Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Forgetfulness and its Consequences

In 1900 life expectancy in the U.S. was roughly 48 years. The average time spent on household chores – cooking, cleaning, etc. – was twelve hours. Clothes were often washed by pounding them on rocks, and bacterial infections that are now routine were major killers. Many Americans still had actual memories of the Civil War, in which hundreds of thousands of their countrymen were killed and raiding parties made life terrifying in much of the country.

It goes without saying that life is dramatically better than that now, not just here but in much of the world. Since roughly 1750 every generation has lived roughly 50 percent better than the one that came before it, and so at some point we must suppose that this has now become a self-sustaining process. And yet polling data often show surprising numbers of people who are pessimistic about the future. (This currently afflicts Europe more than the U.S., but there are plenty of people with this view here as well.) According to a World Economic Forum survey in 2004, 36 percent of the world’s population, including an astonishing 49 percent of Western Europeans and Middle Easterners and 42 percent of those living in the Asia/Pacific region thought future generations would have less economic prosperity, despite reams of historical evidence to the contrary. This is troubling because pessimism is the mother of populism, and populism in turn more often than not spawns disaster, economic at a minimum and perhaps comprehensively social as well.

The inability to remember the past is not confined to the distant past either. Today the Bolivian president announced that his government (which means he) is seizing the oil and gas fields in that country. (Natural gas is that country’s dominant export.) He promised to do this, so presumably has the support of much of the population that elected him. And the reasoning is presumably that the combination of high oil and gas prices and an impoverished country must be explained only by foreign oil companies stealing the birthright of Bolivia.

His country, like many in increasingly radical South America, has been down this road before. When commodity prices soared in the 1970s governments throughout Latin America and the entire developing world funneled commodity income through the state and used it to build lavish populist temples in health care, education, etc. These empires ultimately descended into a quagmire of corruption, so that many countries (including Bolivia) soured on the public sector once commodity prices declined in the 1980s. But old lessons die hard, and will have to be learned once again.

Historical forgetfulness is a very costly problem. The inability to recognize progress, and the absence of first-hand remembrance of the cost of restraints on trade both illegal and legal (it was almost impossible to travel more than 30 miles in much of 18th-century Europe without encountering a bandit or a toll gate erected by a local prince) make us more likely to fail to understand how we got to where we are, when where we are - prosperous and largely peaceful - is by historical standards a wonderful place to be.

If one could invent a time machine and send everyone back for a month to 1900, or 1800, or 1500, pessimism about the future and the failure to understand why we are in such great shape would probably vanish. But of course we are stuck with the level of historical knowledge that the educational system has dealt us. Quite a bit of survey-based research on the determinants of happiness indicates that people do not compare themselves with hypothetical past selves, or with ancestors long since dead and buried. Instead many compare themselves with others of their own era. If they see other people around them who are richer, they become unhappy (despite envy being a sin in most religious belief systems). They see wealthy celebrities, industrialists and heirs and imagine that that is what they too should by right be. In other words they define what is possible for them by the far right tail of the distribution in their own society, and when they do not achieve that (as by construction very few people can) they indict the society for failing to achieve this result. This perhaps explains why state-based income redistribution is so popular despite its long-term consequences. Even many scholars who are generally favorable to economic liberalism and very aware of the long-term nature of human progress (see William Bernstein’s The Birth of Plenty, for example) argue that societies will collapse in acrimony absent a substantial welfare state to spread wealth more uniformly.

The future is generally better than the past, but there are exceptions – the collapse of ancient Rome and indeed most once-flowering empires being obvious examples. When the citizens of the Republic forgot the principles that necessitated the Roman law and traded the justice they had established for the charisma of the Caesars, they sowed the seeds of their own enslavement. Enslavement turned to empire, empire turned to overextension, and empire turned to the sacking of Rome by Alaric. When modern citizens of the West forget the essence of equal treatment under law for building a better future, even if it leads to inequality of result, the results are different only in manner rather than degree.


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