01 / 05
The Canadian Child-Deaths Would Not Have Shocked Our Ancestors

Blog Post | Overall Mortality

The Canadian Child-Deaths Would Not Have Shocked Our Ancestors

Half of all children died before adulthood in archaic societies, one quarter before their first birthday and another quarter before the age of 15.

Summary: The recent discoveries of unmarked graves at former residential schools in Canada have shocked the world and exposed the brutal legacy of colonialism. However, for most of human history, such atrocities were common and accepted. This article argues that we should appreciate the human progress that has made us more sensitive to this suffering.

Revelations of graveyards containing the bodies of some 4,000 children from the First Nations in Canada have shocked the world. The dead were some of the 150,000 indigenous children sent or forcibly taken to residential schools meant to divorce the former from their birth culture.

The graves represent the injustice and misery of the past, but our reaction to them is proof of our advancement. In pre-industrial times, child deaths were so common that those graves wouldn’t have shocked anyone. In fact, a death rate of some three percent of children is low by historical standards. It was only in the past 50 or 60 years that the child mortality rate fell below 3 percent – even in rich countries.

The usual estimation is that half of all children died before adulthood in archaic societies, one quarter before their first birthday and another quarter before the age of 15, which is the end of puberty and our reasonable definition of becoming an adult. That seems to hold over all societies examined, including the Roman Empire, 18th century Britain, and all other groups of humans over time. (It is also, roughly speaking, true of the other Great Apes.)

This sorry state of affairs was brought to an end in three stages. The first stage was the discovery of infectious disease. John Snow, for example, showed that cholera cycled through the sewage and water systems. His discovery led to the single greatest aid to human health ever: the development of proper water systems, which provide fresh water and carry away sewage. Essentially, drains were the first step in reducing child mortality.

The second stage was the development of antibiotics. As late as 1924, an infected blister killed the U.S. President’s son. It wasn’t until the late 1930s that effective antibiotics were deployed at any scale. It took another decade to discover a treatment for tuberculosis, which was one of the great killers of the first half of the 20th century.

The third stage was the development of vaccines for common childhood diseases. Smallpox had been preventable since the 1790s with vaccination and through variolation before that. But polio remained a problem until the 1950s and measles into the 1960s. That last disease could, if unleashed against a population with no resistance at all, kill over 10 percent of people infected.

The combined effect of these discoveries – alongside better medical care, nutrition, shelter, and heating – has been a 100-fold reduction in youth mortality over the 20th century. The process isn’t finished yet. Far too many children still die due to a lack of access to clean water, antibiotics, and desirable immunizations. But those discoveries are all spreading, and, in that sense, the world is getting better at record speed.

In rich nations, such as Canada, Britain, the United States, the child mortality rate ranges from 0.5 percent to 0.8 percent – down from 50 percent in human history. A significant portion of the remaining mortality is due to accident, not disease.

This article is not meant to diminish the pain of losing a child or to suggest that pain was lighter in the past because it was reasonable to expect to lose a child. Rather, it is to point out how that loss is so much less common today.

Nor is it implying that the First Nations children in Canada were treated acceptably. Rather, the above data is meant to remind the reader that previous generations of humans would have found nothing strange at all about graveyards full of children. That we find them shocking today is proof of human progress.

Today’s expectation, an entirely reasonable one, is that any child born today will live between 70 and 80 years. We’re in the first two or three generations of humans who ever existed where the assumption of reaching adulthood is better than a 50/50 break. How can that not be thought of as progress?

The Human Progress Podcast | Ep. 25

Maria Chaplia: An Update on Ukraine

Ukrainian lawyer and economist Maria Chaplia joins Chelsea Follett to discuss the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Blog Post | Government & Democracy

The Uyghur Genocide and Neo-Malthusianism

Countering neo-Malthusianism is especially critical now given the recent prominence of such thinking.

Mounting evidence shows that China has enacted wide‐​ranging human rights abuses, including coercive population control, on its Uyghur minority. An Associated Press investigation released in late June showed that while China’s rate of permanent sterilization procedures is falling nationally, the rate in Xinjiang, where many Uyghurs live, has skyrocketed. Many of those surgeries were involuntary. Many Uyghur women are forcibly sterilized after having two children, as third children are illegal in China. The two‐​child policy replaced China’s previous one‐​child policy in 2016.

