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Why Human Achievement Is Worth Celebrating

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This Saturday marks the seventh annual observance of “Human Achievement Hour,” a celebration of technology and prosperity hosted by my organization, the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Originally created as an alternative to the World Wildlife Fund’s “Earth Hour” campaign (which urges people to turn off their lights in the name of environmental conservation), Human Achievement Hour counters widespread predictions of environmental and societal doom.

The doomsayers see a litany of unsolved problems made consistently worse because of a growing global population, greater use of resources, and risks from new technologies—a worldview that views human beings and the technologies they have created as sources of problems to be addressed by government intervention. We in the “rational optimist” camp, on the other hand, see more people and newer, better technologies as the solutions to the very real problems that afflict the world.

As P. J. O’Rourke noted, just one phrase—“modern dentistry!”—shows how much technological developments have improved our lives. And it has been the capitalist, free market system (when it has been allowed to work) that has allowed those improvements to become more widely available and made us wealthier, healthier, and freer. I see it in my own life. Consider just a few recent life-enhancing innovations.

Next week, for example, I will have both of my “original equipment” knees replaced with titanium-polyethylene devices. In my father’s generation, weak and painful knees were viewed as an unavoidable aspect of aging. Now, with a few hours of surgery and a few weeks of expertly-designed physical therapy, I’ll be able to solve a problem that once seemed intractable.

Some years ago, my wife Fran and I bought a weekend home on the Potomac River a few hours south of Washington, D.C. It was pleasant, save for those cold days when we’d have to wait hours for the house to warm up. This year, via a remote thermostat and the Internet, we gained the ability to call ahead to our robotic servant: “Jeeves, please warm the home, we’ll arrive at 7 pm.”

The Internet also allows us to shop at small specialized firms throughout the world. Fran (with my occasional advice) recently organized the supply chain for renovating our apartment’s two bathrooms without a general contractor. Basins, faucets, fixtures, tiles, hardware, countertops, and more—all selected from dozens of vendors without leaving our home, delivered in a few days by UPS or FedEx. Our cabinet hardware for our Mission-style bathroom was sourced from an Amish craftsman, illustrating how even new technology can help reinforce traditional values.

Our membership in 23&me, a DNA information site, alerted me to ailments for which my genetic type puts me at a higher risk. Now I’m being treated for several.

These are but a handful of the innumerable ways in which new technologies and the market economy are making our lives better. Each of us could make our own list.

Not all of these advantages come in the form of tangible products and services. The Internet allows minority views to bypass the filters of academia and the establishment news media. It also has enriched an array of voluntary associations not limited by geography, linking us together in virtual, vibrant, groups dedicated to a wide variety of interests, from fantasy football and movie trivia to genealogical research and political debate. The “alienation” fears about consumer-driven, capitalist societies could not have been more wrong. In the world’s free and prosperous nations today, no one need ever fear bowling alone!

But perhaps humanity’s greatest achievement has been capitalism itself—a system that vastly expands the cooperative links among people. Initially, many of those connections are economic, but when one deals with others, exchange often expands into non-economic areas. Markets acquaints people with one another, making friends of strangers in the process. We go out to lunch with colleagues and find out things about one another—interests, skills, and passions. These often lead to other links, like participating in joint hobbies, recreational events, or even going out on a date.

There are a lot of very serious problems still be solved, and a lot of places where American-style prosperity has yet to arrive. We cannot address those challenges if we turn our backs on the inventiveness and wealth-building instincts that have gotten us this far. This Saturday, I invite you to join me in celebrating the spirit of Human Achievement Hour, and the many ways in which human beings have, and continue, to make the world a better place.