Civilization, as practised in half of Europe, some of Asia and a few parts
of North America, is better than anything else available. Western civilization
not only provides a bit of life, a pinch of liberty and the occasional
pursuance of happiness, it's also the only thing that's ever tried to.
Our civilization is the first in history to show even the slightest concern
for average, undistinguished, none-too-commendable people like us."
- PJ O'Rourke
"Anyone who denies
the palpable existence of progress knows nothing about life in the past."
- David Brin
"Let others praise
ancient times; I am glad I was born in these."
- Ovid (43 B.C. - 18 A.D.)
"Progress is precisely
that which the rules and regulations did not foresee."
- Ludwig von Mises
"To do as our fathers
did is not to do as our fathers did."
- Kenneth Clark
"History is more of
a tragedy than it is a morality tale. The will to power, the will to use
human beings in social experiments, is to be distrusted at all times. The
impulse to create, or even to propose, the 'perfect society' is likewise
to be suspected. Ideology is hostile to human nature."
- Martin Amis
things that are done with the excuse that progress requires them are not
really progress at all, but just terrible things."
- Russell Baker
"Of all the words my
father wrote, and there were many, I remember these the most: 'Nothing
that results from human progress is achieved with unanimous consent. And
those who are enlightened before the others are condemned to pursue that
light in spite of others. There was a time when the New World did not exist,
the sun set in the west on an ocean where no man had dared to venture'."
- Fernando Columbus, introducing "1492: Conquest of Paradise"
We live in the freest,
happiest, least bigoted, healthiest, most peaceful and longest-lived era
in human history... a time traveller visiting the richest Western cities
150 years ago would feel he had travelled to the Third World. That is the
point: then, everywhere was like Calcutta. Now is good; the future, barring
some calamitous accident, will be better. The past is truly a different
country, a disease-ravaged, hungry, violent, intolerant place in which
no one in their right mind would want to live. They did things differently
there. Good riddance to them.
- Michael Hanlon, "There's No Time Like The Present", "The Spectator"
For billions of people
around the world, these are the best of times to be alive. From Beijing
to Bratislava, more of us are living longer, healthier and more comfortable
lives than at any time in history; fewer of us are suffering from poverty,
hunger or illiteracy. Pestilence, famine, death and even war, the Four
Horsemen of the Apocalypse, are in retreat, thanks to the liberating forces
of capitalism and technology. There is still a long way to go; but never
before in human history have so many people been liberated from extreme
poverty so quickly. The number of people subsisting on $1 a day has declined
from 16 per cent of the world population in the late 1970s to 6 per cent
today, while those living on $2 a day dropped from 39 per cent to 18 per
cent. In 1820, 84 per cent of the world’s population lived in absolute
poverty; today this is down to about a fifth.
Hope has become a commodity in short supply in the West. Even though more progress will always be required, our victories over famine and extreme poverty during the past two centuries are civilisation’s greatest achievement. It is time we took a well-deserved break from worrying about terrorism, rising crime, social dislocation and all our other problems to celebrate what we have actually got right.
- Allister Heath, "The Spectator"
Is the world of today
a better or a worse place than the world of 100 years ago? On all the ordinary
indices of human felicity—health, longevity, security, hygiene, comfort,
prosperity, equality, dentistry—the answer is of course that we live much
better lives than our grandfathers did. That is not the whole story, though.
There has, for example, been much loss of liberty in those nations where
individual liberty is most prized. As A.J.P. Taylor noted in English History
1914-45: "Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass
through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post
office and the policeman." The America of 100 years ago was even freer,
and our freedoms persisted for longer. A fiftysomething American friend
of mine remembers being a 13-year-old, strolling down his suburban New
York street carrying a rifle under his arm, on the way to some shooting
practice. Taking the world at large, I think you can make a case that,
net-net, and even allowing for the amenity improvements listed in my second
sentence above, civilization has in some other respects slipped backwards.
Take “diversity,” for example. For all our fantasies about having vanquished
“racism,” “discrimination,” and the rest, we are in many places less tolerant
of each other than we were a hundred years ago. There has been a slow separating-out
of ethnicities everywhere these past few decades. In British India, as
Kipling’s stories illustrate, Hindus, Moslems, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsees,
and half a dozen lesser sects jostled together without any very dramatic
friction. When the British left, it was suddenly found necessary to place
Hindus and Moslems in two (then, a quarter-century later, three) different
nations, which to this day have not been able to settle their differences.
