Paul Jacob

Ridley’s historic perspective (which goes deep into the pre-historic) says that the great discovery of early man was of EXCHANGE. And no, not exchange of blows. Trade. Ridley understands just how important trade is, and has set his sights to explain “how prosperity evolves.” Ridley is one of those writers who dares to state the obvious as well as the obscure, and to defend an unpopular, obvious fact (like the importance of the market order for civilization) as a basic truth against popular denials by the folks who regularly attend the moddish church of Things Are Bad Because Our Enemies Are Bigots.

In the context of the long sweep of history, and especially in context of the obvious progress made over the last three or four centuries, it’s worth asking why pessimism has been so popular. Ridley has a partial answer:

pessimism gets attention — from funders, from the media, from governments. Also, for reasons I do not fully understand, it sounds wiser than optimism.

And this is where my opening apothegm comes in: Vigilance against danger is necessary and supremely useful. Only fools refuse to look for threats. Those members of society who try to “keep their guard up” see danger everywhere, in part because they are looking for it.

Rush Limbaugh

As long as they keep their senses, they do good service. But if they fail to understand how progress happens, they will tend to serve up false warnings (“trade deficits”; “global warming”) rather than see the real threats (too much debt; too much government in general; the tragedy of the commons; and, perhaps, an unfortunate pop in the transit of 99942 Apophis).

But if all you notice are threats, you tend to get pessimistic. It’s only natural — as natural as seeing the vigilant as wise, even if all they conjure up are false terrors.

That’s how pessimism develops, as the lazy stepchild of vigilance. Our job, as consumers of warnings, is always to remember how progress carries on its work. If we keep that in mind, we can deal with each threat as it comes . . . without giving in to panic or becoming mired in a slough of despond.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.