With three new grandchildren this year, I have reason to reflect a bit on the future. To some, it looks dim, with inevitable decline -- socially, environmentally, and economically -- but we have a responsibility to ensure that our youth grasp the tremendous potential and maintain hope for a future of possibilities.
Worry over machines and artificial intelligence taking all of the jobs has gotten traction, but instead, new technologies make people more productive, like it has always done. It makes societies more prosperous, decreases the cost of living, and increases human capabilities. Decreasing prices of technology mean that more advanced processes will be more accessible for more ordinary people so they can be part of the wealth-creation process, as happens in free societies.
Overpopulation has long been a point of contention, with fear that the earth can’t support any more humans. The worry, however, is far overblown. At its projected maximum, world population is expected to be somewhere between the 9-10 billion around the year 2050. Greater prosperity tends to decrease the number babies per capita, and billions of people have been lifted out of extreme poverty through economic freedom and markets. World hunger has little to do with too many people. It happens when political systems trap citizens in subsistence farming and keep them from advancing with division of labor and accumulation of personal wealth. If population density and lack of local resources were the issues, then Hong Kong and Singapore would be starving, but instead they are among the most prosperous.
In spite of dire warnings for decades, the world has never and will never run out of any resource, as long as free markets are allowed to express scarcity in terms of price. Higher prices encourage conservation, the search for new technologies for more efficient utilization, and the development of alternative resources, and will do so in the future, unless politics gets in the way.
The future truly is unknowable, but the possibilities are endless. With the advent of low-cost technologies, localized maker societies could more likely, with small businesses and individuals using three dimensional printing to rapidly produce inexpensive goods to order instead of mega corporations having the advantage using mass production. New forms of energy generation, storage, concentration, and utilization could make it possible to do things that we can’t even dream of now. New molecules could be devised to make customized materials for any application. Who knows? Even if global warming turns out just as doomsayers are predicting, it will happen over a long enough time period for societies around the globe to adjust, using markets and human ingenuity to find solutions as problems pop up, again, barring political mischief.
The other side of the story is that political mischief is the rule, not the exception. The progress of history is not a continuous climb to ever higher levels of happiness and prosperity. History happens in fits and stars, with tremendous troubles shaking some regions to the core, or most countries, as in the case of the World Wars. Such things as wars and genocides are not market phenomena, though. They are entirely political. Even wide-spread famines occur not because of crop failures, but because political forces prevent the development of effective inter-regional trade and markets.
There is a lot to be hopeful for about future reality, but there is also a lot to be wary of. It is quite unfortunate that people turn to politicians, who tend to multiply problems, rather than having faith in their brothers and sisters around the world to come develop their own solutions to their problems. That is what needs to change if we are to maintain the upward track. Free markets and free people lead to progress.