February 26, 2018
By Marian L. Tupy
Of the original 102 Pilgrims who arrived in North America aboard the Mayflower in the fall of 1620, only about half survived to celebrate the first Thanksgiving, in November 1621. The rest perished through starvation and lack of shelter. The survivors gave thanks to God for a plentiful harvest. And good local harvests were vital, for in a world without global commodity markets or effective transport and communications, food shortages often meant starvation.

Today, most Americans are concerned with eating too much rather than too little. That fact is all the more remarkable considering that between 1600 and 2013 the population of what would later become the United States rose 21,000%, while the proportion of Americans employed in agriculture decreased at least 98%.

Contemporary Americans live longer, healthier, richer and safer lives than at any other period in history. In fact, an ordinary person today lives better than most kings of yesteryear.

To appreciate the astonishing improvements in the standards of living of ordinary people, consider the life of the 17th century's grandest figure, Louis XIV. The Sun King ruled France and Navarre between 1643 and 1715. During his life, Louis became synonymous with wealth and power. His Versailles palace had 2,000 windows, 700 rooms, 1,250 chimneys and 67 staircases and cost, at a minimum, $3.2 billion in today's dollars.

Yet here was a man who almost died of smallpox when he was 9 years old and lost nearly all of his legitimate heirs — his son, a grandson and a great-grandson — along with his younger brother, another grandson and a great-grandson, to smallpox. Eventually, he was succeeded by his second great-grandson, who became Louis XV and died (you guessed it) of smallpox.

In America, smallpox is usually associated with the decimation of Native Americans, but Europeans were not immune to the disease. As late as the 18th century, for example, smallpox killed about 400,000 Europeans annually. The overall mortality rate was 20% to 60%. Among infants, it was more than 80% and was one of the reasons for the low overall life expectancy of 20 to 30 years. The disease was eradicated in 1980. Today, we don't think of smallpox any more than we think of the bubonic plague, which, in five short years, killed almost one-third of all Europeans in the 14th century.

One outcome of that epidemic was to make the Europeans suspicious of bathing. According to some medical experts of the day, “once heat and water created openings (pores) through the skin, the plague could easily invade the entire body.” As such, hygiene got progressively worse.

Queen Elizabeth I, for example, who ruled over England and Ireland between 1558 and 1603, supposedly said that she bathed once a month, “whether she needed it or not.” Her successor, James I, however, only washed his fingers.
The “journal de la santé,” which was kept for Louis XIV by his doctors from infancy until 1711, describes the king's daily life in microscopic detail, but mentions bathing only once. According to the journal, the king was often sick and wore extravagant wigs not only to hide his hair loss, but also to keep him warm. Rightly so, for according to one contemporary account, “people froze in those vast salons of marble and gold.… The wife of the Duke of Orleans wrote, ‘It is so cold here [Versailles] that at the king's table wine as well as water froze in the glasses.'”

The palace also was ill equipped to deal with human waste. People relieved themselves wherever they could. Thus, shortly before Louis XIV died, an ordinance decreed that feces be removed from the corridors of Versailles once a week. All that filth meant that disease-spreading parasites were rife. Before the 19th century, people had no idea about the germ theory of disease, and doctors often caused more harm than good.

If this was the life of Europe's richest and most powerful man, imagine what ordinary people's lives must have been like. People lacked basic medicines and died relatively young. They had no painkillers, and people with ailments spent much of their lives in agonizing pain. Entire families lived in bug-infested dwellings that offered neither comfort nor privacy. They worked in the fields from sunrise to sunset, yet hunger and famines were commonplace. Transportation was primitive, and most people never traveled beyond their native villages or nearest towns. Ignorance and illiteracy were rife.

More often than not, we tend to overlook our truly spectacular rise from grinding poverty to previously unimaginable abundance. And so, during this Thanksgiving holiday, let us give thanks for accountable government, market economy and scientific progress that make a king out of each of us.

This first appeared in the LA Times.
Southern Africa had a memorable Valentine’s Day. In Johannesburg, the business heart of South Africa, Morgan Tsvangirai, the former Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, lay dying of cancer. Eighty kilometers away, in Pretoria, the country’s capital, Jacob Zuma was resigning as President. Tsvangirai stood for freedom, accountability and racial harmony. Zuma stood for the exact opposite. Today, we mourn the premature departure of the former and rejoice in the much delayed exit of the latter.

I met Tsvangirai only once. As the newly appointed Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, he came to the Cato Institute to recognise the work we have done to keep the sad story of Zimbabwe’s decline in the news in Washington, D.C. and to hear from a variety of policy experts about reforms that his government could implement to jump-start Zimbabwe’s moribund economy. He was humble and gracious. All of us were delighted to meet a man of Tsvangirai’s courage. We write about the struggle for freedom. He has lived it and had the scars to prove it.

Tsvangirai first rose to prominence as a trade union leader in the late 1980s. In 1989 he severed the labour movement’s ties with the government and organised a series of strikes against Robert Mugabe’s corruption and abuse of power. Over a decade later, he led the opposition to the dictator’s attempt to solidify his power in the 2000 constitutional referendum. Unexpectedly, Tsvangirai’s efforts paid off, earning him Mugabe’s implacable enmity. In fact, Tsvangirai would never again get better of his old foe. Committed to peaceful protest, he stood no chance against Mugabe’s murderous ruthlessness.

Years of harsh imprisonment, brutal torture and numerous assassination attempts followed. In 2008, Tsvangirai had, probably, won the presidential election, but widespread voter intimidation and electoral fraud spearheaded by Emerson Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe’s current leader, ensured that Mugabe remained in power. An economic collapse and hyperinflation forced Mugabe into a power-sharing agreement brokered by South Africa, with Tsvangirai becoming Prime Minister.

In retrospect, joining the power-sharing agreement with Mugabe turned out to be beneficial to Zimbabwe, but detrimental to Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change. The MDC received all the social and economic ministries, while Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party retained control over the “power ministries”, including intelligence, police and the military. Still, Tsvangirai and the MDC ministers did a reasonable job and the country began to recover.

In 2013, Mugabe comprehensively outmaneuvered his Prime Minister by calling an early election. With the voter rolls rigged in ZANU-PF’s favour by the “power ministries,” the MDC was defeated and Tsvangirai returned to the opposition bench. The position of Prime Minister was abolished and Mugabe, once more, reigned supreme. Once fully back in charge, the ageing dictator undid much of the progress that Zimbabwe had made during the power-sharing days. The return of hyperinflation and subsequent economic meltdown finally precipitated a military coup d’état in late 2017 and Mugabe’s replacement by his former henchman, Mnangagwa.

Meanwhile, south of the Limpopo, a man without character finished his descent into ignominy by resigning as President of South Africa. Jacob Zuma joined the African National Congress in 1959. Following arrest for anti-government activities and a stint in Robben Island prison alongside Nelson Mandela, he went abroad, where he continued in the struggle against apartheid. By 1977, he rose to the leadership of the exiled ANC. He also became a member of the politburo of the South African Communist Party, which he joined, along with many other ANC leaders, in the 1960s.
Following the unbanning of both parties by President FW De Klerk in 1990, Zuma returned to South Africa, where he was given an assignment requiring truckloads of ruthlessness and duplicity. He was tasked with suppressing the ANC’s main rival, the Inkatha Freedom Party, which dominated the political landscape in Zuma’s native province of Natal. Thousands of people died in the ensuing violence.

After the ANC crushed Inkatha in the 1994 general election, Zuma’s efforts were rewarded with a series of senior party positions, culminating in the Deputy Presidency of the ANC and, consequently, Deputy Presidency of South Africa. It was also during this time that Zuma got his first taste of ill-gotten riches.

After the ANC came to power, the party’s top priority was to rebuild South Africa’s military, which was deemed to be much depleted after decades of international sanctions. The rearmament program was not, strictly speaking, necessary. South Africa has no regional rivals or enemies. But the multi-billion dollar contracts provided the greedy ANC elite with a fabulous opportunity for self-enrichment.

As Andrew Feinstein amply documents in his book After the Party: Corruption, the ANC and South Africa’s Uncertain Future, one of Zuma’s jobs at this time was to cover the tracks of Mandela’s Defence Minister Joe Modise, who received kickbacks from some of the world’s leading arms manufacturers. Zuma himself was permitted to dip his beak in the military contracts through an intermediary – a corrupt businessman named Schabir Shaik.

A court, which sentenced Shaik to 15 years in jail, revealed the relationship between the two men, forcing Thabo Mbeki, who replaced Mandela as South Africa’s President, to fire Zuma from the number two post in the government. Crucially, as we shall see, Mbeki could not fire Zuma from the number two position in the ANC.

Facing 783 counts of alleged corruption, fraud and racketeering, Zuma faced one final humiliation – a rape accusation. In the trial that followed, the court decreed that the unprotected sex between the polygamous Zulu and an HIV-positive family friend was consensual. Offering a glimpse of Zuma’s limited intellectual capacity, South Africa’s future President noted that he was not worried about becoming HIV-positive, because he took a post-coital shower.

So, how did a brutal, corrupt, semi-literate and, possibly, feeble-minded philanderer become the leader of Africa’s richest and most powerful country? The answer lies in the character of the political party he came to personify. The ANC ceased to care about ordinary South Africans long ago. A quarter-century in power reduced it into little more than a vehicle for elite empowerment and self-enrichment. Zuma, with his deep pockets, excellent patronage network and a ruthless streak, cobbled together an ANC majority that elevated him to the Presidency in 2009.

During his tenure in office, Zuma proved to be a figure of both terror and amusement. He loved publicly to sing his favourite song about machine-gunning South Africa’s white farmers, while being unable to read out large numbers in his speeches. More corruption scandals, including massive expenditure on his private residence at the state’s expense and dodgy dealings with shady Indian businessmen who received lucrative contracts from the South African government, followed. He even tried to get one of his ex-wives to replace him as the head of the ANC.

Zuma’s luck finally ran out late last year, when Cyril Ramaphosa, a former labour leader, narrowly defeated Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in the contest for the Presidency of the ANC. Ramaphosa, in turn, asked Zuma to step down as South Africa’s President. When Zuma refused, Ramaphosa threatened the former with a vote of no confidence in Parliament. Bowing to the inevitable, Zuma resigned.

In life, Tsvangirai suffered extraordinary hardships. In death, he deserves to be remembered as a moral giant. Jacob Zuma, in contrast, has enjoyed luxuries and adulation befitting one of Africa’s “big men”. He will remembered as a corruptor of South Africa’s democracy, and a destroyer of its once vibrant economy as well as its formerly stellar international reputation.

