Humankind is better off than it has ever been — and it's thanks to government

It's true! Even if conservatives don't want to believe it.

Happy kids
(Image credit: (Thinkstock))

There has never been a better time to be a human being than in March 2014. People live longer, wealthier, happier lives than they ever have. Each of the Four Horsemen — disease, famine, war, and death — are being beaten back.

This isn't just my opinion. The data is incontrovertible. Life expectancy is the highest it's ever been, and getting higher. Global GDP has never reached our present heights. The number of humans in poverty has never been lower. Wars between nations are almost extinct, and wars in general are getting less deadly.

The notion of human progress isn't a grand theory anymore; it's a fact. So why do so many people insist on telling you it's impossible?

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Almost everywhere you turn, some pundit or "literary intellectual" is aching to tell you the "hard, eternal truths" about the way the world works. Progress is a false idol, they'll say — and worse, an American one. The harsh reality is that nothing ever changes; the sad truth of the human condition is pain and misery.

These people position themselves as besieged truth tellers, braving the wrath of the masses to challenge our dominant, rose-tinted national narrative. In reality, they're just saying what most people think. A reasonably large majority of Americans think the country's "best years" are behind it. Post-Great Recession, doom-and-gloom is in.

But while pessimism may be the conventional wisdom nowadays, its intellectual avatars have never been more anemic. Take British philosopher John Gray. Gray has made debunking the notion of "progress" his life's work, having written two whole books on the matter in addition to innumerable columns and magazine articles. His review of Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature, a book that carefully assembles immense amounts of statistical evidence showing that war and violence claim fewer lives than ever, does not dispute a single bit of Pinker's data. Incredibly, Gray thinks pointing out that some Enlightenment thinkers disagreed with each other constitutes a devastating rebuttal to Pinker's detailed empirical argument. The review's shallowness is emblematic of the general tenor of Gray's sad crusade.

It's not just John Gray. Given the enormous amounts of data on the optimists' side, pessimists have little more than handwaving left to them. The pessimists babble on about "permanent human nature" and "timeless verities." The optimists cite U.N. life expectancy statistics and U.S. government crime data. Having no answer to books like Pinker's, Charles Kenny's Getting Better, or Angus Deaton's The Great Escape, the pessimists resort to empty pieties.

The irony here is obvious. The pessimists accuse optimists of falling prey to a seductive ideological thinking; "the worship of Progress," as Christian conservative Rod Dreher puts it. Yet the only people being seduced are the pessimists, clutching the pillars of their ideological house while its foundation shatters.

Today's optimists notice clear evidence that humanity's lot is getting better — a point that does not require assuming that it must get better as a consequence of some inevitable historical law. Opponents respond by asserting the world simply cannot be getting better, as their own pessimistic theory of history says it's impossible. The critics of blind faith have put out their own eyes.

The reason that purportedly hard-boiled realists adhere to the absurd pessimistic ideology is plain. Their own political views depend crucially on the idea that nothing about the world can be improved. The clear evidence that human inventions — government, the market, medicine, international institutions, etc. — have improved the world point to devastating truths adherents to pessimistic ideologies are loath to admit.

The two ideologies I have in mind have been at odds of late: American conservatism and foreign policy "realism." Yet popular versions of both rely on the notion of an unchanging, conflict-filled political landscape.

For many conservatives, the idea of "progress" constitutes liberalism's fatal conceit. Russell Kirk put it most eloquently: "Man being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created." Bill Kristol, living proof that movement conservatism has been immune from the happy trends improving the world, is more blunt. "Progressivism is a touchingly simple-minded faith," he says. "The higher the number of the century, the better things should be. But progressivism happens not to be true."

Kristol's understanding of progressivism is wanting, to say the least. But the reason he needs to stamp his feet and deny the evidence of progress is that hard evidence of human improvement challenges his conservative first principles. Improvements in human welfare have come from government — most notably through public health programs, like the campaign against leaded gasoline, but also through institutions like the welfare state and mixed-market economies. It's no surprise that the wealthiest, healthiest, and happiest countries are all welfare state democracies.

But more fundamentally, human progress runs against the conservative assumption that human nature does not permit fundamental victories over evils like war. Government will always fail, as Kirk suggests, because human nature will frustrate any attempt to eradicate suffering.

But as it turns out, human nature itself is shaped crucially by the institutions we find ourselves surrounded by — including government. The newest research on humanity's basic psychology, lucidly explained in recent books by neuroscientist Jonathan Greene and primatologist Frans de Waal, find that human "nature" is malleable. We're naturally inclined toward both conflict and cooperation, and thus have the potential for both great good and great evil. The crucial deciding factor is the circumstances we find ourselves in. The reality of human progress, then, suggests that the political and social arrangements we've created are bringing out our better angels. This is a truth the conservative view of human nature cannot abide.

Foreign policy realists are also concerned by human nature, but nowadays tend to rely more on arguments about "the international system." For them, global harmony is impossible because nations can never trust each other. Without a world government, no one can really ensure that another country's army won't come calling on your doorstep. States are driven to conflict by the need to secure themselves from an always-there risk to their security.

The decline in violence constitutes an existential threat to this worldview. There is strong evidence that international institutions, trade interdependences, and the spread of democracy have all contributed to war's decline. If that's true, then it really does seem like the globe isn't destined for conflict forever. Neither human nature nor the international system make war inevitable.

Now, there are real grounds to worry about the future of human progress. Most notably, climate change has the potential to wipe out much of what we've accomplished. The reality of human progress isn't an argument against heading off ecological disaster.

But that crisis hasn't happened yet. You can simultaneously celebrate the fact that humanity is better off than it has ever been and argue that we need to take drastic action if we want to make sure that progress doesn't stop with our generation.

So there's no reason not to sing progress' praises. Today's world is much more Lego Movie than True Detective: everything really is kind of awesome, and time is not a damn flat circle.

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Zack Beauchamp is a Reporter/Blogger for ThinkProgress. He previously contributed to Andrew Sullivan's The Dish at Newsweek/Daily Beast, and has also written for Foreign Policy and Tablet magazines. Zack holds B.A.s in Philosophy and Political Science from Brown University and an M.Sc in International Relations from the London School of Economics.