The History of Progress: Part 1

For most of human history, life was very difficult for most people. People lacked basic medicines and died relatively young. They had no painkillers, and people with ailments spent much of their lives in agonizing pain. Entire families lived in bug-infested dwellings that offered neither comfort nor privacy. They worked in the fields from sunrise to sunset, yet hunger and famines were commonplace. Transportation was primitive, and most people never traveled beyond their native villages or nearest towns. Ignorance and illiteracy were rife. The “good old days” were, by and large, very bad for the great majority of humankind.

Average global life expectancy at birth hovered around 30 years from the Upper Paleolithic to 1900. Even in the richest countries, such as those of Western Europe, life expectancy at the start of the 20th century rarely exceeded 50 years. Incomes were quite stagnant, too. At the beginning of the Common Era (CE), annual GDP per person around the world ranged from $600 to $800. As late as 1820, it was only $712 (measured in 1990 international dollars).

Humanity has made enormous progress—especially over the course of the past two centuries. For example, average life expectancy in the world today is almost 72 years. In 2010, global GDP per person stood at $7,814—over 10 times more than two centuries ago (measured in 1990 international dollars).

It is not only income and life expectancy that are improving. Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard University, has noted a propitious decline in physical violence. As Pinker writes,

Tribal warfare was nine times as deadly as war and genocide in the 20th century. The murder rate in medieval Europe was more than thirty times what it is today. Slavery, sadistic punishments, and frivolous executions were unexceptionable features of life for millennia, then were suddenly abolished. Wars between developed countries have vanished, and even in the developing world, wars kill a fraction of the numbers they did a few decades ago. Rape, hate crimes, deadly riots, child abuse—all substantially down.”

If anything, the speed of human progress seems to be accelerating. As Charles Kenny of the Center for Global Development writes,

4.9 billion people—the considerable majority of the planet—[live] . . . in countries where GDP [gross domestic product] has increased more than fivefold over 50 years. Those countries include India, with an economy nearly 10 times larger than it was in 1960, Indonesia (13 times), China (17 times), and Thailand (22 times larger than in 1960). And 5.1 billion people live in countries where we know incomes have more than doubled since 1960, and 4.1 billion—well more than half the planet—live in countries where average incomes have tripled or more …

According to a 2011 paper by Brookings Institution researchers Laurence Chandy and Geoffrey Gertz,

[The] rise of emerging economies has led to a dramatic fall in global poverty . . . [The authors] estimate that between 2005 and 2010, the total number of poor people around the world fell by nearly half a billion, from over 1.3 billion in 2005 to under 900 million in 2010. Poverty reduction of this magnitude is unparalleled in history: never before have so many people been lifted out of poverty over such a brief period of time.

Similarly, the world’s daily caloric intake per person has increased from an average of 2,264 in 1961 to 2,850 in 2013. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the caloric intake increased from 2,001 to 2,448 over the same time period. To put these figures in perspective, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that moderately active adult men consume between 2,200 and 2,800 calories a day and moderately active women consume between 1,800 and 2,000 calories a day.

The internet, cell phones, and air travel are connecting ever more people—even in poor countries. More children, including girls, attend schools at all levels of education. There are more women holding political office and more female CEOs (chief executive officers). In wealthy countries, the wage gap between genders is declining. Our lives are not only longer, but also healthier. The global prevalence rate of people infected with HIV/AIDS (human immunodeficiency virus infection and acquired immune deficiency syndrome) has been stable since 2001 and deaths from the disease are declining because of the increasing availability of anti-retroviral drugs. In wealthy countries, most cancer rates have started to fall. That is quite an accomplishment considering that people are living much longer and the risk of cancer increases with longevity. In parts of the world, dwellings are growing ever larger. Workers tend to work fewer hours and suffer from fewer injuries. That’s especially true in developed countries, like the United States. Shops are bursting with a mind-boggling array of goods that are, normally, less expensive and of higher quality than in the past. We enjoy more leisure and travel to more exotic destinations.

Is everything getting better? Not exactly. In recent years, the world has witnessed a sustained attack on political and economic freedoms, as well as freedoms of religion and free expression. Considering that human freedom is an integral part of human progress, these worrying developments are worth bearing in mind.

Progress Is Not Linear

Unfortunately, progress is not linear. Europe, for example, experienced an unprecedented period of peace and rapidly improving standards of living between the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Between 1820 and 1914, real or inflation-adjusted GDP per person rose by 127 percent in Western Europe. In Great Britain, for example, life expectancy at birth rose from 41 years 1818 to 53 years in 1914. In Sweden, the improvement was even more dramatic, with life expectancy rising from 39 years in 1814 to 58 years in 1914.

The period between the start of the 20th century and the outbreak of World War I saw the introduction of such life-changing technologies as the radio, the vacuum cleaner, air conditioning, the neon light, the airplane, sonar, the first plastics, the Ford Model T automobile, and cornflakes.

