Acton Commentary

At Century's End


“The latter part of the 19th century was an era of tuberculosis, typhoid, sanitariums, child labor, horses, horse manure, candles, 12-hour work days, Jim Crow laws, tenements, slaughterhouses, and outhouses,” Moore and Simon write. Even during such tough times, though, America and her people persevered, pushing ahead through hard work, self-sacrifice, and a relentless determination to make a better life.

Historian Frederick Jackson Turner points out that the wilderness frontier to the American West had acted for centuries as a safety valve of discontent for restless spirits. Members of each generation recapitulated the developmental stages of the emerging industrial order of the 1890s, as they pushed further west. The frontier helped engender a spirit of rugged individualism and incurable optimism across the continent, distinctive to the American character.

As the rapidly vanishing frontier closed, officially in 1890, Americans were forced to look elsewhere for new opportunities. Instead of focusing individual talents and aspirations upon the western wilderness, eyes and hearts would increasingly recognize opportunities in their own cities and towns. The American experiment at the start of the 20th century shifted from building out to building up, as reflected in the giant skyscrapers that would soon come to tower over the nation’s cities. Consequently, the 20th century became the American century.

Just as the small farm of the northern agricultural system slowly replaced the plantation typical of southern society, the city and factory slowly began to replace the small farms of the past. The modern city became the nerve center of the new industrial order. It was situated perfectly for a mechanized age soon dominated by the assembly line, interchangeable parts, and economies of scale. The historical American temper, conditioned for self-reliance, was also well suited for the economic freedom of the time.

By 1894, America ranked first in the world in manufacturing output, producing twice as much as Britain, the previous leader in manufacturing, and half as much as all of Europe combined. Likewise, wealth per capita had nearly doubled from what it was thirty years earlier, along with the population of the United States. Edward Atkinson, an economist of the day, writes: “There has never been in the history of civilization a period, or a place, or a section of the earth in which science and invention have worked such progress or have created such opportunity for material welfare as in these United States.”

Ironically, in the last year of the 19th century, Charles H. Duell, commissioner of the U.S. Office of Patents, pronounced, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” No one could have predicted just how wrong Duell’s pessimistic assessment of the future–and his pessimistic assessment of the American entrepreneur–would turn out.

Looking back at the 20th century we find an unparalleled explosion of inventions. The number of patents granted each year to entrepreneurs rose from 25,000 at the start of the century to 150,000 by the end. Many of these inventions were responsible for revolutionizing American life and producing roughly a fourfold rise in the standard of living.

Advances in modern medicine and vaccines dramatically improved human health and played a central role in the expansion of life expectancy by thirty years. Mother’s are now one hundred times less likely to die giving birth and the probability of a child dying before reaching age five is fifty times lower. Likewise, infectious diseases kill only about fifty people per 100,000, a fourteen-fold reduction. And chronic and degenerative diseases associated with aging are slowly being conquered as well.

Furthermore, the spread of electrical power in the 20th century “not only brought us literally out of the darkness,” write Moore and Simon, “but also launched thousands of inventions, all of which have allowed mankind to begin to harness the forces of nature, thus improving nearly every aspect of our daily lives.” Ranging from the mass production of the radio, telephone, and automobile, to the refrigerator/freezer, air conditioner, and microwave, entrepreneurs found ways to make life easier for everyone. Accordingly, the report argues, “No mountain of gold 100 years ago could have purchased the basics of everyday life that we take for granted in 1999.”

Technological advances and the development of human capital also made work easier and more productive. Today, the average workweek has been reduced to thirty-five hours. At the same time, the per capita GDP has risen from $4,800 to $31,500 (1998 dollars), and poverty rates as a percent of U.S. households have fallen from forty to thirteen percent.

The most important discovery in recent decades–what Moore and Simon call “mankind’s passport to a whole new universe of knowledge”–is microchip technology. The microchip has already revolutionized the way we do business and communicate, and in the next century computer technology promises to revolutionize the way we live.

After recounting the tremendous advances of the last century the report asks two very important questions: Why did mankind experience such a burst of progress in the 20th century? And why did so much of that progress originate in the United States? The answer offered is clear and unambiguous: “Freedom works. The unique American formula of individual liberty and free enterprise has encouraged risk taking, experimentation, innovation, and scientific exploration of magnitude that is unprecedented in human history.”

For the 21st century to repeat and surpass the material advances of the 20th century, the commitment to human freedom must continue to grow worldwide. The most important lesson from the 20th century–a century blessed with material advances as well as cursed with history’s bloodiest wars and atrocities–involves the marvels of human freedom and the threat posed to freedom by centralized power.

The American experiment and the collectivist experiments of the 20th century provide one of the starkest juxtapositions of freedom and slavery in history. This is true whether one compare the American experience to that of Nazism, Soviet Communism, or any number of other failed socialist experiments. The challenge of the next century is to avoid government-imposed solutions to everyday problems and instead to allow the greatness of people to flourish in freedom–through a strong civil society, active religious institutions, and a system that rewards innovation and hard work.