UnHerd’s optimists: the thinkers insisting we’ve never had it so good
Every generation has its cultural pessimists, epitomised in the 19th century by Oswald Spengler and in the 20th by Arnold Toynbee. But there’s something more tangible about today’s fashionable decriers of modernity: they claim facts and data for their side of the argument, and their cast of mind is popular. An IPSOS Mori poll in December, using a cross-country comparison, found that only 13% of respondents believe that the world is getting better. This is wrong: all wrong. The data suggests the world is rapidly improving materially and culturally, and a number of thinkers have set about demonstrating it.
Steven Pinker (born 1953)
Pinker is a cognitive scientist at Harvard. He became famous as a popular writer with The Language Instinct (1994), an exposition of the view that language is the realisation of an innate human faculty, and has since written further bestsellers that extend also into political and social issues.
Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) argues that violence, war and aggression have declined markedly in modern history. There is less war than there used to be, and also a reduction in violent crime, domestic violence and the mistreatment of children. Recency tends to skew our perceptions: Pinker points out, for example, that few people are aware there were five wars and four atrocities before the First World War that killed more people than that war. The pacification of society has happened, even though human nature has not changed, because ideas have changed. These include spread of the rule of law, democracy and mutual exchange but also technologies that encourage cosmopolitanism. With smartphones and instant news, it’s easier to imagine the plight of people elsewhere.
Pinker insists his argument is far from utopian about human nature. It takes, rather, the growth of reason, institutions and a free press to drive out toxic misconceptions. The bogus ideas that there are witches who must be burnt, or that Jews poison wells, can be debunked if there is enough free inquiry. There is also a feminising effect: societies that give women more power have fewer pointless macho dominance contests — the stupidest forms of violence.
Pinker is insistent that nothing is historically inevitable, but when bad ideas are eliminated, they tend to stay eliminated. We no longer have human sacrifice or chattel slavery. He extends this theme to the criminalising of homosexuality and capital punishment. It’s clear which way the arrow of history is pointing: to a more pacific and civilised society.
Max Roser (born 1983)
Roser is a German-born economist at Oxford University. He is especially well known for his work on global living standards and inclusive and sustainable growth. His conclusion from his analysis is not starry-eyed but it is strikingly encouraging: poverty is a problem that can be tackled and vanquished, because it already has been. He writes (Max Roser and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina (2018) – ‘Global Extreme Poverty’. Published online at OurWorldInData.org):
“Extreme poverty was very common in today’s rich countries until fairly recently; in fact, in most of these countries the majority of the population lived in extreme deprivation only a few generations ago.”
Not only has great progress been made in first mitigating and then eliminating poverty in rich countries but it’s happened at times at a constant rate. There remain pockets of poverty in rich countries, owing to extreme in inequality (notably in the United States) but the implication is that poverty can be ended in low-income countries too, and rapidly. The most significant characteristic of his work is that it’s data-driven: using good data and estimation techniques, he shows that global poverty is falling while standards of living, health and education are improving. One particularly striking conclusion is that famine is diminishing. Asia ceased to suffer famines from the mid-20th century, since when (with the important exception of North Korea in the 1990s) famines have been almost entirely restricted to Africa.
Ola Rosling (born 1975)
Rosling is a Swedish statistician who with his late father, Hans Rosling, established the Gapminder Foundation, which analyses changing global quality of life. They conclude, among many other variables, that the proportion of the world living in extreme poverty has almost halved in the last 20 years. Though one billion people are still poor, earning less than $1.25 a day, six billion are above this level. The reason for optimism about further progress in poverty-reduction and the expansion of education and other indicators of quality of life is, as with Roser, based on good data. Rosling’s work is also distinctive in the way it communicates empirical findings.
The Roslings’ analyses are presented in high-dimensional data in a visually understandable format, such as bubble plots. Big data and communication platforms have revolutionised our understanding of global trends. The Roslings argue that data shows progress in eliminating poverty is:
“…the greatest story of our time – possibly the greatest story in all of human history. The goal seems unrealistic to many highly educated people because their worldview is lagging 60 years behind reality.”
