Johan Norberg joins Trevor this week to talk about the notion of progress and gives us all a few reasons to look forward to the future.
Why is there a systemic bias towards pessimism when hard data shows the world is getting better and better every day?
Show Notes and Further Reading
Norberg’s newest book is Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future (2016).
Listeners may also enjoy Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (2011).
To find more statistics that show how the world is always getting better, we recommend checking out another one of Cato’s projects, HumanProgress.org.
Trevor: Welcome to Free Thoughts for Libertarianism.org and the Cato Institute. I’m Trevor Burrus. Joining me today is Johan Norberg, lecturer and documentary filmmaker and Senior Fellow at the Cate Institute. He has a weekly column in Sweden’s biggest daily, Metro. His new book is Progress: 10 Reasons to Look Forward to the Future. Welcome to Free Thoughts, Johan.
Johan: Thank you very much.
Trevor: Why write a book on progress or maybe now, why write a book on progress now?
Johan: It seems like almost no one understands the kind of tremendous progress that has been done around the world in the last few decades. And if you look at the pools, it seems like in Britain, in the United States, 5% to 6% of people say that the world on the whole is becoming a better place. In the era when we’ve almost eradicated poverty, almost eradicated hunger, seen a dramatic reduction in war and violence around the world, people still think it’s a worse place.
And I think that first of all, it’s bad because progress is important. We’ve seen the biggest social and economic progress the world has ever seen. We should know about that in order to make even more of the things that led to that kind of progress. But also, because I think the pessimist may say very potent political force if people think that the world is falling apart. They tend to become more protective, more authoritarian, more statist.
Trevor: Now interestingly, I think in the last chapter we talked about, the epilogue, when you talked about how people don’t realized this and you talked about that error rate of 5 to 6%. This is worse than chimpanzee. The random sampling of – if they were randomly choosing answers, you’ll get a higher number. So this means that they have a systematic bias in a different direction. Why do you think that is the case?
Johan: Right. I think that people are informed by false or at least outdated data and where do they get that? I think they get that – it’s not that they read the wrong books or the wrong data. It’s that they don’t pay attention to data at all. They pay attention to news. They pay attention to breaking news and to what they see on Twitter and on Facebook. And bad news sells. That’s the classic – that’s the first thing you learn in journalism.
Trevor: If it bleeds, it leads.
Johan: Definitely because we want to hear about the most shocking and dramatic story that has happened in the world while we were asleep, which is – it’s a good thing. We need knowledge about that. But it tends to distort our perspective because there will always be a famine somewhere. There will always be a flood somewhere. And then in the global news world, that will always top the news cycle everywhere and will get the impression that this is becoming more …
Trevor: Dangerous and imperiled, yes.
Johan: … that basically we’ll see more regular occurrences of these things, whereas the truth is that we see less. We have less war. We have reduced the risk of dying in a natural disaster by 99%. But that’s a background story. Then you need history. Then you need data and statistic to get that. You don’t get that from the news.
Trevor: And backing that up too is you point out that people’s beliefs about the quality of their localities like we have, do you feel safer in your own neighborhood? They think they’re pretty accurate compared. They do feel safer but they think the world at large with this global news cycle is what’s actually dangerous.
And of course, back in – for most of human history, we didn’t have CNN and other types of things so we get that. But let’s actually get to the numbers of how good it is. And I’ve read a fair amount of books like yours. Well, there’s no actual book like yours. Your book is excellent and it’s so succinct and very well-written. Did you write it in Swedish by the say or do it in English?
Johan: No, I wrote it in English.
Trevor: Excellent. See, even better. Second language. But it’s very succinct but you have books like The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley who has been on the show before. But in terms of how much data you put forth and I was shocked by some of them, so we can just sort of get into the 10 kind of places that you discussed, areas. Food is the first one. How common were famines in previous centuries?
Johan: Oh, it was – that was a regular occurrence in previous centuries even in the richest countries, in France and England in the 17th and 18th century. There were lots of people living in what researchers called A Nutritional Trap. They didn’t get enough food so that they could work. And if they couldn’t work, they couldn’t produce food. They couldn’t afford food so they could work even less.
Trevor: You mean they actually didn’t have the energy to work.
Johan: That’s right.
Trevor: That’s kind of astounding for me to even think about.
Johan: Right. And in the absence of trade, in the absence of modern transportation, a local crop failure resulted in starvation and famine in the richest countries. That was something that happened all the time.
