Late last week, we launched a new and much improved version of Human Progress – a website that aims to bridge the gap between the reality of human experience that is characterized by incremental improvements and public perception that tends to be pessimistic about the current state of the world and skeptical about humanity’s future prospects. The launch has provided us with an opportunity to take a walk down memory lane, recall the reasons for starting the website in the first place, note some of the goals reached in terms of our mission and, finally, reflect on some of the progress that has occurred since the site first appeared in 2013.
The original idea behind the website has a proximate as well as an ultimate cause. Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, which came out in 2010, reawakened Julian Simon’s original optimism about the improving state of the world. The book is not only a fascinating take on the origins of our contemporary affluence. It is also a compendium of statistics documenting advances in human well-being. The data, we felt, ought to be made available to the general public in an accessible way. More generally, the Great Recession was in full swing and no one could predict how it would end.
The financial meltdown of 2008 and the subsequent economic downturn threatened to undermine the relatively open exchange of goods, services and ideas that we enjoy and which Ridley identified as being the modus operandi behind the astonishing rise in human prosperity. The threats to the political and economic underpinnings of Western countries (i.e., some combination of liberal democracy and free enterprise) seemed ominous. Writing in The New York Times, Thomas Friedman mused about the advantages of the Chinese political model. The Washington Post, in the meantime, asked if we were witnessing “The End of American Capitalism?”
It is hardly original to acknowledge that all human institutions, including liberal democracy and free enterprise, suffer from their share of imperfections. But, perfection is not for this world. As the German philosopher Immanuel Kant observed in 1784, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.” That said, we felt it very important to remind our audience that, compared to the alternative political and economic arrangements (Russia and China spring to mind), open societies continue to do very well.
In spite of all of their problems and shortcomings, open societies remain in the richest, safest, healthiest and happiest places on Earth. And while we may spend inordinate time and effort navel-gazing, immigration patterns clearly show that millions of people from other parts of the world would be happy to make a new start in our neck of the woods. Presenting the public with reliable data documenting human progress, then, was meant to help our audience appreciate the blessings of open societies and, hopefully, strengthen peoples’ commitment to liberal political and economic institutions.
What, then, are we to make of the ten years since the outbreak of the Great Recession and five years since the launch of the original Human Progress? On the downside, critics and opponents of open societies have made some electoral gains in the West, including, most significantly, in the United States. On the upside, no Western nation embraced autarky or dictatorship, which suggests that the intellectual consensus surrounding the superiority of liberal democracy and free enterprise continues to hold. That is surely a marked improvement on the political and economic disasters that followed after the Great Depression broke out in 1929!
Depending on the measure used, the global spread of economic and political freedoms has either plateaued or suffered a slight reversal. Still, instances of democratic retreat (e.g., Turkey) are often offset by instances of democratic awakening (e.g., Nigeria). Likewise, economic disasters (e.g., Venezuela) tend to be offset by economic success stories (e.g., Peru).
In contrast to the Western countries, the developing world escaped from the Great Recession relatively unscathed and progress on most measures of human well-being continued unabated. These improvements are too numerous to mention, but suffice it to say that the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, which aimed at poverty reduction, better education, greater gender equality, reduced child mortality, improved maternal health, combatting disease and higher environmental quality, have met with considerable success.
At Human Progress, we continue to spread the word about the improving state of the world to our 100,000 monthly visitors and 45,000 Twitter followers. More importantly, the concept of human progress is finally getting the press it deserves. When Julian Simon performed the role of global Mr. Optimist in the 1980s and 1990s, his was a lonely and thankless task. Not anymore.
Simon’s baton was picked up by Matt Ridley, Reason’s Ronald Bailey, our colleague Johan Norberg, Charles Kenny from the Center for Global Development, Gregg Easterbrook from The Atlantic, the Nobel Prize winning economist Angus Deaton, the IPCC contributor Indur Goklany, University of Illinois at Chicago professor Deirdre McCloskey, and the inimitable Hans Rosling.
Looking ahead, we shall continue to present data related to the improving state of humanity. We shall strive to convince our audience to look at the trend-lines, not the headlines, always remembering that our progress – like that of our species – is incremental. Humanity has weathered the challenges of the last decade and there is no obvious reason why we should not thrive in the next.