“Nature has set no limit to the realization of our hopes.”
—Marquis de Condorcet
Recently I came across the extraordinary writings of the Marquis de Condorcet (1743-94), a mathematician with an amazing gift of prophecy in l’age des lumières. Robert Malthus (1766-1834) ridiculed Condorcet’s optimism in his famous Essay on Population (1798). Today Malthus is well known and Condorcet is forgotten. Yet it is Condorcet who has proven to be far more prescient.
In an essay written over 200 years ago, translated as “The Future Progress of the Mind,” Condorcet foresaw the agricultural revolution, gigantic leaps in labor productivity, a reduced work week, the consumer society, a dramatic rise in the average life span, medical breakthroughs, cures for common diseases, and an explosion in the world’s population.
Condorcet concluded his essay with a statement that accurately describes the two major forces of the twentieth century the destructive force of war and crimes against humanity, and the creative force of global free-market capitalism. He wrote eloquently of “the errors, the crimes, the injustices which still pollute the earth,” while at the same time celebrating our being “emancipated from its shackles, released from the empire of fate and from that of the enemies of its progress, advancing with a firm and sure step along the path of truth, virtue and happiness!”1
As we enter the year 2000, the public has focused on the history of the twentieth century. Condorcet’s essay reflects two characteristics of this incredible period. First, the misery and vicious injustices of the past hundred years, and second, the incredible economic and technological advances during the same time.
The Crimes of the Twentieth Century
Paul Johnson’s Modern Times, by far the best twentieth-century history of the world, demonstrates powerfully that this century has been the bloodiest of all world history.2 Here is a breakdown of the carnage:
Civilians Killed by Governments (in millions)
Soviet Union 62 (1917-91)
China (communist) 35 (1949- )
Germany 21 (1933-45)
China (Kuomintang) 10 (1928-49)
Japan 6 (1936-45)
Other 36 (1900- )
Total 170 million
Deaths in War (in millions)
International wars 30
Civil wars 7
Total 37 million
Economists use a statistic to measure what national output could exist under conditions of full employment, called Potential GDP. Imagine the Potential GDP if the communists, Nazis, and other despots hadn’t used government power to commit those hateful crimes against humanity.
Another great French writer, Frederic Bastiat (1801-50), wrote an essay in 1850 on “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen.”3 We do not see the art, literature, inventions, music, books, charity, and good works of the millions who lost their lives in the Soviet gulags, Nazi concentration camps, and Pol Pot’s killing fields.
The Economic Miracle of the Twentieth Century
Yet the twentieth century was also the best of times, for those who survived the wars and repression. Millions of Americans, Europeans, and Asians were emancipated from the drudgery of all-day work by miraculous technological advances in telecommunications, agriculture, transportation, energy, and medicine. The best book describing this economic miracle is Stanley Lebergott’s Pursuing Happiness: American Consumers in the Twentieth Century (Princeton University Press, 1993). Focusing on trends in food, tobacco and alcohol, clothing, housing, fuel, housework, health, transportation, recreation, and religion, he demonstrates powerfully how “consumers have sought to make an uncertain and often cruel world into a pleasanter and more convenient place.” As a result, Americans have increased their standard of living at least tenfold in the past 100 years.
What should be the goal of the economist in the new millennium? Certainly not to repeat the blunders of the past. In the halls of Congress, the White House, and academia, we need to reject the brutality of Marxism, the weight of Keynesian big government, and the debauchery of sound currency by interventionist central banks. Most important, ivory-tower economists need to concentrate more on applied economics (like the work of Lebergott) instead of high mathematical modeling.
As far as a positive program is concerned, the right direction can be found in an essay on the “next economics” written by the great Austrian-born management guru Peter F. Drucker almost 20 years ago: “Capital is the future.., the Next Economics will have to be again micro-economic and centered on sup ply.” Drucker demanded an economic theory aiming at “optimizing productivity” that would benefit all workers and consumers.4 Interestingly, Drucker cited approvingly from the work of Robert Mundell, the newest Nobel Prize winner in economics, who is famed for his advocacy of supply-side economics and a gold-backed international currency.
Beware the Enemy
Market forces are on the march. The collapse of Soviet communism has, in the words of Milton Friedman, turned “creeping socialism” into “crumbling socialism.” But let us not be deluded. Bad policies, socialistic thinking, and class hatred die slowly. Unless we are vigilant, natural liberty and universal prosperity will be on the defensive once again.
We need to deregulate, privatize, cut taxes, open borders, stop inflating, balance the budget, and limit government to its proper constitutional authority. We need to teach, write, and speak out for economic liberalization as never before. Let our goal for the coming era be: freedom in our time for all peoples!
- Marquis de Condorcet, “The Future Progress of the Human Mind,” The Portable Enlightenment Reader, ed. Isaac Kramnick (Penguin Books, 1995), p. 38. Several of Condorcet’s writings can be found in this excellent anthology.
- Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties, rev. ed. (New York: Harper, 1992). The best survey of the horrors of communism is The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999), written by six French scholars, some of whom are former communists.
- Frederic Bastiat, Selected Essays on Political Economy (Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Foundation for Economic Education, 1995 ).
- Peter F. Drucker, Toward the Next Economics, and Other Essays (New York: Harper & Rowe, 1981), pp. 1-21.