For those who paint dark futures, the past offers a different palette

Nearly half of Americans see no hope of a better future, a mood that politicians easily prey on. Yet new books by scholars comb history to show why progress in ideas marches on.

AP Photo
A supporter of Myanmar's National League for Democracy party displays a picture of Aung San Suu Kyi in a celebration of the party's victory last November and the rebirth of democracy for the country.

Nearly half of Americans say the future will be worse compared with life today, according to a Pew poll in August. About a quarter say it will be only the same. The dark mood is reflected in other wealthy democracies, perhaps accounting for the rise of politicians, on both the left and right, who tap into this gloom and promise extreme measures. The news media, too, has exploited public pessimism about such issues as inequality, trade, cybersecurity, climate change, and terrorism.

Only the bold would try to swim against this current of Cassandras. Bad news about the future sells. It binds people in common dread at the expense of hope. These days, it travels at the speed of a tweet. And if we are not careful, it may help create the very circumstances it foretells.

To be sure, problems must be identified and solved. Yet a few scholars have written books lately that serve as reminders of the sweep of progress, especially over the last two centuries. They aim to show that the steady march of history can instill a gratitude for past accomplishments that brings a confidence in more to come.

In 2014, for example, Charles Kenny of the Center for Global Development wrote a book entitled “The Upside of Down: Why the Rise of the Rest is Good.” He shows why the West can welcome the rise of poor nations and has the tools to accommodate them. In an earlier book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” Harvard University’s Steven Pinker shows why humans have steadily embraced peace as the norm.

In a new book called “A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy,” Northwestern University professor Joel Mokyr argues that the bursting of creative ideas since 1500, and which created modern prosperity, will likely not stop. In a similar vein, Swedish economic historian Johan Norberg has a new book, “Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future,” that highlights how reason and other forms of abstract thinking have led to a better life for humanity. Two centuries ago, for example, 94 percent of people lived on $2 a day, in today’s dollar value. By 2015, only 10 percent did.

The ongoing spread of ideas promises even further progress. In fact, many of these books look less at material causes and more at the embrace of values, such as respect of others, equality before the law, individual liberty, and social dignity.

In her latest book, “Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World,” Deirdre McCloskey at the University of Illinois at Chicago writes of the “Great Enrichment” since 1820.The enrichment is not only in income and goods but also in spiritual growth.

“The world has now more college graduates, more serious spiritual inquirers, more creative improvers of goods and services, more artists, musicians, professors, journalists, critics, and poets, and above all more appreciators of such arts and sciences and designs and spiritual exercises than all such folk combined in world history up to, say, 1950, and probably up to 1970,” she writes.

While these books have their critics and flaws, they do offer light against the night of fear in modern politics. “When we don’t see the progress we have made, we begin to search for scapegoats for the problems that remain,” writes Norberg. The grandest idea then may be just that: how an appreciation of advances in human thinking can help create a better future. Perhaps pollsters simply need to ask their questions differently.

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