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A Little Perspective, Please

Oct. 8, 2008
The misery of the 20th Century did not stop human progress; human progress stopped the misery.

Robert E. Brooks

We’re now almost eight years into the century that was thought, at the time it began, would be full of unprecedented opportunities for peace, individual freedom, and prosperity. Those ideals were the elusive goals of many millions of people throughout the 20th century, ideals that for most of those decades seemed to live only in people’s hopes.

When the new millennium began, the view had suddenly brightened. Menacing totalitarian regimes had crumbled, quite suddenly, and the remaining outposts of despotism were blooming into free-market miracles. We were living our dreams: peace, prosperity, and individual freedom.

There were hundreds of millions of reasons for those dreams coming to life, but the prevailing attitude then was that “information” made it possible — “information technology,” the generic label for computer, network, and Internet technology, which reduced costs, lowered barriers, liberated markets, and sped up decisions, all for the greater prosperity of freer individuals. Our prosperity ensured peace.

How can it be that it all seems so distant now? There is a threat of violence, if not outright war, in much of the world. Even where peace remains we live in fear of terrorism. Many people living in this atmosphere imagine their individual liberties are threatened. And, now, overhanging it all is a financial debacle said to be so vast it threatens the security of everyone, everywhere, for as far forward as we dare to predict. We’re told now that only an unprecedented government intervention will save us, and there’s no time to pause and consider alternatives.

Were things ever this bad before? Well, at the dawn of the 20th century the auto industry transformed human civilization, too. The civil wars and revolutions of the previous century were over. Giant manufacturing supply chains emerged. Towns became cities and cities grew suburbs. Places that had been more-or-less self-sufficient became interdependent as social and economic networks expanded, and places that had been inaccessible or untouched became parts of the broader, prosperous civilization. Every innovation spurred other developments. Individuals living at that time had unprecedented mobility, and access to wealth and opportunity.

Soon enough, that dream dissolved, too. Within 15 years of 1900, the Western world was mired in a bloody, bitter war. It seemed to be an endless conflict. Epidemics and financial crises, and more wars, followed. The whole world suffered. Oppressive, terrorizing governments came to power, putting peace, freedom, and prosperity further out of reach.

But, time moves on. The misery of the 20th century didn’t stop human achievement or progress. In fact, human progress stopped the misery. Peace, freedom, and prosperity are threatened most when people stop striving for growth and stop sacrificing for progress. Today, peace is threatened but we have people sacrificing to defend us and our freedom. Prosperity is in doubt, but we have resources and ingenuity, and the opportunity to revive our prospects.

There were hundreds of millions of reasons that the 21st century started with so much promise, and eight years into it nearly all of these remain. The problems we face will not be satisfied by any global or government solution. Individuals moving forward with confidence will overcome them.