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From Poverty to Progress

Blog Post | Energy & Environment

From Poverty to Progress

How division will stifle US prosperity.

This article originally appeared in the Washington Examiner on August 10, 2023.

Why isn’t everyone in dire poverty, hungry, diseased, illiterate, missing teeth, eking out a subsistence existence in the wilderness, and making do with Stone Age technology? After all, that’s how we started. Penury is the default state of humanity, as is a lack of technology. In fact, advanced technology and widespread prosperity are relatively recent innovations.

What has allowed all the progress we’ve experienced to date to take place? And what stands in the way of further advancement? In his valuable bookFrom Poverty to Progress: Understanding Humanity’s Greatest Achievement, Michael Magoon seeks to explain progress’s origins and enemies.

First, Magoon offers a sweeping overview of how the world has changed into a place where an increasing number of people enjoy prosperity, peace, advanced medicine, and other wonders of modern life. With graphs and data, Magoon demonstrates the historical and ongoing transformation of the human experience “from poverty to progress.” Magoon provides a valuable service in painstakingly recording the many ways in which our ancestors would envy modern life.

Magoon then explains the origins of the metamorphosis. He dispels popular but mistaken ideas about the roots of progress, such as the fallacy that progress comes from the government — he writes, “Throughout history governments have done far more to hinder progress than they have done to promote it” — or from politicians or top-down policies by brilliant planners. “Rather than flowing down from politics and government, progress bubbles up from society,” he notes.

Magoon then shows how that occurs. His theorized five keys of progress are food, trade, decentralization, industry, and energy.

A “highly efficient food production and distribution” system is a prerequisite for progress, he claims. The next two keys are the ability to engage in trade, mutually beneficial exchange, and decentralization of power, freeing humanity from the restrictions that come with a controlling central authority and fostering nonviolent competition.

Another key to societal advancement is developing at least one high-value-added industry that exports, he claims. As he notes, plentiful energy promotes progress. Historically, obtaining such energy has involved the use of fossil fuels.

With these five keys in hand, humans unlock new solutions and copy solutions others have achieved.

To unlock further progress, I would add an economic liberty key ensuring all of a society’s people can participate in the market processes of innovation and exchange. I might also add a communications technology key involving written language, without which transmitting ideas over time or across distances is difficult. Still, Magoon’s list holds considerable explanatory power.

The preconditions for progress that he names are relatively recent and rare in the grand sweep of history. Moreover, transitions toward attaining the keys to progress have not occurred everywhere at once and have only been achieved unevenly. Magoon thus recognizes that societies across history and the globe often differed dramatically in their tendency to stifle or foster innovation. He discusses many types of societies, such as hunter-gatherer societies, agrarian societies, herding societies, industrial societies, and commercial societies. He sees each society type as a logical adaptation to a particular environment.

The book concludes with an examination of the current constraints on progress, including geography, extractive institutions, geographic and cultural distance separating poor countries from rich ones and discouraging the former from copying the latter, monopolies stifling competition, historical legacies inhibiting change, and identity-based rationales for stagnation. (“We have our own ways.”) But he says the biggest threat to progress, which could unravel the conditions for innovation in the rich countries, is divisive ideologies.

Because society primarily comes from self-organizing, experimenting with solutions, and then copying the solutions that work, a centralized government driven by ideology inherently attacks the very foundations of progress.

Divisive ideologies split people into groups of good and evil, often along class, racial, religious, or urban/rural divides. Magoon notes that the ideology called “critical theory” (also often known as “wokeness”) may be a particular threat to progress because of its current spread in the United States, a major innovation center.

A thought-provoking and extraordinarily wide-ranging book, From Poverty to Progress is a must-read for anyone interested in the history, and future, of progress.

Blog Post | Economics

Capitalism, the Keystone of Modern Prosperity

Despite the rise of anti-capitalism across the political spectrum, Johan Norberg sheds important light on the benefits and major advances brought about by capitalism.

This article was originally published at Contrepoints on 11/1/2023.

Good news for fans of bipartisanship: even in today’s hypercharged political environment, an increasing number of people on both sides of the aisle agree on something! Unfortunately, it’s a notion that, if incorrect, could undermine the policies and institutions that form the very foundation of the modern world. The newfound area of agreement is the idea that capitalism, globalization, and free markets have failed.

Indeed many of the ideas expressed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in their magnum opusThe Communist Manifesto, are gaining ground. Obsession with class warfare now transcends political tribes, dominating both the halls of deep blue academia and the lyrics of the chart-topping anthem of the “new right,” Rich Men North of Richmond. A swelling bipartisan chorus of voices dismiss laissez-faire economics as out-of-date. The complexities of the modern world, they claim, require robust government action to support domestic industries, repatriate risk-ridden globalized supply chains, and protect domestic markets from the vicissitudes of international competition.

