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Opting for Optimism

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Pessimism is the lazy stepchild of vigilance.

There. I’ve said it. That’s the one bit of wisdom for today.

Why bring it up? Well, there’s another new book out that I want to read, but probably won’t, for lack of time. It’s The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley.

Ridley is one of those biology journalists who relate recent advances in the life sciences to how we think and feel and move about on the planet. You know, one of those Learn From the Baboons guys.

I’ve not read his new book. I am pretty sure I’ve read bits of at least one of his previous works, as one reads books one doesn’t finish not because they aren’t good — or even great — but because, well, there’s that meeting at one, office crisis at two, a half-hour to write at five, and the kid’s softball game at six.

But his new book looks important. At the very least it hits on a theme important to me, an important theme for all of us: Prosperity and progress.

I consider myself an optimist. But right now, pessimism is all the rage. And I’m not just talking about the general economic climate. I easily fall into it, too. Our government and its leaders, the politicians and bureaucrats, have got themselves caught in a behavioral trap. They just can’t stop spending above revenues, increasing government indebtedness, and in general doing stupid things (like setting up a new entitlement program right as the old ones become insolvent).

But there is hope. At least Ridley says so, and I’m inclined to believe him, in part because he doesn’t fall prey to false hopes. He doesn’t even buy the false hope of “government funding” where it is applied to his field, science:

There is no evidence that government, by funding blue-sky science or in any other way, is specially good at making innovation happen. Most innovation happens through the tinkering of technologists, not the thinking of scientists. And government is poor at picking winners, great at picking losers.

Civilization in its distributed form, the widespread lattice of social networks partly pinned down by the phrase “the market,” works far better at the selection process. And it provides spurs to progress, the carrot of profit (success) and the stick of loss (failure). And it will probably do this even if hobbled by our misguided and increasingly corrupt politicians.

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.

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