Thursday, May 14, 2015

Optimism Doesn't Change the Facts, Just What You're Gonna See

Joseph Heath:

When I was younger, I thought that questions of social justice were easy. It seemed to me that there were two sorts of people in the world — those who were basically selfish, and those who were more generous and caring. Insofar as there was injustice or suffering in the world, it was because those who were selfish had managed to see their interests prevail. Thus the solution to these problems was to persuade people to care more or, failing that, to ensure that people who did care more were given access to political power. Furthermore, because of all the "invisible hand" rhetoric, it seemed obvious to me at the time that capitalism was a system designed by the selfish to advance the interests of the selfish, and that right-wing political parties existed in order to give ideological cover to this operation. Anticapitalism therefore struck me as being a straightforward moral imperative. Government was good; the market was bad.

Now that I'm older, I think there are so many things wrong with this view that I wouldn't even know where to begin enumerating them. Many different factors contributed to this dawning realization. Part of it, no doubt, had to do with spending a fair bit of time, over the course of many years, in Asia, and seeing what an incredible force for development even a poorly structured market economy can be (not to mention what a fiasco the state can be, particularly in places where corruption is an issue). Part of it came from meeting more people outside my immediate circle of left-wing acquaintances, and discovering that "the system" is made up of people pretty much like everyone else, acting on the basis of the usual mix of selfish and altruistic motives that one encounters in any walk of life. But a lot of it came from reading economics, and from trying to work through systematically the alternatives to the existing order of things. What one discovers through this exercise is that for any ridiculous, destructive or unjust state of affairs, there is usually an understandable reason why that state of affairs persists. Our problem is often not that we lack the will to fix our problems, but that we don't know how to fix them.

...Most of the mistakes that people on the left make involve failures of self-restraint — an unwillingness to tolerate moral flaws in society, even when we have no idea how to fix them and no reason to think that the cure will not be worse than the disease.

The book examines six economic fallacies apiece per the right and the left, lest you get the impression that this excerpt epitomizes some "road to conservative Damascus" story. No, this caught my eye because of the way it serves as an illustration of an older, deeper conflict, that of optimism vs. pessimism. His newest book, which I have yet to read, has already inspired some interesting discussion around that theme, such as here, where he elaborates on his view that many sociopolitical problems are simply not fixable. (It amused me greatly to see him state flatly that writing books about policy and culture for a general audience pretty much requires the obligatory closing chapters in which the author offers his "solutions" for how to get everything back on track. Anyone who has read such books should be keenly aware by now of the forced, unconvincing tone that permeates such uninspired calls to action, yet he says that the most common complaint about his earlier book Nation of Rebels was that it didn't offer any ideas on how to "fix" consumerism. Even when people know such prescriptions are worthless, they seemingly can't help desiring the reassuring ritual of reading them. They might as well be fondling rosary beads and muttering prayers, though that suggestion would almost certainly offend their self-conception as rational beings.)

Anyway, I think it's fair to say that since the Enlightenment, it's increasingly taken for granted that reason and science are the tools with which humans can solve any problem. In the more aggressive forms of this outlook, the distinct possibility that everything is knowable and controllable in principle easily morphs into a positive assertion of probability. Skeptical pessimism about the ultimate success of the project ended up being relegated to the fringes of religious conservatism, where it could be safely ignored. Even aging and death are now being talked about as "technical" problems which can be "solved". Well, I have nothing whatsoever to base this upon but anecdotes and a personal gut sense, but I feel that non-religious, non-conservative, pessimistic perspectives like Heath's (or John Gray's) are starting to gain intellectual traction. It will be interesting to see how major events in this century tip the balance one way or the other.