Recent polling shows that only around 21 percent of Americans hold a very positive view of capitalism, dropping to just 11 percent among those under age 30. Mounting skepticism toward capitalism is not restricted to the United States; from Latin America to Europe, anticapitalism is all the rage. For example, a majority of French adults, 62 percent, express a negative view of capitalism.

In this age of growing derision toward the system of free enterprise, there is a man who stands athwart the anticapitalist zeitgeist declaring, “The global free market will save the world.” Who is this individual who dares to express such an unfashionable view? “No one is particularly keen on globalization now,” observed journalist Po Tidholm on Swedish Public Radio in 2020, “except possibly Johan Norberg.”

Norberg, a Swedish author and historian of ideas and a colleague of mine at the Cato Institute, wears the accusation with pride, quoting it at the start of his latest book, The Capitalist Manifesto. Given the current intellectual climate, the timing of the U.S. release of the book could not be better.

He was not the first to come up with the title; prior Capitalist Manifesto authors include Robert Kiyosaki, Andrew Bernstein, Louis Kelso and Mortimer Adler. As Norberg notes, there is only one Communist Manifesto, but there are many capitalist manifestos—appropriately, as capitalism allows for a diversity of thought.

Norberg’s prior books include In Defense of Global Capitalism, which, as its title suggests, mounted a defense of free enterprise—against the system’s vocal leftist critics. But in the two decades since that book’s publication, expressing hatred of capitalism has become a bipartisan pastime in vogue among populists on both the left and right alike. In light of this trend, The Capitalist Manifesto presents an updated, sorely needed, and eloquent restatement of the principles of free market.

The book addresses the most frequent criticisms leveled against markets today and generally seeks to rehabilitate capitalism’s image in the mind of the skeptical modern reader. As business magnate Elon Musk put it in a recent post, “This book is an excellent explanation of why capitalism is not just successful, but morally right.”

How can Norberg, Musk, or indeed anyone remain enthusiastic about a system that so many people spanning the political spectrum now agree has been a failure? Examining the last couple of decades, the book acknowledges they have been filled with shocks, wars, and failures. Examining the problems of the last 20 years, including financial crises, violence in the Middle East, an industrial-scale war in Europe, various other disasters, and of course a global pandemic, Norberg never shies away from recognizing the bad. But, the last 20 years, he argues, despite so many devastating catastrophes, have nonetheless been the best years in all of human history.

How is that possible? Step back and examine the trendlines. A third of all wealth ever created was created over these last two decades alone. Over the last 20 years, during every minute of complaining about how global capitalism has wrecked the world, over 90 people climbed out of destitution. Child mortality has fallen so dramatically that the number of annual child deaths is down by millions compared to a decade ago even as the total population has grown.

The greatest progress occurred in the countries that most integrated into the global economy. Why is that? The miraculous problem-solving capacity of human beings that allows us to improve our conditions—if given the freedom to do so. Hence countries in the economically freest quartile enjoy more than twice the average per capita income of less free countries.

Capitalism’s haters fail to recognize modern prosperity’s origins. Norberg characterizes well-off anticapitalist thinkers such as Thomas Piketty this way: “taking pride in ignoring what’s going on down there, in garages, in shops and factories, and how that might relate to the fact he lives in history’s richest civilization.”

But, the anticapitalist might protest, modern abundance rests atop a proverbial house of cards. Surely the pandemic revealed the unacceptable fragility of globalized markets?

Yet pandemic shortages proved short-lived as entrepreneurs found ways to adjust the manufacturing process to changing conditions. In many cases, companies with more complex supply chains actually adjusted faster than those with less complex supply chains, because they had more options and found alternative suppliers or manufacturers who weren’t under lockdown. Concentrations of supply chains, Norberg warns, in fact pose a greater risk of disruption than diversified ones, due to their total reliance on a smaller number of suppliers–having all their eggs in one basket. Domestically produced goods were often more likely to see shortages than imported ones; recall that it was international trade that alleviated the United States’ baby formula shortage when policymakers lifted import restrictions in response to the crisis.

The book defends capitalism from charges that it simply represents theft and exploitation, pointing out that it in fact embodies the opposite of those things: enrichment and freedom of choice. Replacing markets with a system of more centralized government control concentrates decision-making power in the hands of a small elite.

Substituting the collective wisdom produced by billions of people with the preferences of a few bureaucrats whose own money isn’t on the line tends to spell disaster. Norberg cites numerous examples including Quaero, the stillborn dream of a government-backed search engine from 2005. Quaero was intended to outcompete Google. Despite the best efforts of numerous European politicians and bureaucrats, and despite the French and German governments wasting millions of taxpayer dollars on the project, Quaero collapsed within a year. Its implosion demonstrates what happens, again and again, when decision makers are divorced from the reality of market signals and financial consequences.

With abundant data and memorable examples, Norberg shows the historical ignorance of the new vogue for anticapitalism. He unmasks it as nothing new at all, but something wizened and old that has reared its ugly head again. Tariffs, industrial policy, repatriation, and price-setting have repeatedly failed. Will policymakers on the left and right alike heed Norberg’s warning, or will humanity relearn the lesson the hard way?

