress. But many private and public discussions instead compare the present state of one group to the present state of other groups, as a supposed measure of “equity,” or as the basis for indignation and righteousness, or to support political positions. Others compare the actual situation to the best possible, or to ideal purity, ostensibly to motivate improvement. A typical front-page story from the Washington Post (July 5, 1991) does both; it headlines a complaint of blacks that a nearby county Isn’t Drawing Upscale Stores, and the caption under a picture says, Prince George’s resident Howard Stone is angered by the shortage of upscale retail stores in his community. (Yes, that was on the front page.) This issue is very different from the sorts of problems that most of humanity has faced throughout most of its history.

The Path of Material Human Welfare

Let us distinguish three types of economic change: 1) Change that is mainly absolute rather than relative. An example is health improvement that benefits everyone worldwide. 2) Change that is mainly relative but also has an important overall effect. An example is a productivity improvement, due to people working smarter in one country, that allows that country to greatly increase its exports to the benefit of both exporters and importers but causes problems for some other exporting countries. 3) Change that is wholly relative. An example is a change in the price charged by one trading partner to another, or in the terms of trade between raw materials and consumer goods, or the dollar-yen exchange rate; in such zero-sum situations there is no on-balance change for bad or good. It is only the third category in which one finds bad news, and indeed bad news is inevitable for one party or the other.

This is my central assertion: Almost every absolute change, and the absolute component of almost every economic and social change or trend, points in a positive direction, as long as we view the matter over a reasonably long period of time. That is, all aspects of material human welfare are improving in the aggregate.

For proper understanding of the important aspects of an economy, we should look at the long-run movement. But short-run comparisons—between the sexes, age groups, races, political groups, which are usually purely relative—make more news.

Let’s start with the longest and deepest trends. Surprising though they may be, these trends represent the uncontroversial settled findings of the economists and other experts who work in these fields.

Length of Life

The most important and amazing demographic fact—the greatest human achievement in history, in my view—is the decrease in the world’s death rate. It took thousands of years to increase life expectancy at birth from just over 20 years to the high 20s. Then in just the past two centuries, the length of life one could expect for a newborn in the advanced countries jumped from less than 30 years to perhaps 75 years.

Starting in the 1950s, well after World War II, length of life in the poor countries leaped upward by perhaps 15 or even 20 years because of advances in agriculture, sanitation, and medicine. (China excelled in this respect before developing its economy, which is exceptional.)

The extraordinary decline in child mortality is an important element in increased life expectancy, for which every parent must give fervent thanks. But contrary to common belief, in the rich countries such as the United States the gains in life expectancy among the oldest cohorts have been particularly large in recent years. For example, among American males aged 65 to 74, mortality fell 26 percent from 1970 to 1988, and among females of that age, mortality fell 29 percent and 21 percent from 1960 and 1970 to 1988, respectively (Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1990, p. 75).

The decrease in the death rate is the root cause of there being a much larger world population nowadays than in former times. In the 19th century, the planet Earth could sustain only 1 billion people. Ten thousand years ago, only 4 million could keep themselves alive. Now, more than 5 billion people are living longer and more healthily than ever before, on average. This increase in the world’s population represents humanity’s victory against death.

The trends in health are more complex. The decline in mortality is the most important overall indicator of health, of course. But whether keeping more people alive to older ages is accompanied by better or poorer health, on average, in those older years is in doubt.

Agricultural Labor Force

The best single measure of a country’s standard of living is the proportion of the labor force devoted to agriculture. When everyone must work at farming, as was the case only two centuries ago, there can be little production of nonagricultural goods. In the advanced countries there has been an astonishing decline over the centuries in the proportion of the population working in agriculture, now only about 1 person in 50. That shift has enabled consumption per person to multiply by a factor of 20 or 40.

Raw Materials

People have since antiquity worried about running out of natural resources—flint, game animals, what-have-you. Yet, amazingly, all the historical evidence shows that raw materials—all of them—have become less scarce rather than more. It is beyond any doubt that natural resource scarcity—as measured by the economically meaningful indicator of cost or price—has been decreasing rather than increasing in the long run for all raw materials, with only temporary and local exceptions. And there is no reason why this trend should not continue forever. The trend toward greater availability includes the most counterintuitive case of all—oil.

Food is an especially important resource. The evidence is particularly strong that the trend in nutrition is benign despite rising population. The long-run price of food is down sharply, even relative to consumer products, as a result of increased productivity. And per person food consumption is up over the last 30 years. The increase of height in the West is another mark of improved nutrition.

(Africa’s food production per person is down, but in the 1990s, few people any longer claim that Africa’s suffering has anything to do with a shortage of land or water or sun. Hunger in Africa clearly stems from civil wars and government interference with agriculture, which periodic droughts have made more murderous.)

Only one important resource has shown a trend of increasing scarcity rather than increasing abundance. It is the most important and valuable resource of all—human beings. Certainly, there are more people on earth now than ever before. But if we measure the scarcity of people the same way that we measure the scarcity of other economic goods—by how much we must pay to obtain their services—we see that wages and salaries have been going up all over the world, in poor countries as well as in rich countries. The amount that one must pay to obtain the services of a barber or a professor has risen in India, just as the price of a barber or professor has risen in the United States over the decades. That increase in the price of people’s services is a clear indication that people are becoming more scarce even though there are more of us.

The Standard of Living

The data show unmistakably how the standard of living has increased in the world and in the United States through the recent centuries and decades, right up through the 1980s. Aggregate data always bring forth the question: But are not the gains mainly by the rich classes, and at the expense of the poor? For a portion of U.S. history, income distribution did widen (though this is hardly proof that the rich were exploiting the poor). But there has been little or no such tendency during, say, the 20th century. And a widening gap does not negate the fact of a rising absolute standard of living for the poor. Nor is there evidence that an increasing proportion of the population lives below some fixed absolute poverty line. There have been extraordinary gains by the poor in America in consumption during this century, as well as a high standard of living by any historical and cross- national standards.

