Politics & Policy

Take a Bow, Species

From polio to poverty, we are winning.

Well done, human race. Well done.

At the end of September, the Global Commission for the Certification of Poliomyelitis Eradication convened in Bali and, after reviewing the reports of its member nations, declared poliovirus type 2 eradicated in the wild. This was really only a bureaucratic stamp on a fact: The last case of type 2 polio was identified in Aligarh, India, in 1999. Thanks in no small part to the initiative of the world’s Rotarians — one of those “little platoons” of which Edmund Burke was so fond — polio has been eradicated everywhere on Earth except for two places where those who would eradicate it are forbidden to operate: Afghanistan and Pakistan. That’s the Taliban’s gift to the Islamic world: paralytic polio.

Despite some recent setbacks, including funding troubles after the financial crisis and the emergence of anti-vaccine nuttery in the United States and elsewhere, measles and rubella are next on the hit list. Those diseases will almost certainly be a thing of the past a decade or two hence.

The Princeton economist Angus Deaton, recently awarded the Nobel prize, has spent much of his career working on how we measure consumption, poverty, real standards of living, etc. It is thanks in part to his work that we can say that the global rate of “extreme poverty,” currently defined as subsistence on less than the equivalent of $1.90 a day, is now the condition of less than 10 percent of the human race. In the 1980s, that number was 50 percent — half the species — and as late as the dawn of the 21st century, one-third of the human race lived in extreme poverty. The progress made against poverty in the past 30 years is arguably the most dramatic economic event since the Industrial Revolution. It did not happen by accident.

The progress made against poverty in the past 30 years is arguably the most dramatic economic event since the Industrial Revolution. It did not happen by accident.

Good news abroad, and good news at home: In 1990, there were 2,245 murders in New York City. That number has fallen by 85 percent. Murders are down, often dramatically, in cities across the country. The overall rate of violent crime has fallen by about half in recent decades. U.S. manufacturing output per worker trebled from 1975 to 2005, and our total manufacturing output continues to climb. Despite the no-knowthings who go around complaining that “we don’t make things here anymore,” the United States continues to make the very best of almost everything and, thanks to our relatively free-trading ways, to consume the best of everything, too. General-price inflation, the bane of the U.S. economy for some decades, is hardly to be seen. Flexible and effective institutions helped ensure that we weathered one of the worst financial crises of modern times with surprisingly little disruption in the wider economy. Despite politicians who would usurp our rights, our courts keep reliably saying that the First Amendment and the Second Amendment pretty much mean what they say. I just filled up my car for $1.78 a gallon.

The world isn’t ending.

To the economist Tyler Cowen the world is indebted for the phrase “the fallacy of mood affiliation,” which he explains:

It seems to me that people are first choosing a mood or attitude, and then finding the disparate views which match to that mood and, to themselves, justifying those views by the mood. I call this the “fallacy of mood affiliation,” and it is one of the most underreported fallacies in human reasoning. In the context of economic growth debates, the underlying mood is often “optimism” or “pessimism” per se and then a bunch of ought-to-be-independent views fall out from the chosen mood.

This is a more eloquent version of what I sometimes refer to as the black-hats/white-hats school of political analysis. Examples of that are the fact that a great many people with an interest in Israeli–Palestinian issues begin and end consideration of any particular fact by asking whose fault it is (in the case of negative developments) or who gets the credit (in the case of positive developments). You know the type: If a hurricane should come crashing into the Holy Land, the imams and the progressive columnists will find a way to blame it on the Jews.

The Right engages in a fair amount of mood affiliation: The country must have suffered ruination, because the Obama administration, abetted by the hated “Republican establishment,” can have done nothing but ruin the country. But then you visit New York City or Los Angeles or Chicago, or you drive across northern Mississippi or the Texas Panhandle and see all those splendid farms and technology companies and factories producing all the best things that mankind can dream of, and, well, it certainly doesn’t look like a ruined country. In the past few years, I’ve been to the Netherlands, Norway, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Costa Rica, the United Kingdom, Mexico, and a few years further back India, Colombia, the Dominican Republic — it doesn’t look like ruined world. Of course there are unhappy corners: Haiti, Pakistan.