This first appeared in CapX.
Many people believe that global population growth leads to greater poverty and more famines, but evidence suggests otherwise. Between 1960 and 2016, the world’s population increased by 145 percent. Over the same time period, real average annual per capita income in the world rose by 183 percent. 

Instead of a rise in poverty rates, the world saw the greatest poverty reduction in human history. In 1981, the World Bank estimated, 42.2 percent of humanity lived on less than $1.90 per person per day (adjusted for purchasing power). In 2013, that figure stood at 10.7 percent . That’s a reduction of 75 percent. According to the Bank’s more recent estimates, absolute poverty fell to less than 10 percent in 2015. 

Rising incomes helped lower the infant mortality rate from 64.8 per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 30.5 in 2016. That’s a 53 percent reduction. Over the same time period, the mortality rate for children under five years of age declined from 93.4 per 1,000 to 40.8. That’s a reduction of 56 percent. The number of maternal deaths declined from 532,000 in 1990 to 303,000 in 2015 — a 43 percent decrease. 

Famine has all but disappeared outside of war zones. In 1961, food supply in 54 out of 183 countries was less than 2,000 calories per person per day.  That was true of only two countries in 2013. In 1960, average life expectancy in the world was 52.6 years. In 2015, it was 71.9 years — a 37 percent increase. 

In 1960, American workers worked, on average, 1,930 hours per year. In 2017, they worked 1,758 hours per year — a reduction of 9 percent. The data for the world are patchy. That said, a personal calculation based on the available data for 31 rich and middle-income countries suggests a 14 percent decline in hours worked per worker per year. 

Enrollment at all education levels is up. For example, the primary school completion rate rose from 74 percent in 1970 to 90 percent in 2015 — a 20 percent increase. The lower secondary school completion rate rose from 53 percent in 1986 to 77 percent in 2015 — a 45 percent increase. Tertiary school enrollment rose from 10 percent in 1970 to 36 percent in 2015 — a 260 percent increase. 

Even our air is getting cleaner. In the United States, for example, aggregate emissions of six common pollutants (i.e., carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, fine and coarse particulate matter, and sulfur dioxide) fell by 67 percent between 1980 and 2016. 

And, in spite of a recent increase in terrorist killings and the number of civil wars, the world is still much safer than it was at the height of the Cold War. 

Last but not least, an ordinary person has greater access to information than ever before. All in all, we live on a safer, cleaner, and more prosperous planet than was the case in 1960.

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What is human progress? Is it happening? Can it continue? These are some of the questions that Steven Pinker, Harvard University Professor and Human Progress Board Member, answers in his new book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. As he shows, on most measures of human well-being the world is much better off than before – even if relatively few people understand or appreciate the progress that humanity has made. Pinker also offers reasons for optimism ahead. Does that make him a modern-day Pollyanna? Far from it. Pinker acknowledges future challenges, but remains unwavering in his belief that by keeping true to the ideas of the Enlightenment, the world can go on improving for many generations to come.

Before delving into the book, a few words about the author are necessary. Steven Pinker is a psychologist and one of the world’s leading authorities on language and the mind. He is also one of America’s leading public intellectuals, with occasional columns in The New York TimesTime and The New Republic. Many of his previous books, including The Stuff of ThoughtThe Blank SlateWords and RulesHow the Mind Works and The Language Instinct have been widely praised. In 2011, Pinker came out with a groundbreaking and highly discussed book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. According to Pinker:

Tribal warfare was nine times as deadly as war and genocide in the 20th century. The murder rate in medieval Europe was more than thirty times what it is today. Slavery, sadistic punishments, and frivolous executions were unexceptionable features of life for millennia, then were suddenly abolished. Wars between developed countries have vanished, and even in the developing world, wars kill a fraction of the numbers they did a few decades ago. Rape, hate crimes, deadly riots, child abuse—all substantially down.

One of the reasons for that decline, Pinker averred in Better Angels, was the Humanitarian Revolution, which took off around the time of the European Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, and “saw the first organized movements to abolish slavery, dueling, judicial torture, superstitious killing, sadistic punishment, and cruelty to animals, together with the first stirrings of systematic pacifism.” It is to the main ideas of the Enlightenment that Pinker returns with the release of his new book on February 13.

According to Pinker, the spread of reason, science and humanism have resulted in a great deal of human progress. But what is progress? That may seem like a tough question to answer in these culturally relativistic times. But Pinker offers an unashamedly humanistic definition of progress that is shared by many global organisations and initiatives, including the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals.

Most people agree that life is better than death. Health is better than sickness. Sustenance is better than hunger. Wealth is better than poverty. Peace is better than war. Safety is better than danger. Freedom is better than tyranny. Equal rights are better than bigotry and discrimination. Literacy is better than illiteracy. Knowledge is better than ignorance. Intelligence is better than dull-wittedness. Happiness is better than misery. Opportunities to enjoy family, friends, culture, and nature are better than drudgery and monotony.

Progress is not only definable, but also measurable. In 75 charts, Pinker documents such global trends as increasing life expectancy, declining child and maternal mortality, increased consumption of calories and declining recurrence of famines, increasing income per person and reduction of extreme poverty, decreasing pollution and deforestation, and continuing march of democracy and human rights. He notes that child labor is in retreat and literacy at an all-time high. People work fewer hours than they used to and spend more time on leisure and in retirement.

Revisiting Better Angels, Pinker points to the continued decline in international conflicts, deaths on the battlefield and genocides. Homicides are down and the death penalty is on its way out. There are fewer vehicular and pedestrian deaths, as well as fewer plane crashes. Deaths from falls, fires, drownings, poisonings, occupational accidents, natural disasters and even lightning – all down. Racist, sexist and homophobic attitudes are in retreat. Globally, people are becoming more liberal – at least in the classical sense.
Being a psychologist, Pinker discusses the reasons for our persistent pessimism. As I wrote previously, Pinker’s explanations include:
  • The interaction between the nature of cognition and nature of news. News is about things that happen. Things that did not happen go unreported. We “never see a reporter saying to the camera, ‘Here we are, live from a country where a war has not broken out.’”
  • Overestimation of danger due to the “availability heuristic” or a process of estimating the probability of an event based on the ease with which relevant instances come to mind. When an event turns up because it is traumatic – as opposed to merely being frequent – the human brain will overestimate how likely it is to reoccur.
  • The psychological effects of bad things tending to outweigh those of the good ones. Psychological literature shows that people fear losses more than they look forward to gains; dwell on setbacks more than relishing successes; resent criticism more than being encouraged by praise. Bad, in other words, is stronger than good.
  • Good and bad things tend to happen on different timelines. Bad things, such as plane crashes, can happen quickly. Good things, such as the strides humanity has made in the fight against HIV/AIDS, tend to happen incrementally and over a long period of time.
Pinker’s is an 18th century understanding of progress. He believes, along with Hume, Kant, Montesquieu and Adam Smith, that people can gradually improve their lot through application of reason and science. The Enlightenment view of progress should not be confused “with the 19th century romantic belief in mystical forces, laws, dialectics, struggles, unfoldings, destinies, ages of men, and evolutionary forces that propel mankind ever upward toward utopia.”

Utopia, as the 20th century taught us, will always be beyond humanity’s reach. The best we can do is to make every day better than the day before. Will we succeed? Progress, after all, is neither certain nor irreversible.

To be sure, many challenges, including the robotics revolution, artificial intelligence, cyberterrorism and deadly superbugs, lurk ahead. Pinker uses his considerable intellect to put those problems in perspective. Yes, terrorists can get lucky and kill thousands of people. Yes, an outbreak of a deadly virus could kill tens of thousands. But these are not existential threats! Nuclear war, in contrast, would almost certainly result in the destruction of our species. Then again, consider the following statistic. In 1986, the world had 65,000 nuclear warheads. Today, there are only 10,000. That too is progress.The danger ahead, then, does not lie in a specific and supposedly unsolvable problem. As history shows, humanity is capable of addressing great challenges – over time.

The danger lies in turning our backs on the means by which problems can be solved – reason, science, open discourse, thirst for knowledge, etc. The values of the Enlightenment are under assault from the far Left and the far Right. Both extremes believe that our world has been corrupted beyond repair. They want to blow it up and start anew. “What,” they ask us, “do you have to lose?” A lot, actually, should be our response.

This first appeared in CapX.
February 02, 2018
By Marian L. Tupy
Human progress, as I have pointed out before for CapX, is neither linear nor guaranteed. And while the world is getting better across a multitude of indicators of human well-being, individual countries can and do regress – sometimes dramatically. Perhaps no two countries exemplify that fact as well as Venezuela and Zimbabwe. Both nations took a decidedly wrong turn at the end of the last millennium and descended into poverty and dictatorship. What explains the long-term survival of their reprehensible regimes? Simply put, both regimes appear to prioritize their hold on power at almost cost to the population. Indeed, by immiserating their people, they have in many ways strengthened their positions.

As difficult as it is to imagine today, Venezuela was, for much of the 20th century, the richest country in Latin America. In 1998, however, Venezuela elected Lieutenant-Colonel Hugo Chavez as its leader. The Comandante proceeded to build 21st century socialism in the Latin American country by progressively eroding property rights, the rule of law and voluntary exchange. Zimbabwe, in contrast, was never the richest country in Africa – that has always been South Africa. But Zimbabwe had a sophisticated economy and was generally considered to be one of the continent’s most promising countries. In 1999, however, President Robert Mugabe decided to violently dispossess his country’s commercial farmers as a punishment for their support of Mugabe’s political opponents.
Both economies took a nosedive. Venezuela’s average income has fallen by 21 per cent since Chavez came to power. Zimbabwe’s shrunk by a staggering 55 per cent between 1998 and the nadir in 2008. According to the International Monetary Fund, hyperinflation in the former will reach 13,000 per cent this year, while hyperinflation in the latter peaked at 500 billion per cent in 2008. Unemployment rates soared and hunger spread.

As living standards declined, government repression – including political imprisonment, torture and extrajudicial killings – revved up. Over two million Venezuelans emigrated abroad, while at least three million Zimbabweans left for South Africa alone. The emigres from both countries included some of the most educated and entrepreneurial citizens, for their skills were more easily transferable abroad.Resurgence of socialist policies in the two countries is all the more unfortunate considering that both Latin America and Africa are home to some of the most inspiring free market success stories in the world. When Chile embarked on its economic reforms in 1973, the country’s average income was 38 per cent that of Venezuela. In 2017, Chile’s average income was 79 per cent higher than Venezuela’s. Since becoming independent in 1966, Botswana has followed market-friendly economic policies. In 1966, the average income in Botswana was 54 per cent that of Zimbabwe. In 2016, Zimbabweans earned 12 percent of what the people of Botswana earned.

