I was listening to a thoughtful podcast discussion yesterday between one of my favourite US commentators, Jonah Goldberg, and Marian Tupy of the Cato Institute (where he a responsible for the Human Progress website) This morning I read a column by economist Noah Smith along very similar lines. The bottom line: life just gets better and better (the podcast discussion was more wide-ranging, across history and across countries, and somewhat more reflective, while Smith’s – much shorter – piece was comparing life in the US in the 1950s and now).
I’ve read numerous books and articles along similar lines: as just two examples, Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now and Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist. I’ve even run some of these arguments myself in a New Zealand context, illustrating just how different material living standards are now relative to those 100 years ago.
You won’t get any disagreement from me to the proposition that a market-oriented economy is the best mechanism known to man – although its innards, which bits matter most, still have elements of mystery – for generating material prosperity. You also won’t get any disagreement from me that some times/places in human history have been better than others (on almost any aspect conceivable). Then again, there have been times and places worse – sometimes materially so – than those that went before. Any society in the midst of a civil war is almost inevitably in a particulary undesirable situation. 1970s Cambodia was almost certainly worse than, say, the colonial era, 1940s Germany worse than most times in German history (notwithstanding the fruits of material progress), and so on.
Material gains – whether things, life expectancies, or whatever – aren’t everything but they aren’t nothing either. Even abstracting from the war going on at the time, I was sympathetic to the proposition that no amount of money would make any modern American change places with John D Rockefeller 100 years earlier (except of course that some things of value have no price). I don’t even suppose there are too many takers for 1969 Czechoslovakia (Tupy is of Slovak ancestry) over today’s Czech Republic or Slovakia (not even all those US millenials who answered a recent survey suggesting they had a favourable view of communism).
But some choices – not ones actually open to us, of course, but thought experiments – are much less clear-cut. I got to reflecting on life in New Zealand 50 years ago and that now.
At a material level, even as a woeful underperformer on the productivity front (although yesterday’s release from SNZ suggests they may have found another 1-2 per cent of productivity – level, not growth rate), real GDP per capita or per hour worked are significantly higher than they were 50 years ago. But to what end is less clear.
Fifty years ago I lived in Kawerau, which was probably as prosperous a town, if new and a little raw, as could be found in the country – fruit of the Think Big project of the 1950s. (From all I’ve seen and read, life in Kawerau today is probably worse than it was then.) But that isn’t really my comparison. We didn’t have a great deal – my father had just taken up a role as pastor of the local Baptist church – but two of my uncles were partners, apparently reasonable successful, in professional practices in central Christchurch (one law, one accounting). And if I contrast the lives they, and aunts and cousins, had then with the life my family lives now – I was a well-paid public servant for decades, my wife now is a well-paid senior public servant – it is hard to spot the nature of the substantial gains (which isn’t a complaint at all). That is probably even more true if I contemplate the prospects for my children, given what successive governments have done to the housing market.
Perhaps it is something about my/our tastes, and I’m certainly not suggesting the average material standard of living is worse than it was, just that the gains don’t count for that much with me (unlike, say, the gains in the 50 or 100 years prior to that) – mostly nice-to-haves rather than things which have me celebrating leaps and bounds in human progress. Are the cars fancier? Well, yes of course, but I’m not one of those who greatly values cars. Is the internet nice to have? Well, of course (and I’d not be writing this without it), but in what ways would we be substantially poorer without it (it offers an improvement on weekly news magazines and newspapers, but not that much of one most of the time)? Mightn’t most parents prefer a world in which schools weren’t pervaded by smartphones and their distractions. There is immense choice of eating out options I guess, but frankly I like to cook, as did my mother. Again, perhaps it is a matter of tastes. But the proposition of the evangelists of “progress” is that even the material gains are self-evident and (at least by implication) substantial. I’m not disputing there are gains, but how much weight one might put on them is another matter. For materialists, I guess quite a lot, unless diminishing marginal utility sets in for them as well.
(This isn’t, of course, an original point, and is – among other things – something of a variation of the story US economist Robert Gordon tells, in suggesting that the real lifestlye-improving gains happened decades ago.)
Perhaps the gains in life expectancy for those born seem less arguable. And I’m certainly not going to dispute that they are real. But it brings us closer to the deeper questions about the purpose of life. And about which lives. And what life.
As compared to 1969, New Zealand now legalises – and has the taxpayer fund – 13000+ abortions a year, and this ability to have one’s own child put to death is deemed by our leaders some sort of basic human right, a matter of “health”.
As compared to 1969, our society grapples with disconcertingly high suicide rates, especially among some of our young people.
And, as compared to 1969, our system is on the brink of legalising assisted suicide.
In some parts of other Western societies, even adult life expectancies are falling, fruit of some mix of drugs, isolation, despair or whatever.
And for any Christian – and Christianity has shaped the culture from which the bulk of our population comes for perhaps 1500 years – this earthly life is just the foretaste, the preparation, for eternal life with God. That doesn’t make life on earth unimportant – far from it – but creates a different perspective on the value one might attach to a few more years here. Societies in which there is nothing more are also ones in which it is much harder to envisage a cause, a choice, worth dying for.
Why else might one legitimately be underwhelmed by what has become of the country since, say, 1969? I could list:
- the rise of welfarism,
- the normalisation of birth outside marriage,
- the abandonment of any societal recognition of the importance of marriage as a bedrock institution of society.
- the coarsening of our culture (each Saturday I’m still astonished that the Herald runs a column celebrating what were once vices, in some traditions even “deadly sins”,
- easy and extensive access to pornography (flip side of the advantages of the internet), that degrades all those involved,
- the normalisation – nay celebration – of the vice of homosexual practice,
- the current transgender mania,
- the loss of any sense of a unifying day of rest.
And, at the heart of it, the decline in Christian faith and observance (there were never “golden days”, but everyone recognises the difference between then and now. Every society has a “religion” of sorts – the taboos and understanding by which societies operate and people interact – and I find almost nothing appealing about modern New Zealand’s provisional replacements for Christianity.
I could go on and add that in 1969 our main political parties and their leaders were pretty clear about the nature of Communism and the evil represented by the regimes in the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. The Soviet Union has, mercifully, gone, but the evil represented by the PRC/CCP is as real as ever, and more threatening to us, since our “elites” have abandoned all sense of right and wrong where the PRC is concerned, pursuing (it seems) only money, whether through trade or party donations.
And there is the increasing power of the state, enabled by technology. Surveillance, and coercive, states aren’t just a threat in China.
And so on and so forth.
Are there alternative perspectives? Well, of course. Perhaps as many as there are “religions” or world views. Some will regard where we’ve got to in the last 50 years as a giant step forward. For all the material and (often double-edged) technological advantages, personally I’d exchange 2019 New Zealand for 1969 New Zealand. It isn’t a choice or an option, but to me what we’ve gained is small compensation – not even really directly comparable – to what we’ve lost.