The immense cruelty of what is happening to China’s Uyghur population demonstrates the inhumanity of China’s two‐​child policy and the urgency of combating the mindset that undergirds it. The way that the policy is enforced is influenced by prejudice against minorities, but authorities justify the policy with neo‐​Malthusianism, defined as the fear that a large population size could lead to a humanitarian and ecological disaster and that combating so‐​called overpopulation is thus an urgent problem. “The tensions between population and resources and environment will not fundamentally change,” noted China’s State Council in its national population development plan for 2016–2030, released in 2017. The plan specifies, according to state‐​run news agency Xinhua, that the government must continue to implement the “two‐​child policy to promote balanced population development.”

Sadly, the view that some groups are less worthy of having children than others has often gone hand in hand with neo‐​Malthusianism, both historically and today. China’s government subjects Uyghurs to strict enforcement of the country’s two‐​child limit, using overpopulation concerns about resource scarcity in part as a cover to make forcibly decreasing the population of a minority more palatable.

The neo‐​Malthusian mindset has caused many people outside of China to turn a blind eye to the coercive nature of the one‐​child (now two‐​child) policy. As recently as 2018, New York University law professor Dan Guttman told Harvard Political Review: “With the one‐​child policy, China put into effect the single most effective climate change rule in the world.”

In fact, Western development professionals originally encouraged China’s birth limits. In 1983, the United Nations Population Fund bestowed an award on Qian Xinzhong, head of China’s State Family Planning Commission and the man in charge of the country’s one‐​child policy, as well as Indira Gandhi, India’s prime minister who declared a national “Emergency” that suspended civil liberties and mandated sterilizations on a massive scale between 1975 and 1977.

Fears that without coercion, China would have seen an environmentally damaging “population explosion” are unfounded. China’s birth rate would have fallen without coercion, in the normal course of economic development. Today, even in Sub Saharan Africa, the world’s poorest region, birth rates are falling voluntarily. Projections of world population growth show that the total population of the planet will decline in the long run. Moreover, population growth can coincide with rising prosperity. China’s remarkable economic growth and poverty eradication over the last few decades have been the result of economic liberalization, not regulating women’s allowable number of births.

While many accounts of coerced sterilization and forced abortion have emerged from the Uyghur community, the Han ethnic majority is not exempt. Even as the Chinese national government now frets about falling birth rates’ impact on the country’s economy, many revenue‐​hungry local governments throughout China continue to fine couples for illegal births and enforce childbearing limits.

For example, last year, one couple in Shandong province, who could not afford a fine of $9,570 for violating family planning regulations had their life savings (around $3,000) seized. Also last year, a school teacher in Guangdong lost her job after giving birth to a third child in violation of the two‐​child policy. There are now many hopeful signs that the Chinese government may move toward ending childbearing limits, but that has not yet come to pass.

Today, neo‐​Malthusian thinking is seeing a resurgence. At the 2020 World Economic Forum in Switzerland, famed primatologist Jane Goodall opined, “All these [environmental] things we talk about wouldn’t be a problem if there was the size of population that there was 500 years ago.” The world population 500 years ago is estimated at 420–540 million people, or around 6.7 billion fewer people than today.

Goodall is far from alone in her belief that population growth is an urgent problem. Public figures, ranging from Prince Harry and Bill Nye “the Science Guy” to television host Bill Maher, have all recently expressed overpopulation fears. Last year, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio‐​Cortez (D-NY) famously questioned the morality of childbearing in the face of climate change, asking, “Is it OK to still have children?”

Countering neo‐​Malthusianism is especially critical now given the recent prominence of such thinking. To learn more about the history of coercive population control inspired by neo‐​Malthusianism, and the problematic policies that persist today—including the forced mass sterilization of Uyghur women—consider reading my new paper, Neo‐​Malthusianism and Coercive Population Control in China and India.

Blog Post | Wealth & Poverty

100 Years of Communism: Death and Deprivation

The verdict of history is clear, but only if people are willing to see it.

On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. It did so by accident.

During a press conference, the spokesman for East Berlin’s Communist Party noted that citizens of the German Democratic Republic would be allowed to travel to the West. For months, pressure was building on the authorities, as tens of thousands of East Germans tried to flee to West Germany via the unguarded Hungarian frontier.

To regain control of the situation, the authorities agreed to start providing exit visas to the restless populace in the near future, but both the nature and the timing of the concession got lost in a frenzy of questions that followed the announcement.

The word of the border opening spread like wildfire. By midnight thousands of Berliners squared off against a few dozen confused policemen guarding the Bornholmer Street checkpoint. Overwhelmed, the police let the people through. Over the next three days, three million East Germans got their first taste of the life in the West.

