As we embark on a new decade, do we approach the 2020s with hope or with a sense of doom and gloom? As we look back on the past decade, do we see the best of times or the worst of times?
Matt Ridley, the author of “The Rational Optimist” (2010), holds in a new article that the 2010s have been the best decade in human history. In contrast to those who see the decade as one of growing poverty, inequality, violence, and environmental depredation, he argues:
“We are living through the greatest improvement in human living standards in history. Extreme poverty has fallen below 10 percent of the world’s population for the first time. It was 60 percent when I was born. Global inequality has been plunging as Africa and Asia experience faster economic growth than Europe and North America; child mortality has fallen to record low levels; famine virtually went extinct; malaria, polio, and heart disease are all in decline.”
Ridley isn’t alone in rejecting doom-and-gloom scenarios of economic decline and impending ecological catastrophe. Steven Pinker at Harvard and Andrew McAfee at MIT, for example, also describe a modern world of greater prosperity, less violence, and more freedom. Economic historian Deirdre McCloskey shows how anti-capitalist rhetoric and denial of the basic facts of economic history—of the Great Enrichment of modern times—perpetuate tyranny and poverty rather than alleviating them.
The Politics of Doom and Gloom
If you want to gain support for a cause, however, it sometimes seems you have to show how bad things are.
Socialists, social workers, reformers, and revolutionaries all dramatize the seriousness of a problem or state of affairs to motivate us to political or personal change. No one is going to support draconian legislation—on alcohol prohibition, automobile emissions, gun control, or anything else—unless they are convinced that there’s a serious problem and that something can and must be done about it.
This sometimes takes a quasi-religious, sanctimonious form, as when the “woke” call us to personal repentance about our sins against the environment or tell us that the end is nigh. We must change our ways or have them changed for us by the government.
Over the past decade, we have seen something different. Predictions of doom and gloom have become the stock in trade of elites in politics, academia, law, even entertainment—but as a way to defend the status quo, to resist change.
The Brexit referendum in Britain and the election of Donald Trump in the United States, both in 2016, produced unexpected outcomes. They broke the consensus established by political and cultural elites and repeated daily throughout the major organs and institutions of society.
One response of politicians, academics, media, even comedians to this “people’s revolt” was to denounce the “deplorables” who supported it for their supposed ignorance, racism, and xenophobia. Another was to issue dire warnings of economic catastrophe if their advice wasn’t taken. Both responses continued after the votes were counted, even years later and despite evidence to the contrary. The aim wasn’t to motivate change but to discourage it.
In the referendum, the largest vote in British history, a majority voted to leave the European Union (EU). Britain had been a member of the EU and its predecessor, the European Economic Community, since 1973. Leaving meant bringing to an end that status and the mass of formal political, legal, and economic ties that bound the country to that transnational entity. It meant restoring Britain to its position as a sovereign, independent, self-governing national democracy.
Those inclined to vote Leave were warned that Brexit would lead to economic disaster, with mass unemployment, financial ruin and stock market collapse, people forced out of their homes by skyrocketing interest rates, shortages of essential foods and medicines, grounding of air travel, bottlenecks at ports, and other catastrophes.
None of it has happened, despite three and a half years of political and economic uncertainty. Parliament did all in its power to stop Brexit and prevent the government from governing. The major parties had promised to respect and implement the result of the referendum, but a majority of MPs wanted to remain in the EU. Promises notwithstanding, they threw up one procedural or legal obstacle after another.
In December 2019, in a general election to which the opposition parties had finally and reluctantly agreed, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Conservatives won an overwhelming majority of seats. Working-class constituencies that had never had any but a Labour member representing them in Parliament swung strongly to the Tories. Finally, on Jan. 31, Britain is set to leave the EU and regain its independence.
The U.S. election—in which the more educated and affluent strongly supported Hillary Clinton—resulted in Clinton’s defeat by Trump.
The winning candidate had no experience in government and little respect for most of those who do. He opposed the conventional wisdom of established politicians and experts on religious freedom, on abortion, on Iran, Israel, on pursuing America’s national interest as other nations pursued theirs, controlling the country’s borders, appointing judges who would interpret the law rather than legislate from the bench, challenging China’s unfair trade practices, and restoring vitality to the country’s neglected heartland.
Academic economist and New York Times opinion columnist Paul Krugman warned in 2016 that if Trump was elected, there would be a global recession from which markets would never recover. He was extreme but far from alone in his predictions of gloom and doom.
Since then, the results have been much different. The stock market has reached new highs, unemployment is at historic lows—with black and Hispanic unemployment at their lowest levels ever recorded—and real wages are rising. Far from Trump’s election producing a recession from which markets would never recover, the United States is in its longest-ever period of economic expansion.
That’s why we have reason to be optimists about the new decade. So argues Lord Michael Dobbs, writer, politician, speaker, and author of “House of Cards,” the creator of Francis Urquhart in the British television series and Frank Underwood in the American. It’s a story of cynical betrayal and broken trust. He’s no naïve and wide-eyed idealist. But what he says in reviewing this past decade in Britain, “when people triumphed over Parliament and the liberal elite,” is no less true of the American experience in recent years:
“The consensus around the liberal elite, who never truly trusted the people, has been broken. The people once again hold sway and have given Boris [and Trump] an instruction to do things differently. The message has gone out—never take us for fools again.”
Paul Adams is a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawaii and was a professor and associate dean of academic affairs at Case Western Reserve University. He is the co-author of “Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is” and has written extensively on social welfare policy and professional and virtue ethics.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.