In my own country, Sweden, chronic undernourishment was in existence until the early 20th century. In the late 19th century, my forefathers in Northern Sweden, they had to mix bark from the trees into the bread to make the bread go further. And we regularly had those occurrences of hundreds of thousands of people dying. We even have records of cannibalism in some of the richest countries on the planet.
Trevor: We still hear about famines today. I mean the one when I was growing up is Ethiopia, is it the same type of famines or have they gone down?
Johan: They’ve gone down dramatically. First of all, the regular sort of chronic undernourishment has been reduced dramatically. In the late 1940s, around half of the world population suffered from chronic undernourishment. Now, around 10% do. So that’s a dramatic shift partly because people have had more stronger protective property rights to their lands so they invest more in better crops and irrigation systems and so on.
But also, trade. So that you can produce where you can produce the best and sell it to other places. And all the technological development during the Green Revolution, artificial fertilizer, better irrigation systems, better crops, higher yields and so on.
Trevor: You write that fertilizer might be the most important invention in human history.
Johan: It’s sadly overlooked. The fact that we could get ammonia from the atmosphere, the fact that we could have artificial fertilizers probably saved the lives of a billion people or two billion people depending on how you count. And no one really thinks about it unless they think about the problems that comes with it as well because there’s always some pushback. But that’s on chronic undernourishment.
But we also have the famine, disasters where it suddenly strikes over just a few months. And it used to be with a much smaller populations around the world. We had decades of regularly – not decade, some 5, 10, 15 million people dying in famines. Now, in the last 10 years, we’ve seen half a million people doing that. Far too many especially in Africa, far too many but fewer than even despite a bigger population than ever.
Trevor: And more of the famines that have been in the 20th century have been caused by governments. I mean governments were problematic before because you had a mercantilist kind of philosophies. So, if you weren’t trading your food then yes, a single blight on your crops or just a cold summer could cause a famine and then you weren’t trading. But now, governments have caused a lot of famines.
Johan: Right. Now, it almost takes a vicious despotic regime that almost wants to punish its people to create famines like that. It could be war on countries where no one is safe from producing anything or countries like North Korea where they sort of consciously destroyed any kind of ability to produce and trade.
Trevor: Who was Norman Borlaug?
Johan: He was perhaps the person who saved most lives in the world by being the man behind the Green Revolution around the world because he had that vision, that idea that you should be able to use the mankind’s knowledge to make the yields go further. So he started to experiment with better crops in Mexico and producing dramatic results. And then he thought that we have to try to make this happen on a global scale. And he did so in India and in Pakistan in 1970s – in the 1960s and ‘70s this really took off.
And at that time, people said that over population was the big problem that we’ll never be able to create enough food for these people. We’ll see massive famines in for example, the sub-continent, in India and Pakistan. And they didn’t believe that this was the way to go forth. Why should we invest money in strange and new innovations when we have too little to buy the crops that we need today?
But he fought for this in a dramatic fashion and he went there and while war broke out between India and Pakistan sometimes producing and working within – he could hear the gunshots and he kept on working. And the result was tremendous in the first season. They produced more than they could store and then even further in the Southwest. So he saved lives of hundreds of millions of people in those places.
And then he wanted to do the same thing in Southern Africa. But a friend of him told him that think about the amazing accomplishments that you’ve done now because you’ll never be able to do anything like this again because this was such a disaster that suddenly you had a free range. You could do it.
Now governments, they are going to block you. Special interests are going to block you. He was very much interested in using genetically-modified organisms and the whole environmental movement and the United Nation System were opposed to that. So he couldn’t do the same thing in Africa.
Trevor: Before we leave food, there is one story too that I had not heard in your book about a village in China. I think it’s pronounced Shao-gong, would that be correct? There is a story about how during the famines in China, and China is particular where a lot of the people we brought out of poverty were previously. I mean we used to tell children, there are starving children in China. Eat your vegetables because there are starting children in China. And I don’t think children get told that anymore. We moved that to a different place. But in this one story in Shao Gong Village, we had a little property rights revolution.
Johan: Yeah. There we some 20 families who realized that for all their hard work, they didn’t get much. They couldn’t put food on the table for their children. So they thought about, “What could we do instead?” So they had a secret town meeting where they decided to secretly privatize the land so that every family had its own plot and they could produce anything they’d like. They could work as much as they like and they would keep the rewards rather than working in this sort of communes, the collectives that were controlled by the government. And they had to do this in secret because obviously, that was the worst thing you can do. They became small capitalists.
So they agreed to do this. They agreed to keep it secret. And they also agreed that if someone was exposed, the others would bring up their children because the others would – they would go to the labor camp in that case.
