August 21, 2016

JOHAN NORBERG: Why can’t we see that we’re living in a golden age? If you look at all the data, it’s clear there’s never been a better time to be alive.

If you think that there has never been a better time to be alive — that humanity has never been safer, healthier, more prosperous or less unequal — then you’re in the minority. But that is what the evidence incontrovertibly shows. Poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, child labour and infant mortality are falling faster than at any other time in human history. The risk of being caught up in a war, subjected to a dictatorship or of dying in a natural disaster is smaller than ever. The golden age is now.

We’re hardwired not to believe this. We’ve evolved to be suspicious and fretful: fear and worry are tools for survival. The hunters and gatherers who survived sudden storms and predators were the ones who had a tendency to scan the horizon for new threats, rather than sit back and enjoy the view. They passed their stress genes on to us. That is why we find stories about things going wrong far more interesting than stories about things going right. It’s why bad news sells, and newspapers are full of it.

Books that say the world is doomed sell rather well, too. I have just attempted the opposite. I’ve written a book called Progress, about humanity’s triumphs. It is written partly as a warning: when we don’t see the progress we have made, we begin to search for scapegoats for the problems that remain. Sometimes, in the past and perhaps today, we have been too quick to try our luck with demagogues who offer simple solutions to make our nations great again — whether by nationalising the economy, blocking imports or throwing out immigrants. If we think we don’t have anything to lose in doing so, it’s because our memories are faulty.

Look at 1828, when The Spectator was first published. Most people in Britain then lived in what is now regarded as extreme poverty. Life was nasty (people still threw their waste out of the window), brutish (corpses were still displayed on gibbets) and short (30 years on average). But even then things had been improving. The first iteration of The Spectator, in 1711, was published in a Britain whose people subsisted on average on fewer calories than the average child gets today in sub-Saharan Africa.

Karl Marx thought that capitalism inevitably made the rich richer and the poor poorer. By the time Marx died, however, the average Englishman was three times richer than at the time of his birth 65 years earlier — never before had the population experienced anything like it.

Fast forward to 1981. Then, almost nine in ten Chinese lived in extreme poverty; now just one in ten do. Then, just half of the world’s population had access to safe water. Now, 91 per cent do. On average, that means that 285,000 more people have gained access to safe water every day for the past 25 years.

Related: Richard Fernandez:

The question isn’t whether the state is irrelevant but whether it is less important than formerly or whether it is significant in a different way. Certainly Lou Dobbs’ question “why would anyone vote for a FBI certified liar who’s refused to hold a press conference for 258 days?” can only be met by supposing an indifference or resignation over political outcomes. One possible explanation for this comes from a Reason Magazine citing a Pew poll that “millennial support for the Libertarian Party nominee is damn near astonishing.” It’s not hard to see in this a suggestion that government become less important in the 21st century than it was in the 20th.

The idea of the state as the “locomotive of history” is relatively recent. George Orwell’s 1984 saw state resting on the pillars of police power, a command economy and the ability to rewrite the Narrative. The most important of these was the ability to rewrite the factual record. In fact 1984’s protagonist was employed full time to rewrite newspaper articles. In Orwell’s view the mutability of the past was the foundation of tyranny. “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” To ensure this the Ministry of Truth was honeycombed with Memory Holes into which any inconvenient fact could be dropped and be disappeared.

But just to illustrate how things have changed for the State we now know that Orwell was wrong. The mathematically dominant method for recording transactions, whether they involve the transfer of financial assets, intellectual property, health records or any type of information is probably going to be the blockchain. It has three important properties. First the entire record can be reproduced by anyone from a Genesis cryptographic starting point such that all records will have the same signature if and only if they are the same. Second, no part of the record can be altered without regenerating the entire block chain from the the branch. Third, it is impossible to rewrite the block chain without incurring enormous real costs in electricity and computing power, as guaranteed by the laws of thermodynamics.

The first property means that blockchain by nature is a public ledger. The second ensures the database can only be falsified in its entirety from the point of change. The third makes it prohibitively expensive to do so. Readers of Ray Bradbury’s The Sound of Thunder will recognize these attributes. From his story we learn you can’t change the past without altering everything; that by crushing a butterfly in the Jurassic we alter not one item in the record but create a whole alternate history.

The possibility of a immutable record is revolutionary in itself.

Well, stay tuned. I think that one of the reasons why people are pessimistic is that it is now much harder to escape the realization that all the Top Men (and Women) are really pretty incompetent. So believing that maybe they don’t matter as much is grounds for optimism.

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