At 4:30 AM on August 25th, I stood crying in the kitchen of my parents’ new house in Arlington.  I was washing dishes and waiting for the taxi to take me to the airport.  Hours away, in Michigan, my Grandma was dying, facing the final struggle in an unbe­lievably rapid battle with cancer.

Mom had called the night before to tell me Grandma was in “excru­ci­ating pain” and the doctor believed this was the end.  Only nine months had passed since she was diag­nosed with Mul­tiple Myeloma, an extremely rare and some­times extremely aggressive form of cancer.  At that point, we thought she had five to fifteen years left; she was only 72.

“If I’d known,” I said bit­terly to the sponge, “I’d never have taken this internship.  I’d have skipped last semester.  I’d have….”  

“Well,” I thought wryly, “I guess that’s what Pon­gracic meant about ‘imperfect infor­mation.’” We think we’re making rational deci­sions, but so often those cal­cu­la­tions are mis­guided.  Somehow, the thought relieved some of the guilt.  So I tried to remember what else I’d learned in eco­nomics, and what I found gave me comfort and hope.

As ridiculous as it sounds, when I was standing in that kitchen and it hurt too much to talk to God, it gave me hope to think of things I’d heard in my eco­nomics classes.  I thought about how much the world has pro­gressed and how it will keep pro­gressing.  Science and tech­nology have made incredible leaps thanks to free markets, and quality of life has fol­lowed that upward trend.  I was grateful for advances in med­icine that allowed us to spare her so much pain; I shudder to imagine her going through this fifty– or even ten– years ago.

A study on Mul­tiple Myeloma by Cancer Research UK found that, from 1970 – 2014, MM deaths actually increased by 56%.  But MM mostly attacks the elderly.  In the UK in 1970, the average life expectancy was 71 years, but the average age of a MM patient at diag­nosis is 70 years.  More people are dying because more people are actually living long enough to get it in the first place!  It’s a cruel irony for the 0.7% of the US pop­u­lation that will be diag­nosed with MM, but it’s a very good sign for humanity and quality of life as a whole. For every seven people that are diag­nosed with Mul­tiple Myeloma, 993 are not.  Those 993 (assuming MM was their only threat), are enjoying time with their grand­children as the result of eco­nomic growth and tech­no­logical advances. How did we get here? Free market cap­i­talism.

“But the culture!” you might cry, “Ever since the Enlight­enment, it’s been nothing but downhill for the culture!” Perhaps.  Although, it seems we find immorality in every era, so I’m not sure why this one should be dif­ferent.  But, let us assume that the culture is par­tic­u­larly dis­eased at this point, and that having our modern world with all its wealth comes at the expense of that moral society. I think I would still make that deal.  In 1900, the infant mor­tality rate was about 16% (I don’t even want to know what it was like before the Enlight­enment!).  Today, the infant mor­tality rate is about 0.6%. I admit that figure doesn’t directly counter the notion of dying cul­tural mores, but if decreased infant mor­tality is the trade-off for a culture with no respect for Aris­totle (although I don’t quite think we’re there yet), I’ll happily read Aris­totle alone.

It’s easy to be swept up in despair over the suf­fering in the world, but we should remember that the world is really not such a ter­rible place.  It’s getting better all the time.  In addition to infant mor­tality, in 1900, the average life expectancy at birth was 47 years. Today, the average life expectancy is 78.74 years.  If that’s not enough, look at income: in 1900, the average American’s annual income was around $500; today, the average is $51,000 (Here at Hillsdale, I hope I’m preaching to the choir about the incredible things that free markets, coop­er­ation, and private property rights have helped us create).  

This upward trend in history (brought about by free markets) gives me hope.  The idea that we can create value and dra­mat­i­cally improve the world around us by acting in our own interests and per­forming our own spe­cialized labors is extremely uplifting.  In studying eco­nomics, I see reflec­tions of God’s prov­i­dence, how he brings the good from the bad — and we get to take part in that! The world is so com­pli­cated and inter­con­nected — you could never predict all the con­se­quences (good and bad) of your actions.  Even the most ter­rible things can bring good.  That’s what the free market is all about: chan­neling the greedy or wicked incli­na­tions of man into some­thing pro­ductive, some­thing that creates benefit for the people around him.  

She’s not in pain anymore.  My family and I miss her ter­ribly (I guess you could call that a neg­ative exter­nality of death!), but we’re grateful her suf­fering is over.  Life will go on (perhaps even get better). The world is not so ter­rible as we might think. It rained the whole day of her funeral, but the sun came out again the next day.