… is from page 158 of Matt Ridley’s deeply profound 2010 book, The Rational Optimist:
A modern combine harvester, driven by a single man, can reap enough wheat in a single day to make half a million loaves. Little wonder that as I write these words (around the end of 2008), for the very first time the majority of the world’s population lives in cities – up from just 15 percent in 1900. The mechanisation of agriculture has enabled, and been enabled by, a flood of people leaving the land to seek their fortune in the city, all free to make for each other things other than food.
As many insightful people – including Matt, Alex Epstein, and Johan Norberg – point out, innovative free markets turn each of its participants into a superman (or superwoman). Each of us, with a mere flick of the finger or wrist, summon into our homes at will light, heat, cooled air, and fresh water of different temperatures. With television, the Internet, and modern telephony and other innovations, each of us can see and hear in real time much of what is going on hundreds or thousands of miles away on earth (and even away from earth). Each of us can speak clearly in real time to loved ones or business associates who are physically so far away from us that as recently as a mere 200 years ago months would have passed between the writing of a handwritten note (the only form of personal communication available back then) and the loved-one’s or associate’s receipt and reading of that note. Each of us can fly through the air and travel along the surface of the earth at what would have struck our ancestors as godlike speeds. Even an old and physically limited man or woman can personally zip and zoom across town at speeds that would have astonished Augustus Caesar and Queen Victoria. An ordinary truck driver can carry tons of freight, single-handedly, across hundreds of miles in just a few hours. A single orator can reach the ears of tens of millions in real time. A farmer, who in the past fed, when fortunate, at most a few dozen today feeds thousands. A single physician – who, by the way, now has easy access to X-ray vision – can often save a life in a matter of minutes with a machine or with a modern drug. This list can be extended indefinitely.
In so many ways, as producers and as consumers, each of us, compared to our pre-industrial ancestors (that is, compared to nearly every human being who has ever breathed) is a superman. And our super powers come from market-driven innovation and global trade that turns the earth’s raw materials (including, importantly, petroleum, coal, and natural gas) into valuable resources and that enables everyone whose government, primitive superstitions, or cabal of pooh-bahs does not stand in the way to participate in this super-power-granting orgy of prosperity.