Johan Norberg Celebrates Human Progress

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Are things generally getting better or worse? We routinely hear that the environment is going to hell, that inequality is damaging people’s lives, that the next disaster is just around the bend. But does such doom-and-gloom handwringing have any connection to reality?

In his latest book Progress (Oneworld 2016), Johan Norberg discusses ten key ways in which the human condition has gotten spectacularly better.

Norberg introduces his book by noting that many people have been taken in by fearmongering despite the fact that, in crucial ways, we are living in the best times of human history. Norberg quickly recounts some of the main indicators: global real wealth per capita has grown dramatically, life expectancy is up, infant mortality is down, risks of dying in war or natural disaster are down.

Norberg offers a wonderful summary of the causes:

This progress started with the intellectual Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when we began to examine the world with the tools of empiricism, rather than being content with authorities, traditions and superstitions. Its political corollary, classical liberalism, began to liberate people from the shackles of heredity, authoritarianism and serfdom. Following hot on its heels was the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century, when the industrial power at our disposal multiplied, and we began to conquer poverty and hunger. These successive revolutions were enough to liberate a large part of humanity from the harsh living conditions it had always lived under. With late twentieth-century globalization, as these technologies and freedoms began to spread to the rest of the world, this was repeated on a larger scale and at a faster pace than ever before. (p. 4)

But, Norberg warns, we should not take this progress for granted. It is not, as some presume, automatic or guaranteed. It could be undermined, not only by “terrorists and dictators,” Norberg writes, but by “widespread resentment against globalization and the modern economy.” Although Norberg does not name Donald Trump, obviously he is talking in part about him and his “alt-right” supporters as well as about the anticapitalist left.

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I’ll quickly run through Norberg’s ten chapters, each of which focuses on a particular area of human progress.

Food

Norberg begins his first chapter with a discussion of the famines that were the norm prior to the Industrial Revolution. This makes for grim and difficult reading—but it is useful to set the context.

How did most of humanity turn the corner from perpetual hunger to abundant food? A big piece of the puzzle was artificial fertilizer, Norberg explains: “A colleague [of Fritz Haber], Carl Bosch, carried out of 20,000 experiments in over twenty reactors before he came up with the right process to synthesize ammonia on an industrial scale. The Haber-Bosch process made artificial fertilizer cheap and abudant. . . .” (p. 14) Of course mechanized farm equipment and the like also contributed, Norberg notes.

But the proven ability of people free to act on the judgment of their reasoning minds to create wealth did not stop the doomsdayers, Norberg points out. In the 1960s, various writers, including Paul Ehrlich, predicted imminent widespread famine. Of course his predictions never came true.

Norberg also tells the story (in brief) of Norman Borlaug, who, with his improved farming methods and wheat hybrids, helped Mexican farmers expand their yield by six fold from 1944 to 1963 (p. 18). Then Borlaug brought his technologies to India and Pakistan, also with astounding success.

Norberg is hardly blind to the costs of progress. For example, agricultural improvements also brought some problems of water allocation and “nitrate pollution of water bodies,” he writes (p. 22). But, on the whole, Norberg argues, the benefits of improved agriculture monumentally outweigh the costs.

Norberg ends his chapter with a discussion of the famines caused by repressive Communist regimes. He ends on a hopeful note by describing how a village of Chinese farmers started a political revolution of private farming that soon spread throughout the nation.

Sanitation

Before modern water and sewer systems, life could be described by a single word: filthy. Norberg reviews in grim detail what life was like throughout much of the world, including Europe, when open sewage and diseased water were considered normal.

Norberg then tracks the major developments that led to clean and safe water: sewage systems, trash collection, and water filtration and chlorination. Because water no longer spread disease, Norberg notes, many fewer people (especially children) died from disease.

But not all the peoples of the world enjoy good sanitation yet, Norberg notes. He describes his trip to a slum in Kibera, Nairobi, where people defecated in bags and simply threw the bags “as far from their home as possible” (p. 39). But even in such places things are improving, Norberg closes.

Life Expectancy

Besides inadequate food and bad sanitation, things such as poor housing and rats also contributed to the spread of disease. In his third chapter, Norberg reviews the horrifying history of the plague and other diseases. Life was brutally hard for most of human history, and as a consequence life expectancy topped out at around thirty-five years (p. 44).