(Note that I am using two different measures of income. That’s because Conference Board’s purchasing power adjusted figures do not contain data for Botswana, while the World Bank’s inflation-adjusted figures do not contain recent data for Venezuela.)

Unfortunately, Chavez ignored the Chilean example and opted to follow the Cuban model instead. Likewise, Mugabe ignored Botswana’s success and modelled his regime on the Soviet Union. He also developed strong links with North Korea. The latter trained Zimbabwean troops that Mugabe and his successor, Emerson Mnangagwa, used to suppress domestic dissent in the 1980s. The Cuban and North Korean connections are significant.

Contrary to the usual narrative, which holds that impoverishing and tyrannical regimes should buckle under the weight of their own failures, the Cuban and North Korean regimes show that it is possible to survive for surprisingly long periods of time. Put plainly, the pauperisation of the population may be a desirable development from the regime’s point of view.

Economic collapse turns peoples’ attention away from social change and toward survival. Hyperinflation deprives people of resources and ability to effectively oppose the government or even to engage in transactions that are basic to the conduct of daily life. Remaining resources – including food and medicines – can be distributed among regime’s supporters. Potential troublemakers, including the country’s intellectual and business elites, flee abroad.

The regimes in Venezuela and Zimbabwe have defied the odds – including repeated predictions of their demise made by the present author. But they have also shed any pretence of caring about the well-being of their people. Instead of reducing poverty and inequality, the rulers of Venezuela and Zimbabwe made them worse. All that remains of Venezuela’s 21st century socialism and Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle is the rulers’ determination to stay in power.

This first appeared in CapX.
January 26, 2018
By Ian Vasquez
The new Human Freedom Index is out today. For a third year, the annual report—published by Cato, the Fraser Institute in Canada, and the Liberales Institut at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Germany—paints a broad picture of personal, civil and economic freedom in the world. It uses 79 indicators in 12 areas ranging from freedom of religion to freedom to trade.

Here are some highlights. Global freedom has declined slightly compared to last year’s report and compared to 2008, the first year for which we have complete data. Switzerland is the freest country in the world, followed by Hong Kong, which fell from first place for the first time since the rankings began. The United States is ranked 17th, up from its ranking last year of 24th, but down from its ranking in 2008 when it was in 11th place. Other noteworthy countries rank as follows: the United Kingdom (9), Canada (11), Germany (16), Mexico (73), Russia (126), China (130), Egypt (155), Venezuela (158). See the top and bottom five in the chart below.
The areas that saw the largest global declines were the rule of law; freedom of movement; association, assembly and civil society; and expression and information. As a region, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is the least free and Western Europe the most free. MENA also saw one of the largest declines in freedom among all regions. While global freedom is slightly down, there is a lot of movement in the ratings, with about half the countries improving, and half doing worse, compared to 2008. The index captures significant declines in freedom in many countries that moved toward authoritarian populism including Russia, Venezuela, Turkey, Hungary and Argentina. The figure below shows Russia’s decline, but also Taiwan’s improvement (East and South Asia are the two regions with the greatest improvements).

There is a strong relationship between freedom and prosperity, with countries in the top quartile enjoying an average per capita income ($38,871) that is far higher than that of the bottom quartile countries ($10,346). Find out much more here about the state of global freedom.
January 25, 2018
By Marian L. Tupy
As Editor of Human Progress, I have the pleasure of writing about the improving state of the world. Evidence from individual scholars, academic institutions, and international organisations clearly shows that human conditions are improving – especially in developing countries.

As Steven Pinker, the Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard University writes in his upcoming book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, “The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being.”

Regrettably, progress is not linear and the occasional backwards step is unavoidable. Just think of the two World Wars and various genocides that scarred the 20th century. But, to quote Kevin Kelly, founding Executive Editor of Wired magazine, “Ever since the Enlightenment and the invention of Science, we’ve managed to create a tiny bit more than we’ve destroyed each year. But that few percent positive difference is compounded over decades into what we might call civilization.”   

Moreover, progress is not guaranteed. The world could experience a nuclear conflict or an asteroid strike – either of which has the potential to wipe us all out. Not all threats are existential, of course. In recent years, for example, we have witnessed a sustained attack on political and economic freedoms, as well as freedoms of religion and free expression. Considering that human freedom is an integral part of human progress, these particular developments are worth exploring in greater depth.

The Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, where I work, has been measuring the state of human freedom since 2008 – a veritable annus horribilis that saw the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, and gave rise to a range of populist movements and illiberal policies. The 2017 Human Freedom Index, published today, once more observes a general decline in human freedom.

How do the reports authors define freedom? “The contest between liberty and power has been ongoing for millennia. For just as long, it has inspired competing conceptions of freedom,” write Ian Vásquez and Tanja Porčnik, who produced the study. “Freedom in our usage is a social concept that recognizes the dignity of individuals and is defined by the absence of coercive constraint … Freedom thus implies that individuals have the right to lead their lives as they wish as long as they respect the equal rights of others.”

This definition of freedom will be familiar to all those who are aware of Isaiah Berlin’s notion of negative liberty. “In the simplest terms,” the authors note, “negative liberty means noninterference by others. Berlin contrasts that type of liberty with positive liberty, which requires the removal of constraints that impede one’s personal improvement or the fulfillment of his potential as the individual understands it.”

Since negative liberty “comes in only one flavor — the lack of constraint imposed on the individual,” it is more easily measured. As such, the HFI uses 79 distinct indicators of personal and economic freedom in the following areas: rule of law, security and safety, movement, religion, expression and information, identity and relationships, size of government, legal system and property rights, access to sound money, and freedom to trade internationally. It also looks at freedom of association, assembly, and civil society, and regulation of credit, labor, and business.

The 2017 HFI covers 159 countries, with 2015 being the most recent year for which sufficient data are available. On a scale of 0 to 10, where 10 represents more freedom, the average human freedom rating for 159 countries in 2015 was 6.93. Among the countries included in the index, the level of freedom decreased slightly (by 0.05 points) compared to 2014, with 61 countries increasing their ratings and 97 losing ground. Since 2008, the level of global freedom has also fallen slightly (by 0.12 points), with about half of the countries in the index increasing their ratings and half decreasing.

The top five freest jurisdictions are Switzerland, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Ireland, and Australia. The bottom five jurisdictions are Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Venezuela, and Syria. The countries that improved their level of human freedom most since last year’s report are Sierra Leone, Iran, Botswana, Singapore and Suriname. The largest deteriorations in freedom occurred in Burundi, Brunei, Cameroon, Venezuela, and Tajikistan.

Vásquez and Porčnik believe that human freedom and material human progress are related. To give just one example, countries in the top quartile of freedom enjoy a significantly higher average per capita income ($38,871) than those in other quartiles. The average per capita income in the least-free quartile is $10,346. The HFI also finds a strong relationship between human freedom and democracy.

Others may, of course, draw their own conclusions. If, however, all of us agree that freedom is important in and of itself, the slow deterioration of freedom throughout the world is food for thought.   

This first appeared in CapX.
Credit to Oxfam’s communications team. Each year, riding on the coattails of the jamboree in Davos, they manage to make a huge splash about global wealth inequality.

And every year, it is pointed that, as Tim Worstall explained on CapX last January, wealth is not some fixed pie. It is usually accumulated through entrepreneurial activity that fulfils wants and needs, enhancing global welfare. Sadly, most readers who pay only a passing interest in the story will miss this nuance and receive claims such as “82 per cent of all wealth created in the last year went to the top 1 per cent” with the shock they are designed to trigger.

Oxfam is, of course, a development charity. Their implicit message, amplified through major broadcasting outlets such as the BBC, is that the wealth of global rich causes the poverty of the poor. But where exactly is the evidence that more interventionist government is the way to reduce global poverty? In fact, recent economic history suggests the opposite: global poverty has plummeted as major countries have liberalised and ceased trying to “manage” their economies in the way Oxfam wants.

It would bad enough if Oxfam’s ideological bias was blinding the organisation to what works in the fight against poverty. But the charity also appears to be playing fast and loose with the facts. Take just one of the claims in their report, subsequently republished on the BBC website. Oxfam makes the astonishing claim that “two-thirds of billionaires’ wealth is the product of inheritance, monopoly and cronyism”. Given previous assessments by ForbesWealth-X and others have found that around 60 per cent of American billionaires are “self-made,” this seems a particularly striking statistic, in which monopolies and cronyism are doing a lot of heavy lifting.

Intrigued by this finding, Sam Dumitriu of the Adam Smith Institute sought out its source. He found that the methodology was devised in an Oxfam discussion paper called Extreme Wealth Is Not Merited by Didier Jacobs. Overall, that study concludes that 19 per cent of wealth arises from monopolies, with the rest of the 65 per cent coming from inheritance or cronyism. To calculate the share coming from inheritances, he used Forbes data, which chalks up all wealth for individuals who inherited fortunes as “inherited wealth”, regardless of whether that wealth has grown substantially since the inheritance. This figure, by definition, ignores any extra wealth generated by that inheritance and so is hardly representative of genuine passive inheritance.

The cronyism figure is more speculative still. It includes “wealth mainly acquired in a corruption-prone country and state-dependent industry (high presumption of cronyism)” or “wealth mainly acquired in the mining, oil and gas industry.” Again, while in many countries these industries do depend on state favours and are prone to crony capitalism, it seems a little much to suggest that all wealth in these industries in certain countries can be recorded as wealth driven by cronyism.

Oxfam’s real agenda becomes clear, though, when we look at their methodology for the monopoly portion of the claim. As Dumitru has described in detail, Jacobs first defines monopoly to include any industry with “network effects.” By construction then, firms such as Facebook and Google would be monopolists, even though their existence has been overwhelmingly beneficial for consumers. He then makes the same intellectual leap again, asserting that all wealth coming from the IT industry should be recorded as “monopoly”. Not content with this intellectual bankruptcy, this same blanket approach is applied to finance, health care, legal industries and wealth acquired as a CEO of a company, if the billionaire neither founded nor inherited the business.

To claim this is shoddy methodology which hugely overestimates wealth acquired by “bad” means is a spectacular understatement. Again and again, the mere possibility of cronyism or a theoretical argument for market failure in an industry is taken to prove that all billionaire wealth in that industry is ill-gained. That this kind of report is being taken seriously and propagated by our state broadcaster is a travesty.

We should not give Oxfam a free pass or refuse to criticise them for publishing and distributing such nonsense because they happen to be a charity or sometimes do some good. To do so would be like ignoring socialist failures because the revolutionaries had “good intentions”.

