Ignore the Pessimists, Things ARE Getting Better

Many like to complain that things are worse than they used to be — They’re wrong.

There’s never been a more optimistic time in human development — but why are are so many of us pessimistic?

In his book Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, Johan Norberg notes that a stunning 71 per cent of Brits believe that things are getting worse while only a piddling 5 per cent feel that things are getting better. The cliche of the pessimistic Brit might be a fun trope but to see such pessimism across these islands reflected in statistics is sad. Other stats show that a similar sentiment is held by people across the Western world. Generally, people believe that things are getting worse and are worse now than they previously were.

While the impact of this notion on the popular consciousness is alarming, what is worse is realising that so many people can be so wrong. Things ARE getting better.

What IS true is that for most people, in most places, and at most times, life is getting better – thanks to the spread of free markets, globalisation, freedom, and technology. The market system has always saved lives and will continue to do, as long as it remains unhindered by government.

The excellent and necessary website Human Progress does a brilliant job of cataloguing the case for optimism and progress. A cursory glance at the site shows that, among other phenomena, “Access to improved sanitation facilities has sky-rocketed”, “Cancer rates are declining”, “The number of people who smoke on a daily basis has never been lower”, “More children than ever are being vaccinated for polio”, and “In the developing world, share of people living in slums is decreasing”. This is merely a smattering of the good news stats that are available which demonstrate conclusively that, for the majority of individuals and their families around the world, life is getting better, fairer, and more equitable. If the doom and gloom of the news cycle ever drags you down then visit Human Progress.

Why is it that so many people still believe that the world is getting worse? Part of the reason could be, as Norberg points out, that humans are predisposed to focus on the negative. If we hadn’t learned to focus on what was going wrong rather than what was going well, our evolutionary story would have been much shorter; perhaps ending when our ancestors were dawdling as a hungry predator approached.

However, the natural aspect of humanity only explains part of this appalling level of negativity. I’d suggest most of it comes from a kind of politics that doesn’t so much think things are deteriorating, but NEEDS them to be.

There is a political viewpoint that has become common, ever since Karl Marx first sat down to write the world’s longest collection of wrong statements, that needs there to be a narrative of doom, gloom, oppression, conflict, and revolution. It can be found in different forms and at different strengths in schools, on university campuses, and amongst pundits and commentators.

Once again, the chief failing of this perspective is that it is completely untrue. Every single metric, from calorific intake to information availability and educational opportunities, shows that, for the vast majority, life is improving and that there is reason to be cheerful. However, the same is true for the disciples of Marx as for any other kind of religious zealot; they find the story of doom easy to believe because they need it to be true for the sake of their narrative and they would rather sacrifice the veracity of one claim than contemplate the falsity of their world view.

In his wonderful book The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley describes the story of human progress over time. He points to “ideas having sex” and argues that, when left relatively alone, human beings naturally innovate, trade, and do business with one another so that everyone benefits through mutually beneficial agreements. The Tory MEP Dan Hannan also makes the case for this view of the world in How We Invented Freedom and Why it Matters. Hannan shows that it is those countries, like Britain, the United States, Switzerland, and Singapore among others, that have embraced free markets, commerce, limited government, and an individualistic worldview that have prospered most. While it is those that have rejected those ideas, like North Korea and Venezuela, that are economic catastrophes.

The battle lines are clear. Globalisation, free trade, free markets, the rule of law, and all the other factors involved are what has bettered the human condition and will do so into the future – and they need to be defended. It would be morally wrong and economically suicidal to let the fear-mongering prophets of the long-disproved Marxist religion get away with arguing to the contrary. It is, quite literally, the fate of humanity that is at stake.