David R. Henderson  

Kevin Williamson on Human Progress

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I've got to admit it's getting better.

Over at National Review, Kevin Williamson has an excellent article on human progress. Its title: "Take a Bow, Species." Were I to excerpt the really good parts, I would probably end up excerpting the whole thing. So I'll settle for a few excerpts and one small criticism.

First excerpt:

The Princeton economist Angus Deaton, recently awarded the Nobel prize, has spent much of his career working on how we measure consumption, poverty, real standards of living, etc. It is thanks in part to his work that we can say that the global rate of "extreme poverty," currently defined as subsistence on less than the equivalent of $1.90 a day, is now the condition of less than 10 percent of the human race. In the 1980s, that number was 50 percent -- half the species -- and as late as the dawn of the 21st century, one-third of the human race lived in extreme poverty. The progress made against poverty in the past 30 years is arguably the most dramatic economic event since the Industrial Revolution. It did not happen by accident.

Second excerpt:
Good news abroad, and good news at home: In 1990, there were 2,245 murders in New York City. That number has fallen by 85 percent. Murders are down, often dramatically, in cities across the country. The overall rate of violent crime has fallen by about half in recent decades. U.S. manufacturing output per worker trebled from 1975 to 2005, and our total manufacturing output continues to climb. Despite the no-knowthings who go around complaining that "we don't make things here anymore," the United States continues to make the very best of almost everything and, thanks to our relatively free-trading ways, to consume the best of everything, too. General-price inflation, the bane of the U.S. economy for some decades, is hardly to be seen. Flexible and effective institutions helped ensure that we weathered one of the worst financial crises of modern times with surprisingly little disruption in the wider economy. Despite politicians who would usurp our rights, our courts keep reliably saying that the First Amendment and the Second Amendment pretty much mean what they say. I just filled up my car for $1.78 a gallon.

DRH comment (not a criticism) re the gasoline price: Unfortunately, I live in California, where EPA regulation directed at specific areas, high gasoline taxes, and California's recently initiated cap and trade caused me to pay $2.58 a gallon. :-(

Third excerpt:

The Right engages in a fair amount of mood affiliation: The country must have suffered ruination, because the Obama administration, abetted by the hated "Republican establishment," can have done nothing but ruin the country. But then you visit New York City or Los Angeles or Chicago, or you drive across northern Mississippi or the Texas Panhandle and see all those splendid farms and technology companies and factories producing all the best things that mankind can dream of, and, well, it certainly doesn't look like a ruined country. In the past few years, I've been to the Netherlands, Norway, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Costa Rica, the United Kingdom, Mexico, and a few years further back India, Colombia, the Dominican Republic -- it doesn't look like [a] ruined world. Of course there are unhappy corners: Haiti, Pakistan.

My one criticism is about an omission in the first paragraph. Williamson didn't necessarily make a mistake. What he says may well be true. But he did leave out something that, if you knew it, might alter your perception a little. He writes:
The last case of type 2 polio was identified in Aligarh, India, in 1999. Thanks in no small part to the initiative of the world's Rotarians -- one of those "little platoons" of which Edmund Burke was so fond -- polio has been eradicated everywhere on Earth except for two places where those who would eradicate it are forbidden to operate: Afghanistan and Pakistan. That's the Taliban's gift to the Islamic world: paralytic polio.

I have no reason to doubt his claim about Pakistan. But there is one other factor: the CIA's use of a vaccination campaign to try to track down Osama bin Laden. This, apparently, has made some Pakistanis suspicious of vaccination. See here for more.




COMMENTS (9 to date)
roystgnr writes:

The CIA vaccination campaign bothers me a great deal, in part because I can't quite articulate why it bothers me such a great deal.

On the one hand, going by the letter of the Geneva Conventions, it wasn't perfidy. Pakistan was not at war with the United States. Extending the definition of perfidy to apply outside of war doesn't sound reasonable, either, unless we want an international ban on undercover police work.