Oxfam increasingly pollutes our discourse with phony statistics and false narratives in a highly politicised way. These findings are being used to call for a policy shift — a turn away from market-based capitalism, which has lifted billions around the world out of poverty. No doubt there will be plenty of wanna-be world planners at Davos this week who will lap up the message — the Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, will be one of them. But Oxfam’s political agenda goes against the history of the economic development they purport to want.

Perhaps more importantly though, it’s based on very bad analysis. And it’s time our media held them to higher standards, rather than taking their politicised work at face value.

This first appeared in CapX.
January 17, 2018
By Alexander Hammond
In the last few months Zambia has experienced one of the worst cholera outbreaks in years. Governmental corruption and mismanagement of resources have largely been blamed for the lack of infrastructure that would have prevented such an outbreak. In response to the crisis, the government introduced heavy-handed measures that resulted in mass rioting. Despite government incompetence, this disease is now in retreat in Zambia. That’s thanks to an outside organisation created by the Gates Foundation.

The current outbreak started on October 4 2017, and has been largely restricted to Lusaka, Zambia’s capital city. The latest data shows that there have been 3,260 cases so far, 74 of which proved to be fatal. Cholera is caught by consuming contaminated food and water, and can become fatal within hours, if untreated. The bacterial infection rapidly causes diarrhoea and vomiting, the combination of which leads to dehydration.

A recent report from the Zambian National Public Health Institute has blamed water taken from shallow infected wells in the slum district of Kanyama as the cause of the outbreak. That may be the bacterial cause of the infection, but the continued use of unsanitary methods of water collection are being pinned on something else entirely: corruption.Since 2000, Zambia has been receiving, on average, almost a billion dollars in aid every year. Much of it was meant to improve water sources and sanitary infrastructure. Where did the money go? The opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema has claimed that: “Corruption is a source of cholera.”

Hichilema suggests that if President Edgar Lungu hadn’t squandered money on corrupt overpriced governmental contracts, the necessary funds would have been available to provide the infrastructure to prevent outbreaks. In one example, Hichilema points to the $42 million contract between the Patriotic Front (the ruling party) and Grand View International to provide 42 fire trucks to the nation, despite all other contractors offering tenders of between $15m to $19m for an identical service.

President Lungu’s government appears to be full of corruption. A couple of weeks ago, as the cholera outbreak was hitting its apex, Harry Kalaba, Zambia’s foreign affairs minister, resigned. Kalaba noted that the government “cannot proceed to manage national affairs with cold indifference when the levels of corruption are swelling”. The ex-foreign minister indirectly referenced President Lungu when he claimed that corruption is “being perpetrated by those who are expected to be the solution”.

In response to the crisis, in early January President Lungu, alongside army soldiers, took to the streets of Lusaka to begin a clean-up operation. This began with postponing the start of the school year and a ban on street vending, in an attempt to limit the food and drink being sold in open-air markets.

However, President Lungu quickly turned to more heavy-handed measures that suppressed basic freedoms. He banned gatherings of more than five people and introduced a 6pm curfew for Kanyama, the focal point of the outbreak. In one instance, police used tear gas to break up a church service.
President Lungu is desperate to be seen as facing the outbreak head on, but these tactics are questionable, considering that cholera is not an airborne disease and cannot be caught by casual person-to-person contact. These draconian governmental measures have resulted in city-wide riots that have worsened relations between the public and government officials. Fifty-five people have already been arrested.

On January 10, the Government of Zambia launched a campaign to vaccinate the residents of Lusaka. However, this campaign of one million oral vaccines has been solely funded by Gavi – a health partnership created by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 1999. Despite public funding now making up the most of Gavi’s donations, when it comes to management, private stakeholders are a majority.

Slowly, normality is returning to much of Lusaka and the outbreak appears to be receding. By day five of the vaccination campaign, a total of 895,000 vaccinations had already been distributed and new cases have halved to around 80, from 164 a week ago. Most district schools and retailers are set to reopen on January 22.

It’s truly incredible that a disease that once was rampant worldwide is now isolated to just a few small areas and is easily cured, or prevented, with low-cost technologies and basic infrastructure. Despite government corruption, mismanagement of resources and heavy-handed measures that crushed civil liberties, the eradication of cholera in Zambia is a realistic goal. Thanks to Gavi and the availability of cheap vaccinations, Zambia is not in an epidemic and the cholera outbreak is largely coming under control.

This first appeared in CapX.
January 10, 2018
By Alexander Hammond
The weather outside is frightful. The so called Big Freeze now grips the United States for the second week, and the United Kingdom too is experiencing its own blast of Arctic weather. All this chilly weather reminded me of an article written in The Telegraph last month about ice-houses, which were the go-to method of refrigeration just a couple of hundred years ago.

Back then, refrigeration was an arduous task and available only to the richest aristocrats. In the pre-industrial world, in order to refrigerate foodstuff, people needed the land to build an ice house (a building to store the ice), fresh water access, and servants to cut and hull the ice. Moreover, the ice had to be restocked regularly and was available only in some climates and at some times.

At the crack of dawn on a freezing morning the servants of the manor would visit nearby frozen shallow water and hack at the ice until it was in large slabs. The ice would then be painfully carried back to the small ice-houses, “to be stored with layers of straw and sacking,” in-between food. With luck, ice would last until next winter. If it did not, people had to do without ice.

By contrast, today refrigeration is easy. According to the latest government data more than 99.8 per cent of American homes own at least one refrigerator. Furthermore, the US Census Bureau estimates the US poverty rate to be 13.5 per cent. That means that essentially everyone in poverty, as defined by the government, has access to a technology that was reserved for the mega-rich just 200 years ago. Additionally, almost 25 per cent of Americans now have two refrigerators to store their excess food and drink.

The growing prevalence of refrigerators is partly due to their declining cost and partly due to people’s growing incomes. In 1919, the Frigidaire was the first self-contained refrigerator. It cost $775 (over $11,000 in today’s money). As the average hourly wage in 1919 was just $0.43, it took the average American 1,802 hours of work to afford this luxury appliance. The Frigidaire was a marvel back in its day, but had only five cubic feet of storage. As such, it would be classed as a “mini-fridge” today.

Today, the standard Whirlpool French door refrigerator holds 25 cubic feet’s worth of food and drink. It has “fingerprint resistant stainless steel” and costs just $1,529. According to the latest BLS statistics, it would take the average American just 57.5 hours of work to be able to afford this – now common – appliance. (The average wage today is $26.55 per hour.) Even as the price of refrigerators decreased, refrigerator quality increased. According to the government data, 95.5 percent of households have what is classed as a “medium” refrigerator of 15 cubic feet or larger – meaning that the vast majority of people have a refrigerator at least three times the size of the most luxurious version available 100 years ago. The modern refrigerators have more settings, are more reliable and more energy-efficient.

The story of refrigeration is a common one: from a task done by many servants, to a luxury good, and to now a common household appliance used by all. This type of progress exists with nearly all household appliances; from ovens to irons, from washing machines to dishwashers, and from air conditioners to water heaters.

As Marian L Tupy of the Cato Institute has previously pointed out, due to innovation, capitalism and mass production, “an ordinary person today lives better than most kings of yesteryear.” As we wait for the warm weather to return, we should be thankful that virtually all Americans have access to refrigeration and, thus, the ability to store food all year round.

This first appeared in CapX.
January 09, 2018
By Ryan Bourne
When the Pope tweeted in 2014 that “Inequality is the root of social evil,” his stock rose with egalitarians. Former US president Barack Obama had described inequality as “the defining challenge of our time”. Jeremy Corbyn has since risen, demanding an economic policy to tackle Britain’s “grotesque inequality”. The assumption underpinning these views is that a concentrated distribution of income or wealth has negative economic and social consequences.

The idea that more inequality is a bad thing and less inequality a good thing permeates public debate. It is the moral foundation of Corbyn’s call for extensive government redistribution of income and wealth.

But according to Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton, worrying about whether inequality causes problems, such as slower growth or impaired democracies, looks at things through the wrong end of the telescope. “Inequality is not so much a cause of economic, political, and social processes as a consequence,” he concludes.
Inequality can sometimes be a reflection of some social ills. But it can be a reflection of social progress too, and some purported cures for it are much worse than the disease.
This makes sense. A given distribution of income or wealth does not fall manna from heaven, nor is it pre-determined by government. It is a reflection of millions of interactions, trades, decisions, inheritances and policies. A Gini coefficient, or a statistic of the income or wealth share for the top 1pc, is aggregate information, but tells us nothing about how it has arisen. Whether we consider the overall result “fair” or “unfair” depends, as Deaton acknowledges, on its causes.

High levels of inequality, as seen in countries such as South Africa, can be indicative of historical injustices. They can result from prejudice and oppression, past and present. They can arise from government capture by special interest groups, cronyism and corruption. Poor education, family breakdown, racial discrimination, long-term unemployment and social immobility might all lead to a concentration of income at the top.

On the other hand, there are some causes of inequality that are benign, such as lotteries, and others which are positively beneficial, such as technological advances, entrepreneurialism and free trade. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs got rich by providing services that enhanced our lives. In South Africa again, income inequality actually rose further post apartheid, because talented black people had opportunities opened to them for the first time. Few would suggest this was undesirable.

The Chinese Gini coefficient has risen from 0.16 in 1980 to 0.55 in 2014 — a sign of rising inequality — but this has gone hand in hand with huge poverty reduction as the country liberalized markets. In contrast, Britain saw a modest fall in inequality after a catastrophic financial crash in 2008. In Britain, greater equality was a symptom of a problem. In China, greater inequality was a symptom of success. It would take an extreme relativist to argue that Britain had become better and China had become worse.

Low levels of inequality can result from other undesirable trends too. In a magisterial work, Walter Scheidel’s book The Great Leveller shows that large reductions in economic inequality have only been achieved through pandemics, mass mobilization war, violent revolution and state failure. The Black Death in Europe wiped out a quarter of the population, leading to a shortage of labor relative to land, and a compression of incomes between laborers and landowners.

The Soviet Union, after the nationalization of banks, forcible redistribution of land, the gulags et al, had a Gini coefficient of just 0.26 by the Eighties — an egalitarian’s dream. In Japan, the top 1pc’s income share fell from 9.2pc to 1.9pc between 1938 and 1945, while the wealth of the largest 1pc of estates fell by 90pc. It should seem obvious that the price of lower inequality in all these cases — whether death, destruction or severe restrictions on freedom — were intolerably high.

The point here is not to say more inequality is a “good thing,” but that it cannot be generalized that less inequality is better. Corbyn’s position, that implies “reducing inequality” is desirable, seemingly countenances policies that by other metrics might be extremely harmful. We should bear this in mind when talking about the government “curbing inequality”. Affecting a distribution inevitably means interfering with human action. We could lower inequality (at least temporarily) by deporting or exterminating rich people. But would this benefit those who remained? It is difficult to see how.

