Matthew Lau: Good news is all around us — you just have to know where to look
At FP Comment, we do our share of complaining. For the festive season, six wise Canadians tell us what not to complain about. What’s going well and shouldn’t be changed? Today, Matthew Lau on the good news all around us.
Christmas is a time for good news, thanksgiving and joy. Regular readers of FP Comment, however, might consider such things to be in chronically short supply on this page. We complain a lot, mostly because governments give us plenty to complain about. Yet good news is all around us — you just have to know where to look.
Standards of living in Canada and all around the world, the long-run trends show, are rising steadily. The average Canadian today drives a more reliable car and has access to better medical care (even with our inefficient single-payer system) than the richest person in the world, John D. Rockefeller, a century ago. Similarly, Rockefeller in 1919 had no radio to listen to, no television to watch, and no microwave to quickly heat his food. Today, almost all Canadians, including most considered poor, can afford all three.
In the past two decades alone there has been plenty of progress. In 1999, only 50 per cent of Canadian households owned a personal computer and fewer than 30 per cent could use the internet at home. Only one-third of households had a cellphone. Now so many kids have them (and they are of such higher quality) that phones are being banned from classrooms in Ontario. Life expectancy 20 years ago was 79 years. Today it’s 82 years.
Around the world, improvements in standards of living are even more astonishing. In 1920, around three-quarters of the world lived in extreme poverty and the child mortality rate was 30 per cent. Today, extreme poverty has fallen to around 10 per cent and child mortality to four per cent. Since 1950, the world’s real GDP per capita has more than quadrupled, while average life expectancy has risen from 46 years to 73 years.
There is every reason to believe the march of capitalism, though often slowed by counterproductive government intervention, will continue increasing prosperity and reducing poverty into the indefinite future. Thanks to globalization, it doesn’t matter if the next great innovation or scientific breakthrough comes from the United States, India, Germany, Japan, or anywhere else: people in Canada and all around the world will be able to benefit from it. The enriching effects of capitalism and globalization are clearly reasons for happiness.
But though most people would prefer to have more money than less, there is much more to happiness than financial well-being. In fact, as Adam Smith observed, the excessive pursuit of riches is ruinous. “The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life,” Smith wrote, “seems to arise from over-rating the difference between one permanent situation and another.” He warned against the “extravagant passion” of greed, which causes people to over-rate the difference between being rich and being poor.
Smith, a teacher of moral philosophy, thought the way to be happy was to be loved and lovely (i.e., deserving of love) and to be respected and respectable. The right way to achieve this, according to Smith, was through wisdom and virtue, and the wrong way through wealth and fame. People might try to earn love and respect by buying fancy things to signal to others how wealthy they were, but as Smith asks, “How many people ruin themselves by laying out money on trinkets of frivolous utility?”
A message much older and more powerful than Smith’s — that of Jesus Christ and Christmas — went much further. Achieving lasting happiness, the Bible says, is accomplished by doing the opposite of accumulating lots of material wealth. The kingdom of heaven, as Jesus explained in one parable, is like a treasure that a man found in a field, and then “in his joy he goes and sells all that he has” in exchange for the treasure. His point is not that the kingdom of heaven is something to be purchased — quite the opposite, it is free, a gift — but that it is a greater source of joy than could be provided by all the world’s material wealth.
Economic progress and massive poverty reduction are indeed good news. But Christmas reminds us every year that material progress pales in comparison with the good news of great joy delivered by the angel to the shepherds over 2,000 years ago.