Yesterday, James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute posted, in response to Bernie Sanders’ skepticism towards free market, that capitalism has made human “fantastically better”.
I do not disagree – quite the contrary. However, Pethokoukis makes his case by citing the fact that material quality of life has increased for everyone on earth since the early 19th century. I believe that this is not the strongest case for capitalism. The strongest case relies on health. This is because it addresses an element that skeptics are more concerned about.
Indeed, skeptics of capitalism tend to underline that “there is more to life than material consumption”. And they are right! They merely misunderstand that the “material standard of living” is strongly related to the “stuff of life”. For them, income is of little value as an indicator. Thus, we need to look at the “quality of human life”. And what could be better than our “health”?
The substantial improvement in the material living standard of mankind has been accompanied by substantial improvements in health-related outcomes! Life expectancy, infant mortality, pregnancy-related deaths, malnutrition, risks of dying from contagious diseases, occupational fatalities, heights, the types of diseases we die from, quality of life during old age, the physical requirements of work and the risks related to famines have all gone in directions indicating substantial improvements!
My favorite is the case of height. Human stature is strongly correlated with income and other health outcomes (net nutrition, risks of disease, life expectancy, pregnancy-related variables). Thus it is an incredible indicator of the improvement in the “stuff of life”. And throughout the globe since the industrial revolution, heights have increased (not equally though). Over at OurWorldInData.org, Max Roser shows this increase since the 1800s (in centimeters)
However, the true magnitude of the increase in human heights is best seen in the data from Gregory Clark who used skeletal remains found in archaeological sites for ancient societies. The magnitude of the improvement is even clearer through this graph.
The ability of “capitalism” to generate improvement in material living standards did leak into broader measures of human well-being. By far, this is the greatest outcome from capitalism.