Deaton is right to say then that current political trends are not so much a reflection of inequality, but perceived unfairness. He concludes: “Some of the processes that generate inequality are widely seen as fair. But others are deeply and obviously unfair, and have become a legitimate source of anger and disaffection.” No doubt there are steps the Government could take to make the economy fairer, which might also lower inequality. Liberalizing planning laws to allow more houses to be built, for example, would almost certainly narrow the wealth distribution but would improve the efficiency of the economy too.

Yet what Deaton’s argument really shows is that we should not care about inequality at all. Once one starts thinking about the need to eliminate “bad” causes of inequality, while leaving “good” causes alone, you are not really acting on inequality, but the justness or otherwise of other things that affect it. We should eliminate crony capitalism, prevent taxpayer bank bailouts, and ensure competitive markets that the public want for efficiency and fairness reasons, irrespective of their effect on inequality measures such as the Gini coefficient.

At best, inequality serves as an indicator of potential problems. At worst, obsessing about it distorts our priorities from what truly matters, such as the living standards of the least well-off. Inequality can sometimes be a reflection of some social ills. But it can be a reflection of social progress too, and some purported cures for it are much worse than the disease.

This first appeared in The Telegraph.
At the end of last year on CapX, I documented the constant stream of technological, scientific and medical breakthroughs that are improving the lives of billions of ordinary people. Given all this good news, the real question is why people are so unbelievably pessimistic.

Judging by a 2016 poll of close to 20,000 people in some of the world’s richest countries, you could barely overstate the extent of the gloominess.  In response to the question “All things considered, do you think the world is getting better or worse, or neither getting better nor worse?”,  just 10 per cent in Sweden, 6 per cent in the US, 4 per cent in Germany and 3 per cent in France thought things were getting better. Why? Because, it turns out, we are pessimists by nature.

Over the last 200 years or so, the world has experienced previously unimaginable improvements in standards of living. The process of rapid economic growth started in Europe and America, but today some of the world’s fastest growing countries can be found in Asia and Africa – lifting billions of people from absolute poverty. Historical evidence, therefore, makes a potent case for optimism. Yet, pessimism is everywhere. As the British author Matt Ridley noted in The Rational Optimist:

The bookshops are groaning under ziggurats of pessimism. The airwaves are crammed with doom. In my own adult lifetime, I have listened to the implacable predictions of growing poverty, coming famines, expanding deserts, imminent plagues, impending water wars, inevitable oil exhaustion, mineral shortages, falling sperm counts, thinning ozone, acidifying rain, nuclear winters, mad-cow epidemics, Y2K computer bugs, killer bees, sex-change fish, global warming, ocean acidification and even asteroid impacts that would presently bring this happy interlude to a terrible end. I cannot recall a time when one or other of these scares was not solemnly espoused by sober, distinguished and serious elites and hysterically echoed by the media. I cannot recall a time when I was not being urged by somebody that the world could only survive if it abandoned the foolish goal of economic growth. The fashionable reason for pessimism changed, but the pessimism was constant. In the 1960s the population explosion and global famine were top of the charts, in the 1970s the exhaustion of resources, in the 1980s acid rain, in the 1990s pandemics, in the 2000s global warming. One by one these scares came and (all but the last) went.

Ridley raises a more specific point that general pessimism: Why are we as a species so willing to believe in doomsday scenarios that virtually never materialize?

The Chairman of the X Prize Foundation, Peter H. Diamandis, offers one plausible explanation. Human beings are constantly bombarded with information. Because our brains have a limited computing power, they have to separate what is important, such as a lion running toward us, from what is mundane, such as a bed of flowers. Because survival is more important than all other considerations, most information enters our brains through the amygdala – a part of the brain that is “responsible for primal emotions like rage, hate and fear.” Information relating to those primal emotions gets our attention first because the amygdala “is always looking for something to fear.” Our species, in other words, has evolved to prioritize bad news.

The Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker has noted that the nature of cognition and nature of news interact in ways that make us think that the world is worse than it really is. News, after all, is about things that happen. Things that did not happen go unreported. As Pinker points out, we “never see a reporter saying to the camera, ‘Here we are, live from a country where a war has not broken out.’” Newspapers and other media, in other words, tend to focus on the negative. As the old journalistic addage goes, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

To make matters worse, the arrival of social media makes bad news immediate and more intimate. Until relatively recently, most people knew very little about the countless wars, plagues, famines and natural catastrophes happening in distant parts of the world. Contrast that with the 2011 Japanese tsunami disaster, which people throughout the world watched unfold in real time on their smart phones.

The human brain also tends to overestimate danger due to what psychologists call “the availability heuristic” or a process of estimating the probability of an event based on the ease with which relevant instances come to mind. Unfortunately, human memory recalls events for reasons other than their rate of recurrence. When an event turns up because it is traumatic, the human brain will overestimate how likely it is to reoccur.

Consider our fear of terror. According to John Mueller, a political scientist from the Ohio State University, “In the years since 9/11, Islamist terrorists have managed to kill about seven people a year within the United States. All those deaths are tragic of course, but some comparisons are warranted: lightning kills about 46 people a year, accident-causing deer another 150, and drownings in bathtubs around 300.” Yet, Americans continue to fear terror much more than drowning in a bathtub.

Moreover, as Pinker also points out, the psychological effects of bad things tend to outweigh those of the good ones. Ask yourself, how much happier can you imagine yourself feeling? And again, how much more miserable can you imagine yourself to feel? The answer to the latter question is: infinitely. Psychological literature shows that people fear losses more than they look forward to gains; dwell on setbacks more than relishing successes; resent criticism more than being encouraged by praise. Bad, in other words, is stronger than good.

Finally, good and bad things tend to happen on different timelines. Bad things, such as plane crashes, can happen quickly. Good things, such as the strides humanity has made in the fight against HIV/AIDS, tend to happen incrementally and over a long period of time. As Kevin Kelly from Wired has put it, “Ever since the Enlightenment and the invention of Science, we’ve managed to create a tiny bit more than we’ve destroyed each year. But that few percent positive difference is compounded over decades in to what we might call civilization … [Progress] is a self-cloaking action seen only in retrospect.”

In other words, humanity suffers from a negativity bias or “vigilance for bad things around us.” Consequently, there is a market for purveyors of bad news, be they doomsayers who claim that overpopulation will cause mass starvation, or scaremongers who claim that we are running out of natural resources.

Politicians, too, have realized that banging on about “crises” increases their power and can get them re-elected. It may also lead to prestigious prizes and lucrative speaking engagements. Thus politicians on both Left and Right play on our fears – whether it is a worry that crime is caused by playing violent computer games or that health maladies supposedly caused by the consumption of genetically modified foods.

The negativity bias is deeply ingrained in our brains. It cannot be wished away. The best that we can do is to realize that we are suffering from it.

This first appeared in CapX.
December 20, 2017
By Marian L. Tupy
The end of 2017 is barely a week away. So now is the perfect time to reflect upon the positive difference humanity has made to the world over the past 12 months. How have we advanced as a species?  We often underestimate the progress we make because it is incremental: an algorithm here, a genetic tweak there… But all these things combine to improve our future. As Kevin Kelly from Wired wrote, “Ever since the Enlightenment and the invention of Science, we’ve managed to create a tiny bit more than we’ve destroyed each year… That few percent positive difference is compounded over decades in to what we might call civilisation … [Progress] is a self-cloaking action seen only in retrospect.”My website, Human Progress, tracks technological, medical and scientific improvements that make the lives of ordinary people better. Here are the ones that have caught our attention in 2017, doubtless only a tiny fraction of all the advances humanity has made in the past 12 months.