A related question concerns possible exploitation by the rich countries that might cause misery for the poor countries. But the distribution of the most important element of “real wealth”—life expectancy—has narrowed between rich and poor countries (as well as between the rich and poor segments of populations within countries) over previous decades—to wit, the extraordinary reduction in the gap between the mortality rate of China and those of the rich countries since World War II. The reduction in the gap between literacy rates and other measures of amount of education in rich and poor countries corroborates this convergence. The convergence in economic productivity in the rich countries, along with general growth, dovetails with the other measures of income distribution. Data on the absolute gap between yearly incomes of the rich and poor countries are beside the point; widening is inevitable if all get rich at the same proportional rate, and the absolute gap can increase even if the poor improve their incomes at a faster proportional rate than the rich. Here one should notice that increased life expectancy among the poor relative to the rich reduces the gap in lifetime income, which is a more meaningful measure than yearly income.

Cleanliness of the Environment

Ask an average roomful of people if our environment is becoming dirtier or cleaner, and most will say “dirtier.” Yet the air in the United States and in other rich countries is irrefutably safer to breathe now than in decades past; the quantities of pollutants—especially particulates, which are the main threat to health—have been declining. And water quality has improved; the proportion of monitoring sites in the United States with water of good drinkability has increased since data collection began in 1961. More generally, the environment is increasingly healthy, with every prospect that this trend will continue.

When considering the state of the environment, we should think first of the terrible pollutions that were banished in the past century or so—the typhoid that polluted such rivers as the Hudson, smallpox that humanity has finally pursued to the ends of the earth and just about eradicated, the dysentery that distressed and killed people all over the world as it still does in India, the plagues and other epidemics that trouble us much less than in generations past, or not at all. Not only are we in the rich countries free of malaria (largely due to our intensive occupation of the land), but even the mosquitoes that do no more than cause itches with their bites are so absent from many urban areas that people no longer need screens for their homes and can have garden parties at dusk. It is a mark of our extraordinary success that these are no longer even thought of as pollutions.

The root cause of these victorious campaigns against the harshest pollutions was the nexus of increased technical capacity and increased affluence—wealth being the capacity to deal effectively with one’s surroundings.

I am not saying that all is well everywhere, and I do not predict that all will be rosy in the future. Children are hungry, and sick people live out lives of physical or intellectual poverty and lack of opportunity; irrational war (not even for economic gain) or some new pollution may finish us off. For most relevant economic matters, however, the aggregate trends are improving.

Can All This Good News Be True?

Readers of articles like this often ask, “But what about the other side’s data?” There are no other data. Test for yourself the assertion that the physical conditions of humanity have gotten better. Pick up the U.S. Census Bureau’s Statistical Abstract of the United States and Historical Statistics of the United States at the nearest library and consult the data on the measures of human welfare that depend on physical resources, for the United States or for the world as a whole. See the index for such topics as pollution, life expectancy, and the price indexes, plus the prices of the individual natural resources. While you’re at it, check the amount of space per person in our homes and the presence of such amenities as inside toilets and telephones. You will find “official” data showing that just about every single measure of the quality of life shows improvement rather than the deterioration that the doomsayers claim has occurred.

What Is the Mechanism That Produces Progress Rather Than Increasing Misery?

How can it be that economic welfare grows over time along with population, instead of humanity’s being reduced to misery and poverty as population grows and we use more and more resources? We need some theory to explain this controversion of common sense.

The process operates as follows: More people and increased income cause problems in the short run—shortages and pollutions. Short-run scarcity raises prices and pollution causes outcries. Those problems present opportunity and prompt the search for solutions. In a free society solutions are eventually found, though many people seek and fail to find solutions at cost to themselves. In the long run the new developments leave us better off than if the problems had not arisen. This theory fits the facts of history.

Technology exists now to produce in virtually inexhaustible quantities just about all the products made by nature—foodstuffs, oil, even pearls and diamonds—and make them cheaper in most cases than the cost of gathering them in their natural state. And the standard of living of commoners is higher today than that of royalty only two centuries ago—especially their health and life expectancy, and their mobility to all parts of the world.

The extent to which the political-social-economic system provides personal freedom from government coercion is a crucial element in the economics of resources and population. Skilled persons require an appropriate social and economic framework that provides incentives for working hard and taking risks, enabling their talents to flower and come to fruition. The key elements of such a framework are economic liberty, respect for property, and fair and sensible rules of the market that are enforced equally for all.

We have in our hands now—actually, in our libraries—the technology to feed, clothe, and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next 7 billion years. Most amazing is that most of this specific body of knowledge was developed within just the past two centuries or so, though it rests, of course, on basic knowledge that had accumulated for millennia.

Indeed, the last necessary additions to this body of technology—nuclear fission and space travel—occurred decades ago. Even if no new knowledge were ever gained after those advances, we would be able to go on increasing our population forever, while improving our standard of living and our control over our environment. The discovery of genetic manipulation certainly enhances our powers greatly, but even without it we could have continued our progress forever. Conclusion

Progress toward a more abundant material life does not come like manna from heaven, however. My message certainly is not one of complacency. The ultimate resource is people—especially skilled, spirited, and hopeful young people endowed with liberty—who will exert their wills and imaginations for their own benefit and inevitably benefit the rest of us as well.

This article originally appeared in the September/October 1995 edition of Cato Policy Report.