Last week we saw how life spans all over the world have improved dramatically and consistently over thousands of years the while certain quality of life indicators—such as the frequency and extent of wars, genocide, violence and crime—have likewise improved. Such improvements were not mere incremental changes but rather giant leaps, and all of them accelerated about the time of The Enlightenment.
This week I want to continue examining additional quality of life indicators. I’ll begin with Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita.
GDP is the total dollar value of all goods and services produced in a given geographical area over the course of a year. GDP per capital is GDP divided by the number of persons in the area. When GDP per capita rises, humanity is generally more productive (that is, produces more output for a given amount of input human labor). And, when productivity improves, living conditions improve because we can spend less time working while enjoying the same (or even more) lifestyle benefits (food, shelter, clothing, entertainment, etc.) from the work done.
The improvement in GDP since The Enlightenment has been astounding. Economists estimate that a full thousand years after Jesus was born, the world was barely producing more per person than it was during Jesus’s time. That’s a full thousand years with almost zero economic progress! But then, starting in the late 1700s and early 1800s, GDP per capita began to curve dramatically upwards and has only accelerated since. Steven Pinker points out in his book “Enlightenment Now” that:
It’s remarkable enough to see that by 2008 China and India had the same per capita income that Sweden had in 1950 and 1920, respectively, but more remarkable still when we remember how many capitas this income was per: 1.3 and 1.2 billion people. By 2008, the world’s population, all 6.7 billion of them, had an average income equal to that of Western Europe in 1964.
As previously noted, these improvements follow CENTURIES where poverty, destitution, disease and starvation were the norm.
It’s become somewhat de rigueur of late to contend that this GDP improvement has primarily benefited the wealthy—that is, that the rich have grown richer while the poor have grown poorer. This simply isn’t true, and not by any stretch. While the disparity between rich and poor has increased over the last several decades, it’s actually diminished over the centuries. And, in any event, the lot of the poor has improved markedly when measured in absolute (rather than relative) terms.
Consider, for instance, the percentage of the world that lives in extreme poverty over time. As Pinker explains:
In 1800, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, most people everywhere were poor. The average income was equivalent to that in the poorest countries in Africa today (about $ 500 a year in international dollars), and almost 95 percent of the world lived in what counts today as “extreme poverty” (less than $ 1.90 a day). By 1975, Europe and its offshoots had completed the Great Escape, leaving the rest of the world behind, with one-tenth their income, in the lower hump of a camel-shaped curve. In the 21st century the camel has become a dromedary, with a single hump shifted to the right and a much lower tail on the left: the world had become richer and more equal.
In two hundred years the rate of extreme poverty in the world has tanked from 90 percent to 10, with almost half that decline occurring in the last thirty-five years.
In short, yes the rich have become richer, but the poor have become richer too. And arguably, since wealth offers diminishing marginal utility, the poor have benefited far, far more than the rich. If wealth disparity (in relative terms) is the price that we must pay for decreasing extreme poverty in the world by 90 percent, then it seems a small price to pay. Or, would we instead rather return to the more ‘’equal” times of yore when 90% of the world lived literally on the edge of starvation?
It has also become de rigueur of late to romanticize the “simple” if poorer agricultural or hunter-gatherer life of times gone by while emphasizing all the downsides of industrialization, such as pollution and consumerism. However, as Pinker again notes, such sentiment is rooted in extreme and naive privilege of the “let them eat cake” variety:
It is all very well for us, sitting pretty, to think that material standards of living don’t matter all that much. It is all very well for one, as a personal choice, to reject industrialisation—do a modern Walden if you like, and if you go without much food, see most of your children die in infancy, despise the comforts of literacy, accept twenty years off your own life, then I respect you for the strength of your aesthetic revulsion. But I don’t respect you in the slightest if, even passively, you try to impose the same choice on others who are not free to choose. In fact, we know what their choice would be. For, with singular unanimity, in any country where they have had the chance, the poor have walked off the land into the factories as fast as the factories could take them.
I’m not suggesting that things can’t and shouldn’t be better. I’m not suggesting that we can’t or shouldn’t reduce consumerism and pollution (provided we can do so in voluntary ways). I’m simply suggesting that, just as I always told my children growing up, “let’s at least recognize and be sincerely grateful for what we have before we go pining or demanding for more.”