The Communist Manifesto ends with the words, “The Communists … openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries, unite!” Instead of a call for violent revolution, The Capitalist Manifesto ends with a plea for the peaceful preservation of the system of global capitalism endangered by unwise policies: “We pro-capitalists of the world have nothing to lose but our chains, tariff barriers, building regulations and confiscatory taxes. We have a world to win.”

The Washington Post | Housing

Alexandria Ends Single-Family-Only Zoning

“Alexandria lawmakers voted unanimously early Wednesday to eliminate single-family-only zoning in this Northern Virginia city, a functionally limited but symbolic and controversial move that opens the door for the construction of buildings with as many as four units in any residential neighborhood.”

From The Washington Post.

Blog Post | Infrastructure & Transportation

The Race to the Sky: How Competition Pushes Humanity Forward

Cities could still be growing quickly upward, but regulations are limiting their growth.

“I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York’s skyline.”

—Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead

The story of how the Empire State Building came to dominate Manhattan’s skyline—defeating 40 Wall Street and the Chrysler Building for the title of the tallest building in the world—is an illustration of the power of competition and innovation.

In 1929, the successful businessman George Ohrstrom hired architect H. Craig Severance to design 40 Wall Street. Severance was a well-known architect in New York City and together with William van Alen had built amazing constructions, such as the Bainbridge Building on W. 57th Street and the Prudence Building at 331 Madison Avenue. Van Alen was an innovator and a revolutionary who often challenged the classical and Renaissance styles that had influenced most American cities since the beginning of the 20th century. He often ran into problems with clients who rejected his modern styles. Severance, worried about losing clients, decided that he no longer needed Van Alen’s partnership, and they ended their business relationship in 1924. In 1929, Walter Chrysler hired Van Alen to design a monument to his name, the Chrysler Building.

Competition Incentivized Innovation

In April 1929, Severance learned that his former partner was designing a structure of 809 feet. Ohrstrom and Severance, worried about falling behind, announced that they would add two additional floors to their original design so that 40 Wall Street would end up with a total height of 840 feet. That same year, Empire State Inc., led by former General Motors executive John Jakob Raskob, entered the race—putting pressure on Severance and Van Alen. To keep pace with the other two projects, architectural firm Shreve, Lamb & Harmon and builders Starrett Brothers & Eken accelerated the construction process. According to architectural historian Carol Willis, the framework of the Empire State Building rose four and a half stories per week due to an A-team design approach in which architects, builders, and engineers collaborated closely with each other.

Troubled by both Severance and the Empire State project, Van Alen designed the famous chrome-steel art deco crown for the top of the Chrysler Building and a sphere to stand on top of the crown. The sphere was built inside the crown, hidden from the public, and it was never announced to the press or explicitly mentioned. On the other hand, Severance modified his design one more time and asked permission to add a lantern and a flagpole at the top of the tower, increasing the height by 50 feet. Severance planned to have 40 Wall Street reach the 900-foot mark to secure its place as the tallest building in the world.

On October 23, 1929, the sphere of the Chrysler Building was lifted from the inside of the crown, reaching 1,046 feet and surpassing the final height of 927 feet of 40 Wall Street. The crash of Wall Street on October 28 distracted the press from the trick played by Van Alen, and it was not reported immediately. When Severance found out, it was too late to change his design—40 Wall Street held the title for one month from its opening in the first week of May 1930 to the opening of the Chrysler Building on May 27. The Chrysler Building held the title for only 11 months until the Empire State Building was completed in 1931 and became the new tallest building.

Regulations Limit Us

The Empire State Building held the title of tallest building in the world for 40 years, and it was built in only one year and 45 days. Bryan Caplan, professor of economics at George Mason University, believes that excessive restrictions slow construction today. Regulations such as height restrictions prevent cities from going up. Humanity now has better technology than in the time of New York’s race to the sky, but getting permits to build upward is extremely difficult. Excessive restrictions also generate artificial scarcity, which is slowing the growth of cities and making it difficult (and expensive) to live in them. Cities could grow upward, but regulations limit their growth.

However, we continue to see competition in many industries; technology companies fighting for the dominance of artificial intelligence are creating better and more efficient tools. The race between SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic is improving the development of innovative technologies. Soon we might even have commercial flights to the moon. History has shown that when brilliant minds have freedom to compete, humanity moves forward.

Reuters | Health & Medical Care

UK Authorises Gene Therapy for Blood Disorders in World First

“Britain has authorised a gene therapy that aims to cure sickle-cell disease and another type of inherited blood disorder for patients aged 12 and over, the country’s medical regulator said on Thursday, becoming the first in the world to do so.

Casgevy is the first medicine to be licensed that uses the gene-editing tool CRISPR, which won its inventors the Nobel Prize in 2020.”

From Reuters.