  1. February 6: The age of the bionic body – from robot hands controlled by your mind to electronic eyeballs, experts reveal 6 medical marvels introduced by new technology.
  2. February 6: Biologists help deaf mice hear again by inserting healthy genes into their ears – the work shows an ‘unprecedented recovery of inner ear function’ and could be used in humans.
  3. February 10: Computers turn medical sleuths and identify skin cancer – algorithm works as reliably as board-certified dermatologists, study shows.
  4. February 15: For the blind, an actual-reality headset – not just Star Trek fiction, a new visor from eSight is a lightweight, high-contrast vision system for legally blind people.
  5. February 17: Wyoming man receives ‘miracle’ face transplant 10 years after suicide attempt.
  6. February 18: Smartphones to become pocket doctors after scientists discover camera flash and microphone can be used to diagnose illness.
  7. February 20: Hope for millions as scientists discover multiple sclerosis treatment that can slow its progression.
  8. February 22: Life expectancy to break 90 barrier by 2030.
  9. March 2: Teenager’s sickle cell reversed with world-first therapy.
  10. March 3: Terminal cancer patients go into complete remission after groundbreaking gene therapy.
  11. March 3: UTA professor invents breath monitor to detect flu.
  12. March 6: Google’s artificial intelligence can diagnose cancer faster than human doctors – the system is able to scan samples to determine whether or not tissues are cancerous.
  13. March 8: The robot will see you now! Chat-bots that monitor symptoms will become more accurate and quicker at spotting illness than doctors.
  14. March 8: Scientists discover new state of matter called ‘Time Crystals’ – time crystals seemingly break the rules of normal time-keeping and potentially pave the way for quantum computers and quantum sensors.
  15. March 10: Scientists make progress toward engineering synthetic yeast – the work brings to six the number of yeast chromosomes that now can be synthesized, according to new research.
  16. March 13: More people could benefit from BRCA breast cancer drugs.
  17. March 14: Swedish men on target to be first to completely stub out smoking.
  18. March 15: Startup serves up chicken produced from cells in lab – ‘clean meat’ developers say it avoids towering costs of feeding, caring for livestock.
  19. March 15: The next innovation in shipping – Wind Power; Maersk launches trial run of tanker using rotating cylinders that can function as high-tech sails.
  20. March 18: An insect’s eye inspires a new camera for smartphones – a series of eyelets can make cameras much smaller.
  21. March 23: New rotavirus vaccine could prevent thousands of childhood deaths.
  22. March 24: Machines which detect cancer symptoms could be out in a year.
  23. March 27: Can tech speed up emergency room care? A New York hospital system tests a new way to use telemedicine, where E.R. doctors examine patients without being in the same room.
  24. April 2: Plastic-eating fungus may solve garbage problem.
  25. April 6: To handle electronic waste, freeze it and pulverize it – scientists say a new technique can make it more profitable to harvest metals and other materials from circuit boards in old TVs, computers and more.
  26. April 26: Artificial ‘brain in a dish’ is created in a world first: Breakthrough could shed light on conditions such as Alzheimer’s.
  27. May 2: CRISPR eliminates HIV in live animals.
  28. May 4: Scientists engineer baker’s yeast to produce penicillin molecules.
  29. May 5: Iceland drills 4.7 km down into volcano to tap clean energy.
  30. May 11: Scientists have created an exoskeleton to stop elderly people from falling.
  31. May 11: HIV life expectancy ‘near normal’ thanks to new drugs.
  32. May 17: Lab-grown blood stem cells produced at last – two research teams cook up recipe to make long-sought cells in mice and people.
  33. May 18: Antibodies from a human survivor define sites of vulnerability for broad protection against ebola viruses.
  34. May 18: Scientists look to skies to improve tsunami detection.
  35. May 22: World’s largest aircraft completes successful test flight.
  36. May 23: MIT researchers develop a moisture-responsive workout suit with live cells.
  37. June 1: ‘Instantly rechargeable’ battery could change the future of electric and hybrid automobiles.
  38. June 1: Extinct species of Galapagos giant tortoise may be resurrected.
  39. June 3: SpaceX successfully launches reused Dragon spacecraft for ISS resupply.
  40. June 3: ‘Liquid Biopsy’ passes early test in quest to find cancer in blood .
  41. June 13: Live antibiotics use bacteria to kill bacteria.
  42. July 3: This Silicon Valley company wants to ‘make better humans’ through biohacking.
  43. July 6: DNA from sharks that can live up to 400 years could hold secret to a longer life.
  44. July 6: Robot wars – knee surgery marks new battleground for companies.
  45. July 9: Banks deploy AI to cut off terrorists’ funding.
  46. July 11: Scientists design solar cell that captures nearly all energy of solar spectrum.
  47. July 17: Bananas – scientists create vitamin A-rich fruit that could save hundreds of thousands of children’s lives.
  48. July 22: This new material could let phones and electric cars charge in seconds.
  49. July 26: New artificial spider silk: stronger than steel and 98 percent water.
  50. July 28: Melanoma: – new, more effective drug steps closer.
  51. July 28: Could stem cells reverse the aging process)?
  52. July 28: Juvenescence AI to develop first compounds generated by Insilico’s deep-learned drug discovery engines.
  53. August 4: IBM storage breakthrough paves way for 330TB tape cartridges.
  54. August 28: Anti-inflammatory drug ‘cuts heart attack risk’.
  55. August 30: Trial raises Parkinson’s therapy hope.
  56. August 30: FDA clears first gene-altering therapy — ‘a living drug’ — for childhood leukemia.
  57. September 7: Shropshire farm completes harvest with nothing but robots; a world-first in automation.
  58. September 12: U.S. middle-class incomes reached highest-ever level in 2016, Census Bureau says.
  59. September 23: Newly engineered antibody could kill off 99 per cent of HIV strains.
  60. September 28: DNA surgery on embryos removes disease.
  61. October 9: Google is going to use experimental high-altitude balloons to provide internet in Puerto Rico.
  62. October 18: Dyslexia link to eye spots confusing brain, say scientists.
  63. October 29: Saudi Arabia to allow women into sports stadiums.
  64. November 13: Brain implant boosts human memory by mimicking how we learn.
  65. November 14: ‘Better than Concorde’ supersonic 1,687mph airliner to ‘revolutionize’ air travel by 2025 (link).
  66. November 15: The firm that can 3D print human body parts.
  67. November 15: US scientists try 1st gene editing in the body.
  68. November 15: US biotech unicorn steps up competition for BioNTech’s mRNA personalized cancer vaccine.
  69. November 24: Cancer breakthrough: Potential cure could be ready as early as next year.
  70. November 26: Diabetes drug ‘could be used to end agony of transplant rejection’.
  71. November 29: Expanding DNA’s alphabet lets cells produce novel proteins.
  72. November 30: Designer proteins—the new generation of HIV vaccines being put to the test
  73. November 30: Trees are covering more of the land in rich countries – the spread of forests is not always popular. But it is sure to continue.
  74. December 1: HIV breakthrough as cancer drug could hold secret to curing the virus.
  75. December 1: In Rwanda, drones deliver medical supplies to remote areas – such services help people in isolated regions—and could yield lessons for making shipments elsewhere.
  76. December 4: China rules aquaculture as fish output triples in decade.
  77. December 7: Bumper crops boost global cereal supplies in 2017/18.
  78. December 10: Democracy is far from dead – in 12 years, the share of the world’s people who live in ‘free’ countries has risen.
  79. December 11: Huntington’s breakthrough may stop disease.
  80. December 11: Tasmanian tigers aren’t extinct (or at least they won’t be for long!) – Scientists unlock mysterious creature’s DNA – and plan to clone it bring the beast back to Australia.
  81. December 13: Streetlights could be replaced by glowing trees, after scientists make plants shine in the dark.
  82. December 14: Haemophilia A trial results ‘mind-blowing’.
This first appeared in CapX. 
December 12, 2017
By Colin Grabow
Viewers of Anthony Bourdain’s CNN series Parts Unknown last weekend were treated to the raconteur’s visit to the city-state of Singapore. Along with Bourdain’s usual noshing, imbibing, and bantering about the food culture with knowledgeable locals, he also made time for drinks with Donald Low to discuss the country’s economic and political culture. Among Singapore’s hallmarks according to Low, an Associate Dean at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, was the desire to attract foreign capital and an “understanding that free trade is good for everyone.” 

Low’s remarks will not come as a surprise to readers of the Economic Freedom of the World annual report co-published by the Cato Institute, Canada’s Fraser Institute, and a number of other international think tanks. In the report’s 2017 edition Singapore earns a second-place ranking among the 159 jurisdictions examined for overall economic freedom, and a #1 ranking in the category of “Freedom to Trade Internationally” owing to its score of 9.25 (out of 10). Amazingly, this actually represents one of Singapore’s lower ratings since 1980, with the island country receiving a stunning 9.9 score in the category in 1990.

The results of Singapore’s free trade embrace have been spectacular, strongly contributing to its status as home to the world’s second-largest container port, stunning visual transformation, and dramatic rise in GDP per capita since earning its independence in 1965.


Singapore’s success is, of course, multicausal, with free trade being just one of several key ingredients that have made the country the wealthy economic hub it is today. Such caveats aside, the country nonetheless stands as a rebuke to those who cling to protectionist policies and insist that such measures are necessary to ward off the alleged threat of foreign competition.

This first appeared in Cato at Liberty.
December 11, 2017
By Marian L. Tupy
Competition is an essential part of a capitalist economy. It drives businesses to innovate and to provide consumers with cheaper and better products. If businesses fail to innovate, they go under.The market place can be a brutal place – just think of the way in which Netflix disposed of Blockbuster. “Capitalism without failure is like religion without sin,” as the American economist Alan H. Meltzer once put it. “It doesn’t work.”

But capitalism is also one the most cooperative of human endeavors. Goods and services are traded among strangers and across vast distances, guided – to a great degree – by the price mechanism and by the reputation of the trading parties. Repeated transactions among trading parties encourage trustworthiness – a moral side product of capitalism that we do not spend enough time talking about, let alone celebrating.

Competition produces winners and losers. As Amazon expanded, for example, neighborhood bookstores shuttered across the United States. Some people thought that was a great tragedy, for bookstores provided a pleasant way to browse through publications and, sometimes, meet interesting people. Ultimately, however, the convenience of the internet, and superior choices and prices, proved to be more important to the average customer. Amazon and its clientele won, while Barnes & Noble lost.

The losers, who emerge from capitalist competition, appear to confirm a zero-sum bias in the human brain. It is for that reason that many people tend to focus on the closed local book store, rather than revel in the falling prices and increased choice made possible by Amazon. Where did that bias come from?

For most of our existence in the environment of evolutionary adaptiveness (EEA), which is to say tens of thousands of years we spent wandering the planet as hunters and gatherers, the success of one, usually related, group of people came at the expense of another group. When the resources in an area occupied by group A ran out, group A moved onto a territory occupied by group B. Conflict ensued.

Conflict still continues to define the interaction among animals. Humans, in contrast, evolved additional ways of interacting with one another. Permanent settlements were a key part of that process. Strangers who settled next to one another had to learn how to cooperate. In that process, they either acquired a reputation for trustworthiness, or they became social outcasts excluded from a larger economy.

As a result, humanity advanced. So much so that by the time of the Roman Republic, the Latin term civis became a root word for both the city and civilization. Over time, of course, the city-state gave way to the nation-state and the nation-state became a part of a global economy. As human cooperation expanded, so did our economic horizons.

That was, unambiguously, a moral as well as economic phenomenon. People, who might have otherwise hated each other, were brought together in the pursuit of profit. By the 18th century, the extent of human cooperation within the context of the market economy reached levels that even philosophers, such as Voltaire, felt obliged to opine about. As the French philosopher wrote:
“Go into the London Stock Exchange – a more respectable place than many a court – and you will see representatives from all nations gathered together for the utility of men. Here Jew, Mohammedan and Christian deal with each other as though they were all of the same faith, and only apply the word infidel to people who go bankrupt. Here the Presbyterian trusts the Anabaptist and the Anglican accepts a promise from the Quaker. On leaving these peaceful and free assemblies some go to the Synagogue and others for a drink, this one goes to be baptized in a great bath in the name of Father, Son and Holy Ghost, that one has his son’s foreskin cut and has some Hebrew words he doesn’t understand mumbled over the child, others go to their church and await the inspiration of God with their hats on, and everybody is happy.”

It is noteworthy that many of the scholars who continue to influence those who are sceptical of capitalism are not economists, but biologists and ecologists. They include the Stanford University professor Paul Ehrlich, the doomsayer partially responsible for the over-population panic that started in the 1960s, Garrett Hardin, the exponent of the “tragedy of the commons” theory, and Jared Diamond, the author of such bestsellers as “Guns, Germs, and Steel” and “Collapse.”

Their analyses of human affairs tend to be analogous to the interactions observable among animals. But humans, while remaining a part of the animal kingdom, have evolved mechanisms that allow for billions of cooperative interactions to take place each day. It is time for the economists to steal the biologists’ thunder by putting a renewed emphasis on the cooperative aspect of capitalism.

This first appeared in CapX.
December 07, 2017
By Guillermina Sutter Schneider
Today, 50 years after his death, many people still remember Ernesto “Che” Guevara as a warrior for social justice. For so many celebrities, politicians, and activists, Che Guevara is a kind of Good Samaritan who fought against oppression and tyranny. It is unfortunate, though, that these people ignore some of their idol’s defining character traits.

Che Guevara was in fact an intolerant and despicable man.