But finally innovative people started to turn things around. Here is an extraordinary statistic: According to the Max Planck Institute, “the bulk of humanity’s mortality reduction has been experienced by only the last four of the roughly 8,000 generations of homo sapiens” (p. 45), Norberg writes. Today, people on average live to over seventy (p. 46).

Advances in medical sciences have spared countless people from early death. Norberg spends much of the rest of this chapter reviewing the major breakthroughs, extending from the germ theory of disease to vaccinations, pasteurization, antibiotics, and more.

Have you ever heard of Maurice Hilleman? I confess the name was not familiar to me. Yet, as Norberg points out, by creating numerous vaccines, including the measles vaccine, Hilleman is among “the people responsible for saving the most lives in history” (p. 54).

It is true, Norberg points out, that we may yet see more pandemics. However, we have better technology than ever before to fight infectious disease. Norberg notes that, after the H1N1 flu virus appeared in 2009, almost immediately “the full H1N1 virus genome was published online, for the whole world to use” (p. 59).

Poverty

“Poverty is what you have until you create wealth,” Norberg notes (p. 63). For most of human civilization almost all human beings were desperately poor. Norberg writes bluntly, “Despite a few ups and downs, humanity had experienced almost no economic development until the early nineteenth century” (p. 64).

Many people today probably would be surprised that alleviating poverty was not always seen by various intellectuals as a possible or even a desirable goal. Mercantilist doctrines pervasive prior to the age of Adam Smith, Norberg writes, held that “only low wages could reduce the cost of production so that a country would remain competitive” (p. 66). Adam Smith and his allies destroyed—intellectually, at least—those and other mercantilist fallacies.

Because of capital formation in England—the building of steam engines and other machines—people in England created vastly more wealth and thereby increased people’s earnings. “Between 1820 and 1850, when the population grew by a third, workers’ real earnings rose by almost 100 per cent,” Norberg writes (p. 66).

While reading Norberg’s review I couldn’t help but think of today’s senseless hand-wringing about machines “taking our jobs.” Enabling people to create more wealth in less time, thereby freeing up their time for new endeavors, hardly is a bad thing (despite possible transition troubles).

The economic progress that largely began in England soon led to a Great Ascent from poverty to prosperity, as Norberg calls it (following publications of the United Nations). After India and Asia substantially freed their economies, they too joined the Great Ascent. “Since 1950, India’s GDP per capita has grown five-fold, Japan’s eleven-fold and China’s almost twenty-fold,” Norberg writes (p. 68). What many people now regard as ordinary is, in fact, extraordinary.

But we oughtn’t get so caught in the statistics that we forget that behind the numbers are real individuals. Norberg tells the story of him meeting a “dalit,” or “untouchable” person, in India, Madhusudan Rao (pp. 72–73). In previous eras Rao would have been condemned to a life of horrid poverty and misery. But in partially liberalized India, Rao was able to begin a career organizing people to dig cable trenches. Eventually he formed a large construction company. He said, “When I’m hiring employees, I am not seeing any caste. I’m seeing if they’re talented.” That is the power of free markets.

None of this is to say that everything everywhere is great. Norberg notes that “more than 700 million people still live in extreme poverty” (pp. 80–81). Yet, for the first time in human history, if economies continue to liberalize and governments stabilize, the end of extreme poverty worldwide is now in sight.

Violence

Why do many people think that violence generally is on the rise, even though it is falling? Norberg offers a psychological explanation: People tend to recall memorable cases of violence—often from news headlines—and ignore or downplay trends of falling violence.

Drawing on the work of Steven Pinker, Norberg summarizes, “War and violence used to be the natural state of humanity” (p. 83). But in the modern era violence on net is down dramatically—and that goes both for private and state-sanctioned violence. That nearly all modern readers will regard with horror Norberg’s account of past barbarism attests to the profound changes in attitudes in modern times.

Norberg offers a brief account of the causes of reduced violence, including the rise of state governments, the implementation of the rule of law and democratic institutions, the spread of trade, the growing embrace of “moral individualism” (p. 92) and humanism, and the development of media that better revealed the horrors of war.

Those unfamiliar with Pinker’s work may be wondering: What about the genocides and world wars of the Twentieth Century? Was that bloodshed not the worst in human history? Norberg encourages us to look at violence relative to population sizes; then previous atrocities look even worse by comparison. For example, “The Turco-Mongol conqueror Timur Lenk . . . killed proportionally almost as many as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao combined when he ravaged Central Asia and Persia in the fourteenth century” (p. 95).

