The Full‐​Circle Century


In the 19th century, which began with candlelight and horsedrawn carriages,the Industrial Revolution created more wealth than had been created in allprevious centuries combined. The 20th century dawned with electric lightsto illuminate cities, telephones and telegraphs to communicate acrosscontinents and trains to transport products and passengers thousands ofmiles. It saw the growth of the middle class and the promise that peoplewould have a chance to work their way up from poverty to prosperity. Thesciences saw great advances in our understanding of the laws of chemistry,electromagnetism and biology. The world's great fairs and exhibitionsglorified human achievements. People a century ago looked forward toanother hundred years of technological progress.

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

Another source of optimism was political. The principles of representativegovernment--individual rights and limited political power--had allowed theUnited States to grow from 5 million citizens clinging to the East Coast ofNorth America in 1800 to a continent-sized country of 76 million in 1900.Millions of immigrants came each year. Those principles, not conqueringarmies, 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 theircolonies. But imperialism also pits one country's power against that ofanother, promoting large military expenditures and ultimately war, both ofwhich are incompatible with individual liberty and free markets.

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

The defeat of fascism in World War II couldn't stop the trend in the Westtoward strong, centralized governments that preserved democratic processesbut felt guilty and apologetic about economic freedom, which they proceededto undermine. In America, government more and more directed the economywhile much of Western Europe adopted some form of socialism.

The reputation of science and industry hung on for a bit longer. TheWright brothers took to the air in 1903. Albert Einstein changed ourunderstanding of space, time and the laws of physics with his special andgeneral theories of relativity. Niels Bohr postulated the quantum nature ofmatter. Engineering achievements like the construction of Hoover Dam and200-inch telescope at the Palomar Observatory were still celebrated.

But the atomic bombs that ended World War II and the technological skillsexercised in Nazi death camps revealed a dark side of science. Worse, theenvironmental movement, which began in the 1960s to address real problems,in recent decades has metastasized into a movement that often vilifiesindustry. The rational approach of science is rejected in favor of abizarre hypochondria--unsubstantiated "feelings" that we are being sickenedand poisoned by everything around us.

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

The reputation of science and technology also is improving, thanks to thecommunications and information revolution. People are excited by computers,the Internet and the new age they are opening. Those empoweringtechnologies allow individuals to surf the Web as they see fit, to findwhatever 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 incheck, that with individual liberty, anything is possible, and that at thebeginning of the 21st century, as at the beginning of the 20th, there istruly cause for optimism.