By Brian Brenberg
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Season 4 of Downton Abbey opened with the Crawley family continuing to mourn the loss of Sybil and Matthew. For fans of the show, what makes their deaths so difficult is that, today, they are preventable.
In places like England and the U.S., people enjoy standards of health, safety and comfort that even the nobility just a hundred years ago couldn’t fathom. That’s because these societies have benefitted from relatively high levels of economic freedom, which fosters the experimentation and innovation that produces life-enhancing products and services.
For example, Sybil succumbed to complications caused by eclampsia, a condition involving seizures during pregnancy that, along with preeclampsia and HELLP syndrome, continues to afflict approximately 300,000 women in the U.S. each year. And yet, less than one-tenth of one-percent of these women die as a result.
Affected mothers (including my own) have a great chance of survival thanks to medical technology like ultrasounds and urine analysis that allow doctors to detect risks sooner and ensure proper care. And in the most serious cases, when the only remedy is emergency delivery, a host of surgical and neonatal care innovations have greatly increased the odds of success. In fact, the survival rate for babies born in the U.S. at just 24 weeks is over 60%.
Had Sybil made it to season 4, she would have found herself raising a child in a world with other risks we’ve largely forgotten about. For example, in England as late as the 1930s, diphtheria was among the top three causes of death among children under 15. Today, if you live in the U.S. or England, you’re unlikely to ever encounter someone who has suffered from diphtheria. That’s because almost all of us are vaccinated against this and many other diseases.
One of the great things about Downton Abbey is that it allows fans to escape their worries and fantasize about life on a luxurious estate in early 20th century England. But the truth is, few of us could tolerate what we’d be forced to live with, and live without, in that world.
Economic freedom, which includes clear property rights, limited regulation and taxation, and the freedom to trade, generates the resources and opens up the space for researchers, entrepreneurs and businesses to achieve outcomes previous generations would have considered impossible. Consider that doctors in the U.S. today are able to safely deliver babies weighing less than 10 ounces. This would have sounded like pure fiction to the physicians attending to the Crawley family 100 years ago.
But it’s just one example of the kinds of advances that have allowed people living in the most economically free countries to enjoy average lifespans that are nearly 20 years longer, and infant mortality rates that are 9 times lowerthan those living in the least economically free countries.
Season 4 of Downton Abbey started on a somber note, but fans know happier times lie ahead. As sorrow gives way to new possibilities and thrilling plot twists, be glad economic freedom has put you in a position to enjoy it all.
Brian Brenberg is an assistant professor of business and economics at The King’s College in New York City.
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