The astonishing salad that was the Austro-Hungarian Empire did not survive
World War One (which, admittedly, its internal strains had helped to start),
and squabbles over which bits of its remnants belonged to whom helped to
ignite World War Two. The Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds of Mesopotamia seem
to have coexisted reasonably well under Ottoman rule; in today’s Iraq they
prefer to massacre each other.
- John Derbyshire, reviewing Mark Steyn's "America Alone", "New English Review"
DBC Pierre is a big
fan of the Aztecs. "While we as a culture were chucking shit out of windows
into alleys in London," he says, "these people had drainage, they had courts,
they were living off spring water and vegetables. While we were dying of
the plague and scraping around in the grime, these folk were wandering
like gods." That's one way of looking at it. Or you could look at the buildings
of Europe, the palaces and cathedrals, the glass, the explorers circumnavigating
the globe, the scientists, the renaissance, the spinning wheels, the clocks
and harpsichords, the science, the Mona Lisa. You could look at the extraordinary
things that had already happened in Rome, in Greece, in Egypt thousands
of years earlier. And then you could look at these Aztecs, with no metal
or wheels, making their crude stone buildings, butchering children and
ripping their still-beating hearts from their chests. You could look at
the way the Aztecs thought Cortés and his men were gods, and how
their cowardly leader Montezuma allowed a handful of Spanish bounty hunters
to fell an entire civilisation. You could say the Aztecs were a bunch of
girls as well as backward, and their empire was actually a bit crap. But
that doesn't make them any less interesting.
- Sam Wollaston, reviewing "The Last Aztec" in "The Guardian"
"While we’re at it,
there are systems for a reason in this world. Economical stability, interest
rates, growth. It’s not all a conspiracy to keep you in little boxes. Alright?
It’s only the miracle of consumer capitalism that means you’re not lying
in your own s**t, dying at 43, with rotten teeth."
- Mark, "Peep Show"
I can't imagine there
has ever been a more gratifying time or place to be alive than America
in the Fifties... People looked forward to the future... in ways they never
would again. Soon, according to every magazine, we were going to have underwater
cities off every coast, space colonies inside giant spheres of glass, atomic
trains and airliners, personal jetpacks...
- Bill Bryson, "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid"
If a group of solid
citizens from the late 1940s were magically transported to the present
day, they would be amused and astonished by what their country has become.
They would be shocked by our obsession with television and celebrity, amazed
by our crowded roads and busy shops, surprised by our lack of smog, impressed
by our clean hair and smart clothes, appalled by our crime, divorce and
illegitimacy rates — and vastly entertained by our grotesque fatness.
- Dominic Sandbrook, paraphrasing from Andrew Marr's "A History of Modern Britain"
Cheap airlines represent
a real increase of freedom and happiness for ordinary people.
- John O'Sullivan, "National Review"
"In its better forms,
conservatism simply says that the structures of society, both civil and
political, religious and so on, are the result of a long series of trial-and-error
experiments by millions of human beings, not only all over the world, but
through time. And that you should toss out received wisdom only very carefully.
Obviously there are some ideas that were around for centuries that were
not good (slavery comes to mind). But when people have been doing something
for a millennium or two, there is probably a reason. And you better be
pretty careful before you just throw it out."
- PJ O'Rourke, "All People Are Crazy", The Atlantic.
It is the price of
progress that there never can be complete consensus. All creative advances
are essentially a departure from agreed-upon ways of looking at things,
and to overemphasize the agreed-upon is to further legitimize the hostility
to that creativity upon which we all ultimately depend.
- William Whyte, "The Organization Man"
It's sometimes argued
that there's no real progress; that a civilization that kills multitudes
in mass warfare, that pollutes the land and oceans with ever larger quantities
of debris, that destroys the dignity of individuals by subjecting them
to a forced mechanized existence can hardly be called an advance over the
simpler hunting and gathering and agricultural existence of prehistoric
times. But this argument, though romantically appealing, doesn't hold up.
The primitive tribes permitted far less individual freedom than does modern
society. Ancient wars were committed with far less moral justification
than modern ones. A technology that produces debris can find, and is finding,
ways of disposing of it without ecological upset. And the schoolbook pictures
of primitive man sometimes omit some of the detractions of his primitive
life — the pain, the disease, famine, the hard labor needed just to stay
alive. From that agony of bare existence to modern life can be soberly
described only as upward progress, and the sole agent for this progress
is quite clearly reason itself.
- Robert M. Pirsig, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance"
It’s easy to condemn
consumerism, until you consider what life was like before consumerism happened.