In the process of building a communist society after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959 in Cuba, one of the ideas Che Guevara presented and promoted was the notion of the “new man.” This concept grew out of Guevara’s aversion to capitalism, and was first explained in his note on “Man and Socialism in Cuba“. He believed that “The individual under socialism (...) is more complete,” and that the state should educate men and women in anti-capitalist, cooperative, selfless and non-materialistic values.

Anyone who deviated from the “new man” was seen as a ”counter-revolutionary.” Such was the case of gay men — whom Guevara referred to as “sexual perverts.” Both Guevara and Castro considered homosexuality a bourgeois decadence. In an interview in 1965, Castro explained that “A deviation of that nature clashes with the concept we have of what a militant communist should be.”

Che Guevara also helped establish the first Cuban concentration camp in Guanahacabibes in 1960. This camp was the first of many. From the Nazis, the Cuban government also adapted the motto at Auschwitz, “Work sets you free,” changing it to “Work will make you men.” According to Álvaro Vargas Llosa, homosexuals, Jehova’s Witnesses, Afro-Cuban priests, and others who were believed to have committed a crime against revolutionary morals, were forced to work in these camps to correct their “anti-social behavior.” Many of them died; others were tortured or raped.

Guevara also espoused racist views. In his diary, he referred to black people as “those magnificent examples of the African race who have maintained their racial purity thanks to their lack of an affinity with bathing.” He also thought white Europeans were superior to people of African descent, and described Mexicans as “a band of illiterate Indians.”

In the article “My Cousin, El Che,” Alberto Benegas Lynch Jr. describes how Che Guevara enjoyed torturing animals — a trait common to serial killers. His record of murdering and torturing people is extensive. Researchers have documented 216 victims of Che Guevara in Cuba from 1957 to 1959. Suspicion was all that was needed to end a life. There was no need for trial because he said the Revolution could not stop “to conduct much investigation; it has the obligation to triumph.”

Death, to Guevara, was a necessity for revolution. He had no regard for human life. Today, 50 years after his death, it is important to remember Ernesto Che Guevara as the person he was: a homophobic, racist, mass murderer willing to use any means to achieve his self-declared superior society.

This first appeared in The Huffington Post on October 9th, 2017.
December 06, 2017
By Chelsea Follett
The 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution has brought with it much whitewashing of history. Perhaps the most absurd example of this whitewashing is a New York Times piece claiming that women in the Communist bloc “enjoyed many rights and privileges unknown in liberal democracies at the time.”

The reality of centrally planned economics is shockingly sexist, no matter how much lip service was paid to gender equality. When there is no market incentive to fulfill human needs, it is women’s needs that are forgotten first.

Communist factories failed to manufacture even the most basic items for women. “In all these years, communism has not been able to produce a simple sanitary napkin, a bare necessity for women,” writes Slavenka Drakulić. In How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, she chronicles the everyday indignities suffered by women in Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, East Germany and her native Yugoslavia. Ordinary women’s sanitary products became sought-after items on the black market and most women made do with improvised substitutes.

The economic planners diverted resources away from producing anything considered feminine, and therefore frivolous and bourgeois. As Drakulić puts it, in “central plans made by men, of course there was no place for such trivia as cosmetics.” Women often sewed their own clothes or improvised beauty products from kitchen items, even though anyone who looked too nice was “subject to suspicion, sometimes even investigation.”

Most women owned identical clothes because stores offered no variety. At one point, it seemed like half of the women in Warsaw had spontaneously opted to dye their hair the same garish shade of red. It was the only dye the chemical factories produced. Whether in Warsaw, Budapest, Prague, Sofia or East Berlin, women shared the same complaint: “There are no deodorants, perfumes, sometimes even no soap or toothpaste… Worst of all, there are no sanitary napkins. What can one say except that it is humiliating?”

Communist women were expected both to work outside the home and to do all the housework as well. (Engels thought it was “insane” for men to do chores; homemaking “unsexes the man”). As managers of the household, women felt the shortages’ sting first and it fell to them to find substitutes for everyday goods. There was a severe lack of food, baby formula, housing, and just about everything else.

The state provided housing by repeatedly dividing up existing apartments and assigning strangers to live together in ever-shrinking spaces, as described in Joseph Brodsky’s essay, “In a Room and a Half.” Bathrooms could double as kitchens (shared by multiple families) and crawl-spaces could count as bedrooms sleeping multiple people. The state provided childcare, but the waiting list was often long. The state guaranteed women jobs, but there could be a shortage of those too. In Yugoslavia the average wait time for a job was three years.

In the 1950s, Yugoslavia’s government planners declared toilet paper to be an unnecessary luxury item and commanded that factories stop producing it. For years the people made do with newspapers (shortages never slowed the printing of propaganda). Other declared “luxuries” included women’s hats, gloves, washing powder, children’s toys, milk, and meat. “The general rule was that anything at any time could be proclaimed a luxury,” notes Drakulić. Anything for women was particularly at risk.

An American visiting the Communist Bloc in the 1980s would be aghast to find most women still doing laundry the way they had in the United States 50 years prior, without washing machines. Throughout the Communist Bloc countries, women often soaked clothes in metal tubs, scrubbed them bent over the tubs’ rims using washboards, then boiled them on stovetops, stirring the clothes with long spoons.

The elaborate ritual took up a whole day each weekend, and left their hands swollen, cracked and covered in sores. There were no rubber gloves to protect their skin – the economic planners saw no need to sell any. The male planners had likely never done the “women’s work” of laundry.

Shortages of laundry detergent were endemic throughout the communist countries. A woman in Sofia told Drakulić, “When I find it, I buy two or three big boxes. You can never be sure when it will appear again.” She had never even heard of a clothes dryer. Of course, even if there had been washing machines and dryers, the frequent electricity outages would have made them unreliable.

The communist system didn’t produce machines to make women’s lives easier for the same reason it neglected their other needs and wants. For all the complaints about the profit motive, markets incentivize people to satisfy each other’s preferences through voluntary exchange, while state-run economies provide no such incentive. There is no shortage of soaring communist rhetoric on gender equality, but that cannot make up for the pervasive and sexist shortages under central planning.

This first appeared in CapX.
December 06, 2017
By Chelsea Follett
Many hoped the Bolshevik Revolution one hundred years ago would usher in a new era of gender and class equality. Following the revolution, Soviet Russia declared “International Women’s Day” an official holiday, and “Marxist feminists” romanticize communism to this day. Women of the Gulag, both a remarkable book and a documentary film, highlights the disparity between the Soviet Union’s alleged gender equality and the reality of life for women under communism.

It is now popular to claim — in the New York Times no less — that Soviet women “enjoyed many rights and privileges unknown in liberal democracies at the time,” so it is worth noting some of the ways that communism tyrannized women in particular. Those who claim the Soviet Union liberated women would do well to learn the stories of the women of the Gulag.

The Gulag forced labor camp system, created under Lenin and massively expanded under Stalin, was only one of many horrors in the Soviet Union. At least five million prisoners toiled in the camps at any given time during the system’s peak from 1936 to 1953, mining radioactive material, hauling logs barefoot in winter, or performing other forms of slave labor. The camps were allegedly for “class enemies” (anyone insufficiently poor) and traitors.

“[S]ome 18 million people passed through this massive system,” with millions more compelled to migrate to special settlements with similar conditions, according to Pulitzer Prize-winner Anne Applebaum, author of Gulag: A History. It is estimated that harsh conditions and summary executions killed off at least 10 percent of the Gulag’s total prisoner population each year. Although only between 10 and 15 percent of Gulag inmates were women, their imprisonment had some uniquely horrible features.

First, they were almost all arrested for the alleged crimes of their husbands or fathers. Communist officials saw women as just another means of punishing men, rather than as individuals with distinct identities. One of the few ways for a woman to avoid arrest alongside her husband was, perversely, to accuse him of treason before anyone else did.

Signed by the head of the NKVD on August 14, 1937, Operational Order of the Secret Police No. 00486, “About the Repression of Wives of Traitors of the Motherland and the Placement of Their Children,” stated:
Women married to husbands at the time of their arrest are to be arrested with the exception of … wives who provide information that leads to their husband’s arrest… The wives of traitors are to be imprisoned… no less than five to eight years. Children… are to be placed in orphanages of the ministry of health in other locations.
That brings us to the second horror unique to women’s persecution. Upon a mother’s arrest, the Soviet system declared her children orphans and sent them as far away as possible. After regaining freedom a woman would often never learn of their fate. In the state-run orphanages, children of traitors and class enemies faced social stigma. They were taught to feel shame and loathing for their parents.

The book describes how the secret police kidnapped Maria Ignatkina’s children and “before their horrified eyes… beat her to the ground.” Her husband was tortured into giving a false confession and killed. Maria spent eight years in a Gulag for the crime of being married to him. She attempted suicide but failed. Fortunately, her children were rescued from the orphanage by an aunt. Maria was eventually able to reunite with them and meet her grandchildren—a rare happy ending.

Finally, in addition to all the other horrors of the Gulag – forced labor, hunger, beatings, harsh cold, and unsanitary conditions — women prisoners were also subject to the experience of institutionalized sexual violence. A woman named Elena gave an unsettling account of how on a ship transporting prisoners to the Gulag, women were raped by multiple men, beaten and doused with cold water in an organized process called a “Kolyma streetcar,” and the bodies of the women who did not survive were thrown overboard. Other similar accounts corroborate her story.

Of course, the Gulag system was not the only way the Soviet Union harmed women. Its disastrous economic policies led to far deeper and more widespread poverty and scarcity than under capitalism (which has helped bring global poverty to an all-time low), affecting women and other vulnerable members of society the most. Still, the Gulag system serves as a stark example of how, despite a proclaimed commitment to gender equality, the Soviet Union accomplished the exact opposite of “liberation” for women.

This first appeared in the American Spectator.
December 01, 2017
By Marian L. Tupy
Earlier this month, I wrote about the determined efforts of socialists on both sides of the Atlantic to conflate capitalism with racism. No doubt, some promoters of capitalism were racists. But that is hardly surprising, since racism, along with slavery and wanton cruelty, were universal and, until recently, eternal phenomena.

The truth is, no culture in documented history comes close to the high standards of civilised behaviour that we expect from one another in the contemporary, which is to say democratic and capitalist, West. What I objected to in my column was the implicit notion that socialism was, somehow, less racist. And, as I showed by looking at the history of socialism, the opposite comes closer to the truth.

Yet Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s noble savage – a mythological creature living in harmony with nature and fellow beings – maintains a stronghold on socialist imagination. Consider the recent articles in The New York Times titled, The Climate Crisis? It’s Capitalism, Stupid, and Lenin’s Eco-Warriors. In the first, Benjamin Y Fong recommends democratic socialism as a solution to global environmental problems, while in the second, Fred Strebeigh praises Lenin as “a longtime enthusiast for hiking and camping” who turned Russia into “a global pioneer in conservation”.

