Learn a lesson from the Dark Ages

David Frum

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

Kai Ryssdal: A lot of the suggested fixes for what ails the consumer economy have a distinct back-to-the-future ring about them: That somehow we have to return to the economic models of the 19th century to make it to the 22nd. Not everyone buys that argument, of course. Commentator David Frum among them.

David Frum: You've just heard from people who think the key to human survival is to cut ourselves off from the world economy and buy and sell only in local markets. This approach has been tried before -- in Europe, after the fall of the Roman Empire. We call this period the Dark Ages.

Papyrus from Egypt disappeared from north of the Alps, and people reverted to writing on animal skins. Grain from Gaul stopped arriving in Rome, and the population of the city dwindled from over a million to a few thousand. For the next millennium, a local crop failure brought famine and death.

Europe and North America left that world behind in the 19th century, and much of the rest of the planet is now following. The past 15 years have seen the most dramatic reduction of poverty in the history of the human race, as hundreds of millions of Chinese and South Asians have rejoined the global trading system.

Yet some worry it cannot continue -- that we'll pollute ourselves to death or run out of resources. These worries ignore both evidence and history. Human ingenuity creates resources as fast as we consume them.

Believe it or not, the proven oil reserves of the United States today are virtually identical to what they were in 1973. As for pollution, the richer we get, the cleaner we get. Virtually every lake and river in the United States is cleaner than it was a generation ago. Ditto the air in any major city. Richer people demand cleaner environments -- and unlike, say, medieval villagers, they can afford to pay for them.

Which is not to argue against buying local produce. I do it whenever I can -- it's tastier. It's also more expensive, but thanks to the wealth produced by ever-expanding technology and world trade, I can afford it. After two or three more decades of growth through trade, so (I hope) will millions more, in this country and throughout the world.

Ryssdal: David Frum worked as a speechwriter for President Bush. He's now a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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