David R. Henderson  

What a Wonderful World!

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Around the world, nutrition is rising and hunger is falling. Norberg quotes an estimate from the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organization that in the last 25 years, about 2 billion people have been freed from hunger. And the rate of progress over that time has grown. Also, the frequency and severity of famines have diminished.
This is from David R. Henderson, "What a Wonderful World," one of the Econlib Feature Articles for October. It's my review of Johan Norberg, Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, 2016.

A couple of other paragraphs that put modern violence, including last night's horrible murders in Las Vegas, in perspective:

One of the factors in higher life expectancy is reduced violence, a topic to which Norberg devotes a whole chapter. Drawing heavily on the aforementioned The Better Angels of our Nature by Pinker, Norberg shows that one-on-one violence and violence by governments against people in other countries has declined considerably over the centuries. One striking statistic is the annual European homicide rate, which fell from a whopping 19 per 100,000 people in the 16th century to 3.2 in the 18th century to about one today.

Norberg leads the chapter on violence with an 1875 quote from the famous legal scholar Sir Henry Maine: "War appears to be as old as humanity, but peace is a modern invention." The data back that up. In the 16th and 17th centuries, some of the largest and most powerful countries were at war over 75 percent of the time. Since 1950, there has been only one such war--between the United States and China in Korea--and, bloody as it was, it lasted only three years.


When I read books to review, I carefully note the highlights on a blank page at the front of the book. After only 15 pages of this 246-page book, I quit. That's not because there were so few highlights but because over half the pages had highlights. I highly recommend the book.




COMMENTS (8 to date)
Jon Murphy writes:

I'm glad you reviewed this book. I read it over the course of a Friday night. It's a really excellent book. The chapter on food is my favorite (I think it's Chapter 1 or 2, but I'm not sure. My copy is at home right now). The discussion really shows how far the world has come even in my scant 28 years alive.

mike shupp writes:

Excellent review; I much enjoyed it.

I hope this is just the beginning of a long. pleasurable, and productive retirement!

Michael Crone writes:

I find arguments of this type unconvincing. Any time period (or any society, for that matter) will tend to cherry-pick the metrics it does well at and think itself the best.

So moderns focus on physical needs instead of emotional/psychological ones. Moderns focus on the decline in war and homicide (as officially defined), and we don't worry whether or not the abortion ratio was lower 400 years ago.

Or maybe we do. Those objections are just non-dominant, but still modern, Western concerns. But 17th or 25th Century values would be even farther from what we now measure or prioritize, so why wouldn't we in 21th Century do even worse by the standards of other times?

Thaomas writes:

While the message of this kind of book is good as far as it goes, it cannot be taken as a guide to the future without a theory about the factors that produced it.

David R Henderson writes:

@mike shupp,
Excellent review; I much enjoyed it.
Thanks.
I hope this is just the beginning of a long. pleasurable, and productive retirement!
Thanks. I do too. Odds are good.
@Michael Crone,
Any time period (or any society, for that matter) will tend to cherry-pick the metrics it does well at and think itself the best.
That’s a stretch. When you look at the literature from the 17th century and how big a deal basic survival was, using life expectancy, nutrition, and violence as measures seems reasonable.
So moderns focus on physical needs instead of emotional/psychological ones.
It’s actually easier to focus on emotional and psychological needs when you have the basic physical needs covered.
we don't worry whether or not the abortion ratio was lower 400 years ago.
I admit that that’s not one of my big concerns, but do you have data on this?
@Thaomas,
While the message of this kind of book is good as far as it goes, it cannot be taken as a guide to the future without a theory about the factors that produced it.
It’s true that the book doesn’t get heavily into theory, but the theory is implicit and, in a few cases, explicit. Free trade works for the poor countries, for example, and it seems implicit that the reason for the drop in starvation in India and China is that both have much freer economies. Also, as I pointed out in the review, the Green Revolution was a result of a relatively free economy in which Borlaug could innovate and have a capitalist-financed foundation support his innovation.

Thaomas writes:

Well, with much less of the world closed off from international trade and fewer non-capitalist countries now than in the past, that would suggest slower increases in world income than in recent decades. On the other hand, increased flows of migrants (if not reversed as in UK US) should be positive. Cost effective polices to slow down and reverse CO2 build up in the atmosphere could prevent declines in growth, but will they be taken? I like predictions to be conditional on policy because I suspect the predictor DOES have some in mind.

Weir writes:

If Johan's planning on making corrections, the correct quote is this: "War appears to be as old as mankind, but peace is a modern invention." Out loud in 1887, and in print in 1888.

I'm a big fan of Maine. This is his picture of what we left behind:

"If a man was not of kin to another there was nothing between them. He was an enemy to be slain, or spoiled, or hated, as much as the wild beast upon which the tribe made war, as belonging indeed to the craftiest and cruellest order of wild animals. It would scarcely be too strong an assertion that the dogs which followed the camp had more in common with it than the tribesmen of an alien and unrelated tribe."

And this is how progress began:

"In order to understand what a market originally was, you must try to picture to yourselves a territory occupied by village-communities, self-acting and as yet autonomous, each cultivating its arable land in the middle of its waste, and each, I fear I must add, at perpetual war with its neighbour. But at several points, points probably where the domains of two or three villages converged, there appear to have been spaces of what we should now call neutral ground. These were the Markets. They were probably the only places at which the members of the different primitive groups met for any purpose except warfare, and the persons who came to them were doubtless at first persons especially empowered to exchange the produce and manufactures of one little village-community for those of another."

David R Henderson writes:

@Weir,
Thanks.
BTW, your last paragraph helps answer Thaomas’s concern above. Increasing free trade seems to have been an important factor.

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