Are you worried about the future of our species? Have headlines of climate change, global inequality and political radicalism got you on edge? Well fear not! Renowned economist and all-around optimist Dr. Bart Wilson is here to restore your frayed nerves.

Wilson, a lecturer at Chapman University, California, arrived at Anglo-American University, Prague last month, to give a talk to a room of final year high school children on the state of the human condition. He specialises in, among other subjects, industrial organisation and experimental economics, and is also a member of a team lead by Nobel Laureate, Vernon Smith, establishing a new Economic Science Institute at Chapman University.

He began his lecture with a question:

“What is the state of the human condition?”

  • Exponentially worsening
  • Worsening
  • Stagnant
  • Improving
  • Exponentially improving

Wilson explained how there is generally a misconception in humanities that the current human condition is worsening. Humanities, Wilson believes, tends to be overly pessimistic. This is not to say it is always wrong, but it often overlooks possible positive solutions. Though the human race is facing major challenges, it is by moving forwards; opening markets and increasing trade that more opportunities will be available to more people.

He articulated his point with a simple graph:

Living standards, explained Wilson, remained largely the same (around $3 a day) for approximately 10,000 years, until the beginning of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. The successes of the Roman Empire 2000 years before were also added (Incidentally, the Roman Empire spike should be at least two-thirds smaller. My bad.) You may also notice a lack of Chinese, Persian, Arabic or Greek empires, which also greatly contributed to the global condition. But brushing the historical inadequacies aside, Wilson was keen to get to his point: the importance of trade.  

Not just any trade, he explained; humans have after all, been trading since the very beginning. It was trade in 19th century London, however, that would have the most profound impact on the quality of life for the human race.

Wilson explained how before the Industrial Revolution, the image of the trader had always been a nefarious one: a dangerous figure whose only priority was profit. But that image started to change in 19th century London as the trader began to be seen as an innovator and entrepreneur; a man whose aim was not to exploit but to explore; in turn broadening the horizons of science and technology.

This change, according to Wilson, signalled a breakaway from aristocratic old money to bourgeois new money, “going from static power to disruptive commerce.… From honour to honesty.” In 19th century London, he said, “it became respectable to do business.” A quote at the time summed up the mood: “An aristocrat would never live where he works!” Indeed. This new businessman was a grafter, and, unlike the aristocrat, was a man that believed in the central tenements of a liberal society: equality, liberty and justice.

“Who was the hero in Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice?” Wilson asked. “The businessman.” He answered. I hadn’t read the book since high school, and I couldn’t recall a heroic businessman in it, but it fit well with the Wilson’s narrative. He also claimed that in early Bollywood films, the businessman was always depicted as a sinister character, but in the booming Indian economy of the 21st century, the businessman’s screen appearances have become much more favourable.

In Wilson’s eyes, this fundamental change that took place in England in the 1800s, was the first crack in the foundations of the established order. The order of kings and queens that had ruled for centuries under the unequivocal power of divine right. Businessmen could now make their own money, aside from these stuffy regal and religious institutions, pioneering innovations in technology, expanding national infrastructure and ultimately bettering the quality of life for many. Trade has always been the key, believes Wilson, to improving the global condition.

Trade has always been the key, believes Wilson, to improving the global condition. “When we have two billion Chinese and Indian people researching the world’s deadliest diseases, we won’t have any diseases!” said the doctor. He was even able to put a positive spin on climate change, claiming that if the polar icecaps melt it will speed up trade by allowing ships to sail over the poles! (Fortunately no polar bears were in attendance.)

After hearing the doctor’s arguments, a student’s hand shot up at the back of the class: “Aren’t you being a little optimistic?” Asked the student. Wilson’s response summed it up: “Business people have to be optimistic in order to be successful.” He said, “…Humans are resilient.” His only slight concern seemed to be that of ethics or rather the lack of them, although the subject wasn’t further discussed.

Wilson’s whole thesis seemed to be that of an intrepid pioneer who doesn’t mind breaking a few eggs in pursuit of his Utopian free-trade omelette. But no matter what damage may be caused by rampant trading (exploitation, corruption, inequality etc.), let us not forget where we came from. We are at a period in human history where there is in fact less disease, less infant mortality, less starvation and less war than ever before, making the global life-expectancy the highest it has ever been.

As Wilson’s lecture came to an end, it was clear the audience had thoroughly enjoyed it. Enthusiasm is contagious and whether you agree or disagree with his prognosis of the human condition, it cannot be denied that international trade is faster and more dense that at any time in history. For those who worry or complain about the world’s state, they must surely see there is little that can be done to reverse the direction of our ever-accelerating globalised world.

Onwards and upwards!

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Taymaz Valley