What happened was a dramatic surge in productivity because people now work much harder when they could reap the rewards. They began to invest in that land. So suddenly, there was an explosion of productivity. And it was difficult to keep it secret.
The other villages began to notice that something had happened there. And as some farmer put it, this is like the chicken pest. If one village has it, everybody has it in just a few months. So the secret privatization took off everywhere in the late 1970s. And then of course, the Communist Party got noticed and understood something is wrong here. They produced too much food. The children, they grow taller. They’re better fed. And they exposed what had happened. And then they had this painful decision whether they should reinforce their communist system which led to starvation or approval of this.
And luckily, this was a period when the leadership began to think anew partly because they were inspired by what had happened or threatened by what had happened in the neighboring countries, in Taiwan, in Hong Kong, the kind of progress that they had seen.
So in the early 1980s, the Communist Party said that this is acceptable. If villages want to do this, they can do it. And in a few years, there were no collectives like that left.
Trevor: And that was huge part of China working itself to a liberalization regime. Sanitation, which is probably the most disgusting chapter …
Johan: Yeah, I’m sorry.
Trevor: It’s OK. We used to be pretty dirty.
Johan: Yeah. This is the problem. This is one of the most lethal things in world history, the fact that we didn’t keep our waste, feces, and all those disgusting things separate from the water sources that we used for cooking and for drinking. So that killed off a lot of people. And this is something that affected everybody. The River Thames was disgusting.
Trevor: And at one point the end of life too. It had no life.
Johan: Right. It was declared biologically dead as late as the 1950s. But in the mid-19th century, it was such a disgusting pool of stank that the parliament had to be evacuated because they couldn’t breathe. Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert, died from typhoid fever partly because of these things.
So it affected everybody. The Royal Castle of Versaille in Paris, this was sort of the prime of the wealth in Europe in the 18th century. They had spent so much resources on everything, decoration, material, clothes, but they didn’t have a single flushing toilets. So, visitors to the castle pointed out that, “Look, you noticed where Versaille is because of the stench.” Because the visitors noticed that there was excrement in the walls and in the stairs.
Trevor: And why are the hedges so high? I didn’t even know the hedges are high in Versaille.
Johan: Yeah, exactly because you had to relieve yourself behind something. So this really affected everybody and people died early because of this. We had a revolution in the mid and late 19th century where science began to understand that microorganisms could kill even though we couldn’t see it.
So they began to separate those sources and we began to filter and put various chemicals into the water to make sure that we don’t die from water. So that – well, one side effect was that we could begin to drink water rather than beer and wine in the morning. The kids don’t have to be drunk early in the morning.
But that has saved more lives than any other sort of health innovation.
Trevor: How much better is it now within say, even the ‘50s around the world for people having access to clean water?
Johan: There were basically two different things. They said clean water improved water sources. Do they have sanitation? We made the most progress when it comes to water source and sort of getting that from a better place or making sure that we treat the water in various ways. And since 1980, we have increased the number of people who have access to clean water by some 285,000 people every day.
Trevor: Every day.
Johan: Every day.
Trevor: And what does that equate to in several billion?
Johan: Yeah. It’s 2.5 or something like that. And that’s everywhere where we’ve seen a rise in GDP per capita. Everywhere where people get richer, they stopped doing this because people are smart. And that’s one of the lessons that I learned from this. It’s not they’re stupid. They make the wrong decisions. They had to be sort of told what to do or controlled top down. The moment they have a chance, the moment they have the resources at their disposal, the moment they get the technology, they make the right decision because they don’t want to see their children die.
Trevor: And this is with food and sanitation. But then the next chapter is life expectancy, which is a combination of a bunch of things. I think one thing that maybe people understand that there has been progress in is in medical science. I mean we were not using leeches or amputations anymore but maybe they understand how much it has changed.
Johan: Right. And it used to be said that prayer was the most common medicine in the previous eras. Well, the data speaks for itself. In as late as 1900, the world average life expectancy was 31 years, 31 years.
Trevor: Is that a product of the high infant mortality?
Johan: It’s mostly infant and child mortality because the moment you take care of that, you can lead a very long life. But it’s also is something that has been – we’ve dealt with a lot of the things that killed us in middle age and later stages even though that doesn’t improve life expectancy as much because that only gives you another 10, 20 years. So mostly, it’s infant and child mortality.
In some places, sort of every second child died before 5. And now, life expectancy is 71 years around the world. So it’s such a tremendous increase. And so if you’re older than 31 years, you should really sort of think about how lucky you should be to be living in this era.
