What a Wonderful World
By David R. Henderson
“In the time that it takes you to read the first chapter, over 2,000 people will have escaped poverty.” So says a blurb on the back cover of Johan Norberg’s book Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future (London: Oneworld, 2016). The book lives up to the hype. In ten chapters, on topics including food, life expectancy, violence, poverty, the environment, literacy, and freedom, Norberg, a senior fellow with the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. and the European Centre for International Political Economy in Brussels, documents persuasively how pretty much all of the world has gotten better over the last two centuries and even over the last few decades.
Norberg tells a powerful tale by mixing anecdotes and statistics, never boring the reader—at least never boring this reader—and telling important facts that most of us have never heard. Although I knew that there had been substantial progress on almost every issue that Norberg discusses, what surprised me was the size (large) and speed (fast) of the progress. And, as a footnote reader, I can attest that he backs up virtually all of his claims with published research and data. Famous Harvard University psychology professor Steven Pinker, author of his own pathbreaking book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, calls Progress “exhilarating.” I agree.
Consider food. Norberg points out that per capita calorie consumption in France and England was a low 1,700 to 2,200 calories per day in the middle of the 18th century. By 1850, this had increased to 2,500 to 2,800. By 1950, it was 3,000. Sweden, where Norberg lives, “was declared free from chronic hunger in the early twentieth century.”
Why did such progress occur in the first half of the 20th century? Norberg identifies two main factors, both of which resulted from relatively free economies. The first was fertilizer. The Haber-Bosch Process, named after two chemists working for the German chemical company BASF, allowed the company to synthesize ammonia, an important ingredient in fertilizer, on an industrial scale, making it cheap. Also important was farm machinery. Norberg writes, “A hundred and fifty years ago it took twenty-five men all day to harvest and thresh a ton of grain.” But with one modern combine, one person can do that in—are you ready?—six minutes. That, he notes, is a 2,500-fold increase in productivity.
Another source of enormous progress in food supply was the famous American agronomist Norman Borlaug. Working with Mexican farmers for the privately funded Rockefeller Foundation, Borlaug developed a high-yield hybrid wheat “that was parasite resistant and wasn’t sensitive to daylight hours.” The new wheat spread quickly across Mexico with the result that, in 1963 “the harvest was six times larger than in 1944.” I contacted Norberg to see if he meant six times as large, which would make it five times larger. He did.
Not content to help just Mexicans, Borlaug tried to export 35 truckloads of high-yield seed from Mexico to Los Angeles for shipment to India and Pakistan. The Mexican police and the U.S. government tried to block shipment because of a U.S. ban on imports of seeds. But Borlaug persisted, got the seeds to Los Angeles, and then shipped them to Asia. His Asian experiment, called the Green Revolution, was a success. Norberg writes, “Today, they [India and Pakistan] produce seven times [DRH note: actually six times] more wheat than they did in 1965.” On top of his scientific contributions, Borlaug contributed to freer markets. Norberg points out that Borlaug “persuaded many governments to pay their farmers world market prices, rather than forcing them to sell at a fixed, low price.”
Around the world, nutrition is rising and hunger is falling. Norberg quotes an estimate from the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization that in the last 25 years, about 2 billion people have been freed from hunger. And the rate of progress over that time has grown. Also, the frequency and severity of famines have diminished.
There is some bad news. Some environmentalists “have pressured big foundations and the World Bank to back away from introducing the Green Revolution” in Africa. That’s, of course, where it is needed most.
Another dramatic improvement has been in life expectancy. Norberg tells horror stories of the nasty, brutish, and short lives that most people around the world lived before 1800. In 1800, average life expectancy around the world was about 30. Even in 1900, it was 31 because life expectancy in Asia and Africa kept the average way down. Now it’s about 70.
A huge part of that gain is due to the decline in child mortality. Norberg notes that between 1960 and today, the death rate for children under five who were born in low- and middle-income countries fell from 232 per 1,000 live births to just 47. Health has improved dramatically in those countries. Between 2000 and 2015, death rates from malaria have fallen by half. One factor in the decline in malaria deaths is bed nets treated with insecticides. Norberg writes that in Africa, “[t]he population sleeping under mosquito nets has increased from less than two per cent to about fifty-five per cent.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t give the dates over which this happened, but it seems from context that it has been in the last decade or two.
Progress has also been huge in the richer countries. Consider polio. My father, in Canada, had polio in 1943 and my sister had it in 1952. But polio has been almost non-existent in the richer countries and is almost gone in even the poorer countries. The World Health Organization, UNICEF, and the Rotary Foundation pushed a global vaccination campaign some years ago. In 1988, the number of annual polio cases was 350,000. The most recent number that Norberg reports—presumably from 2015—was 416.
Even the incidence of cancer in the United States has declined, albeit slowly, by about 0.6% per year since 1994. Norberg writes, “Rates of cancer deaths have fallen twenty-two percent in the last two decades.”
