The Downsize DC Foundation is concerned, perhaps first and foremost, with Human Progress. We've observed that, often, when we look at the wars, deficits, and other problems facing our country and the world, it's natural to think things can't get any worse. That's why it's worth reminding ourselves that in many ways things have never been better. I was reminded of this from an unlikely source.
Bill James, a founder of sabermetrics in baseball, has a new book out on a very different subject, Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence. I haven't read it, but read an interview of James by Chuck Klosterman at Grantland.
The entire interview is fascinating, but near the end James was asked if the world is less violent than it used to be. Here are some of his comments:
I knew a person when I was very young — a person who graduated from high school around the same time I did. [James was born in 1949 ]... He had been with a woman when he was 18, and they had a son. The boy fell down some steps and died. Most everybody in town thought the child was a victim of abuse and that the man should be prosecuted for murder, but he never was. Now, if that had happened just three years later, he would have been prosecuted — because during those three years, there was a media uproar over child abuse. When I was young, I once had a realization while reading the newspaper about just how many things we now consider murder that were not seen as murder 100 years before. In 1950, if there was a fight in a bar and someone was killed, the police would ask, "Was it a fair fight?" If it was a fair fight, it might be manslaughter, but also might be nothing. When I played football in high school, our coach would work us as hard as he could on hot days and not let us have water. And you'd see stories in the newspaper, maybe 10 times a year, where some kid would die from this. Yet coaches still did it. But that would never happen now, because the coach would be charged with murder. We continually become less tolerant of actions that lead to death. The human race has been in a long struggle to eliminate murder. And we will succeed. [emphasis added]
Why did this happen? As nations achieve higher standards of living, life become easier and more enjoyable. This makes life itself more precious. Injury, disease, and premature death - all of which were once commonplace even in the wealthiest of nations - have become intolerable.
Indeed, the State has frequently gone to the other extreme. The determination to make us "safe" has led to an over-regulated economy that stifles innovation and makes us LESS prosperous and LESS safe than we could be. Even so, innovation has outpaced regulation. The historical trend is toward greater prosperity, and with it a heightened sense of moral condemnation of man's inhumanity to man.
Even the misguided wars the U.S. is fighting have been ostensibly to rid the world of brutal dictators and other mass-murderers. But as James notes further:
There will always be occasional exceptions, but we're involved in a long struggle against murder, war, famine, disease — and we move forward more than we move back. And you can only understand this if you look over the sweep of centuries. There were so many terrible things done by kings and emperors and everyday normal people that are just incomprehensible today. The historian Suetonius writes about how Nero [Roman Emperor, AD 54-68] — beyond the many thousands of people he killed in his official duties — liked to sneak out of the palace at night and murder people in the streets, purely for entertainment. Now, whatever you may think of our recent presidents, it's pretty safe to say they didn't do that. It's now impossible to imagine the official leader of an organized country as a serial murderer. But it's not impossible — throughout history, it was extremely common. But now it's inconceivable. Perhaps one day it will be inconceivable for the U.S. to commit air strikes against other countries. And I'm not saying that as a criticism of George W. Bush or as some kind of judgment. I'm just saying that we've been at war with these evils forever, and if you read history, you can see that we are making constant progress.