As late as 1800, not a single country on the planet, not Britain, not France, not the US had life expectancy longer than 40 years. Now, another single country has a life expectancy shorter than 40 years. And it tells you we have done something wrong right when it comes to health, nutrition to lifestyle to the economy.
Trevor: We’ve also done some amazing things with eradicating things like small pox, which has to be an unbelievable, like unbelievable achievements of the human race. But there are also diseases that we might eradicate pretty quickly right about like malaria for example. How much better has that gotten?
Johan: Right. That is amazing because there are so many diseases that used to – I mean whoever you were, you had people in your family had died from it. Now, we never think of it anymore. Measles and small pox and cholera and the plague, awful things like that.
Now, we pay all the attention to things like malaria because that’s the thing that kills a lot of people today. Well, we’ve seen tremendous improvements in just the last 15 years partly because of the Gates Foundation, how they’ve been instrumental in sending – making sure that bed nets were used, making sure that more drugs were being used here. And it has saved probably in these last 10 years, some 5 million kids from dying from malaria.
Trevor: Moving on to poverty, which of course all these things just absolutely rates because food and sanitation that they come in, but then poverty rates themselves are sort of an overarching mechanism, have dramatically improved. The numbers are quite astounding. But first, I would like to ask the question which is sort of the part about the lead quote you have in that chapter, why are nations poor? I mean why are there still poor nations or why is any nation poor?
Johan: Yeah. It’s – and that’s really the wrong question. Why are some countries poor? Because every country was poor. The richest countries on the planet 200 years ago, Great Britain, was poor than the poorest Southern African countries today and all their living standards were poor. So the question is, why did some countries get rich?
And we know this because it happened in every country that began to give their people more freedom to explore new ideas, to experiment with new solutions in business, in technology, and tools exchanged with more trade domestically but also internationally. Every country on the planet that did that has eradicated poverty basically, at least in the extreme poverty that we talk about in this context.
In the early 19th century, some 90% of people around the world lived in extreme poverty. What we now think about was being able to consume less than 1.9 to $2 a day adjusted for local budget and power and inflation, around 90%. Now, it’s 9%. So we’ve really gone a long, long way over that period. And this has happened in all those countries that began to integrate themselves into the global economy as well. We’ve seen this tremendous progress in China and in India now in the recent decades of today. They did the same thing.
Trevor: And how of that – how much progress of that has occurred in the lifetimes of even our listeners?
Johan: Yeah. I think that the last 25 years have been spectacular. It has been 25 years while we’ve constantly been complaining about the world, we’ve had leftist like Naomi Klein pointing out that since 1990, free market capitalism ravaged the world and taken control everywhere.
And over those 25 years, we’ve reduced extreme poverty from 37% to less 10% in those 25 years. So for the first time in world history, it also means that the absolute number of extremely poor has been reduced because previously, an increase in world population meant that the number of poor increased even though the proportion might not have.
So we’ve increased population by some 2 billion over this period. And yet, the number of people in extreme poverty has been reduced 1.25 billion in just 25 years. Those are shocking numbers. It means that every minute we talk, another 100 million people rise out of poverty.
Trevor: And in places like India, which relaxed its incredibly oppressive trade restrictions and sort of socialist kind of government to help create this. But it also has a secondary effect which you wrote about, which I think is an important thing to point out for the effects of wealth and capitals and markets, it has a strong effect on the caste system and how people were treating each other in India. How did that work out?
Johan: Yeah. I agree, that is incredibly important because when the economy is controlled, you control people’s lives and then you also end up with discrimination and other things. Opening up markets, creating competition means that you look for talents wherever it is. And if you’re good, if you’re talented, you can compete with the others.
I met one young Dalit sort of the lowest rung of the caste system in India who traditionally would not have gotten education or been able to work with anything except the dirtiest occupations.
Now, what happened after India began to open up in 1991 was that people began to look for talent everywhere. He moved into town and he – actually, he overheard a contractor who built trenches for the new telecom companies. They had to create more cables and stuff. And he complained that they didn’t have enough workers. So he just told him, “Well look, I can get you 25 abled workers tonight.” Because he had a lot of friends in the old town and traditionally, they wouldn’t have been able to work with anything like that. But now, “OK, let’s do it.”
He went there. They trusted him. And they worked hard. They got paid. And he made more money in one day than he did throughout his life. So he started a new company where he made sure that people got the right human resources and then he moved into construction and became a rich man. And now, he has recently moved into a neighborhood that was traditionally reserved for the highest caste.