Before delving deeper into The Times’ peculiar take on the environmental legacy of socialism, a little bit of background is in order.

This year marks 100 years since the Bolshevik putsch in Russia – an event that unleashed upon the world the most destructive ideology ever conceived by the human mind. The Times, which is the main source of news for progressive intelligentsia in the United States, has chosen to commemorate the cataclysmic events of 1917 in a series of sympathetic (and much-ridiculed) articles with titles such as, When Communism Inspired AmericansThanks to Mom, the Marxist RevolutionaryMake It So: Star Trek and Its Debt to Revolutionary Socialism, and Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism.

Recall that The Times was complicit in whitewashing the crimes perpetrated by communist regimes for close to century, beginning with the discredited reportage of Walter Duranty – an Anglo-American correspondent who famously described concerns over man-made famine in Ukraine as “malignant propaganda”. Duranty’s crime against journalistic standards of truth-telling (from 1932 to 1934, the Holodomor claimed between 2.4 and 7.5 million lives), earned him a Pulitzer Prize – a high honour that The Times has repeatedly refused to relinquish.

But, let’s return to the newspaper’s recipes for saving the planet. According to the writers in The Times, capitalism is destroying the planet, while socialism (both in its original Leninist form and in its “democratic” form that is currently advocated by the US Senator Bernie Sanders) could save it. As Fong writes:

“The real culprit of the climate crisis is not any particular form of consumption, production or regulation but rather the very way in which we globally produce, which is for profit rather than for sustainability. So long as this order is in place, the crisis will continue and, given its progressive nature, worsen. This is a hard fact to confront. But averting our eyes from a seemingly intractable problem does not make it any less a problem. It should be stated plainly: It’s capitalism that is at fault…

“We have a much better chance of making it past the 22nd century if environmental regulations are designed by a team of people with no formal education in a democratic socialist society than we do if they are made by a team of the most esteemed scientific luminaries in a capitalist society. The intelligence of the brightest people around is no match for the rampant stupidity of capitalism….

“On the defensive for centuries, socialists have become quite adept at responding to objections from people for whom the basic functions of life seem difficult to reproduce without the motive power of capital. There are real issues here, issues that point to the opacity of sociability, as Bini Adamczak’s recent book, ‘Communism for Kids’, playfully explores. But the burden of justification should not fall on the shoulders of those putting forward an alternative. For anyone who has really thought about the climate crisis, it is capitalism, and not its transcendence, that is in need of justification.”
Bini Adamczak’s “playful” Communism for Kids aside, I think it is possible to answer most of Fong’s concerns by looking at the actual environmental records of socialist and capitalist economies.

To start with, all forms of production result in some environmental damage. Agricultural production clears forests, displaces wildlife and destroys the biosphere. Industrial production spews harmful gases into the atmosphere and releases pollutants into rivers. Even the service sector pollutes, given its reliance on electricity and the concomitant CO2 emissions. So the real question is not which economic system is the perfect steward of the environment, but which economic system is the better steward.

When answering that question, the following concepts should be kept in mind: economic efficiency, tragedy of the commons and the environmental Kuznets curve.

Socialist economies were very inefficient. (That’s still the case in the surviving ones in Cuba, Venezuela and North Korea.) To compensate for the inefficiency of central planning, which emanated from the lack of a market-based price mechanism, socialist economies generally ignored environmental damage and other negative externalities. To maximise production (in order to try to keep pace with the much more efficient capitalist economies), socialist countries had low, or non-existent, emission standards. Health and safety regulations were either ignored or lacking altogether. Socialist economies also banned independent trade unions and, often, resorted to slave labour.

The socialists’ disregard for the environment was further exacerbated by their contempt for property rights. In capitalist economies, farms and factories are owned by individual people or corporations. If they cause damage to the environment or the workforce, they can be held accountable in the court of law. In socialist economies, land and air (and, in the most extreme cases, people) were owned by the state and suffered from the “tragedy of the commons”.

A state-owned factory tasked by the central planners with producing a certain quantity of iron bars, for example, was not only allowed, but actively urged, to meet its production quota irrespective of the damage caused to the environment and to the populace. In capitalist economies, the state is entrusted with enforcing environmental standards and protection of workers. In socialist economies, the state is both the enforcer of production quotas, and the supposed protector of the environment and the workers. When it came to choosing between the two, the socialists almost invariably chose the former: they cut corners in order to compensate for the inefficiency of central planning.

That problem is clearly illustrated by the comparison of the amount of CO2 emissions per dollar of output in socialist and capitalist countries. Note that, over time, emissions declined in the United States from already low levels. A similar trend can be observed in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 (regrettably, I do not have data for the USSR prior to 1991).
Perhaps the best example of socialist disregard for the environment can be seen in data for China. Emissions during Mao Zedong’s Great leap Forward (1958-1962) were, compared to the United States, stratospheric. They declined afterwards, but remained very high until the late 1970s, when China abandoned socialism. Since China started liberalising its economy (by introducing the price mechanism and property rights), its emissions drastically declined.

Last but not least, socialist countries were, in large part as a result of central planning, much poorer than their capitalist counterparts. That is important, because of a phenomenon known as the environmental Kuznets curve. As a general rule, the richer the people are, the more likely they are to pay for “luxury goods”, such as clean air and rivers, as well as high health and safety standards in the workplace. It may sound strange to the modern ear, but clean environment and happy labour force are, in a very real sense, “luxuries” that were unavailable to our much poorer ancestors.

Really poor people, such as those in large parts of Africa and Asia, are primarily concerned with their survival. All other considerations are secondary. Don’t believe me? Following the collapse of the Zimbabwean economy, people started slaughtering the previously protected wildlife in order to feed their families. Following the collapse of the Venezuelan economy, animals from the zoo in the nation’s capital found themselves on the menu. During the Holodomor in Ukraine, people ate one another. My point here is not to denigrate environmental concerns, but to point to the real trade-offs that poor people in dysfunctional socialist economies have to face on daily basis.

Socialism, then, is not the answer. Historically speaking, environmental damage emanating from socialist production was vastly greater than environmental damage emanating from capitalist production. All and I repeat all academic studies done in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet empire found the quality of the environment in the formerly socialist countries to be inferior to those in capitalist countries.

The best way to protect the environment is to get rich. That way, there is enough money not only to meet the needs of ordinary people, but also to pay for cleaner power plants and better water-treatment facilities. Since capitalism is the best way to create wealth, humanity should stick with it.

This first appeared in CapX.
November 21, 2017
By Marian L. Tupy
Robert Mugabe, the cartoonish dictator of Zimbabwe, wasn’t corrupted by 37 years in power. Contrary to the myth his admirers created in the 1980s, he never was a selfless revolutionary devoted to the welfare of his people.

From his political emergence in the 1960s to his ousting in a coup this week, Mugabe remained what he always was: a hard-core Marxist willing to do anything to gain and hold onto absolute power.

His time in office was marked by violence and economic illiteracy — a fatal combination that broke the once-prosperous country. As befits the fate of a tyrant, Mugabe finally found himself at the mercy of his erstwhile henchmen. And as he exits the political arena, he leaves Zimbabwe in the hands of a man who is, arguably, even more brutal than Mugabe himself.

Mugabe, a carpenter’s son born in 1924 in Southern Rhodesia’s Kutama Mission, was inculcated with a deep hatred of the British Empire by an Irish Jesuit who ran a mission. Bookish and intelligent, Mugabe won a scholarship to study at a South African university, where he got his first taste of Marxism.

In 1960, he joined Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union, a black liberation movement committed to ending colonial rule in Rhodesia.

After falling out with Nkomo, Mugabe helped to establish the Zimbabwe African National Union. The two movements — ZAPU, supported by the Soviets, and ZANU, backed by the Red Chinese — were soon at loggerheads and, following an outbreak of violence, both Nkomo and Mugabe were imprisoned by the Rhodesian authorities.

Upon his release in 1974, Mugabe left the country for safe haven in Mozambique from where ZANU launched a guerrilla war against his former captors. Unsuited for combat, Mugabe outsourced the actual fighting to one of his deputies, Josiah Tongogara. The mounting costs of war, international pressure and economic sanctions forced the Rhodesian government to the negotiating table and set the country on a path to the fateful 1980 election.

Preparing for the election, Mugabe appeared to have disposed of Tongogara, a possible rival, in what the US Embassy in Lusaka described as a “non-accidental” car crash. Mugabe’s guerrillas also intimidated defenseless villagers into casting their votes for ZANU. Much to everyone’s surprise, Mugabe won 57 out of the 100 seats in Parliament.

In the early 1980s, Mugabe’s North Korea-trained troops descended on Nkomo’s stronghold in the Matabeleland, killing 20,000 people and forcing Nkomo into exile. The man entrusted with the grisly task of genocide, Emmerson Mnangagwa, would become Mugabe’s right-hand man — for a time.

During the 1980s, government corruption metastasized while Mugabe’s socialist policies slowly suffocated the country’s economy. Burgeoning debt and deficits necessitated an IMF bailout and a promise of economic reforms in the 1990s.

As socialism collapsed in Europe, the aging revolutionary reinvented himself as the enemy of all things Western and determined to wipe out the last vestiges of the British colonial legacy in Zimbabwe. These were the white farmers, who constituted the backbone of Zimbabwe’s economy.

Using the pretext of the farmers’ meddling in politics, Mugabe started expropriating commercial farmland in 2000, which occasioned a spectacular economic meltdown.

In 2008, the country’s output fell to the 1979 level and GDP per capita to levels last seen in the 1950s. Zimbabwe saw the second-highest hyperinflation in recorded history, an annualized rate of 90 sextillion percent. Unemployment rocketed to 90 percent and government departments — with the expectation of the military and police — effectively ceased to function. Yet Mugabe, propped up by South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki, survived and limped along with Zimbabwe for another decade.

Now, aged 94, the increasingly fragile and senile Mugabe made a grave error by dismissing his vice president to clear the way for his second wife, the 52-year-old Grace, to ascend to the presidency. Mnangagwa responded by apparently staging a coup and placing Mugabe under house arrest.

Latest reports suggest that Mugabe will be permitted to go into exile unmolested, leaving a broken country at the mercy of a murderous maniac. If so, Zimbabwe is a long way from gaining political freedom or returning to economic growth. The international community will doubtless try to keep up pressure on ZANU and its new leadership, but, in the end, it’s up to Zimbabweans to avoid another Mugabe.

This piece first appeared in the New York Post