04/12/2017

Data As History: Charting The Last 2000 Years Of Human Progress

Marian Tupy, HumanProgress.org

Angus Maddison, the late professor of economics at the University of Groningen, never won a Nobel Prize for economics, but he did leave behind an enduring legacy in the form of his income estimates going back to the time of Christ (or, for the secularly-inclined, Caesar Augustus). On a previous occasion, I discussed the graph below, which shows the painfully slow (almost non-existent) growth in average per capita incomes prior to the Industrial Revolution and the extraordinary growth that humanity has experienced over the last two-and-half centuries. Adjusted for inflation, an average inhabitant of the planet is today roughly ten times as rich as she or he was just two centuries ago.
Considering that Homo sapiens only emerged as a unique species of hominids some 200,000 years ago, our experience with prosperity is incredibly short, amounting to no more than 0.1 percent of our time on Earth. The remarkable novelty of our present abundance may, perhaps, explain our unease with it ("all good things must come to an end") and our eschatological obsessions ranging from overpopulation to out-of-control global warming.

Continued human progress does, of course, depend on maintaining policies, institutions and ideas (intellectual enlightenment, classical liberalism and free exchange) that made it possible in the first place. 

I was reminded of that fact on the death of my grandfather who, having been born in 1922, frequently mused about the relative prosperity of his native Czechoslovakia between the wars. A life-long anti-communist (for decades, he was prevented from practicing law, because he married the wrong kind of a girl; no, not a prostitute, but the daughter of a wealthy family), he always maintained that Czechoslovakia could have been as wealthy as Austria "if it hadn't been for the Bolshevik putsch of 1948." 

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For [early immigrants] America was truly the land of opportunity. For the first time in their lives, many were truly free to pursue their own objectives. That freedom released the human energies which created the United States. There were few government programs to turn to and nobody expected them. But also there were few rules and regulations. There were no licenses, no permits, no red tape to restrict them. They found, in fact, a free market, and most of them thrived on it. 

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