Sunday, October 23, 2005

The Wealth of Generations: Capitalism and the Belief in the Future

From the The 22nd Annual John Bonython Lecture from The Centre for Independant Studies - Johan Norberg

Belief in the future is perhaps the most important value for a free
society. It is what makes so many interested in getting an education,
or investing in a project, or even being nice to their neighbours. If
we think that nothing can improve or if we think that the world is
coming to an end, we don’t work hard for a better and more civilised
future. And we will all be miserable.

The meat of the lecture is worth reading. As is the conclusion

It is worth giving the last word to one of the most insightful
thinkers of all time, the 19 th century liberal historian and
politician Lord Macaulay, whose Whig interpretation of history has been
condemned as a naïve, Panglossian idea that things constantly improve,
but which was actually a recognition of what individuals can create
when free. When Macaulay wrote his history of England, he couldn’t
believe why the English thought that the past was the good old days,
and he warned later generations – us – not to romanticise his own time,
which, despite being better than the past, was no utopia. And he wrote

“The general effect of the evidence which has
been submitted to the reader seems hardly to admit of doubt [that
living standards are improving]. Yet, in spite of evidence, many will
still image to themselves the England of the Stuarts as a more pleasant
country than the England in which we live. It may at first sight seem
strange that society, while constantly moving forward with eager speed,
should be constantly looking backward with tender regret. But these two
propensities, inconsistent as they may appear, can easily be resolved
into the same principle. Both spring from our impatience of the state
in which we actually are. That impatience, while it stimulates us to
surpass preceding generations, disposes us to overrate their happiness.
It is, in some sense, unreasonable and ungrateful in us to be
constantly discontented with a condition which is constantly improving.
But, in truth, there is constant improvement precisely because there is
constant discontent. If we were perfectly satisfied with the present,
we should cease to contrive, to labour, and to save with a view to the

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