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Nostalgia is hard to resist. Youth is fleeting, and for most of us, it seems more magical in hindsight than it might have been at the time. It’s also easy to imagine that certain historical eras were more interesting or romantic than the present. For example, my spouse tells me she’d love to have lived in the frontier days, yet she can’t tolerate the reality of a camping trip. We also tend to lionize certain leaders of the distant past, ascribing greatness based on history written by victors. Our objectivity may be obscured by narratives shaped over many years.

Today, some imagine and aggrandize the past in a different way: as a time when motives were “selfless”; when the world was inhabited by less acquisitive and more “minimalist” folk; when practices were more “sustainable”, or even “legitimate”. Despite the primitive conditions of that world, it was a better place for “free” human beings. So it is said, seriously!

Sarah Sqwire takes a look at these flights of fancy in “The Good Old Days of Poverty and Filth“. She dissects the views of one Luc Sante, a cultural historian, as an archetypical patron of primitivism. She invokes the French phrase “nostalgie de la boue, ‘longing for the mud,’ which means a romantic yearning for a primitive or degraded behavior or condition.” Here are some of Skwire’s colorful comments about the past:

We don’t need every medieval romance novel to remind us that the heroine’s breath didn’t smell like cool mint Listerine. It’s probably for the best that the historical re-enactors at Colonial Williamsburg don’t actually use authentic colonial medical remedies for their health problems…. Any lover of history will occasionally find him or herself dreaming about attending a performance in the pit at Shakespeare’s Globe, or roughing it in the saloons and shacks of a gold rush town. … But a good student of history will acknowledge that the Globe was undoubtedly loud, smelly, crowded, and occasionally even dangerous for playgoers. And the rugged romance of the gold rush town is offset by the knowledge that you were probably far more likely to die of gangrene or cholera than you were to strike it even moderately rich. And those glorious 18th-century wigs? Heavy, hot, smelly, and prone to harboring bugs.

She then quotes Sante:

In the Paris I write about, people ran businesses to make a living, not to make a profit. Cafes, bars: they’re no longer public institutions or part of a community. There’s no possibility for eccentric self-determination amongst the shopkeepers.

Skwire notes the odd distinction that Sante makes in the first sentence above, as if profit is not how proprietors ever made “a living”, or that they observed certain limits on their finances not imposed by market forces (i.e., their customers). She adds that businesses often seek to “create communities” as part of their business models, now in the era of social media more than ever, contrary to Sante’s presumption. Here’s Skwire’s verdict:

Sante, though, has so much mud in his eyes that he is blind to the tangible and important progress that has been made in human wealth and welfare. His mucky nostalgia leads him to claim that our increasing wealth — which has given us more health, more discretionary income, more food, and more free time — is a danger more pernicious than terrorism.

I am surprised that Skwire fails to mentions the environmental left in this context. It is, after all, the source of hysteria related to population and scarcity, and the source of so much criticism of modernity. As an antidote to such nonsense, I recommend the Human Progress web site. This recent entry on Julian Simon is instructive. I also recommend Matt Ridley’s Rational Optimist blog. Try this entry on “The Long Shadow of Malthus” for a start.

Skwire views Luc Sante’s infatuation with pre-modern life and lifestyles as an elitist’s prescription for “other” people. That may well be. It also fits the profile of many environmental elites. Whether or not Skwire’s characterization of Sante is accurate, he is at least ignorant of the great diffusion of prosperity taking place around the globe, fueled by markets and economic development. It seems awkward that anyone would bemoan economic progress when, in fact, world poverty is declining, yet that very misgiving is implied by many critiques of markets and modernity.