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The World is Better

Entry 1964, on 2019-02-06 at 20:46:11 (Rating 3, Politics)

Is the world getting better or worse? This is a question which many people ask and many people disagree on. I think a very good case could be made to say it is getting better, based on objective evidence and statistics, and I think any apparent dips are short-term glitches in a bigger, improving trend.

So let's look at some of the real data supporting this...

A graph of death rates in wars shows a slightly rising trend from 1400 to 1945, but after World War II the trend has been downwards, from about 20 deaths per 100,000 people just after the war, to about 0.5 in 2013. The minimum was 0.2 in 2003. The average for the last 600 years has been about 5, and the maximum about 200 during the Thirty Years War in 1630 and in World War II. (This data came from a graph prepared by OurWorldInData.org and published by Vox.)

A similar chart (from the same source) shows homicide rates in Europe (world data for that far in the past is difficult to source). Here the rate has trended obviously downwards from about 50 deaths per 100,000 population in 1300 to less that 1 today. Stats for other countries and regions over shorter time periods show similar trends although there are still some countries with unusually high rates (Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Guatemala, South Africa).

In the last 200 years education rates have improved impressively. Primary school enrolment increased from between zero and 60% to almost 100% for almost every country. Afghanistan has risen from zero in 1945 to over 80% in 2010, and Russia had just 3% in 1820 and today has 98%

Life expectancy, for the whole world, in 1800 was 32 years, in 1950 it was 48 years, and in 2012 it was 70 years. The child death rate in 1800 was high for the whole world (about 50%) but by 2015 most countries were in the 0 to 5% category, and even the worst (a few countries in Central Africa) had a rate of 10-20% And the percentage of GDP being spent on healthcare is gradually increasing (from 8.5% to 9.5% of global GDP from 1995 to 2014).

What about the latest problem which the Western world seems fixated on: sexual violence and harassment? According to stats from various countries I chose as a representative sample (the US, New Zealand, India, Rwanda) rates are falling or staying fairly stable. In the US the rate has stayed at just over 1.5% and is projected not to change for the next decade. New Zealand has a similar rate which is projected to fall slightly. Even India, which has a reputation for being very poor in this area, has a fairly stable rate of about 2.5%

So, no matter where you look, it's hard not to conclude that things are getting better. Even in those situations where rates of unwanted behaviour and crime is not falling, it is still fairly low, and it is entirely possible that the failure for the rate to fall (as it does with most indicators) is due to a higher level of reporting.

So if my analysis (which is based on entirely neutral and fairly credible stats) is correct, why do so many people think that the world is too violent, that it is getting worse, or that a major change is needed?

Firstly, you might say that any rate above zero of some of these phenomena is too high, and that's a fair point. But realistically there will always be a certain proportion of the human population that have various personality "defects" or are predisposed towards violence or lack of empathy.

And trying to eliminate that might have unintended consequences. For example, it is not possible to monitor potential offenders to prevent crime without creating major issues around privacy and freedom for everyone else. Benjamin Franklin said "Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." I think he has a point.

While pursuing the impossible dream of reducing these stats to zero might still seem worthy, remember Franklin's point, and also remember that while we are concentrating on trying to fix something which might not be as bad as it is portrayed as being, there might be other issues which are actually worse than they seem which are being ignored.

Secondly, there are significant political benefits to certain groups to make the particular problem they are interested in seem a lot worse than it really is. Of course, that problem is currently sexual abuse, harassment, violence, or whatever term is currently fashionable. There is little doubt, looking at real stats, that this problem is hugely over-rated by political movements like metoo. But while most people would be extremely suspicious of claims made by other political pressure groups, like libertarians for example, it is unwise to even politely question extreme feminist dogma, even when it is obviously absurd.

And environmental pressure groups are sometimes guilty of this too. While their concerns are generally fairly well based on real science, there is also often a ideological bias which prevents them presenting a truly rational analysis. For example, if we want to reduce atmospheric carbon from coal-fired power plants an obvious solution is nuclear power, but many environmental groups reject that option. A similar problem exists in some groups around genetic engineering. It is rejected without any real thought, because it is seen as being antithetical to core green ideology.

If any of these groups found that there concerns were being addressed, or that their claims were significantly exaggerated would it be to their benefit to admit that and shut down their movement? Obviously not, and the natural reaction is to make themselves look more essential by distorting the real facts.

Thirdly, we have great communications systems today and many people have the ability to record and distribute material showing relatively obscure acts of violence, anti-social behaviour, or other unwanted activities which might be entirely ignored otherwise.

We know bad news sells and people enjoy getting upset and offended by material they see on-line. This applies to what now passes for news on mainstream media sources as well as informal sources such as social media. So a lot of the perception that things aren't getting better might be entirely due to the fact that the falling or stable rate of bad behaviour is just being reported a lot more and that makes it seem worse.

There is another point which many people ignore here too. That is that many people, when they perceive danger or imminent disaster, retreat to trusting strong and aggressive politicians. Does this sound like the situation in many parts of the world today? As I have said many times before: Trump and other similar politicians aren't there because of the right winning, they are there because the left is losing.

I'm not trying to say that everything is fine, and that there is nothing to be concerned about. There are genuine stats which do indicate problems which we should be paying attention to - climate change is the obvious example. And there are others which are genuine but can be debated regarding whether they indicate a real decline or are just a side effect of greater improvements we see when we look at the bigger picture - income inequality is the example I usually think of here.

So my advice is to treat every group which has a specific "pet issue" with extreme suspicion. That includes environmentalists, peace campaigners, and of course, women's and indigenous rights advocates. Their message is not always totally wrong, but you can almost guarantee it will be exaggerated, one sided, and very misleading. The world really is a lot better than it sometimes seems.

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