So the CAST system is breaking down as a result of this basically competitive pressure, the rise in wealth but more importantly, the rise of entrepreneurial opportunity. And we can see that in all the data on everything from marriages between people of different castes to the kind of jobs that they get to things like separated seating at marriages where what used to be 100% basically that they were separated. Now, we see that many cities, that’s a minority phenomenon. It is rapidly disappearing.
So being able to participate in the economy also gives you so social status and it gives you respect in the eyes of others. Some people do not think as much about who you are and who your parents were but more of what can you do?
Trevor: Moving on to violence, if you’ve been listening to – we’re recording this in October, October 12, 2016. So this will actually come out after the election. So the listeners will know the future and who gets elected.
Johan: If there’s still hope.
Trevor: If there’s still hope. Yes, they will know. But in the debates, we listened to Trump’s rhetoric, in particularly, which I can only describe as apocalyptic and is rhetoric about kind of the threats that the people are facing and saying as very dangerous world, the inner cities, ISIS, terrorists. So it sounds like he’s scaring – or these people believing that they’re highly under threat of violence. And if you look at 9/11 and Syria and Paris attacks and all these, it seems like violence has gone up. But in fact, you say it has not. In fact, it’s much, much less than it used to be.
Johan: Right. This is a shocking incident of where fear-mongering and our perceptions totally separated from reality and the facts. You hear Trump and a lot of other people talking about violence spiraling out of control, homicide increasing, yes. But the homicide rate is half of what of what it was in 1980, in the good old days.
And Trump talked a lot about the sort of police murders, which were awful in every single way but when you look at the data, you can see that even if this particularly awful year in many ways, if those trends continue throughout the year, you would still have to go back to the 1950s to find a year when so few policemen were murdered in service.
So it’s an example of how violence is not increasing but global media and social media gives us the images and the stories immediately and we have a group of politicians who want to exploit that. And it’s easy to exploit that because it captures our attention immediately.
When you look around the world, we’ve seen the same thing with war. Some 1.5 out of the population of 100,000 globally die in battles right now. It’s a slight uptake this recent year because of Syria particularly.
But if you compare that to when I grow up in the ’70s, in the 80s, it has been reduced by 4/5 but we are all sort of suffering from what psychologists call availability heuristics. When we think about how frequent something is, we do not think of the data. We think about how easy it is to remember an instance of this.
So if you talk about violence, you think about terrorist attacks, recent ones. You think about the war in Afghanistan and Iraq and you think, “Oh my God! This is spiraling out of control.” You do not think about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 1980s, which killed 10 times more people than this. You don’t think about the terrorist attacks in the 1970s that killed more people in Western Europe than these terrorist attacks have, because we forget about that. In a way, we also know that we survived that as a society. Now, we’re not so sure. We do not know where it’s going and that triggers our fear.
Terrorism has increased in Western Europe and in the United States in the last few years. But we have to keep in mind that terrorists killed very few people. They want to terrorize us, and that’s the danger that we panic when we noticed this and we make the wrongs decisions. But they kill – the risk to individual life is incredibly small in Western Europe. The rest that you will be killed by a normal murdered, so to speak, is 30 times bigger than being killed by a terrorist. And that’s a homicide rate that’s being cut in half. And I’m sure that the American numbers are even more traumatic.
So basically, the risk that you’ll die when you fall off the stairs is bigger than being killed by a terrorist. And that puts it into perspective and we need that kind of perspective in order not to panic.
Trevor: And not only the risk of you being put into a war and finding yourself fighting – I mean a religious war in Europe in say 1625, 30 years’ war which was quite destructive. It’s the risk of being heard by other people. But there’s also this – I mean people in the society through crime but there’s also this interesting just moral development that people in the olden guys, middle-ages, renaissance, going forward to enlightenment, were shockingly OK with brazen violence publicly displayed.
Johan: That’s right. And that’s what many historians say when they look at how people act and react into war. That it wasn’t that different from everyday life because you died from an early age. You knew that some of your kids would die before they turn 5. You had plague. You had the awful disease that killed off thousands of people in months. So war situations where that happen weren’t that dramatic compared to everyday life.
And that sort of tells – historians say that that in a way brutalized people as well because if violence is a regular occurrence and you knew it happens in your life as well, you become a bit less restrictive in imposing pain on other people. So you noticed that in how you treat criminals and how you treat people from minorities and so on that corporal punishments were incredibly common. Public displays of torture, executions, or something that people notices, kids saw that.
Trevor: Yeah, right.