At the start of the 18th century only one in 10 people in Britain possessed
a knife and fork; five out of six did not own a cup. Judith Flanders’s
bulging bran-tub of a book is packed with statistics of this attention-grabbing
calibre. She traces how, in the course of 200 years, things that had been
luxuries, likesuch as tea and sugar, became available to everyone, and
how the masses found time for fun and frivolity where before there had
- John Carey, reviewing "Consuming Passions", "The Times"
"We must not stay as
we are, doing always what was done last time, or we shall stick in the
mud. Yet neither must we undertake a new world as catastrophic Utopians,
and wreck our civilization in our hurry to mend it."
- George Bernard Shaw
"Kipling believed civilization
to be something laboriously achieved which was only precariously defended.
He wanted to see the defenses fully manned and he hated the liberals because
he thought them gullible and feeble, believing in the easy perfectibility
of man and ready to abandon the work of centuries for sentimental qualms."
- Evelyn Waugh, summarising the views of Rudyard Kipling
"It is easier to ruin
a kingdom than to set up a greengrocer's stall."
- William Hazlitt
"He that goeth about
to persuade a multitude that they are not so well governed as they ought
to be shall never want attentive and favorable hearers. Whereas on the
other side, if we maintain things that are established, we have ... to
strive with a number of heavy prejudices deeply rooted in the hearts of
men who think that herein we serve the time, and speak in favor of the
present state, because thereby we either hold or seek preferment."
- Richard Hooker (1594)
"We should measure progress not by how many laws can be passed, but by how little governing people need."
- Thomas Jefferson, 1812
"My God! How little do my country men know what precious blessings they are in possession of, and which no other people on earth enjoy."
- Thomas Jefferson
"There exists in human nature a strong propensity to depreciate the advantages, and to magnify the evils, of the present times."
- Adam Ferguson, "A History of Civil Society", 1767.
"I hear babies crying, I watch them grow. They'll learn much more then we'll ever know. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world."
- Louis Armstrong, "What A Wonderful World"
HOW FAR WE HAVE COME
"Industrial progress, mechanical improvement, all of the great wonders of the modern era have meant relatively little to the wealthy. The rich in Ancient Greece would have benefitted hardly at all from modern plumbing : running servants replaced running water. Television and radio? The Patricians of Rome could enjoy the leading musicians and actors in their home, could have the leading actors as domestic retainers. Ready-to-wear clothing, supermarkets - all these and many other modern developments woul have added little to their life. The great achievements of Western Capitalism have redounded primarily to the benefit of the ordinary person. These achievements have made available to the masses conveniences and amenities that were previously the exclusive perogative of the rich and powerful."
- EG Ban
"In the nine months prior to World War II, Britain conducted an extraordinary rescue mission, unmatched by any other country at the time. It opened its doors to 10,000 children at risk from the Nazi regime from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. These children were taken into foster homes and hostels in Britain, expecting eventually to be reunited with their parents. The majority of the children never saw their families again. Into the Arms of Strangers, the feature-length documentary film, recounts the remarkable rescue operation, known as the Kindertransport, and its dramatic impact on the lives of the children who were saved."
Some people think the issue is whether the glass is half empty or half full. More fundamentally, the question is whether the glass started out empty or started out full. Those who are constantly looking for the "root causes" of poverty, of crime, and of other national and international problems act as if prosperity and law-abiding behavior were so natural that it is their absence that has to be explained. But a casual glance around the world today, or back through history, would dispel any notion that good things just happen naturally, much less inevitably.
- Thomas Sowell
It is capitalism that gave mankind its first steps toward freedom and a rational way of life. It is capitalism that broke through national and racial barriers, by means of free trade. It is capitalism that abolished serfdom and slavery in all the civilized countries of the world. It is the capitalist North that destroyed the slavery of the agrarian-feudal South in the United States.
"The patent system added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius."
- Abraham Lincoln
When there are no constitutional checks built into a system, rulers will always govern chiefly in their own interest. The desire for wealth and status is a given of human nature, and it is our extraordinary luck to live in a country that has evolved legal and democratic structures to prevent tyranny, and in an age when those structures have been exported to other lands. Happy is the state with property rights, independent judges and a mechanism for the peaceful eviction of its rulers - happy and precious.
- Editorial in Britain's "Daily Telegraph"
Material prosperity is just one of the many things in which America leads the world. We have been a democratic republic longer than any other country. We win more Nobel Prizes than any other country. Despite attempts to paint Americans as selfishly materialistic, we give more money to more philanthropic causes, at home and abroad, than any other nation. Nowhere else are so many colleges and universities established and sustained by private individuals donating their own money, rather than by government spending the taxpayers' money. Unemployed Americans have a higher standard of living than most working people in most countries. The rights of criminals in the United States exceed those of law-abiding citizens in many other countries.