Francis Fukuyama was mocked for declaring “the end of history” as the Cold War came to a close, but he wasn’t really wrong.

Francis Fukuyama was mocked for declaring “the end of history” as the Cold War came to a close, but he wasn’t really wrong. Haiti and Pakistan, and the territories currently held by the so-called Islamic State, do not represent the emergence of a credible competitor to liberal democracy; they are only failed states, and failure is something of which there is, alas, to be no end. Even in the case of such deeply illiberal and undemocratic regimes as the one ensconced in Beijing, the drive toward free enterprise, toward higher quality in governance, and even toward accountability (implicit rather than explicit in China) is present. China’s political situation isn’t good; it is, however, better. And, given the institutional failures we have seen in other countries when procedural democracy emerged before effective and accountable institutions — Haiti, again — it may turn out that in 100 years China’s path will, despite the many horrors associated with its rulers’ brutality, turn out to have been something closer to the right one than the alternatives we liberal democrats in Anno Domini 2015 imagined. Even within the relatively narrow world of capitalist democracies, the old debate between the social democrats and the partisans of Anglo-American liberalism includes a great deal more consensus than it did 60 years ago.

#share#The Americans are looking at the Danes and the Danes at the Swiss and the Swiss at the Singaporeans and the Singaporeans at the Koreans and the Koreans at the Americans, and there is a just barely detectable coalescent understanding that while there will always be national and cultural differences (we have different nations and cultures in part because people have genuinely divergent preferences about how to live), the common thread seems to be that effective states are deep but narrow: strong states that can do what needs doing but do so with the understanding that this includes a limited menu of items. Local conditions may vary, but there’s no reason you can’t have free trade and a good metro rail. Works in Hong Kong, works in Copenhagen, works in Zurich. It would work in New York if that city’s Sandinista regime were interested in governmental quality rather than ersatz class warfare.

The declines of such scourges as polio and famine provide no neat, satisfying answers either for us classical-liberal/libertarian conservatives or for progressives who prefer a more activist mode of government. Yes, private philanthropists really did take the lead in polio eradication, 1.2 million Rotary Club members around the world singing dopey songs at lunch meetings and raising money and dispatching volunteers all over the world — that was a big, big part of how it was done. But there were also grants and projects from central governments and their public-health agencies, international organizations such as WHO, etc. The key was that each element was permitted to work on the aspect of the problem most suited to its capabilities.

The world is healthier, wealthier, and less hungry mainly because of the efforts of millions of unknown investors, workers, etc., all working without any central coordinating authority.

The world is healthier, wealthier, and less hungry mainly because of the efforts of millions of unknown investors, entrepreneurs, farmers, workers, bankers, etc., all working without any central coordinating authority. But the spread of those benefits to places such as India and China was the work of political actors, and the entrenchment of free enterprise will require much more from those same political actors on matters such as infrastructure and education. (Maybe you have some High Rothbardian ideas about why political actors should be irrelevant here, and maybe you aren’t wrong. But should be isn’t is, and the world in your theory relates to the actual world in approximately the same way your Dungeons & Dragons campaign relates to Europe in the Middle Ages.) Ideas are powerful and philosophy matters, but all the real problems and real solutions are terribly specific and particular and, being embedded in real conditions rather than theoretical conditions, resistant to purely ideological management. The world is getting better because real people are doing real work to make it better, not because your political preferences or mine are attached to some sort of Hegelianly inevitably capital-H History.

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There is much left to do: We have unsustainable fiscal situations in the Western welfare states, irreconcilable Islamist fanatics originating in points east but spread around the world, environmental challenges, and that tenth of the human race that still needs lifting out of hardcore poverty. But we have achieved a remarkable thing in that unless we mess things up really badly, in 50 years we’ll be having to explain to our grandchildren what a famine was, how it came to be that millions of people died every year for want of clean water — and they will look at us incredulously, wondering what it must have been like to live in the caveman times of the early 21st century.


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