Johan: On the way to the grocery store.
Trevor: I just saw a thief get hanged, drawn and quartered in the street. So we might as well invade Belgium because that’s just the way life is. It is pretty shocking. Even things like bear baiting, which had tying bears and having dogs attacked is shockingly violent to us now because we now care more about animals which seems to be a product of wealth like many things. In the general thrust of this which includes the next chapter which is the environment.
This is a big one for a lot of people. It’s what I do a lot of lecturing around. It’s one of the biggest hang-ups about libertarianism and free markets, this idea that is obviously true that free markets lead to consumption, consumption leads to environmental degradation. And so therefore, capitalism and the environment are completely at odds with each other in a fundamental way that is sort of unrectifiable which is why so many environmentalists are not just not capitalists, they’re vehemently anti-capitalists. But this is incorrect.
Johan: Right. This is an interesting chapter. It was the one that impressed my editor the most because he felt that that’s something that you cannot prove that we’ve made progress when it comes to the environment considering everything from biological diversity to global warming and so on. But after having read it, so this could be the most counterintuitive and more convincing chapter in a way.
And why is that? What is it that happened? Well, in a way, the perception that people have is correct that when we begin to get richer in a poor country, we do more things and we do more things with old, dirty technologies. So we produce more stuff and we transport more stuff and there’s a lot of pollution. We can see that in Beijing. We can see that in New Delhi today as they get richer.
But there’s something interesting about that. New Delhi and Beijing are the most polluted places. It’s not New York. It’s not London, which it used to be when they – those places got rapidly richer before because something happened after they got rich. They began to change their preferences. They began to think that perhaps we should deal with environmental problems as well. And they got the money, the resources to do that.
In a poor country, if you have the choice between making sure that you have food on the table for your kids that you send them to school or try to protect the forest and the river, that’s not a choice. It’s obvious what you’ll do. But after a certain level, you begin to think of that and you get the resources to do it, you get the technology to do this in a better way.
So many researchers talk about an environmental Kuznets curve, an inverted U, the letter U, where pollution and an environmental degradation increases rapidly as countries get richer. But after a certain point, that begins to change. You began to deal with ways to problems. You reduce pollution. In Britain, in the US, in Europe, we’ve reduced the six leading pollutants, the ones that poisoned our lungs and our forests and so on by 60 to 70% in the last four decades.
So we do see incredible progress when it comes to the environment in the riches countries. If you look at the data from things like environmental sustainability index, you can see that the ones that are the most sustainable are often the richest countries whereas the Haiti, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe are the worst polluters because they do not have – they haven’t gone through this transition yet.
Trevor: A lot of people would say that yeah, this is stupid libertarians, this is government that did this. They passed laws that said that cars had to have kind little converters and put in emission standards and a bunch of other things, coal scrubbing and things like this. That seems to be part of it but that’s not the whole story.
Johan: It’s not the whole story. And often, when you look at the data, that began to change before the government began to step in. Partly because of the technologies that we could produce more things with less resources and less pollution, and the more modern sectors of the economy, when they had a rapid turnover of technology and equipment so that they could do that faster.
But it’s also the case that pollution in itself is kind of an intrusion in somebody else’s property rights, someone else’s health. I think it was Karl Marx who pointed out that this is actually contrary to capitalism if you ruin somebody else’s property, somebody else’s land and so on. And in a perfect market, you’d be able to go to the court and get compensation.
Now, in a – I think that would be a preferable situation but you can imitate that. And that’s often what the government has done. They try to impose fines then on polluters. They try to implement various systems to make sure that we reduce this. It’s not perfect. There are some real problems when they do this. But I think that’s something similar would have happened on the market because preferences changed and as you see the problems, you begin to implement property rights that really weren’t there before.
Trevor: Well, I think voters have to start demanding environmental goods and some things that they like which is a product of wealth to begin with as you said. The first question is, where are we going to eat tomorrow? But after you get through that question, you can start saying, “Well, I want to eat in a clean air environment.” And that changes the course of wealth as a product of that. But that brings up the question of global warming which is a concern of many, many people.
But you write that it may not be just a simple as choosing the eradication of the emissions or things like this. It may actually be about wealth creation too to help solve this problem.
Johan: Yeah. Well, I happen to think that global warming goes on and that human beings is partly responsible through creating those gases. I’m not an expert there but I listen to the experts and that’s what they’re saying.
Trevor: I agree.
Johan: So that’s why I have to …
Trevor: So does Pat Michaels. He said to me that it is a man-made thing. But now the question is, what do we do about it?