Their work is not a celebration of market mechanisms but rather a debunking of dystopian pessimism.
Ruth DeFries (born 1957)
DeFries is a professor of ecology and sustainable development at Columbia University. She is especially well known for her work using satellite imagery to track the environmental impact of global demand for food and other resources. Her most notable popular work is a book published in 2014 titled The Great Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis.
The book is based on exhaustive research of the data and imagery of the human effects on the ecology of the Amazon, Africa, and Asia. Its central theme is that want can be a thing of the past. For almost all of human history people have gone hungry. Yet now the world produces enough food such that all seven billion people on the planet could consume 3,000 calories a day.
This transformation in the productive capacity of agriculture has come about through human ingenuity and technology. It was the combination of foresight and tools that enabled the start of agriculture 10,000 years ago. Every new technology (through industrialisation and now the digital revolution) is heralded with disquiet by cultural pessimists yet it is part of a cycle whereby humanity manages to provide for itself.
Esther Duflo (born 1972)
Duflo is a French economist who is professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is especially well known for her book, co-authored with her MIT colleague Abhijit Banerjee, Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty. Her work is particularly important in countering a popular notion of how eliminating poverty can be done.
Theorists like the economist Jeffrey Sachs raise the problem of a poverty trap, whereby poor people need significant capital in order to earn enough in order to lift themselves out of that cycle of deprivation. Hence Sachs argues for a big initial investment in poverty reduction – which may be a good idea in itself but hits the limits of what is politically feasible, especially in an age of Trumpian populism and nativism.
Duflo argues, however, that the poverty trap is overstated. She can demonstrate, for example, that calorie consumption per head in India has fallen in the last 25 years despite the country’s rapid economic growth. Why? Very poor people do not typically seek to maximise food consumption when they have more income: their preference is instead to buy food that tastes better.
Indeed, Duflo notes that the poor do see themselves as having a significant amount of choice, and choose not to go in the direction of spending more on food. For example, poor households spend a significant proportion of their income on festivals (such as weddings and religious celebrations). In South Africa, 90 percent of the households subsisting on less than $1 a day spend part of that money on observing festivals. The implication is that the poor do have choices, that hunger does not necessarily lead to a poverty trap, and that quite small-scale changes can have big outcomes. Big government isn’t necessary, though state action is.
Johan Norberg (born 1973)
Norberg is a Swedish author who is best known for his advocacy of globalisation. His thinking on social progress is set out in his most recent book, Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future (2016). Though he is associated with the libertarian right, favouring a small state, his accumulated evidence is impartial and compelling. He notes that in 1820, 94% of humanity subsisted on less than $2 a day in current values. The equivalent figure is now less than 10 per cent.
Nor is progress measured only in material terms. Sanitation, education and above all a sense of values have progressed beyond what was conceivable 200 years ago. Norberg argues (analogously to Steven Pinker) that values change coincident with the rise in technology. The ability to see (literally to see in real time, via satellite technology and the internet) how other people elsewhere on the planet live enables us to think of them as sharing a common humanity. They are like us.
Contrary to a campaign of vilification from some deep Green environmentalists, Norberg is concerned about climate change – but he offers a reasoned case for why human creativity and ingenuity is likely to mitigate the problem.
Matt Ridley (born 1958)
Ridley is an evolutionary biologist, science writer and columnist for The Times. The moniker he is associated with is the Rational Optimist, because this is the title of a 2010 book in which he expounded his case that there is an inherent reason for the evolution of prosperity. It is due to a constant human tendency to innovate. It is innovation that has allowed humans to escaped the constraint of resource scarcity, and this tendency is located in the realm of collective ideas.
Consistent with his conservative political outlook, Ridley stresses that free exchange of goods and services also involves the exchange of ideas and intellectual inquiry. That exchange fertilises research and the development of technology. Provided that protectionist and irrationalist elements do not stand in the way of intellectual progress, then technology (such as GM crops, which dramatically increase yields) can resolve the problem of hunger and of environmental degradation. He has particular scorn for the Malthusian notion of population constraints.
