A common lament during the presidential campaign was middle-class income stagnation and the wealth of the top 1%. But are most people getting poorer while the rich get richer? In a sparkling – and delightfully short – new contribution to the econo-optimist genre, Johan Norberg, author of Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, emphatically answers “no.”

Consider the following:

  • In 1981, “extreme” poverty – living on an income of $1.90, or less, per person per day in today’s money – characterized 52% of the world’s population. Today, the comparable figure is 12% of a much larger population.
  • Global life expectancy at birth has more than doubled since 1900. It is now 71 years, more than that of the United States in 1965.
  • The environment is better adapted to human life. “In 1981,” writes Norberg, “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.”
Income Inequality Income Stagnation
NikolayFrolochkin / Pixabay
Income Stagnation

This is not cherry picking. Practically every economic, social, and environmental indicator is in a long-term uptrend, if not an accelerating one. Norberg does not deny that bad things still happen – and I devote some attention to them toward the end of this article – but in his narrative they recede into near-insignificance when compared to both the long-term and the recent pace of improvement.

Political freedom, while losing a few battles, is gradually winning the war: in 1950, 31% of the world’s people lived in electoral democracies; today, 63% do. Violence is down, Norberg argues, and in many countries equality under the law has been extended to women, blacks, and gays.

Norberg’s book chronicles the advancements of the last few centuries, with emphasis on the last half-century when progress has become globalized and the developing world played a convincing game of catch-up with the developed. While his subtitle asks us to look toward the future, his book is about the recent past and its startling and unexpected gift of prosperity, safety and good health to a majority of the world’s people.

Econo-optimism versus techno-optimism

In Progress, Norberg, a Swedish economic historian and now a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and executive editor at Free to Choose Media, sets forth a vision of the future that I call “econo-optimism.” Norberg’s principal theme is that economic growth has, in the relatively recent past, brought comforts and conveniences once known only by the rich to an increasingly broad swath of humanity. He is confident that such progress will continue.

Econo-optimism differs from techno-optimism. While the two are related (economic progress depends on advances in technology), techno-optimism is, in my view, the mistaken belief that technologically-driven abundance will solve, or render irrelevant, the fundamental problem of economics – that of allocating scarce resources to unlimited wants. In the future world envisioned by techno-optimists, production will be sufficient to satisfy all basic needs, and likely much more. The chief challenge will be to distribute the fruits of production fairly.

By Laurence B. Siegel, read the full article here.