One great piece of news is some evidence on whether life expectancy is approaching a ceiling. Two researchers, examining the specific ceilings claimed by “experts,” found that those ceilings had been breached, on average, only five years after the estimates were published.
One of the factors in higher life expectancy is reduced violence, a topic to which Norberg devotes a whole chapter. Drawing heavily on the aforementioned The Better Angels of our Nature by Pinker, Norberg shows that one-on-one violence and violence by governments against people in other countries has declined considerably over the centuries. One striking statistic is the annual European homicide rate, which fell from a whopping 19 per 100,000 people in the 16th century to 3.2 in the 18th century to about one today.
Norberg leads the chapter on violence with an 1875 quote from the famous legal scholar Sir Henry Maine: “War appears to be as old as humanity, but peace is a modern invention.” The data back that up. In the 16th and 17th centuries, some of the largest and most powerful countries were at war over 75 percent of the time. Since 1950, there has been only one such war—between the United States and China in Korea—and, bloody as it was, it lasted only three years.
“Although the world’s population grew by more than two billion between 1990 and 2015, the number of people in extreme poverty fell by over 1.25 billion.”
Poverty, after declining dramatically in the richer countries in the 20th century, has also declined worldwide in recent years. At the UN Millennium Summit in 2000, representatives of the world’s governments “set a goal of halving the 1990 incidence of extreme poverty by 2015.” In fact, this goal was met by 2010. Although the world’s population grew by more than two billion between 1990 and 2015, the number of people in extreme poverty fell by over 1.25 billion. “Between 2000 and 2011,” writes Norberg, “ninety per cent of developing countries have grown faster than the US, and they have done it on average by three percent annually.” By 2012, developing countries were producing more than half the world’s output. What were the causes? Among them were improved technology, freer markets in the poorer countries, and freer trade. Related to the increase in the percent of output produced by the poorer economies, income inequality worldwide has fallen slightly in this century.
Are you tired of the good news? Then don’t read on. Even the environment is doing better. The amount of oil spilled in the ocean between 2000 and 2014 was 257,000 tons. This sounds big—it is big—but that was the amount spilled annually in the 1970s. Air pollution is much lower than it used to be in richer countries. Norberg tells of the horrible smog in London in December 1952 that killed as many as 12,000 people. With less burning of coal for heating, that just doesn’t happen in London anymore. The improvement, moreover, is worldwide. Out of 178 countries whose environmental progress is measured in the Environmental Performance Index, 172 improved between 2004 and 2014. A big part of the reason is that environmental quality is what economists call a “normal good.” As real income per person rises, people want a better environment. And they achieve it partly with laws and regulations and partly with their own voluntary changes in behavior.
Literacy has skyrocketed. The global literacy rate, which was only 21 percent in 1900, had increased to 40 percent by 1950 and to 86 percent by 2015. Government schooling should probably get some credit for this—but not all the credit and maybe not even most of the credit. The way to tell who should get credit is to see what parents, including poor parents, do when governments don’t provide good schools. Norberg mentions the claim of Kaushik Basu, an adviser to India’s government, that “most of India’s rapidly increasing literacy rate is the result of parents deciding to spend more directly on their children’s education.”
How about freedom? Surely that has diminished. My view is that Americans are, on the whole, less free than they were, in, say, the late 1980s. Yes, one can point to gays being able to marry, which is a tremendous increase in freedom for them. With NAFTA and other trade agreements, trade between the United States and rest of the world is freer; that represents an increase in freedom for virtually every American. But we have much less freedom to travel than we had before 9/11. When we want to get on a commercial flight, we must often submit to X-ray pictures or letting strangers grope us. Also, the federal government has made it much harder to do even simple things like start a bank account. I could name more such restrictions that are relatively new.
For more information, see Scott Sumner, America’s middle class: 50 Years of amazing progress, EconLog, September 24, 2017; and Scott Sumner, The Unacknowledged Success of Neoliberalism, EconLog, July 5, 2010.
For more on growth, see the EconTalk podcast episode Gregg Easterbrook on the American Standard of Living, and also the EconTalk Podcast Archives on Growth.
Even here, though, there’s good news for the world. Worldwide, freedom has increased tremendously. The obvious increase is in the former Soviet Union, which has dismantled Communism, and in China, which, though officially Communist, has much more economic freedom than it had in the 1980s. According to the Fraser Institute’s annual report, Economic Freedom of the World, freedom worldwide averaged 5.3 on a ten-point scale in 1980 and is now 6.9. Norberg points out just how striking this improvement is: “If the global average of 1980 appeared as a country today, it would be the 150th freest economy in the world, out of 157 measured, just behind Zimbabwe.”
In short, the world is wonderful. There are many reasons to think it will get more wonderful. With the ceiling on life expectancy rising regularly, I hope I’m around to see it.
For more articles by David R. Henderson, see the Archive.