Getting So Much Better All the Time

In my previous post, I cited some facts from Johan Norberg’s recent book, Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, showing that in many ways, life on Earth is better than ever. On average, we humans have more food to eat, better access to clean water, and better sanitation. We live much longer lives, and there is a lot less extreme poverty in the world than there used to be, despite there being many more of us around. But what about violence, the environment, and inequality? It turns out there is good news on these fronts as well.

It’s true that we can all easily call to mind ample evidence of violence depicted on the nightly news or social media. This ease is one of the reasons we think we live in violent times. But there’s a strong bias for sharing bad news: If it bleeds, it leads, as the saying goes. It just isn’t newsworthy to point out that most people were not murdered last night, or that most parts of the world are not war zones.

Yet the numbers are clear. Read more

Sweet talk and self-governance

We haven’t heard as much lately about panic over falling faith in democracy, but questions about the proper scope of democracy and what we mean by “democracy” are still relevant. Is democracy popping a ballot in a box, or does it include our conversations and what we do as communities?

Vincent Ostrom asks this question in The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerabilities of Democracies: A Response to Tocqueville’s Challenge, and urges us to recognise a seldom-discussed danger to democracy. We often hear that we need to do more than just vote—we need to vote well. But, says Ostrom, we also need to be able to persuade each other—to use what Deirdre McCloskey calls “sweet talk“. Sweet talk is how we get people to act together when we can’t force them to. But we have to persuade well, the right way—building buy-in and consensus. The wrong kind of persuasion might be as dangerous as the wrong kind of voting. “Rhetoric pursued as an art of manipulation can be a trap contributing to the vulnerability of democratic societies.” (xiii)

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Getting Better All the Time

It’s easy to get caught up in all the bad things that are happening around the world. There are always plenty of leaders unfit to lead, plenty of disasters big and small raining misery down on us and our fellow humans. But while it’s good to shine a light on the darkness, it’s important not to lose sight of the bigger picture—and the bigger picture, despite what you might think, is very positive. The good old days, as Johan Norberg puts it in the title of the introduction to Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, are now.

Don’t believe it? Let me throw a few facts at you: Read more

Two philosophies defended

Larry’s discussion of the different conceptions of capitalism and stateless society in his tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin reminded me of the discussions of capitalism and utopia in G.A. Cohen’s Why Not Socialism? and Jason Brennan’s Why Not Capitalism?

Cohen’s tiny book is a classic and an ambitious one. Though it barely clears 80 pages, it sets out to make the case that the utopia that we should wish for—even strive for—is a socialist one. As Brennan points out in his 99-page response, for many years Cohen’s opponents granted his claim that socialism doesn’t and can’t work, but if it could, and if we were good enough, it’s the morally best system to embrace.

Brennan makes it clear—more clear than Cohen does—that this is all Cohen argues for. He grants that the “design problem” of coming up with a workable economic system to replace capitalism might be one that we can’t overcome. All Cohen asks is that we want to overcome it, that we want to do better than capitalism. But this is ground that Brennan refuses to cede.
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