“Would You Exchange Places with a Typical Person Living in Any Year Before Your Birth?”

(p. 80) Consider a thought experiment. If the means existed, would you exchange places with a typical person living in any year before your birth? Exchange places permanently–not, say observe the Battle of Hastings and then rematerialize in the present. You could pick the year and place in the past, but could not specify trading places with someone specific like Catherine the Great or Leonardo da Vinci, and you could not specify that you would he a lord or lady or hold some similar advantage. In this deal you’d he transported back to the year and society of your choosing to live out the rest of your life as an ordinary person.

A good guess is that hardly anyone in the United States or the European Union today would accept a one-way ticket to the everyday life of the past. The physical beauty of the world would be greater then, before the mixed blessing of development. And most moments in the past would be quieter than ours, though not necessarily less stressful–the lives of pioneer farmers for whom a crop loss meant destitution, or of seamstresses working fourteen-hour days in early industrial-era sweatshops and unable to afford more than tea and bread, were hardly (p. 81) serene. Nor was the quiet, small-town atmosphere of the past, which many today idealize, necessarily ideal. Everyone knew your name, but everyone also knew your secrets; men and especially women enjoyed much less personal freedom in small-town life of the past than is typical today.
For essentially all of human history until the last few generations, the typical person’s lot has been unceasing toil, meager living circumstances, uncertainty about food, rudimentary health care, limited education, little travel or entertainment; all followed by early death. (Keep in mind these remain the conditions under which more than a billion people live in the developing world today.) Even if you could somehow carry the benefits of modern medicine with you into the past–health care alone would make almost everyone decline the one-way ticket backward–the toil, low living standards, and isolated lives of past generations would seem awful to us compared to the sorts of things we complain about today.

Easterbrook, Gregg. The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. Paperback ed. New York: Random House, 2004.

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