Columnist for Thursday, 6/14 - Red

I had a discussion with a friend of mine where in I took the position that things in general had been improving on almost every front for centuries. And that life was (especially for a twentieth century woman in the US) better than it had ever been. I recognize that this may not be true for a given individual, or in every place on the globe, but in general I think it is true. We have antibiotics, an wholehearted attempt (in the West) to provide equality for all before the law, voting rights, birth control, free education, and enough food. We are as a world much better at providing food for our now much larger population, than we were 50 years ago. Antibiotics, as well as other medical advances, have made peoples' live both longer and better than they would have been otherwise. It was a whole passel of white men that voted in anti-discrimination laws, and in 30 years (since my mother was a kid) we've made bigotry and racism not only illegal but unfashionable. When I mentioned all this, my friend accused me of being an optimistic American.

There are two branches to this argument of course, things are really pretty good now, and things used to be much worse. It is interesting to me that people (not all people but many) seem to idolize the past, particularly the agrarian past. I think of this as the Heidi-syndrome. As though the agrarian past (particularly in Europe) were full of happy well scrubbed shepherdesses, who could cure paralysis with liberal doses of sheep's milk and fresh air.

However, subsistence farming is not a fun lifestyle. For the vast bulk of human history, extra food translated into more babies. Which would increase the population trying to survive on a given piece of land, until of course there were a few bad harvests or some really virulent disease at which point many people would die. Sometimes you had to pick a child or two to let starve. Really, it is not a pretty picture. But somehow when you talk to people about development in the third world, many people cling to this idyllic happy peasant idea and disapprove of the movement from farms to factories. Moving from farms to factories as well as education and birth control, are the ways in which a society improves the lives of its members.

In addition to all of the technical improvements, democracy won the culture war, so things like civil rights, religious freedom, rule of law, and equality are simply assumed to be something all good governments are striving for. If the government actually is good, it probably is striving for these things. Even many of the bad governments feel vaguely embarrassed about not striving for these things.

In general, while there are still a large number of problems on the agenda, it seems to me that we have made remarkable strides on improving the ones that caught our attention. It also appears that the pace of improvement has sped up in the last 50 years as the technology level has improved. American or not, things are looking up.


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