How do you think 2015 will be for you? If you’re typical, you’ll be pessimistic; and, if you’re typical, you’ll be wrong. Only 21 percent of Americans agree with the proposition that “life for our children’s generation will be better than it has been for us” — 76 percent disagree.
Well, barring some unforeseeable calamity — what Nassim Taleb would call a “black swan,” or Donald Rumsfeld an “unknown unknown” — the 76 percent are mistaken. The next generation of Americans will lead healthier, happier, more fulfilled lives than the present one.
That sentence could have been written at any time since the Mayflower landed. It would always have been true (for the settlers, at any rate; it was a different story for the indigenous tribes). And it would always have prompted skepticism. No doubt, had opinion polls existed at the time, 76 percent of Puritan emigres, their faces grim and thunderous over their lace ruffs, would have prophesied damnation. And I wouldn’t be in the least surprised if 76 percent of Americans in 1776 weren’t hanging their white-wigged heads in despair at the debt level (or whatever the fashionable panic of the day was).
Anxiety about some imminent catastrophe seems to be hardwired into our genome. We are killing the planet! Our borrowing is unsustainable! Immigration will overwhelm us! The world is frying! We’re overdue for an ice age! We’re overdue for an epidemic! We’re overdue for an asteroid strike!
Every civilization has separately evolved its own End of Days scenario: Ragnarok or Judgment Day or apocalypse or Armageddon. The eschatology varies, but the idea that life as we know it will come to an end doesn’t. Here, to pluck an example more or less at random, is the Zoroastrian version:
At the end of the tenth hundredth winter, the sun is more unseen and more spotted; the year, month, and day are shorter; and the earth is more barren; and the crop will not yield the seed. And a dark cloud makes the whole sky night, and it will rain more noxious things than water.
Which is, more or less, what the eco-extremists tell us today. Seventy months have passed since the heir to the British throne assured us that we had less than 100 months to save the world. Do you imagine that when the 100 months are up, Prince Charles will say: “I was wrong: maybe life is getting better after all”? Of course not: The whole point of looming disaster is that it’s always just around the corner.
And yet, stubbornly, most people in most places at most times keep getting richer. It has been happening for thousands of years, driven by specialization and exchange, and accelerating enormously since the 17th century — nowhere more so than in societies built on free competition, of which the United States is the foremost example.
In 1948, George Orwell was fretting about being watched through massive screens by an all-powerful state. A generation later, we carry our own screens with us — and they place more information in our hands than an entire government department could have managed in Orwell’s day. Foods that were recently exotic and expensive are available on every shelf. We buy clothes so cheaply that we rarely bother mending them. Household appliances do in minutes what might take our grandmothers days. Globally, poverty is being eroded. By any metric — longevity, literacy, infant mortality, calorie intake, height — the human race is improving.
So why the gloom? As Lord Macaulay asked a century and a half ago, “On what principle is it that with nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?”
“This time it’s different,” chorus the pundits, as pundits do in every generation. Pessimism sells. Editors publish it, politicians preach it, voters echo it. But they’re all wrong.
What’s really different this time? The level of immigration? Every generation of Americans has expressed precisely the same fears, with as much apparent cause. The power grabs by President Obama? Not a patch on either of the Roosevelts. A kulturkampf with militant Islam? Try flipping it around, and imagining how the world must seem to an Islamist worried about Westernization in his own country. Look at the clothes people are wearing, the TV they’re watching, the brands they’re buying: Who’s really losing here?
Ah, but what about the borrowing level? An $18 trillion federal debt is unprecedented. Surely here, at least, things can’t carry on as they are? Right. And if things can’t carry on, they won’t. One way or another, there will have to be a haircut, after which a number of federal programs will be shut down or devolved to the 50 states.
The private sector will always, over time, grow faster than the government, because entrepreneurs are smarter, collectively, than bureaucrats. Vast new wealth will be created from 3-D printing, driverless cars, advances in biotechnology and other sectors that we can’t now imagine. State regulators will always be playing catch-up. Free enterprise will outgrow the state, as the jungle swallows up Mayan ruins.
Take just one measure. Cheap energy is a pretty reliable forerunner of growth, lowering production costs, boosting competitiveness and increasing disposable income. Which is why it is so important to pessimists to keep predicting a looming price rise. Well, who called that one right?
Cheer up: Life keeps getting better.
Dan Hannan is a British Conservative member of the European Parliament.