So, although Mao Zedong is history’s worst mass murderer in terms of total number of victims, others outdid him in terms of fraction of population slaughtered. The point is not to diminish the atrocities of the Twentieth Century, but rather to indicate that even given those atrocities violence per capita has declined overall relative to earlier eras.

Norberg offers an excellent discussion of the trends, but he is not blind to the possibility that the future will not necessarily follow the past. Norberg briefly discusses the possibilities of clashes between China and the United States, between Russia and other parts of Europe (as we’ve already seen in Ukraine), between India and Pakistan, between North Korea and whoever it can reach with missiles. As he notes, “nuclear proliferation means that the world is always at risk” (p. 104). Still, we have good reason to remain optimistic.

One trend that Norberg does not much discuss is the rise of racial nationalism, which in important ways has (ironically) become an international movement. As Robert Zubrin discusses, Alexander Dugin leads an explicitly anti-liberal, racial separatist-nationalist movement in Russia, one combined with mystical ideas about bringing about the end of the world. And Dugin’s influence is not limited to Russia, where he whispers in the ear of Vladimir Putin; he is among the “intellectuals” influential among America’s “alt-right.” Of course Russia and the United States control almost all of the nuclear warheads on the planet, so the more those countries’ leaders fall under the spell of racial nationalism, the greater the threat of nuclear annihilation becomes.

That major caveat aside, Norberg offers an excellent and generally hopeful assessment of trends in violence.

The Environment

Industrialization did not come without costs, Norberg notes, and among the costs was horrid pollution of urban centers and waterways well into the past century. But pollution did not continue to worsen, as doomsdayers predicted. “There are still huge environmental problems,” Norberg writes, “but if you look at the developed world today, it looks nothing like the scenarios envisioned in the 1960s and 1970s” (p. 110). Instead, most types of pollution have declined.

Of course carbon dioxide continues to accumulate in the atmosphere, and Norberg addresses the resulting issue of global warming. Here too Norberg sees cause for optimism. For example, even as total levels of carbon dioxide have increased, deaths from natural disasters (per capita) have declined dramatically (p. 122). Norberg predicts that continued economic development will make it easier for us to address problems of all types, including problems of global warming:

If annual global economic growth remains around two percent per head, the average person in 100 years’ time will be around eight times richer than today’s average person. With those resources, the level of scientific knowledge, and the technological solutions that may then be at our disposal, many of the problems that intimidate us today will be much easier to handle—from adapting to warming to taking CO2 out of the atmosphere. (pp. 122–123)

I have to take issue with Norberg’s appeal for a “revenue-neutral carbon tax” (p. 124). Even presuming government should take action to limit carbon dioxide emissions—a debatable and complex presumption—a carbon tax is not the way to go. For one thing, the idea of a “revenue-neutral” tax is a fantasy. Once politicians discover that they have a new revenue stream, they will continually seek to use it to increase net taxes. A carbon tax is like handing an alcoholic a bottle of vodka to go with his whisky so long as he promises to completely offset his whisky consumption with vodka. Ain’t gunna happen. Another problem is that a carbon tax would have little to no relationship to the costs and benefits of switching to other types of fuel. Something like tradable credits would be much more likely to get the incentives right.

What about regulations more generally? Norberg argues that in certain contexts environmental regulations have solved certain problems, such as the harms of ozone-depleting chemicals (p. 111). (Norberg avoids complicated discussion of when and how government should intervene in difficult cases of pollution, and I won’t enter that debate here.) But he is also careful to point out that ill-conceived environmental regulations can make people worse off, not better.

Norberg devotes the end of this chapter to a discussion of exciting technological developments in nuclear energy, biofuel, solar energy, smart grids, and more. He ends optimistically: “The problem at the heart of global warming—our thirst for energy—is, in fact, also the solution.”

Literacy

This is truly shocking (in a good way): From 1900 to 2015, global literacy increased from 21 percent of the population to 86 percent (p. 133). That’s just astonishing.

Norberg spends this chapter describing some of the many benefits of this vastly expanded literacy. For one thing, literacy connects people like never before: “People follow news on the internet and walk around with mobile phones, and see themselves as part of a bigger world” (p. 129).

