The previous two posts have illustrated the improvement in prosperity spreading across the globe as measured by long life and the soaring improvements in economic status. But there is at least one other measure of prosperity we need to visit as we assess Brian McLaren’s Everything Must Change. What about political freedom and civil liberties?
At the close of the eighteenth century, the number of democracies in the world could be counted on one hand and they represented only a tiny fraction of the world population. By the late nineteenth century, democracy was beginning to spread to more nations. Today, most nations feel obliged to characterize themselves as democracies, regardless of their actual circumstances.
For decades, an organization called Freedom House has been using a variety of criteria to evaluate nations on their political and civil rights. They rank nations into seven categories but more generally rank them as “free,” “partly free,” and “not free.” In the two tables below I have compared the state of freedom in the world between 1975 and 2005. The population of each nation at the time was assigned one of the three statuses. Each percentage below is the percentage of people of a designated region with a given status. Pay particular attention to the size of the green bars as they indicate the percentage of people living in “free” countries.
There percentage of the world living in free countries has soared from 16% to 43% over the last thirty years. Only the Middle East and North Africa region has actually moved away from freedom. Significant improvements are seen in most other regions of the world.
The relationship between longer lives, more income, and greater freedom, and other aspects of prosperity show up in other indicators as well. Here are just three:
Keep in mind that the population of the world has nearly doubled over the time elapsed in these graphs. Thus, if the percentages are increasing, the absolute numbers are growing rapidly. I could go on with more stats like the precipitous drop in conflicts around the world over the fifteen years (click here) but you get the picture. The world is becoming a more prosperous place for more and more people!
With that said, I want to be clear on a few issues. Nothing I’ve written in these last three posts in any way justifies colonialism or the horrific abuses that occurred with oppression. Nor does it justify interventionist acts committed by the United States and other world powers in pursuit of their own interest. Nor does it suggest that there is not abuse today or that every corner of the world is growing prosperity. But what it does suggest is that, in a stumbling bumbling manner, the world has been experiencing a widespread, and spreading, outbreak of prosperity that dwarfs anything humanity has encountered before.
Again, McLaren describes the prosperity system this way:
The prosperity system seeks to fulfill our desire for happiness – our desire not just to survive, but to thrive. We associate happiness with enjoyable sensations, so through the prosperity system we create ways to fulfill that desire – for good tastes, for pleasant and interesting sights and sounds, for enjoyable tactile, intellectual, and emotional experiences – and for relief from the opposites (such as disease, injury, or boredom). (55)
And yet his “frame-in-time” perspective paints the image of a world falling under the dark oppressive hand of the United States and evil theocapitalists, driving the poor into the ground and destroying the environment. I have purposely not touched on environmental issues yet but what I hope I’ve effectively made clear over these last three posts is that, when viewed from outside a parochial present oriented lens, the idea that the world is a “suicide machine” with regard to human prosperity is simply indefensible.
In the next couple of posts I want look at what sparked the changes of the last three centuries. We will then take a look at some environmental issues before returning to look at some the specifics of McLaren’s claims.
(For further enlightenment, I'd also invite you to check out this entertaining and informative 20 minute presentation at the TED conferences by Hans Rosling about the improving state of the world.)