Michael Hicks: Torrent of human flourishing across centuries worth noting


By Michael Hicks

This is a good time to pause and take stock of the world as it is today. This means thinking a bit more about those things for which we should be grateful.

It is natural for us to think about this moment in time, for all its goods and ills. I think it is better to examine the long arc of history and report stunning good news that we too often ignore. The central fact of the past three centuries is the spectacular emergence of rapid economic growth that is spreading opportunity across the world today.

In 2018, we live in a world economy that has grown more in each of the past three centuries than all the previous centuries combined. This has resulted in a striking improvement across the globe. In the past 25 years, the number of people worldwide in real poverty has halved. Better still, desperate material want and the risk of starvation may well slip into the history books within a generation.

This growth touches nearly every aspect of life. As late as 1990, perhaps half the world’s population had never spoken on a telephone. Today, almost two thirds of adults own a cell phone. In the desperately poor nation of India, per capita income has risen by three times more in the past 25 years than in the previous 25 centuries combined. Nothing even faintly like the last quarter century ever happened before. This is unleashing a torrent of human flourishing.

In the last century, the share of the world’s population living in a democracy grew threefold, and now approaches 60 percent. We are barely out of the 20th century, which saw more deaths in war than all previous centuries combined. Today we live in a far more peaceful world, with risk of violent deaths lower than at any other time in recorded history. To make the point, the share of living Americans who have never been in battle is lower than at any time in our history. This happy occurrence plays out across most of the globe.

Across the developed world, poverty is no longer the result of economic conditions. Everyone who wishes to work and is willing to relocate to find a job has one. A lack of sufficient food, clothing or housing is today a consequence of matters with no direct link to the strength of the economy.

For those workers who possess insufficient labor market skills to earn a good wage, government offers stunning largesse. Indiana, for example, will spend $1 billion to train fewer than 125,000 unemployed workers at any given time this year. That is equivalent to more than one year of tuition for the most expensive state university for each worker. A century ago, most American adults had not graduated from high school; today we spend more than $250,000 per child to see them through K-12 schooling. Our abundance spreads to every doorstep.

In 1900, about half the people born in 1850 had already died. Life expectancy hovered near 50 years. Today it seems likely that half the Americans born in 2000 will be alive to enjoy Christmas 2100. This is true across the developed world. In Britain, where the monarchy has long penned congratulatory letters to centenarians, the workload has more than doubled in the 21st century. Elsewhere, the change is also stunning.

In my lifetime, the average resident of India saw their lifespan grow from 44 to 69 years. No other factor so purely demonstrates the power of economic growth than the simple expectation of parents that their children will live into adulthood, and that we with them will live to see grandchildren.

We live in enviable times, but that does not mean all is perfect. Human nature has not changed, so war, violence, hatred, addiction, disease and the pain that accompanies them remain. More visibly perhaps, a large minority of residents of the developed world struggle to adapt to the same economic changes that have lifted so many worldwide. These households tend to cluster in formerly vibrant cities and towns in Europe and North America.

But the abundant growth of human flourishing that has accelerated over the past three centuries comes from a common wellspring. These are the elevation of the individual, endowed with permanent rights. They are attention to reason and the right of individuals to make their own judgments, speak freely upon them and choose the dominion of their own life. These freedoms cannot be universally realized without at least a semblance of a market-based economy, democracy and civil rights.

We can only marvel and give thanks for the world as it is, and pray that the miracles of the past three centuries continue to extend the flourishing of all people.

Michael J. Hicks is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and an associate professor of economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University. Send comments to [email protected].