All Commentary
Tuesday, January 1, 2002

It’s Getting Better All the Time: 100 Greatest Trends in the Last 100 Years

A Breath of Fresh Air in the Dark Ruminations on the Dismal Science

It’s not for nothing that economics is tagged “the dismal science.” Part of that reputation traces to its realistic no-pie-in-the-sky nature, but another part goes to the ongoing influence of thinkers like Thomas Malthus, who saw population outracing food output; Karl Marx, who saw evil capital crushing the rising working class; and John Maynard Keynes, who saw government demand-management as the only way to beat unemployment and the business cycle. (For the record, David Levy has shown that Thomas Carlyle coined the term “the dismal science” not for reasons such as those, but because the practitioners of economic science opposed racial slavery. See Ideas on Liberty, March 2000.)

More recently, noneconomists like biologist Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University, Lester Brown of the World Watch Institute, and presidential candidates Ralph Nader of the Green Party and Pat Buchanan of the Reform Party have jumped on the World-Is-Going-To-Hell bandwagon.

Here’s how Newsweek reported on “Global 2000,” a 1980 multimillion-dollar U.S. government study authorized by President Jimmy Carter: “The year: 2000. The place: Earth, a desolate planet slowly dying of its own accumulating follies. Half the forests are gone; sand dunes spread where fertile lands once lay. Nearly 2 million species of plants, birds, insects, and animals have vanished. Yet man is propagating so fast that. . . .” Well, you get the flavor of “Global 2000”; it was caught in a bumper sticker of that day: “Stop the Planet! I Want to Get Off!”

Pessimist Ehrlich has been especially wrongheaded. In 1969, on the very eve of the Green Revolution of zooming farm productivity, he foresaw that hundreds of millions of people “will starve to death,” including tens of millions in the United States. Somehow he won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award.

Enter optimist—and realist—Julian Simon (1932–1998). Economist Simon had the annoying habit of confronting the doomers and gloomers with hard facts. He concluded that population literature was wrong, that there is no “population bomb,” that we are not running out of resources, that human beings are not only consumers but producers, and that they are indeed our “ultimate resource.”

In 1980 Simon made a famous bet with Ehrlich that the prices of any five natural resources would fall ten years hence. Ehrlich leaped at the chance—and in 1990 had to pay up.

Enter too, Stephen Moore, long a research associate of Julian Simon, and today a brilliant young economist and thinker in his own right. He prevailed on the Cato Institute to complete and publish Simon’s unfinished manuscript. The two authors set the central premise that there was likely more improvement in the human condition in the twentieth century than in all previous centuries combined.

Through more than 100 color data charts, each supported by about a page of text, they maintain that compared to previous generations, we Americans are in the great majority healthier; live longer; are richer; can afford to buy far more things; have better jobs; earn higher pay; have more time for recreation, travel, sports, and the arts; have bigger and better homes; are at much less risk from catastrophic accidents; and breathe cleaner air and drink safer water. They also show that black Americans have shared in the prosperity and that the income gap between blacks and whites is closing, as is the income gap between men and women. The authors note that at the start of the twentieth century almost no women went to college; today women are more likely to attend college than are men.

And so on and on go the upbeat trends, a welcome breath of fresh air in the dark ruminations on the dismal science. For opinion polls show that many Americans still fret about the human prospect. They regard technological change as a net negative development, worry that the income gap between the rich and the poor is wider than 100 years ago (not so), and fear that the environment is worse mainly because of the automobile (forgetting that the horse pulling a buggy or wagon was a far greater polluter than the auto). Ben Wattenberg titled his 1984 book The Good News Is The Bad News Is Wrong, and Moore and Simon succeed in proving that that really is the case.

Yes, there are also some unfavorable trends, found where government policy holds sway. Social indicators such as divorce and out-of-wedlock births are grim. Taxes are higher and government much bigger. Educational quantity is way up, but its quality is way down. Rita Simon, Julian’s widow, a faculty member at American University and author of the foreword to the book, notes that the twentieth century saw the rise of Nazism, Stalinism, and Maoism but also their fall; that in side-by-side comparisons, South Korea has been far more prosperous than North Korea, West Germany than East Germany, and Taiwan than mainland China. Government control, so often prescribed by the gloom-and-doom set, has been a dismal failure.

Maybe market economics should be renamed “the enriching science.”

William Peterson, an adjunct scholar at the Heritage Foundation, is a contributing editor to Ideas on Liberty.