All Commentary
Sunday, October 1, 1995

The Tyranny of Numbers

Political Freedom Leads to Health and Long Life


In this book about political systems, economic development, and demography, Nicholas Eberstadt displays a firm grasp on the right end of the stick. His data well demonstrate his unifying theme, which is that to understand social phenomena, we must look at experience over a long stretch of time, across a varied group of countries, and with as large a sample of countries as possible. It is because they do exactly the opposite that the doomsters arrive at precisely the wrong conclusions about the way that things are going in society.

Among the specific issues that Eberstadt deals with are poverty, health, life expectancy, infant mortality, population growth, and economic development. These issues are discussed in the comparative context of capitalistic United States and socialistic Eastern Europe and Asia. Eberstadt is well-skilled to tackle these topics. He is a fine demographer, and his 1976 article in The New York Review of Books on world food production—written at age 19—was as good an attack on prevailing false common beliefs as was written in that decade.

The basic idea in the book is that wealth leads to health and long life, political freedom leads to wealth, and therefore in the long run political freedom leads to health and the other good things of life.

The Communist bloc—of which Eberstadt is a very competent scholar—will long remain the classic proof of this truth. For example, life expectancy in eastern Europe has been declining during the past decades, whereas everywhere else in the world it has been rising. Part of the explanation may be the enormous pollution of air and water that is inevitable under Communism, and perhaps it is related to the fascinating patterns of smoking and drinking about which Eberstadt presents data. But the most important reason almost surely is the decline in the overall standard of living in those countries.

To illustrate Eberstadt’s position that not consulting the long view of history leads to unsound conclusions, consider the public’s beliefs about black infant mortality. Almost everyone’s reaction is that black infant mortality is a bad situation. But look at the decreases in black and white infant mortality in the United States since 1915. In 1915 white infant mortality was almost 100 deaths per 1,000 births, and black infant mortality was fully 180 deaths per 1,000 births. Both are horrifying. And the rates were even more horrifying in earlier years in some countries—up to 300 or 400 deaths per thousand births.

Nowadays white infant mortality is about eight per thousand, and black infant mortality about 16 per thousand. Of course it is regrettable that mortality is higher for blacks than for whites. But should we not be impressed by the tremendous improvement for both races—both falling to about ten percent of what they were—with the black rate coming ever closer to the white rate? Is not this extraordinary improvement for the entire population the most important story—and a most happy story? Yet the press gives us the impression that we should be mainly distressed about the state of black infant mortality. This is the error of thought that Eberstadt warns us against.

Someone once said to Voltaire: “Life is hard.” Voltaire replied: “Compared to what?” Every evaluation requires that we make some sort of comparison. And the comparisons one chooses to make are decisive in the judgments one makes about whether things are getting better or worse.

Though the ideas in The Tyranny of Numbers are sound and important, and should be part of the mental contents of every policymaker in our society, the book is not a great success as a monograph. It cannot claim novelty because its ideas are not new; they are the staples of classic liberal thought about economic development, as exemplified by Lord Peter Bauer, Margaret Thatcher’s first economic guru. And the main conclusions are only implicit rather than explicit because the volume lacks integration. It reads more like a set of essays than like a book with a basic unifying theme. Additionally, the art of making a book from separate essays was scanted by both author and editor. Similar material pops up in several parts of the book.

But leave those cavils aside. The content of the book is sound and important. The more policymakers who read it, the better. And there are lots of interesting data, even for the scholar. []

Dr. Simon is the author of The State of Humanity and The Ultimate Resource (2nd edition forthcoming).