Wednesday, October 12, 2005
BELIEF in the future is perhaps the most important value for a free society. It is what makes so many interested in getting an education, or investing in a project, or being nice to their neighbours. If we think nothing can improve or that the world is coming to an end, we don't work hard for a better and more civilised future. And we will all be miserable.
Enlightenment philosophers created the belief in the future in the 17th and 18th centuries by letting us know that our rational faculties can understand the world and that with freedom we can improve it. Economic liberalism proved them right. When Adam Smith explained that it's not from the benevolence of the butcher that we expect our meat but from his self-interest, it was much more than an economic statement; it was a world view. It was a way of saying that the butcher is not my enemy. By co-operating and exchanging voluntarily, we both gain and make the world a better place, step by step.
Since those days, mankind has made unprecedented progress. We are wealthier, healthier and happier than we have ever been. We live longer, we live more safely and we live more freely. For every successive generation, we have been able to build on the knowledge, technology and wealth of earlier generations, and add our own. We have reduced poverty, created more wealth and increased life expectancy more in the past 50 years than we did in the past 5000 years.
I am not just saying that the glass is half full rather than half empty. I am saying that it used to be empty. Just 200 years ago, slavery, feudalism and tyranny ruled the world. By our standards even the richest countries were extremely poor. The average chance of surviving your first year was less than the chance of surviving to retirement today.
The glass is at least half full and it is being filled as we speak. And if I had it here before me, I would propose a toast to the creativity and persistence of mankind. In other words: Don't
But although we are happy, we don't seem to notice, and we do worry. When we ask people about what has happened in the world, most say that things get worse, poverty is on the increase and nature is being destroyed. Last week I published a survey showing that Swedes think all the indicators of living standards and the environment that are improving rapidly are in fact deteriorating. When we read the papers, we see problems, poverty and disasters. Powerful international movements oppose globalisation and capitalism because they think they increase misery and hunger. And scholars write books saying that we are all sad and depressed.
American writer Gregg Easterbrook has pointed out that old problems, horrible as they were at the time, seem less threatening in retrospect because we know that we solved them. But the problems of today are uncertain and unsolved, so they stay in our mind.
A few weeks ago, the first story in the leading news shows on television was that there is a "growing environmental threat" in Europe. The problem was shipping, which is rapidly becoming the biggest emitter of sulphur dioxide in Europe.
However, if you listened closely to the report, you understood that this was not because of growth of emissions from shipping - which grew very modestly - but because of a rapid reduction in emissions from other sources. Total sulphur dioxide emissions in Europe (including shipping) have been reduced by about 60 per cent in 15 years. So the real story was one about a dramatic improvement in environmental conditions, but shipping was now the thing we have to deal with and so it was news.
I am an optimist. I happen to believe that this perceptual bias is a good thing. That's what keeps us alert, so that we solve problems and improve the world. But we have to understand that this also means that our minds are constantly occupied by problems. And therefore we think the world is worse than it is.
Progress also always creates some new challenge and problem solvers think more about the challenges than the progress. We live longer than ever. Isn't that fantastic? No, because it results in higher costs for pensions and health care. At last poor countries make economic progress. Isn't that wonderful? No, because we are afraid that Polish plumbers and Indian programmers will take our jobs. There is always something to be scared about. In the 1970s, when temperatures were declining, we worried about a new ice age. Now they are increasing and we worry about global warming. We used to worry about everybody who was depressed, now new antidepressant drugs have reduced suicide in rich countries by one-fifth. And so we worry about so many people taking pills.
The media exploits this interest in problems and disasters. We want to hear the latest horrible stories because our Stone Age brains think that this is important information on which we must act. At the turn of the millennium, a New York University survey made a list of Journalism's Greatest Hits. Would you expect news stories about new vaccines, fantastic inventions, the rise in living standards or the spread of democracy from 0 per cent of countries 100 years ago to 60 per cent today? You would have been disappointed. The greatest hits were all about war, natural disasters, dangerous chemicals and unsafe cars.
Risks, horrible acts and disasters are easily dramatised and cheap to produce. That is why crime is such a popular theme on the news. Studies from the US show that the more time people spend watching news on TV, the more they exaggerate the extent of crime in their cities. A fascinating study about Baltimore showed 84 per cent feared that criminals would harm them or their loved ones, but at the same time almost everybody - 92 per cent - said they felt safe in their neighbourhoods, of which they had first-hand knowledge. They all think there is a lot of crime in Baltimore, but they all think it takes place somewhere else in the city, in the places they know about only from the media.
These results appear again and again in surveys. People think that the environment is being destroyed, that the economy is going to bits and Germans think the reunification of Germany was bad for most people. But they also think that their local environment is good, that their personal finances are improving and that German reunification was good for their personal situation.
At the same time that extreme poverty has been cut in half in developing countries, many people think poverty is on the increase because they see the poverty for the first time on TV. Partly we care about it because poor Vietnamese and Chinese make the shirts we wear. If you don't understand the context, you think that it is the fact they make our shirts that has made them poor. Never mind that people who work for an American multinational in a low-income country earn eight times the average income in that country.
The long-run prospects for the world are amazing. Today we have more people living longer lives in freer societies and we have more scientists alive than lived in all previous periods combined, and they all get an education that is almost as long as a lifetime in earlier periods. Biotechnology, nanotechnology and robotics will create vast improvements. We will be richer, we will live longer and we will be healthier. Continents that we thought were doomed to misery will soon have the living standards we have today.
Words by Jason Norberg: Johan Norberg is head of political ideas at Timbro, a Swedish think tank. He is author of the best-selling book In Defence of Global Capitalism, which the Sydney-based Centre for Independent Studies republished this week. This is an edited extract from the 22nd annual John Bonython Lecture in Sydney.