There’s good news — no, really. President Barack Obama was right when he said last week that humanity’s lot has been improving and will just keep getting better. Of course, Obama’s timing was atrocious, as Iraq began to crumble and any number of other bad actors are plotting misdeeds.
But fundamentally, Obama was right.
“For all the challenges we face, all the problems that we have, if you had to choose any moment to be born in human history, not knowing what your position was going to be, who you were going to be, you’d choose this time,” he said. “The world is less violent than it has ever been. It is healthier than it has ever been. It is more tolerant than it has ever been. It is better fed then it’s ever been. It is more educated than it’s ever been. Terrible things happen around the world every single day, but the trend lines of progress are unmistakable.”
Every one of those claims is demonstrably true.
Let’s look at hunger.
Reason magazine’s Robert Bailey notes that “10,000 years ago it took an average of 3,000 acres to feed one hunter-gatherer; farmers today can feed one person using less than one-third of an acre.”
In fact, we’re so good at growing food and distributing it that famine is now a political phenomenon, not the result of climate events (such as droughts) or even overpopulation. It’s true that many people in the world are hungry today, but that’s the result of corrupt and oppressive governments failing to allow the rest of the world in to help — or of those governments simply stealing all the aid.
The world is also less violent than it ever has been, though you might not think so to watch television news. But that’s just it — the sense we have that violence is up is simply a perception problem. We know more about crime, war and other violence because we’re a much more informed society than we’ve ever been.
But every statistic shows that violence is down. Life expectancy is up. And the quality of life for most human beings is vastly improved.
And with the exception of parts of the Middle East where Islamists are trying to enforce rules against the education of girls, the world is much better educated than ever.
Obama also addressed the reasons for why humanity’s lot has improved. He got it partially right.
“Each successive generation tries to learn from previous mistakes and pushes the course of history in a better direction,” he said.
Sure — but that’s not the whole story. Free market capitalism is also responsible for the improvements.
“These massive improvements were the result of no one’s intention, other than the intention to better one’s own life through free markets,” says Bailey. “Look no further than North and South Korea, East and West Germany, and Taiwan and pre-reform China for evidence of the power of free markets to create sustainable development.”
Obama is taking some heat for those comments. But it was only his timing that was off.