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Realizing Rawls’ Just Society

February 28, 2018

A review of It’s Better Than it Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear by Gregg Easterbrook (Public Affairs. February 2018. ISBN 9781610397414.) A shorter version of this review was published in the Wall Street Journal on February 28, 2018 under the title “Why Things Are Looking Up”.

Though declinists in both parties may bemoan our miserable lives, Americans are healthier, wealthier, safer and living longer than ever.

Better Than it Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear (book cover)

In his 1971 book A Theory of Justice, the Harvard philosopher John Rawls argued that in the “original position” of a society we are all shrouded in a “veil of ignorance” of how we will be born—male or female, black or white, rich or poor, healthy or sick, slave or free—so society should be structured in such a way that laws do not privilege any one group because we do not know which category we will ultimately find ourselves in.

Writing during a time when civil unrest over centuries of injustice was spilling out into the streets in marches and riots, Rawls’ work was as much prescriptive as it was descriptive. But 45 years later, at a 2016 speech in Athens, Greece, President Barack Obama affirmed that a Rawlsian society was becoming a reality: “If you had to choose a moment in history to be born, and you did not know ahead of time who you would be—you didn’t know whether you were going to be born into a wealthy family or a poor family, what country you’d be born in, whether you were going to be a man or a woman—if you had to choose blindly what moment you’d want to be born you’d choose now.” As Obama explained to a German audience earlier that year: “We’re fortunate to be living in the most peaceful, most prosperous, most progressive era in human history,” adding “that it’s been decades since the last war between major powers. More people live in democracies. We’re wealthier and healthier and better educated, with a global economy that has lifted up more than a billion people from extreme poverty.”

Data supporting this observation is now readily available through such sites as Hans Rosling’s Gapminder.org, Max Roser’s ourworldindata.org, and Marian Tupy’s humanprogress.org, and in books such as Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now (2018), Johan Norberg’s Progress (2016), my own The Moral Arc (2015), Peter Diamandis’ and Steven Kotler’s Abundance (2012), Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist (2011), and others. Apparently it’s not enough as pessimism is as prominent as it ever was, if not more during the recent uptick of identity politics and economic nationalism.

Thus, Gregg Easterbrook’s masterful and comprehensive exposition on why we should be optimistic in an age of pessimism, It’s Better Than it Looks, comes at a propitious moment. Easterbrook backs his sanguine perspective with copious data, and at the same time he demonstrates how a pessimistic perspective can not only lead people to despair but it can nudge voters to elect a man who growled that our economy “is always bad, down, down, down” even as it was climbing up, up, up out of the gravity well of the 2008/2009 recession. Since emotions trump information, apocalyptic political rhetoric crowds out data dumps of positive trends in the spaces of our mind’s decision tree. On average, Easterbrook shows in this rich narrative packed with statistics, while the declinists were bemoaning our miserable lives during the last election, “at no juncture in American history were people better off than they were in 2016: living standards, per-​capita income, buying power, health, safety, liberty, and longevity were at their highest, while women, minorities, and gays were free in ways they’d never been before. There had been no juncture in history at which the typical member of the global population was better off either.”

A potent counter to today’s unwarranted pessimism, the author claims, is not just the evidence that can be seen (rising employment, wages, wealth, health, lifespans and so on) but what has not been seen. Granaries, for instance, are not empty: The many predictions made since the 1960s that billions would die of starvation have not come true. “Instead, by 2015, the United Nations reported global malnutrition had declined to the lowest level in history. Nearly all malnutrition that persists is caused by distribution failures or by government corruption, not by lack of supply.” In fact, obesity is rapidly becoming a global problem.

Similarly, even though there are occasional panics, “resources have not been depleted despite the incredible proliferation of people, vehicles, aircraft, and construction.” Instead of oil and gas running out by the year 2000, as some in the 1970s predicted, both “are in worldwide oversupply” along with minerals and ores. Likewise, there are no runaway plagues. “Unstoppable outbreaks of super-viruses and mutations were said to menace a growing world; instead, nearly all disease rates are in decline, including the rates of most cancers.” Western nations are also no longer choking on pollution. Smog in major cities like Los Angeles, for example, is in free fall as measured by the number of air-quality alerts. Sulfur dioxide, the main source of acid rain, is down by 81% in the U.S. since 1990, and forests in Appalachia “are in the best condition they have been in since the eighteenth century.”

In America as well as the rest of the world, crime and violence are getting less, not more, frequent, Mr. Easterbrook points out. Homicide rates have plummeted since their post-World War II high in 1993, while “the frequency and intensity of combat have gone down worldwide.” And despite worries about rising authoritarianism, the dictators aren’t winning. In the 1980s dictators ravaged countries on nearly every continent; today, the Kim family’s lock on North Korea stands out as an aberration.

Easterbrook’s aim in this important book is to prove that life is more auspicious than most people believe, to show why life did not deteriorate as predicted, to identify what we’ve been doing right so we can do more of it, and consider what we can do about the still pressing problems we face, most notably the “impossible” challenges of inequality and climate change, along with others that social commentators kvetch about: marriage, social security, health care, artificial intelligence, poverty, nuclear weapons, and others, all soluble if we make the effort. Easterbrook reminds us that while it is easy to see (and remember) bad things that happen, it is impossible to see what hasn’t happened (as predicted in previous decades): resources are not exhausted, there are no runaway plagues, Western nations are not choking on pollution, the economy keeps functioning, crime and war are not getting worse, and dictators (what few are left) are not winning.

The cause of this salubrious turn of events in human history was the result of human action and problem solving, not historical tides on which we helplessly ride. “History is not deterministic, teleological, or controlled in any manner,” Easterbrook concludes. Instead, each of the many areas of progress that he documents were the result of individuals and organizations—both private and public—deciding to solve particular problems, as President Franklin Roosevelt prophesized in 1938 when the world was much darker than it is today: “We observe a world of great opportunities disguised as insoluble problems.” It is a fitting quote Easterbrook notes with some irony, since it was early 20th century progressives who were the optimists who envisioned an America the Beautiful in which “alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears.” Today’s progressives take an opposite tack of gloomy pessimism, matched by the Right’s nostalgia for the “Good Ole Days”—you know, when life was Hobbesian nasty, brutish, and short. Easterbrook wants to make optimism intellectually respectable again, and he has done so with cogent arguments and bountiful numbers, showing that “history has an arrow, and the arrow of history points forever upward.”

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