Last week, I outlined two important facts to keep in mind while studying history. The first being that there is more truth than many like to give to George Santayana’s adage that those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it. The second being the realization of the Great Fact — that we today live in a time of unimaginable wealth and prosperity compared to the rest of human history and that this wealth started during the industrial revolution for countries in Europe and North America. But what exactly caused this outpouring of wealth is a subject of great debate.
Economic historian Deidre McCloskey notes that the rise of certain virtues, which she calls “the Bourgeois Virtues,” contributed greatly to this new wealth and that it would not be possible if it weren’t for society shifting towards new norms and expectations. For example, a respect for private property — one that was much stronger compared to what was seen during the age of serfdom — would motivate average people to work not only for the community, but also to advance their own lives.
Just the sheer level of great wealth that we live with today is something to be reflected on and appreciated. In the world’s most industrialized nations, even the poor live in greater luxury than much of the nobility of a few centuries ago. Running water and a refrigerator are great leaps in human innovation, and with the invention of the smartphone, almost any person can have access to the entirety of human knowledge available at their disposal at any time. In the average grocery store, consumers can find wine made from the grapes of wineries on other continents, and don’t have to turn over their entire paycheck just for a sip. We are now capable of going from one coast of the United States to the other in about four hours, with the comfort level of our living rooms, and with food and drink imported from all over the world, at a fairly low price. Compare this to the months our ancestors would spend in covered wagons attempting to cross the terrain, and in instances times they’d fail, with deadly consequences.
Not only are we incredibly wealthy, but we are incredibly healthy compared to our ancestors. With the advent of modern medicine accompanying our newfound wealth, infant mortality rates dropped, life expectancy more than doubled, and the Good Life could be extended by decades to include many more pursuits.
Hans Rosling, Professor of International Health, visualizes this immense fledgling of health and wealth.
Enjoy that you are alive today. And celebrate the entrepreneurs that continue to make it better.