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Is the world getting worse or better?


13 September 2015

If you read some commentators, you get a never-ending litany of doom about how everything is getting worse. I come across such writers from time to time, despite concentrating on reading better quality media.

Accordingly I was struck by something I saw recently in the newsletter of Network for a Free Society which I would like to share.

Two examples of the doom-sayers

I have limited myself to finding just two examples.

Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari

He is a former Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain and regularly writes blogs. In his piece “Muslim Charitable Giving Multiplies in the Holy Month of Fasting” written on 2 July 2014, which rightly praised Muslim generosity, he threw in the following sentence:

“Global inequality and poverty has risen sharply over the decades, partly due to a long economic slowdown.”

That assertion was made without feeling the need to offer any evidence, as if increasing global poverty over the decades was something everyone knew was obviously correct.

Anup Shah

This writer has a background in computer science and runs the website “Global Issues” as an outlet for his writings. A quick glance at the site immediately shows its negativism.

The piece “Structural Adjustment—a Major Cause of Poverty” updated 24 March 2013 is a long condemnation of international trade, economic liberalisation and privatisation. Early on is the assertion:

“Many developing nations are in debt and poverty partly due to the policies of international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

Their programs have been heavily criticized for many years for resulting in poverty.”

It is worth reading the entire piece for its bleak negativism.

My own perspective

My parents were both born into peasant farming families in British India in the first two decades of the twentieth century. They were acutely poor. When we came to live in the UK, despite being very poor by UK standards, we were incomparably better off than our relatives who by then were in Pakistan as a result of “Partition.”

Thinking about my life in the 1950’s with what is available to poor people today in the UK led me to write the piece “Richer than Pharaoh?” to explain how even the poorest today are far better off than the richest people in the past.

There are 193 countries which are members of the United Nations. They have different levels of per capita income, with some being very rich per capita and others being very poor. They also follow a wide spectrum of political and economic policies. However the big overall trend is that on average people around the world are much better off, per capita, than they were several decades ago. That applies just using standard measurements of (inflation adjusted) income, even before one takes account of the technology improvements mentioned in “Richer than Pharaoh.”

I haven’t bothered citing references for the increase in per capita incomes because there are sources mentioned in the piece below.

Network for a Free Society

Network for a Free Society is a small organisation which I support because it disseminates powerful ideas. Their mission statement begins as follows:

“We know that ideas have consequences and that many influential and inspirational advocates of a free society read just one book which had a profound impact on their understanding, leading them to dedicate their lives to the pursuit of the free society.

But unfortunately ideas that explain the relationships between individual freedom, limited government and prosperity are not available to most people in the world.  This is the case in much of Africa, Asia and the Middle East particularly if you don’t have access to fast download speeds.  For those who do not speak English or another European language, they are generally not available at all.

So we have produced a mini library of relevant texts in English on a CD called Ideas for a Free Society. We support the translation of texts and production of CDs, DVDs and associated books in other languages, essay competitions about these ideas, and major outreach efforts by local partners in some of the least free and poorest parts of the world. A DVD has been launched in Portuguese, a CD and student primer in Kyrgyz, a CD in Turkish and Russian and a CD in Chinese with two books of the texts published in China. In 2014 we added a CD in French and in 2015 one in Arabic.”

Extract from latest newsletter

I was struck by some text in the latest newsletter. It is reproduced below with permission from their Chairman Linda Whetstone.

“One could be forgiven for thinking that the world is going to hell in a hand basket if you looked no further than the media headlines but fortunately that is absolutely not the case.

Turn instead to such books as Matt Ridley’s, "The Rational Optimist" or’s Ronald Bailey's "The End of Doom" or the Cato Institute’s Human to realise that things are generally going in very much the right direction.

Despite the poverty, deprivation and misery still suffered by many for the vast majority the situation is constantly improving. “Since 1800, the population of the world has multiplied six times, yet average life expectancy has more than doubled and real income has risen more than 9 times” and “the poor in the developing world grew their consumption twice as fast as the world as a whole between 1980 and 2000……….” according to Matt Ridley. Meanwhile “…world population will soon be declining, more and more land is being restored to nature, increasing wealth is leading to decreasing pollution and the cost of clean energy will soon fall below that of fossil fuels” according to Ronald Bailey.

The reasons for this excellent news is economic development based on ever increasing exchange and specialisation made possible as individuals become more free. We believe the best way to enable those still living in some of the most dangerous and poorest places on the planet to escape from poverty is to help our partners change the climate of opinion in those countries in favour of freedom.”

Concluding comments

There are many things wrong with the world which need improving. However having false beliefs such as thinking that global poverty is increasing is unhelpful, since it is likely to lead one to support policies that will not succeed in improving the lot of the poor. We have seen that in country after country where incompetent governments make things worse. To cite just one example, Venezuela under the populist governments of Hugo Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro.

The reality is that poverty is reduced by economic growth, urbanisation, free market competition and increased international trade. The texts supplied by Network for a Free Society are important since countries which base their policies on the foundational texts of economic liberalism prosper; those who don’t get poorer as we have seen with Venezuela.


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