The communist authority in East Germany crumbled along with the Wall. Within a year, the two Germanys were reunified. In Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and Romania, communist governments met the same fate. Finally, in August 1991, communism fell in the Soviet Union, and the country dissolved on December 26.

Twenty-eight years later, those of us who lived through those momentous days still cherish the freedoms that we gained. For most people, alas, communism is but an echo of a distant past. So much so that socialism, an economic system of communist countries, is experiencing something of a renaissance.

In Venezuela, for example, an 18-year-old experiment with socialism is entering a horrific denouement marked by hyperinflation, hunger, rising infant mortality rates and increasingly brutal suppression of the opposition. In the United Kingdom, an unrepentant socialist came within a few percentage points of winning this year’s election, while in the United States, a socialist senator almost became the Democratic Party’s nominee for the presidency.

Let us, therefore, remind ourselves what communism wrought.

Writing in this newspaper, A. Barton Hinkle noted that “while the Soviet Union is no more and communism has been discredited in most eyes for many years, it is hard even now to grasp the sheer scale of agony imposed by the brutal ideology of collectivism.” Indeed.

“The Black Book of Communism,” a postmortem of communist atrocities compiled by European and American academics in 1997, concluded that the human cost of genocides, extrajudicial executions, deportations, and artificial famines stood at over 94 million.

Professor Mark Kramer from the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University edited “The Black Book.” Subsequent research, he told me, suggests that “the total number (of people) who died unnatural deaths under communist regimes … (is) upward of 80 million.”

Let’s put that new number in perspective.

Between 1825 and 1917, wrote Stéphane Courtois from the French National Centre for Scientific Research, the Tsarist regime in Russia “carried out 6,321 political executions … whereas in two months of official ‘Red Terror’ in the fall of 1918 Bolshevism achieved some 15,000.”

Or, consider the Inquisition. According to Professor Agostino Borromeo, a historian of Catholicism at the Sapienza University in Rome, “there were some 125,000 trials of suspected heretics in Spain … (between 1478 and 1834, but only) about 1 percent of the defendants (i.e., 1,250) were executed.”

Finally, consider the counterreformation. Queen “Bloody” Mary, who tried to restore Catholicism to England between 1553 and 1558, sent 280 dissenters to the stake. Between November 1917, when the communists came to power in Russia, and the North Korean famine in the mid-1990s, communists were responsible for deaths of at least 154 people every hour.

Consider, also, the economic legacy of communism. While socialist economies of Central and Eastern Europe continued to grow for much of the communist period, capitalist countries in Western Europe grew faster.

For example, look at East and West Germany. At the end of World War II, average incomes in Germany were, by definition, equal. By 1989, West German incomes were almost twice as high as those in East Germany.

Then there is North and South Korea. Once again, incomes in Korea were equal, on average, at the conclusion of World War II. Contemporary data for North Korea is tough to come by, but Professor Angus Maddison of Groningen University estimated that in 2008, South Koreans were 18 times richer than North Koreans.

Finally, those who are truly interested in the reality of daily life under socialism can see it for themselves by visiting Cuba and Venezuela.

No matter where it was tried, communism has always resulted in mountains of dead bodies. As for socialist economics, it has always resulted in shortages, inefficiency, poverty, and desperation. The verdict of history is clear, but only if people are willing to see it.

This piece first appeared in The Richmond Times-Dispatch

Blog Post | Wealth & Poverty

What Millennials Should Know About the Soviet Union

Let’s quickly walk through some of the history that those who idealize communism ought to consider.

The admiration of young people for communist leaders is slightly down from last year, according to the annual report on U.S. attitudes toward socialism, which was released by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. Joseph Stalin saw the greatest fall in popularity, from 12 percent of millennials reporting a favorable impression of him down to 6 percent. However, a horrifying 23 percent of Americans between ages 21 and 29 believe that Stalin was a “hero.” Also, 32 percent of millennials hold a favorable view of Karl Marx, slightly down from 34 percent last year.

This drop in popularity is comforting, but only slightly. Chances are you have friends who still idealize socialism, communism, and the men who enforced these ideologies with an iron hand. But what they probably don’t realize is the awful truth about these utopian visions of a better world. Let’s quickly walk through some of the history they ought to consider.

Sitting in the reading room of the British Museum, Marx theorized that society was a struggle between wage laborers and the owners of the means of production, and that the latter were “class enemies.” He feared that factory owners were exploiting factory workers, farm owners were exploiting day laborers, and so on. Many university students today share his fear of exploitation, rail against “the one percent” and the “privileged,” and desire a class-free society.

