Commentary

The Full-Circle Century

By Edward L. Hudgins
December 31, 1999
In the 19th century, which began with candlelight and horsedrawn carriages, the Industrial Revolution created more wealth than had been created in all previous centuries combined. The 20th century dawned with electric lights to illuminate cities, telephones and telegraphs to communicate across continents and trains to transport products and passengers thousands of miles. It saw the growth of the middle class and the promise that people would have a chance to work their way up from poverty to prosperity. The sciences saw great advances in our understanding of the laws of chemistry, electromagnetism and biology. The world’s great fairs and exhibitions glorified human achievements. People a century ago looked forward to another hundred years of technological progress.

What caused those achievements? The blossoming of economic and personal freedom. In America, individual entrepreneurs like Carnegie, Edison and Rockefeller could grow rich by creating new products, services, industries and innovations that served the emerging consumer society. But they could do those things only because they were free to think, to own property, to use it as they saw fit and to keep any profits from the wealth they created.

Another source of optimism was political. The principles of representative government—individual rights and limited political power—had allowed the United States to grow from 5 million citizens clinging to the East Coast of North America in 1800 to a continent-sized country of 76 million in 1900. Millions of immigrants came each year. Those principles, not conquering armies, had changed European governments as well.

But all was not well. The empires of the Great Powers brought railroads, electricity, other infrastructure and even the rule of law to their colonies. But imperialism also pits one country’s power against that of another, promoting large military expenditures and ultimately war, both of which are incompatible with individual liberty and free markets.

World War I shook the confidence of the Western powers. How could supposedly superior systems send millions of young men to their deaths in the trenches? The war was followed by the rise of communism in Russia and fascism in Germany and Italy, challenging democratic institutions.

The defeat of fascism in World War II couldn’t stop the trend in the West toward strong, centralized governments that preserved democratic processes but felt guilty and apologetic about economic freedom, which they proceeded to undermine. In America, government more and more directed the economy while much of Western Europe adopted some form of socialism.

The reputation of science and industry hung on for a bit longer. The Wright brothers took to the air in 1903. Albert Einstein changed our understanding of space, time and the laws of physics with his special and general theories of relativity. Niels Bohr postulated the quantum nature of matter. Engineering achievements like the construction of Hoover Dam and 200-inch telescope at the Palomar Observatory were still celebrated.

But the atomic bombs that ended World War II and the technological skills exercised in Nazi death camps revealed a dark side of science. Worse, the environmental movement, which began in the 1960s to address real problems, in recent decades has metastasized into a movement that often vilifies industry. The rational approach of science is rejected in favor of a bizarre hypochondria—unsubstantiated “feelings” that we are being sickened and poisoned by everything around us.

Yet we seem to be coming full circle. The collapse of communism not only vindicated democratic institutions but refuted socialist economic planning. Further, in advanced industrialized countries, the shortcomings of government manipulation of economies and welfare-state policies are generally recognized. Reagan and Thatcher have won the intellectual battle. In America and Europe, so-called Third Way disciples try to preserve state control of economies by introducing market processes. Privatization and deregulation of state-owned and state-managed industries struggle along in industrialized and less developed countries alike.

The reputation of science and technology also is improving, thanks to the communications and information revolution. People are excited by computers, the Internet and the new age they are opening. Those empowering technologies allow individuals to surf the Web as they see fit, to find whatever information interests them, to buy and sell to their hearts’ content—all without the burden of taxes or government regulation.

The lesson of the past century is that the human spirit cannot be held in check, that with individual liberty, anything is possible, and that at the beginning of the 21st century, as at the beginning of the 20th, there is truly cause for optimism.

Edward Hudgins is director of regulatory studies at the Cato Institute.