- Thomas Sowelll, "4th of July - Love It or Lose It"
All this is possible
because the modern industrial economy works. Obviously it works better
in some places than in others. But it works even in the poorest areas.
The Ivory Coast now produces almost as much per-capita wealth as the United
States did when the Monroe Doctrine was declared, and Egypt produces more.
America did not consider itself a poor country during the 1820s, and, in
fact, at that time it was one of the world's most prosperous nations.
Measured in US Dollars, the world gross domestic product, the value of everything produced on earth, went from $565 per person in 1500 to $651 per person in 1820. That was an increase in wealth of about 27 cents a year. But after the Industrial Revolution, something wonderful happened. The total world GDP grew from $695 billion in 1820 to almost $28 trillion in 1992.
This planet has the same amount of arable land, and arguably, fewer natural resources. Plus, population has grown from a little more than 1 billion to nearly 5.5 billion. But even so, world GDP per capita swelled from $651 to $5,145. Prosperity increased by $26 a year. The modern economy works.
Between 1950 & 1990 infant mortality rates declined in both rich and poor countries, and so did the gap between them. Life expectancy tells the same story. The difference between the world's rich and poor has decreased by 6.5 years. The rich are getting richer. The poor are getting richer. And we're all getting older.
"It conquered the world
and went on to the Moon and the worlds beyond... Its physics probed the
atom and the stars. Its biology moved life from mystery to chemistry, It
was, it is that spirit that knows no bounds, acknowledges no restraints,
does what it will because it wills and then looks onward for new victories
to win. It overwhelmed all else, crushed every small shy foreignness, forged
the total state, and very nearly exterminated the race."
"No, I can't accept that. You refer to what came out of Europe, Western Christendom, don't you? Well, at its worst it was never more evil than the rest, it simply had more power. And it got that power from the science it originated, which was also the power to end sickness and hunger, to understand the natural world and learn how to save it. Everybody else had been destroying nature too, more gradually but without any way of ever reversing the harm. This was the civilization that abolished chattel slavery and made women the equals of men. It was the civilization - the spirit, you'd say - that gave birth to the inalienable rights of the individual, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It gave us the planets and can still give us the stars."
- Kenmuir, defending the best of humanity in "The Stars Are Also Fire" by Poul Anderson
THE DARK DAYS OF THE PAST
Life in Newton's time was short, cruel and brutish. People were illiterate for the most part, never owned a book or entered a classroom, and rarely ventured beyond several miles of their birthplace. During the day, they toiled at backbreaking work in the fields under a merciless sun. At night, there was usually no entertainment or relief to comfort them except the empty sounds of the night. Most people knew firsthand the gnawing pain of hunger and chronic, debilitating disease. Most people would live not much longer than age thirty, and would see many of their ten or so children die in infancy.
The greatest productive force is human selfishness.
From a piece by David Frum on National Review, replying to the idea that our modern way of life is unsustainable:
You've just heard from
people who think the key to human survival is to cut ourselves off from
the world economy and buy and sell only in local markets. This approach
has been tried before — in Europe, after the fall of the Roman Empire.
We call this period the Dark Ages. Papyrus from Egypt disappeared from
north of the Alps, and people reverted to writing on animal skins. Grain
from Gaul stopped arriving in Rome, and the population of the city dwindled
from over a million to a few thousand. For the next millennium, a local
crop failure brought famine and death.
Europe and North America left that world behind in the 19th century, and much of the rest of the planet is now following. The past 15 years have seen the most dramatic reduction of poverty in the history of the human race, as hundreds of millions of Chinese and South Asians have rejoined the global trading system.
Yet some worry it cannot continue — that we'll pollute ourselves to death or run out of resources. These worries ignore both evidence and history. Human ingenuity creates resources as fast as we consume them.
Believe it or not, the proven oil reserves of the United States today are virtually identical to what they were in 1973. As for pollution, the richer we get, the cleaner we get. Virtually every lake and river in the United States is cleaner than it was a generation ago. Ditto the air in any major city. Richer people demand cleaner environments — and unlike, say, medieval villagers, they can afford to pay for them.
Which is not to argue against buying local produce. I do it whenever I can — it's tastier. It's also more expensive, but thanks to the wealth produced by ever-expanding technology and world trade, I can afford it. After two or three more decades of growth through trade, so (I hope) will millions more, in this country and throughout the world.
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