“I wonder what Karl Marx would have made of [the factory workers I met],” said Leslie T. Chang in her TED talk, The Voices of China’s Workers. She continued: “His view of the world persists, [as does] our tendency to see the workers as faceless masses, to imagine that we can know what they’re really thinking… Certainly, the factory conditions are really tough, and it’s nothing you or I would want to do, but from their perspective, where they’re coming from is much worse.”

Chang notes that since China’s economic liberalization, factory work has allowed hundreds of millions of Chinese workers to escape rural poverty to become middle class, and that most factory workers go on to start their own small businesses. They work in factories willingly because the alternative is grinding rural poverty.

Marx and his followers, sadly, did not realize that capitalism-driven industrialization ultimately creates widespread prosperity, and they ended up hurting the very workers they aimed to help. Thanks in part to the factories that Marx detested, the United Kingdom’s average income was three times higher when he died than when he was born.

After communists seized power in Russia a century ago, in the name of equality, anyone who was too well-off had to be identified and punished. Those with specialized knowledge, such as engineers, or those who had “non-labor income” were suspect.

In the Russian countryside, any farmer who produced enough food to sell as surplus, as opposed to any farmer who produced only enough for his family, was labeled a “kulak”—a class enemy, engaged in the alleged crime of enrichment through trade. Any farmer who hired help, who owned a creamery or other machine, or who rented out agricultural equipment, was also labeled a “kulak.” The kulaks’ poorer neighbors were encouraged to take away their homes and steel their possessions.

Comforting his wife, who was troubled that her acquaintance Marusia’s family had been imprisoned as kulaks, a devout communist said the following:

You see, they can’t make a revolution with white gloves. Annihilating the kulaks is a bloody and difficult process, but it has to be done. Marusia’s tragedy isn’t as simple as it seems to you. What was her husband sent to the camps for? It is hard to believe that he wasn’t guilty of anything at all. You don’t end up in the camps for nothing.

The man quoted above was eventually arrested and shot. No specific charges were ever given. His wife was sent to the labor camps shortly thereafter.

That anecdote is representative of the madness of that era. Millions of “class enemies,” political dissenters, and other unfortunate victims were sent to work in the Gulag, the forced-labor-camp system created under Lenin and greatly expanded under Stalin. Anyone who tried to escape was summarily executed. Those close to Stalin were not exempt, and more than a third of leading camp executioners ended up as prisoners in the camps themselves.

In some camps, prisoners mined radioactive material without adequate protection and died of radiation poisoning. In others, frostbitten prisoners chopped timber and dragged the logs back to camp barefoot in the winter. In others still, prisoners labored to produce food on collective farms while they themselves were allowed only meager rations. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “It is estimated that the combination of very long working hours, harsh climatic and other working conditions, inadequate food, and summary executions killed off at least 10 percent of the Gulag’s total prisoner population each year.”

The slave labor of the camps helped sustain the ruling class of the allegedly classless Soviet regime as the economy collapsed. Agricultural productivity plummeted following the removal of the kulaks and the collectivization of the farms. As millions starved to death, some resorting to cannibalism to survive, Stalin forbade use of the words famine, hunger, or starvation. Even doctors dared not diagnose a starving patient’s condition accurately. Stalin blamed the clear failures of his centrally planned system on deliberate sabotage and undermining of the economy by disloyal elements. He claimed that hidden enemies were everywhere and used that as an excuse to send more and more people to death and to the labor camps.

In sum, to bring about equality, the communist system imprisoned or killed those who had attained expertise and achieved success—whether in farming or in a technical occupation such as engineering. They initially redistributed wealth, but many of the peasants who at first benefited from robbing the kulaks ended up starving to death. By imprisoning or murdering many of the most productive people, while simultaneously eliminating market incentives for productivity by collectivizing industries and banning competition, communists brought about far deeper and more widespread poverty than under capitalism. (Capitalism, in fact, has helped bring world poverty to an all-time low.)

Research suggests that the number of unnatural deaths wrought by communism may be upward of eighty million—a number so high that the violence of Tsarist Russia, the Spanish Inquisition, and “Bloody” Mary’s English counterreformation pale in comparison. Today, seven out of ten Americans underestimate the number of lives that communism extinguished. Perhaps that explains part of communism’s continued appeal. But if your friends could travel back in time to the Stalin era, they would see that literal class warfare benefits no one except opportunistic tyrants like Stalin.

And they would see that he was no hero.

A version of this first appeared in the Intercollegiate Review.