As a result of World War I, which raged between 1914 and 1918 and killed some 16 million people, per-person GDP in Western Europe fell by 11 percent between 1916 and 1919. Life expectancy in Great Britain, one of the war’s main participants, dropped from 53 years in 1914 to 47 years in 1918. Other horrors followed.

The devastation of World War I undermined the Russian monarchy, leading to the rise of communism and the establishment of the USSR. Globally, some 100 million people died because of purges and socialist economic mismanagement in communist countries. Defeat in World War I and harsh reparation demands led to resentment in Germany. That contributed to the rise of National Socialism (Nazism), the outbreak of World War II, and the subsequent Holocaust. Some 73 million people died in World War II. After the war ended, communist dictatorships and free-market democracies fought in a variety of proxy conflicts as part of the Cold War, including the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

In spite of all that suffering, humanity rebounded. New technologies were introduced. They included the microwave oven, the mobile phone, the transistor, the video recorder, the credit card, the television, solar cells, optic fiber, microchips, lasers, the calculator, fuel cells, the World Wide Web, and the computer. Medical advances included penicillin; cortisone; the pacemaker; artificial hearts; the MRI scan; HIV protease inhibitor; and vaccines for hepatitis, smallpox, and polio.

Over the course of the 20th century, the GDP of an average Western European rose by 517 percent. For life expectancy, a typical Frenchman could expect to live 34 years longer in 1999 than in 1900.

The United States escaped much of the devastation of the two world wars, but suffered the Great Depression and carried many of the burdens of the Cold War. Between 1929 and 1933, for example, the average U.S. GDP per person declined by 31 percent. It was not until 1940 that it returned to its pre-Depression levels. Over the course of the 20th century, however, average American GDP per person rose by 581 percent and life expectancy by 28 years.

In Asia, average GDP per person rose by 96 percent between 1913 and 1999. Over the same time period, Chinese GDP per person rose by 473 percent and Indian by 173 percent. In China, life expectancy rose from 32 years in 1930 to 71 years in 1999—an increase of 39 years. Indian life expectancy increased from 24 years in 1901 to 61 years in 1999—an increase of 37 years.

The story of Africa is more complex, but still, on balance, positive. Between the time of the European colonization in 1870 and African independence in 1960, a typical inhabitant of the African continent saw his or her GDP rise by 63 percent. Per-person GDP increased by a further 41 percent between 1960 and 1999. Whereas Africa had underperformed relative to the rest of the world, Africans were better off at the end of the 20th century than they were at the beginning. Moreover, since the start of the new millennium, Africa has been making up for lost time. According to the World Bank, average per-person GDP in Sub-Saharan Africa rose by 38 percent between 2001 and 2016.

When it comes to life expectancy, Africa has experienced much progress. However, increases in life expectancy vary, depending on the harm caused by the spread of AIDS. Life expectancy in hard-hit South Africa, for example, rose from 45 years in 1950 to an all-time high of 62 years in 1990. It dropped to 53 years in 2005, before rebounding to 62 years in 2015.

Progress Is Not Inevitable

When reflecting on the world today, it is important to keep human development in proper perspective. The present, for all of its imperfections, is a vast improvement on the past. Understanding and appreciating the progress that humanity has made does not mean that we stop trying to make the future even better than the present. As the University of Oxford philosopher Isaiah Berlin once wrote, "The children have obtained what their parents and grandparents longed for—greater freedom, greater material welfare, a juster society: but the old ills are forgotten, and the children face new problems, brought about by the very solutions of the old ones, and these, even if they can in turn be solved, generate new situations, and with them new requirements—and so on, forever—and unpredictably."

That said, we should avoid making two mistakes. First, we should correctly identify, preserve, and expand those policies and institutions that made human progress possible. If we misidentify the causes of human progress, we could put the well-being of future generations at risk. One way of avoiding serious policy mistakes in the future is to avoid concentrating power in a single pair of hands or in the hands of a small elite. Instead, we should trust in the choices made by free-acting individuals. No doubt, some of those individual choices will turn out to be bad, but the aggregate wisdom of millions of free-acting individuals is more likely to be correct than incorrect.

Second, we should beware of utopian idealism. Utopians compare the present with, so to speak, future perfect, not past imperfect. Instead of seeing the present as a vast improvement on the past, they see the present as failing to live up to some sort of an imagined utopia. Unfortunately, the world will never be a perfect place because the human beings who inhabit it are themselves imperfect. Today, it is difficult to imagine the emergence of a powerful new utopian movement. But few people in 1900 foresaw the destruction brought on by communism and Nazism. We cannot rule out that utopian demagogues akin to Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao Zedong, or Pol Pot will emerge in the future.

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About the Author is a project of the Cato Institute with major support from the John Templeton Foundation and the Searle Freedom Trust, as well as additional funding from the Brinson Foundation and the Dian Graves Owen Foundation.