Skepticism, pessimism, racism, and human mortality dominate our papers, television, computers, and therefore many of today’s conversations. Let’s see how educated you have become digesting all these “fact” filled stories by taking this quiz.
How did you do? If you’re like most engaged citizens (those likely reading this article) you did poorly. In fact, you probably performed worse than a chimpanzee randomly selecting answers. Don’t worry, though. You probably didn’t do as poorly as the average journalist, CEO, or college professor that took Hans Rosling’s test.
Hans Rosling was a physician, academic, and researcher that shocked the “educated” world by revealing that our leaders in education, business, government, journalism—and most consumers of news—were drastically wrong about the state of the world and the global population. He travelled the world writing and giving lectures informing the “enlightened” that they didn’t understand the basic state and trajectory of the world. He summarized his work in the book Factfulness.
As it turns out, people more in touch with the latest news are more likely to believe the world is getting worse. Today more than ever, news junkies are constantly taking in headlines about the latest riots, violence, poverty, natural disasters, and other tragedies that make it seem like events are spiraling out of control all around the globe.
Rosling is careful to note that his book’s message is not meant to dismiss or diminish the human suffering that still exists or to pretend that the march of progress has reached a successful conclusion. However, he uses raw data to rise above the bad news of the nightly broadcasts and the imperfections of human cognition to show readers the many ways the world has rapidly and markedly improved.
The fact is that the number of people living in extreme poverty around the world has been dropping sharply. As recently as 1966, half of the global population lived in extreme poverty. The number has continued to decline and has been cut in half during the past two decades alone.
Human civilization has been on a “very long relay race” since around 1800 to end extreme poverty, as Rosling puts it. The next generation could well be the last runner in that race—if it takes the baton passed to it.
Extreme poverty was the default living condition for almost all human beings for all of human history prior to the modern era. But since modernization and free market economies started taking root just a couple centuries ago, that sad reality has changed rapidly. There’s still more progress to make, but the change has been miraculous.
Most of the world’s population now lives in middle-income countries, where basics like an education are much more accessible. With that in mind, another fact Rosling presents is equally eye-opening: 60 percent of girls in low-income countries—the poorest countries in the world—finish primary school. Again, there’s more progress to make, but that’s a remarkable statistic despite the extreme outliers like Somalia and Afghanistan that generate the most headlines.
What about disasters? Every tornado, flood, earthquake, and hurricane seems to make the news. Even old fashioned snowstorms are now given dire nicknames. Clearly the number of lives taken by natural disasters must be higher than ever.
In fact, the number of people who die each year in natural disasters is down to 25 percent in raw numbers of what it was 100 years ago. Adjusted for population growth, that number is just 6 percent. That’s thanks to improved technology, better building standards, better infrastructure, better education—all the result of rising global wealth.
The good news for the world goes on and on, at least when we step back from the doom-and-gloom news narrative of the day.
In 2017, three countries allowed slavery. Not good, but it’s down from 193 countries in 1800. Four percent of children worldwide died before their fifth birthday in 2016. It’s a tragic statistic that four percent of children died so young, but that number was 44 percent in 1800. From oil spills to airplane crash deaths to child labor to ozone depletion and more, the metrics we want to be low are plummeting. Rosling presents this data clearly.
Likewise, numbers we want to be higher are increasing. 193 countries grant women the right to vote, up from just one in 1800. 85 percent of the world’s population has access to at least some electricity, up from 72 percent in 1990. 88 percent of one-year-olds got at least one vaccination in 2016, up from 22 percent in 1980. More humans are living in democratic governments than ever before.
Most people are unaware of all this good news. After all, the headline “Mild weather leaves New Yorkers in peace” might get a reporter fired. And frankly, it wouldn’t resonate with people because our brains are hard-wired to notice bad news. Thousands of years ago, that was a survival mechanism. Rosling spends a lot of time discussing the ancient human instincts that lead us to focus on the bad news and ignore the good news, even though it’s all around us.
Does the world still have problems today? Of course. But reams of cold, hard facts show that the human condition is rapidly improving. Many of us alive today could witness the end of extreme poverty on Earth. We are doing something right.
America continues to be a shining beacon of opportunity in a rapidly improving world. The American experiment has worked and has exported our winning formula of representative government and free markets around the world. Even communist regimes have had to embrace portions of a free market system in order to produce economic growth and at least feign democratic support in order to claim that they legitimately represent their population.
The reasons America became so prosperous so quickly are the same reasons the rest of the world is now rapidly catching up: a market-based economy, free enterprise, private property rights, and freedom of speech that enables robust public debate over the ideas that will spark even more human progress.
We are not perfect; it was recognized in our founding documents that we are working toward a “more perfect union.” However, we’re more perfect than any other system of government and economic principles the world has ever experimented with, and the facts prove it. America’s system was never “perfect,” but it’s generally becoming more perfect as individual and economic freedom have been shared with more Americans and nations. Our trajectory has been and continues to be a positive one.
These classical liberal principles are making the world a better place for all of humanity. We should recognize and cherish those principles, not vilify and cancel them or tear them down.
RightBooks with Dale Kooyenga is a monthly feature at RightWisconsin. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) represents Wisconsin’s 5th Senate District in the state legislature. He is also a Certified Public Accountant and an Army Reserve officer.