On the basis of the human capacity to innovate, he ventures the prediction that by the end of the century a much bigger world population will have more food of better quality produced on a fraction of the farmland used today. He accumulates a mass of detail on how small-scale incremental changes have a big and benign cumulative effect. For example, a car emits less pollution when travelling at full speed than a parked car did from leaks in 1970.
Charles Kenny (born 1970)
Kenny is an American economist and a senior fellow for the Center for Global Development in Washington DC, a think tank. He is known to a popular audience especially for his book Getting Better (2011) in which points to social and material progress that would have been inconceivable before the 20th century. He notes, for example:
“Countries as poor and wretched as Haiti, Burma and the Congo have infant mortality rates today that are lower than those that any country in the world achieved in 1900.”
This is a conventional theme among the thinkers surveyed here but Kenny has an original theme. He was previously an economist at the World Bank and his research fields encompass the role of digital technology in development. It’s a perennial theme of policymakers to worry about the digital divide between haves and have-nots. Kenny is sceptical. In a World Bank paper published in 2004 he noted that telephone penetration was much faster in middle and low-income countries than in rich countries, where almost everyone now had a phone. The same is true of the digital age, where internet usage in middle and low income countries is growing at a significantly faster rate. There is no need for intervention to correct an imbalance here. Information technology is spreading and so are its benefits.
Michael Shermer (born 1954)
Shermer is an American science writer and sceptic. He is a longstanding proponent of the debunking approach to claims of the paranormal and pseudoscience. He has also written a necessary book explaining how the disciplines of historiography are violated by Holocaust denial. His advocacy of rationalism is not merely methodological, though: in his book The Moral Arc (2015) he maintains that science and reason are driving humanity to establish a better and more ethical social order. A tiny example: comic books used to show women being spanked by their husbands; that’s no longer possible. There’s no censorship law requiring that depictions of violence against women be outlawed: it’s just how the sensibilities of modern society have progressed.
It sounds a triumphalist approach but is argued with data. Most striking is his citing data across 17 developed countries showing a strong positive correlation, across variables including homicides, marital break-up, suicides and income inequality, between religious observance and negative social outcomes. On Shermer’s view, the decline of supernatural belief is not merely ethically neutral but is associated with rationalism which, in turn, leads to better critical thinking. The scientific method produces not just intellectual discovery but a wider moral concern for people outside our immediate circle. Thus: “Thinking scientifically requires the ability to reason abstractly, which itself is at the foundation of all morality.” The spread of science is not coincidentally but directly the pointer to a better society.
Virginia Postrel (born 1960)
Postrel is an American political and cultural writer and an advocate of libertarianism but is on the more sober wing of that distinctively American movement. Early in the internet age she established herself as an eloquent voice predicting progress with her book The Future and Its Enemies (1998). Her thesis was that a society encouraging innovation is one that expands human possibilities and hence happiness. The division in social thinking is not so much between liberal and conservative as between “dynamists” and “stasists”. She argues: “Dynamists see undesigned order everywhere in human society from the macrostructures of cities, capital markets, and languages to the microniches of subcultures and specialty products. These patterns are not shaped by a central plan but by decentralized action, feedback, and response.”
Postrel’s taxonomy isn’t extensively fleshed out but it does anticipate how reactionaries on left and right have opposed the disruptive effects of globalisation and urged the preservation of settled communities.
In her book The Power of Glamour she notes that air travel has lost its mystique since the 1960s:
“The old glamour never returns, because Jet Age glamour wasn’t about the actual experience of ﬂying. It was about the idea of air travel and the ideals and identity it represented.”
In short, the spread of wealth has expanded choice while destroying illusions. The trouble is that settled communities can be oppressive ones. In a moderate rather than ideological vein, Postrel expresses the belief that markets and technology augur a bright future.