I like a good long-read. The readoption of the format by The Guardian, among others, has been a welcome opportunity for writers and readers to explore interesting topics in more depth than is usually afforded.
But the key is that the issue ought to merit it. Today’s Guardian offering uses 5,000 words to not really answer the question “Is the world really better than ever?” A single word would have done the job: “Yes.”
On every measure – education, health, income, safety, violence, knowledge, wealth, equality, freedom – today is a better time to live than at any other point in the past. And yet Oliver Burkeman, the author of the article, is visibly uncomfortable with the idea.
He acknowledges almost all of the good news that optimists like Matt Ridley point to in support of their case, but instead of joining them in analysing why it is that so much progress has occurred in the last 200 years, he picks out the speed of that advance as being a problem in itself:
“Almost every advance Norberg champions in his book Progress, for example, took place in the last 200 years – a fact that the optimists take as evidence of the unstoppable potency of modern civilisation, but which might just as easily be taken as evidence of how rare such periods of progress are. Humans have been around for 200,000 years; extrapolating from a 200-year stretch seems unwise.”
On the contrary – it would be “unwise” to look at the mountains of evidence that humanity’s lot has been revolutionised for the better in just two centuries and simply reject it as an accident. There is a reason why those 200 years have been so much better than the previous 199,800, and we have a responsibility to study it, in order to do even better.
Burkeman’s exploration focuses around two implications. First, that those who study this phenomenon think further progress inevitable, but that’s the opposite of the truth. Each and every one of them that I have encountered takes an interest in it precisely in order to further and protect the conditions that have delivered it – most are of the view that there are serious political threats to the principles of property rights, competition and liberty that are essential to improving human living standards.
That brings us to his second implication, that this is all cover for ideological propaganda:
“…the New Optimists aren’t primarily interested in persuading us that human life involves a lot less suffering than it did a few hundred years ago…Nestled inside that essentially indisputable claim, there are several more controversial implications. For example…that whatever we’ve been doing these past decades, it’s clearly working, and so the political and economic arrangements that have brought us here are the ones we ought to stick with.”
It’s rather odd to criticise people precisely for their decision to present evidence for a particular worldview. It betrays the reason behind much of the discomfort about the optimistic view of human progress – that if all this evidence is accepted, perhaps it means that the system which generated such advances isn’t so bad after all. Worse, if on closer examination the aspects of that system which make things better are precisely those that socialism seeks to limit or destroy, then perhaps socialism is demonstrably mistaken.
While Burkeman explores one of the reasons why people often reject good news about the world – the fact that reliable and regular progress isn’t as headline-grabbing as gory disasters – it’s strange that he neglects this more fundamental issue.
A huge proportion of the modern Left’s arguments are inherently negative – the world is getting worse, the “99 per cent” are being exploited, the “neoliberal consensus” is failing – and therefore their focus and message is necessarily miserablist. If they looked at the facts, they might have to accept that their criticisms are flawed, and so their solutions are in many cases unnecessary and in others actively harmful. Perhaps “The world is better than ever – but why do some people refuse to see it?” would have been a more interesting line of inquiry.