Johan: Exactly. And that does not mean that we know what will happen, the kind of consequences that will result from this. There’s a wide difference between the various scenarios in here. But I think the sort of stable mainstream scenario, let’s point that out first of all that the sort of the UN climate panel puts in their base scenario is not apocalyptic. It creates problems, marginally a higher sea level. We’ll see perhaps some tropical diseases will move a bit north. We’ll see perhaps an increase in floods in certain places and so on.
In other words, the kind of problems that we already see around the world and that we saw during the 20th century as well. And then the lesson is, where could we deal with that in a good way? Well, in industrialized-rich societies that had the technology and had the – were prepared to deal with those things and that’s exactly what every scenario says. The countries that will suffer the most are the poorest countries.
So whatever we do now, any kind of system put in place that would stifle and block their economic development would lead to human tragedy in those places. They need more wealth to be able to deal with these things. So that’s the first thing that has to be pointed out. And if we have a stable rate of growth in the world, some 2% per capita per year, it means that in 100 years, we’ll be seven times richer than we are today.
Now, what would that mean if we have seven times the wealth of today, perhaps seven times the technology at our disposal, the resources at our disposal? It would probably mean that it would not be a piece of cake. But it would be much easier to deal with those problems and any other kind of problems that will appear no matter what we do about global warming than if we didn’t have that wealth. We need that to go further.
But we can also do other things. That would also make it possible for us to use these new technologies that are being implemented in certain places or at least in the laboratories but are now much too expensive to roll out on a global level. If it’s too expensive, what do we do? Well, we need more purchasing power so we can afford it. More technological development so that it comes down in price. And that could be everything from better solar power.
I mean there are a lot of libertarians including me who complain about the subsidies for solar power. But that’s because they’re totally reactionary in a way. They only subsidize the kind of technology we have today so that we have these effective solar panels being produced on the larger scale. That’s not what we want. We want the next generation of great solar panels from perhaps graphene, this incredibly thin material that we could sort of have our roads, our buildings, everything.
Trevor: It includes all this, yeah.
Johan: Yeah, exactly.
Trevor: That’s pretty exciting.
Johan: Or it could be the next generation of nuclear power or it could be a better generation of biofuel, not the old ethanol but get it from algae which would certainly take care of the many of our environmental problems. Or it could even be taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. We know how to do that. It’s punishingly expensive to do that. But what do you do if something is punishingly expensive? More technological development, more wealth.
So in other words, it’s the opposite of some of what the sort of reactionary greens say that we have dismantle industrial society. No, we need more progress to deal with this.
Trevor: And we need more people coming out of poverty, going to school, becoming smarter so that they can start thinking about how to solve these problems and use what Julian Simon called The Ultimate Resource, which human ingenuity, that there are things that are not resources until we figure out how to turn them into resources.
And one of the things you write about is literacy has just skyrocketed around the world and some of these people can start studying how to make the next nuclear reactor. How much has literacy changed?
Johan: Yeah. Wow! Two hundred years ago, it was one in ten people could read and write around the world. Now, it’s the opposite. It’s one of ten cannot read and write in a population that has sort of exploded as well and a dramatic population growth, which means that – and much of that progress has been made quite recently especially when it comes to girls and their ability to get an education, which is important in other ways as well. Fertility comes down as women get more access to education and knowledge.
Trevor: And in way, to not have overpopulation question if female literacy continues.
Johan: That’s right. Fertility rate has been halved basically in the last half century. And this is important because as you point out, everything is connected here. All those problems that we do not know how to deal with, for example, global warming, what do you do when you cannot solve a problem?
Well, you need more eyeballs looking at it and you need more brains working on this. And now, I mean young girls in Sahara Desert who go to school for the first time and they get access and connection to the internet. So for the first time, they can compare notes. They get access to the accumulated knowledge of mankind.
Imagine what these hundreds of millions of people who are now coming online for the first time what they can do when they think about these problems, they get access to this knowledge and they can use the resources at their disposal to begin to deal with those problems.
So, literacy is one of the most important factors behind my optimism about that world.
Trevor: And then you also have got freedom. Slavery is down. It’s down. It used to be disturbingly common pretty much everywhere. And also, there are fewer walls in the world. Well, until maybe by the time they’re listening to this, Trump would have already built the wall and made Mexico pay for it. But there are fewer walls around the world, fewer places blocked off by the sea or the Eastern bloc, and that seems to be a positive development too especially for trading.