Freedom

Norberg begins his eighth chapter with a grim history of global slavery and its brutality. Thankfully, with the Enlightenment, antislavery ideas spread, slowly leading to abolition. Norberg’s brief history of these events is riveting, with just enough detail to bring life to the major stories, including the clash over slavery within the United States. For example, he quotes a Southerner who raged against the “doctrines of natural liberty” of John Locke and others (p. 147).

Norberg also discusses “the broader emancipation of humanity” from unlimited state power and the whims of rulers (p. 149). Although the spread of totalitarianism in the Twentieth Century threatened (broadly) democratic institutions, eventually those forces largely gave way to broader trends toward greater individual liberty, Norberg reviews.

Democracy is not an end in itself, Norberg helpfully reminds us, nor does it everywhere foster individual liberty. Democracy “has to be combined with the rule of law, rights for minorities and strong civil institutions” if it is to be a force for good (p. 157).

Equality

Norberg’s chapter on equality was not what I expected. I thought he’d take on today’s popular topic of income inequality. Instead, he focuses on equality under the law and the battle against prejudice, with sections on ethnic minorities, women’s rights, and gay rights. To my mind, Norberg emphasizes what really matters, so I found his take a refreshing change of pace. However, I suspect that some readers of his book will be left wondering whether income inequality really is the problem that so many people say it is. (For an excellent discussion of income inequality, see Equal is Unfair by Don Watkins and Yaron Brook, which I’ve reviewed.)

Norberg begins the chapter with a discussion of racial oppression and the movement to overcome it, with an emphasis on America. One of his main themes is that “behind increased tolerance are open markets and rising affluence” (p. 165). Once people no longer are desperately poor, they tend to pay more attention to other values, including political equality. Norberg (quoting other researchers) notes that, globally, “official discrimination” has declined (p. 170).

Norberg has an amazing ability to bring alive major aspects of history in a few short paragraphs; in about a page he describes in horrific detail the degree to which women historically were oppressed by men nearly everywhere. Then, in a few more pages, he describes the Enlightenment project of securing equal rights for women. Of course much work remains to be done in this area, Norberg indicates, particularly in certain parts of the globe.

Norberg does an excellent job of bringing in statistics to illustrate historical changes. As a striking example, Norberg notes that, in 1987 America, only half the population thought it’s “always wrong for a man to strike his wife with a belt or a stick” (p. 180). Living in 2017, I found that statistic so unbelievable that I had to check into it a bit; it seems to hold up (Norberg cites Steven Pinker, who in turn cites a journal article). Attitudes can change quickly, as they did in this case: By 1997, 86 percent were against such beatings.

Norberg similarly offers a succinct history of oppression of homosexuals and the advance of gay rights. Again, in 2017, when gay marriage is now the norm in the United States and in many other countries, it is shocking to think of how governments and the public at large treated homosexuals decades and centuries ago.

The Next Generation

A key marker of the improved lives of children is that they can mostly study and play rather than work backbreaking jobs. The Industrial Revolution did not create child labor, Norberg shows. Rather, intensive child labor was the norm throughout most of human history, and it was only because of the increased wealth made possible by the Industrial Revolution that the practice began to end.

Norberg reviews evidence indicating that regulations followed rather than drove trends of lower child labor and that, as families became more wealthy, they voluntarily stopped sending their children to work (pp. 193–195). Although Norberg does not put to rest the debate over the usefulness of regulations in this area, he firmly establishes that the essential cause of better childhoods is wealth creation.

In many other ways the lives of young people (and older people) are improving. I was particularly struck by one of Norberg’s observations about humankind’s advance:

Soon three billion people around the world will own a smartphone. That is three billion people who each have more computer power in their pocket than the super computers of the 1960s had, with instant communication and access to all the world’s knowledge. (p. 200)

* * *

Norberg ends with an epilogue about why many people are so resistant to believing the world on net has become a remarkably better place for people to live. Norberg points to surveys in which people routinely say the world is getting worse in ways that it is actually getting better (p. 206). He spends a few pages discussing some of reasons why people tend to be so pessimistic.

I appreciate the fact that Norberg is in no sense an historical determinist. He does not see historical trends as forces beyond the control of individual people. People make history as much as history makes people. So people can block and destroy progress or they can advance it. Norberg ends (p. 218), “If progress is to continue, you and I will have to carry the torch.” An excellent way to carry the torch a few more steps would be to buy copies of Norberg’s book and distribute them to your friends. Progress is a gift—and an opportunity.

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