With all the bad news we read and hear about each day, it’s easy to miss the good news. But if we are to “forget not all His benefits” (Ps. 103:2) then we shouldn’t overlook the many ways that today’s generation is more blessed than we have ever been.
The big news? Mankind’s material well-being – our overall wealth – has increased rapidly in recent decades, and that’s alleviating poverty and lengthening life-spans for billions of people. In terms of daily living, things are generally getting better and better. In fact, the twentieth century witnessed the greatest improvement in living standards in the history of the world. People today live better and longer than at any time in history.
This is the theme of a book by economists Stephen Moore and Julian Simon entitled It’s Getting Better All the Time: 100 Greatest Trends of the Last 100 Years. They demonstrate that by every material measure, human life has dramatically improved since the early twentieth century. The also explain why this occurred, and credit it to the drive for innovation that results from free enterprise capitalism.
Moore and Simon’s focus is on the United States, partly because they themselves are American, but maybe more so because the United States has long been at the center of innovation and technological development. The United States has led the world in improving the living conditions of mankind because of its entrepreneurial, free enterprise economy.
So what sort of improvements do they highlight? One of the most significant of the twentieth century is in the area of health.
“The health of Americans improved in ways during the 20th century that can only be described as miraculous. Death and infant mortality rates plunged; life expectancy rose by 64 percent.”
Many diseases were almost wiped out. Cancer rates have increased, of course, but that is because people are living longer. Decades ago people generally died younger and therefore didn’t live long enough to get cancer.
Food and recreation
Today food is incredibly plentiful and inexpensive. “Never before in history and in no other society has the common working man been able to afford such a bountiful basket of tasty foods to put on the kitchen table as Americans can today.” Historically, one of the greatest challenges that most people faced was avoiding starvation. Now, in North America, one of the greatest challenges is avoiding obesity!
Similarly, wealth is more plentiful:
“It is amazing but true that more financial wealth has been generated in the United States over the past 50 years than was created in all the rest of the world in all the centuries before 1950.”
As a result, even the poorest Americans often own a car and a color TV, not to mention other conveniences. Another effect of the wealth is that Americans “spend more on recreation and entertainment than any other society in history.”
All of this progress has come at a tremendous cost, right? We all know the environment was polluted and ruined in the rush to create wealth.
Actually, that’s not true. Moore and Simon state: “The fact is that one of the greatest trends of the past 100 years has been the astonishing rate of progress in reducing almost every form of pollution.” Air pollution in the United States has decreased steadily since the 1970s. Water pollution in lakes, streams and rivers has also decreased substantially during the same period.
Americans have been criticized for using a disproportionate amount of the world’s natural resources. With only about 5 percent of the world’s population, the USA consumes between 20 and 40 percent of the earth’s resources.
But through technological improvements, the USA has been making ever-greater amounts of natural resources available for use. Resource scarcity is less of a problem now than ever before. As Moore and Simon put it, “The essential point is that Americans are not resource destroyers but resource creators, who will leave future generations with a greater abundance of nature’s bounty.”
How did it happen?
The dramatic improvement in living standards during the twentieth century demands an explanation. And why did the majority of these improvements began in the USA? The answer to both of these queries is rather simple, according to Moore and Simon:
“Why did so much of the progress of the past 100 years originate in the United States? Our shorthand answer is, Freedom works. The unique American formula of individual liberty and free enterprise has cultivated risk taking, experimentation, innovation, and scientific exploration on a grand scale that has never occurred anywhere before.”
During the twentieth century other countries also had capitalistic economies, such as Canada and Australia. But the USA had somewhat greater economic freedom leading to greater economic growth. “America got rich at such a faster pace than other nations in the 20th century quite simply because no other place on earth cultivates the entrepreneurial, inventive spirit of human beings more than the United States does.”
Of course, many people think that capitalism is evil and that prosperity will result from government direction through socialism. But the empirical evidence demonstrates that socialism does not lead to economic prosperity for the average citizen (although it may lead to financial prosperity for the socialist government’s officials). According to Moore and Simon, the historical record shows that “Nations that have tried to use central planning as a formula for creating prosperity have been miserable failures.”
This means that as governments get bigger and bigger, as is happening in the USA today, economic prosperity is threatened. In other words, “when government gets too big and intrusive, it can kill the goose of private enterprise that lays the golden eggs.”
The bad side of the twentieth century
Of course, the twentieth century also saw some terrible events that led to the deaths of millions of people. Does this contradict the Moore-Simon thesis?
No. Those great tragedies were mostly caused by governments. National Socialism in Europe, and international socialism (i.e., communism) in Europe and Asia, account for the bulk of human slaughter in the twentieth century through wars and attempts to transform society. Socialism is dangerous and harmful.
In this respect the bad side of the twentieth century does not contradict the optimistic view of innovation and progress offered by Moore and Simon. It was not free enterprise capitalist countries that caused those great tragedies; it was socialist countries. This bolsters their case: “The enduring lesson of the 20th century is that the only real restraint on progress is a government that smothers the human spirit.”
Moore and Simon also acknowledge that there are some troubling trends that put a damper on their enthusiasm. Interestingly, although they don’t realize it, most of the problematic trends they identify are related to the decline of Christianity in the United States: the increase in taxes and the size of government, the decline of the traditional family, the decline in educational quality, the increase in violent crime, and the increase in suicide. These trends all occurred during the twentieth century at the same time as material conditions for human living were improving, and they are mostly cultural rather than economic.
It is worth noting that God warned Israel in Deuteronomy that material prosperity can lead to apostasy. He promised to make them prosperous and then stated,
“Take care lest you forget the LORD your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God (Deut. 8:11-14).
The USA (along with the other Western countries) has become tremendously prosperous, and in its prosperity it has turned away from God. Christianity is no longer the powerful cultural force over American society it once was. Affluence, in other words, can have a downside by making people feel self-sufficient and no longer dependent on God.
Nevertheless, the dramatic improvement in living standards that occurred during the twentieth century is clearly a good thing. There is less poverty, less starvation, and less suffering. Who would want to return to the bad old days?
The innovation and technological development that results from free enterprise capitalism increases human wellbeing over time. There are bad things happening every day, for sure. But there are also good developments that should be recognized and celebrated. These kinds of improvements will likely continue as long as governments don’t get in their way through excessive taxation and regulation. Economic freedom is a necessary condition for the material progress that reduces poverty and raises the standard of living for people around the world.
Dr. Michael Wagner is the author many books, and is a regular contributor to Reformed Perspective. This article first appeared in the November 2014 issue.