I was into optimism before it was cool.
I think it was about fourteen years ago that I caused a bit of a stir in the Objectivist movement by arguing that civilization was not collapsing but seemed to be thriving instead, and that the movement hadn’t really taken this fact on board. I called it “The Collapse of the Collapse of Civilization.” It is a claim that is also controversial in the rest of the culture. People on the left are convinced that the world is being destroyed by capitalism, through global warming or inequality or “endless war.” People on the right, in complete contrast, are convinced that the world is being destroyed by capitalism–er, and also by “secular humanism,” transgender bathrooms, and Drag Queen Story Hour.
In all of these cases, there is a kind of “my way or the highway” attitude. If we can’t have the socialist ideal, then everything has to be terrible. If we can’t restore the power of the Church, then life must be a living hell. It’s an unwillingness to accept good news if it doesn’t come in a form that confirms all of your intellectual prejudices.
Yet optimism is still gaining adherents, and it is actually becoming a bit of trend to point out that the state of world is much better than it has ever been before. There is the website HumanProgress.org, which I have directed you to many times before, and its highly amusing counterpart, the Pessimists Archive, which highlights past hysterias over the destructive effects of perfectly normal and harmless new inventions. There was Matt Ridley’s book The Rational Optimist. But probably the big cultural breakthrough on this issue was Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. Pinker has a kind of intellectual star power and a degree of acceptance in the intellectual mainstream, and he lays out the case in such thorough, exhaustive detail that it is really hard to evade.
So there is now a small but noticeable trend, both on the left and the right, of people pointing out what’s good about the state of the world–and puzzling over why nobody else wants to see it. I’ve contributed my own effort, and here’s a recent entry from Commentary‘s Noah Rothman.
News consumers are conditioned to expect, seek out, and even find gratification in negativity. This is not the flowering of some grand conspiracy, but the nature of a media ecosystem that is dedicated to covering events over trends. “Bad things can happen quickly,” noted psychologist and author Steven Pinker, “but good things aren’t built in a day, and as they unfold, they will be out of sync with the news cycle.” The ready availability of bad news contributes to a cognitive bias that favors negative events as reliable indicators of future circumstances (i.e., the “availability heuristic”). That’s a shame, though, as it presents a distorted picture of prevailing conditions. By and large, those conditions are pretty good….
Indeed, the triumphant consensus that favored markets and trade over autarky and conflict that emerged at the end of the last century has proven an incredible blessing. Between 1981 and 2008, 700 million people emerged from the “extreme poverty” that had previously been an intractable feature of human existence. Around the world, both subjective notions of well-being and objective rates of survival increased markedly in roughly the same period. Deaths attributable to warfare have declined to their lowest proportional rates in over half a millennium. American deployments abroad, while substantial, have declined to their lowest level in nearly 60 years–a response not to political concerns at home but strengthening security conditions abroad. In the United States, median family income is up, with 1.4 million people escaping poverty between 2017 and 2018.
For most of us, this forest is obscured by the trees. We see rising income inequality, exacerbating divisions between rich and poor. We see declining health outcomes and increasing precarity for some of America’s most vulnerable populations. We see conflicts abroad that seem to have no end, and from which America cannot extricate itself. And to remedy these frustrating conditions, many are leaning into the “solution” that once yielded the suffering we’ve only recently escaped: economic planning, capitulatory retrenchment, and the zero-sum mentality that regards comparative advantage and mutually beneficial exchange with suspicion….
Ultimately, though, the problem for news consumers and the lawmakers who respond to their informed constituents’ concerns isn’t that good news is hard to find. The problem is that the audience for that message is vanishingly small, and the perspective required to see it is in short supply.
I expect, however, that I can find a little bit more of that perspective among my readers, so I want to devote this edition to a roundup of various forms of good news.
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