On the other hand, the whole point of the concept of "perfidy" is it gives your side a temporary advantage in a fight, at the lasting cost of the final level of trust necessary to try to allow wars to spare civilians and end peacefully. That's why it's so important to deplore and punish perfidy. And by that standard, "we'll catch a terrorist kingpin but an entire country won't trust vaccinations or foreign doctors anymore" feels dumbfoundingly perfidious.

Perhaps there's another level here, "posing as a medical provider", which isn't directly addressed by current definitions but which ought to be considered above and beyond "posing as a civilian"?

excerpt from Kevin Williamson, with emphasis added

The progress made against poverty in the past 30 years is arguably the most dramatic economic event since the Industrial Revolution. It did not happen by accident.
Does Williamson imply that this was planned progress? Who was the planner?

I suppose it was spontaneous order. The progress was the result of billions of individuals all doing their best. They were lucky, I would add, to find enough economic freedom to succeed somewhat.

We market-liberals think we understand why the progress happened. But we have nowhere near enough influence to create such a flourishing garden on Earth. Since it happened, it was an accident. Or so I will argue.

Colombo writes:

Does "eradicate" mean what I think it means, or, as it often happens in medicine, it's a term that has a different meaning?

ThomasH writes:

David,

What is the appropriate level of Pigou tax on the emission of CO2 by automobiles burning gasoline? Or is there a better way to charge it than a per-gallon tax?

On the larger issue, my impression is that "Conservatives" (not Libertarians) to be pretty gloomy because they tend to view Capitalism fragile and likely to be fatally wounded by Liberal attempts to tweak even better performance or better distributional outcomes.

Mark Bahner writes:
Its title: "Take a Bow, Species."

We don't have to take no stinkin' bow. Technology has improved. Now we have guns.

JK Brown writes:

The CIA vaccinations were legit, weren't they? One should always be suspicious of government officials bearing gifts, but the threat from the vaccinations was from the Pakistani reaction to the program. Apparently, they only went after the doctor, but enemies often go after the beneficiaries as the Viet Cong did to some vaccinated by American forces. Suspicion of the vaccination program is probably on the CIA, but of the vaccination itself, that is on the reaction of the local powers and their treatment of recipients.

Toward the end of the movie, 'Man on Fire', the Mexican police commander comments on his men using a vaccination program as cover to find the big criminal. The movie is based on real events.

The point is, anytime the government shows up at your doorwith some program or gift that gives them access to your home or at least to knock on all the doors, one should be suspicious. Government is never that accommodating without some ulterior motive. They force people to come to them, hat in hand.

Nathan W writes:

Re: Polio. I attended a health conference some years ago, and a former head of the Red Cross was in attendance, and gave a small group session on the question of polio in Afghanistan. They begged, pleaded and cajoled in every possible way for the Americans to delay the invasion by just a few weeks, the time deemed necessary to ramp up and complete the program to eliminate polio from Afghanistan. But US officials refused. Even though officials worked with the Red Cross to continue with the vaccination during the invasion, the fact of the invasion made some areas utterly unreachable.

I wouldn't give a free pass to the Taliban on this question, but the presentation of the issue is not just incomplete, but incriminatingly inaccurate. However, I completely fail to corroborate this with evidence from an online search. I surmise that it is a lot easier to speak frankly about such things in a group session at a conference than to issue an official public statement which would be so damning to the American political establishment in an invasion which enjoyed such widespread support. Besides the fact that complaining about it after the fact wouldn't help all that much, it presumably would not have helped Red Cross fundraising efforts in the USA.

Charles Lindsey writes:

So he really wrote "no-knowthings." That's a lovely coinage. And funny thing, it seems to mean exactly the same thing as "know-nothings." Was the author being creative or was it autocorrect? It's hard to tell these days.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Charles Lindsey,
Good catch. I totally missed it.

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