And equality is another one you discussed, which I think is – and I think these are ones at the end which are very important but I think sums of people might be a little bit more familiar with: equalities of human rights, gay rights. Is racism down would you say? The actual sentiments of racism?
Johan: Well, the ways that we have in trying to measure this is you have to look first of all at things like the kind of political rules and regulations that are in place. Do they condone or condemn discrimination, segregation, and so on? And then you can see that all over the world, it has come down dramatically over the last half century.
The worst examples that we have today in the world used to be an everyday occurrence in a lot of developed countries. I mean a bit more than half a century ago, we had racial segregation instituted in the United States. But you can also measure it by looking at people’s attitudes to minorities, to other groups, and so on. And then you can see that those attitudes have also shifted dramatically. We noticed it now when we hear things like Donald Trump’s comments about Mexican immigrants and others.
But that we wouldn’t have noticed that 50 years ago because that’s something that almost everybody thought in those days. If you look at the attitude to for example, into racial marriage or what would you do if African-Americans moved in next doors? You had majorities of white people saying that they would leave, that would condemn an interracial marriage and so on.
Now, that almost does not exist. And in the youngest generation, that’s totally gone. So we do see progress. But now and then, people exploit this. Now and then, people try to stir up those emotions. And I think that Trump’s campaign is an example of that. We see some of that when it comes to the nativist sort of a right-wing populist in Europe as well. And I think that’s bad. I think that’s scary. There’s always sort of risk of a downward spiral as well when you begin to set groups against each other in that way.
But in fact, if you listen to what they say and what they are very clear on that they are not saying because they are also very sort of sensitive in saying, “No, I absolutely do not think – I’m not a racist in that sense.”
Trevor: I’m not a racist by the way.
Johan: At least, that’s something entirely different from what you heard half a century ago and what’s acceptable to the average Joe in the street.
Trevor: So, these trends are incredible. They need to be known. Anyone should definitely read this book to just have a good idea of what’s going on in the world in order to be able to formulate accurate opinions about what should be done and what should be done in the future.
But there would be a lot of people who criticize it to say that you’re missing some things by sort of championing the capitalism element of this to bring about this great changes or missing things like spiritual growth, like we’re a less connected society, that we’re more alienated from each other because of capitalists telling us to go buy, buy, buy and to run the rat race and try and make as much money. We don’t talk to our neighbors anymore and we have a lot of social problems that are also a product of this growth.
How would you respond to that?
Johan: Yeah. Well, first of all, I think it’s important to note that don’t look – we shouldn’t look to an economic or political system to solve all our existential problems. There is this sense that if you tell people that, “Look, we are eradicating poverty.” They’d tell you, “So you think everything is fine?” No, that’s not what I’m saying. We’ll still have other problems and perhaps new problems as well.
As the old proverb goes, “If you don’t food, you have one problem. But if you have food, you have a thousand problems,” because you’re not constantly obsessed with getting – putting food on the table. And then obviously other things will be there.
When it comes to trying to measure what happens to society, to the kind of communities that we live in, it gets a little bit more complex because some of the traditional ways in which we used to interact have been reduced. Often in organized forms, in groups, that traditional bowling alone phenomena, yeah, we do not bowl in an organized way in organization in different championships and so on. But people do bowl with their friends. They go there and they interact socially and they do other things socially. But not in those organizations. But we also build new communities in those regards.
I’m a bit sensitive to attempts to say that we are getting sort of alienated because everything is about the economy. Everything is about creating wealth. I think that one of major benefits from making more money is that you can care a little bit less about money. And that’s what we see when it comes to the values people hold.
If you are poor, you have to use every interaction to try to get something immediately. And you’re sort of at least metaphorically speaking willing to sell your mother for a few bucks. When we get richer, we begin to think of other things. We talk about the environment before but also foregoing attempts to get something materially because we already have a lot of things.
So there have been many interesting experiments with various groups around the world and to see how their values changed if they have a lot of exposure to exchange, to trade, and so on. And the strange and counterintuitive fact is that people have more experience from the trade and competition, they are more generous in social interactions than others. It seems that the very fact that they meet others regularly, they meet strangers regularly and negotiate and trade with them means that they have to take the other person’s perspective into account. And that begins to change your values as well whereas those who don’t, they use any interaction to try to get whatever they want.
Trevor: Thank for listening. If you’ve enjoyed Free Thoughts this past year, I encourage you to go check out Libertarianism.org’s Facebook page where you can vote on your favorite episodes of 2016.
Free Thoughts is produced by Mark McDaniel and Evan Banks. To learn more about libertarianism, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.