Rainer Zitelmann in Forbes:
Zitelmann: In your book Enlightenment Now, you frequently refer back 200 or 250 years into the past. You make a powerful case that the main line of history since the Enlightenment has been one of progress in all areas of life. But this was also the same period that saw the birth of capitalism. Doesn’t it have to be said that the majority of the positive developments you describe are a result of capitalism?
Pinker: That would be a stretch. Certainly capitalism deserves credit for the spectacular increase in prosperity that the world has enjoyed since the 18th century, including the global east and south in the past forty years. Prosperity, on average, tends to bring other good things in life: democracy, peace, education, women’s rights, safety, environmental protection, to name a few. Also, the spirit of commerce pushes nations toward peace. It’s bad business to kill your customers or your debtors, and when it’s cheaper to buy things than to steal them, nations are not tempted toward bloody conquest. And as morally corrupting as the pursuit of wealth can be, it’s often less murderous than the pursuit of the glory of the nation, race, or religion.
But capitalism can coexist with many evils, as we see in authoritarian countries, and progress depended as well on science (particularly advances in public health and medicine), on the ideals of human rights and equality (which propelled the women’s and civil rights movements, and declarations of rights), on movements which led to legislation protecting laborers and the environment, on government provision of public goods like education and infrastructure, on social welfare programs that protect people who are unable to contribute to markets, and on international organizations which encouraged global cooperation and disincentivized war.