Why presume that all those billions of people who have gone before us and lived on $400 to $600 a year lacked optimism, enterprise, and faith? What a truly ignorant snobbery. The 18th century politicians and citizens in the United States took it so much for granted that the future would be "better" that they were arguing over who would own "Louisiana" (the land Jefferson purchased) before they had figured out a way to safely get west of Lynchburg. None of them would have asked "are you better off?" because they would have assumed - rightly - that being better off was everyone's goal and the question was how to get there.

They would have been pleased for our prosperity, but they would not have assumed that their ancestors were dolts simply because they had not yet invented the steam engine. They would also have been humble enough to know that fate has a way of erasing certainties, even economic ones, and they would truly have laughed at Mr. Landsburg's notions about sex, in his article, A Brief History of Economic Time. Better was not more; it was sleeping with someone you love who loves you, and no amount of money in the world could buy that.

Steven E. Landsburg responds:

The issue I was addressing was not whether they lacked optimism, enterprise and/or faith, but whether they lacked material prosperity, and whether they lacked any experience of material progress.  It is a matter of fact that with very few exceptions, prior to the Industrial Revolution, life above the subsistence level was a rarity, and economic progress was also a rarity. (In the original article, I noted a few important exceptions that were cut by the editor.)

The enthusiasm for Louisiana was a product of the Industrial Revolution. Those "18th century politicians and citizens" cited above were in fact nineteenth century politicians and citizens.


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