Belgium -Brussels – I realise how counter-cyclical that sounds. How can I possibly make such a claim when the liberal values that have sustained the West since 1945 are being shaken in election after election? When millions of jobs are disappearing through technological change? When the rich are getting richer while the poor get poorer? When we see population movements unknown in peacetime? When great power rivalry has re-emerged for the first time since the fall of the Berlin Wall? When terrorism has become almost an accepted fact in Western European capitals? When there are daily atrocities in Iraq, Syria, Yemen?
Well, it is in our nature to pay more attention to recent and dramatic events than to remote ones.
The horrors of Aleppo fill our TV screens, but no newsreader will ever begin a bulletin by saying: “Good evening. There is no war in Yugoslavia, nor in Rwanda, nor in Vietnam”. Deaths in war – indeed, all violent deaths – have been in steady decline since 1945, as Steven Pinker demonstrated in his magisterial work The Better Angels of our Nature. Even in Syria, which caused a slight bump in that decline, casualties have dwindled since their grisly peak in 2014.
It is not true that the rich are getting richer while the poor get poorer. Most people in most countries are getting richer, and the most rapid increases in wealth are occurring in Africa and Asia. On any metric you choose – literacy, longevity, infant mortality, calorie intake – this is the best time to be a human being.
While it is true that automation will make some jobs redundant – driverless cars, for example, will displace millions of people who, one way or another, drive for a living – the productivity gains will lead to the creation of many more jobs.
The fears we hear today were voiced in almost identical language when our ancestors made the transition from agriculture to industry. It was widely assumed that the “real” jobs were on the land, and that factories would never be able to absorb so many former farmworkers. In the event, the ability to produce more food with less labour freed people up to produce goods that had previously been beyond the reach of all except the very rich. Precisely the same fears were voiced when we moved from industry to services: the “real” jobs were supposed to involve making things. Again, though, the increases in productivity allowed us to invent whole new fields of economic activity. The same is happening today. As for terrorism, it retains the power to shock precisely because it is rare. The human brain is bad at computing probability. We tend to think that monstrous and frightening events are more frequent than they really are. Still, if you live in Europe, the Americas or, indeed, almost any country not experiencing a civil war, you are more than ten thousand times more likely to die of heart disease than in a terrorist attack. You are more to drown in the bath than to die in a terrorist attack. You are more likely to die as a consequence of having sex than in a terrorist attack.
As for the mass migration of people from Africa, Asia and Latin America into the West, it certainly presents challenges, but they are challenges of prosperity. Prosperity in the destination countries, obviously – people would not risk long and difficult journeys into Europe or the United States if there were no jobs for them at the other end – but rising prosperity in the countries of origin, too. The widespread ownership of smartphones makes possible the transfer of information and credit, and so allows people to undertake odysseys which their parents, living on subsidence agriculture, could not contemplate.
These are not fashionable thoughts. We are, by our nature, alarmist. An author who argues that we are drowning in debt, or that we will die from drugs-resistant superbugs, or that the planet will fry or freeze, or that an asteroid will wipe out civilization, or that Europe will soon live under Islamist theocracy, will usually find a publisher. The same is not true of an author who argues that life will get better – patchily and with occasional reverses, but better none the less.
It has to do with evolutionary psychology. Our brains were evolved in an altogether more dangerous world. On the savannahs of Pleistocene Africa, optimism was a poor survival strategy. We are programmed to be suspicious.
In consequence, we unconsciously put the worst construction on possible events. Donald Trump will create an authoritarian state! Brexit will impoverish Britain and Europe and divide the West! Terrorists will flood into Europe in the guise of refugees, carrying with them the evil of the Islamic State! Well, maybe. But isn’t it at least as likely that Donald Trump will operate within the limits of a Constitution that was explicitly designed to constrain authoritarian tendencies? That Britain and the EU will preserve close military, intelligence and commercial links after Brexit? That Islamic State will finally be defeated?
And isn’t it likely that our children will lead longer, freer, healthier and happier lives than us? That sentence could have been written at any time in the last 300 years. It would always have prompted snorts of disbelief; but it would always have been true.