Is humanity progressing ?

As time goes by, is society getting better or worse ? Are we gaining or losing freedom ? Are we progressing ? Is the environment cleaner or more polluted ?

The mainstream view is that everything is getting worse and worse. Things, we are told, were much better during the last generation, and now it’s only a matter of time before human self-destructiveness plunges us into slavery/abject poverty/worldwide warfare. This view is conductive to fear and paranoia, and is easily exploited as a statist political tool.

Part of this mentality certainly comes from the “Good Old Days” syndrome – our eternal tendancy to see fonder times as superior to the present. But that does not mean that the pessimistic view must be wrong. To approve or reject a common view, we must use objective evidence, not more common views.

To examine this question, I will use three recent statistical studies : Fraser Institute’s Index of Human Progress (July 2002) and the Index of Environmental Indicators (April 2002), and Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economical Freedom (2002).

The recent release of the newest Index of Human Progress – done on 136 nations – permits us to get a clear picture of the world’s progress in terms of health, education, and technology. Unlike the UN’s Human Development Index, the IHP includes technological advances – in terms of widespread use of phones, radios and televisions, uses 10 variables, and includes the full GDP per capita instead of limiting the impact on rankings after 7000$.

Even with these differences, both studies give the same result : progress in standard of living is almost universal. Compared to 1975, no countries on the IHP have regressed, and in the HDI only Zambia shows a net regression. Compared to ten years ago, the IHP reports 93% of nations on the positive side (the HDI, 84%).

Fraser Institute’s Index of Environmental Indicators is by necessity a less extensive study, done on Canada, the United States, Mexico, the United Kingdom, and South Korea. It reports air pollution levels, water pollution levels, waste management, land management, and natural resources. The result is that, while pollution levels rise in Mexico, the other countries surveyed see a net improvement. This may be due to Mexico’s lower technological levels (the IHP reports that Mexico is at the 85th rank in technology).

Finally, the Index of Economic Freedom, published by Heritage Foundation, details the economical freedom of 161 countries of the world. This kind of survey is essential for political understanding, since they point to the strong positive relationship between economical freedom (capitalism) and prosperity. It contains ten criterias for each country, such as foreign investment codes, fiscal burden of government, tariffs, banking regulations, monetary policy, and black markets.

Here too the consensus is that of progress. In 2000, 35% of scores were improved while 21% dropped : in 2001, 45% improved while 34% dropped : and in 2002, 47% improved while 34% dropped.

Against common opinion, all the data we have seems to report that the state of the world is slowly getting better

Against common opinion, all the data we have seems to report that the state of the world is slowly getting better. This is not to say that we should not be worried : despite the economical freedom brought about by globalisation, the weight of government is still getting bigger and bigger. Even most advanced countries have a level of government spending and taxation which are centrist or worse – for example, the United States combined score in these areas is 5.5, and Canada’s is 6.0, the kind of averages you expect more of a third-world country like Uganda or Brazil.

I just want to talk about one last calculation. At first glance, there seems to be a correlation between standard of living and economical freedom. Amongst the top 5 countries of the most advanced countries (Luxembourg, Denmark, Switzerland, Japan, with Norway and United States tied), most are in the top 12 (Japan and Norway are 35th), and the 8 most economically free countries are in the top 20 of the IHP.

A closer statistical look reveals that the average scores go like this (IHP scores – higher is better, IEF scores – lower is better) :
Top 5 freest – IHP score = 95.6, top 10 freest – IHP score = 100.7
Top 5 least free – IHP score = 39.6, IHP score = , top 10 least free – IHP score = 38.8
Top 5 most advanced – IEF score = 1.97, top 10 most advanced – IEF score = 2.00
Top 5 least advanced – IEF score = 2.53, top 10 least advanced – IEF score = 3.33

These results are not surprising to us : economical freedom is not only heavily correlated with prosperity, but also to general standard of living.