Sunday, July 30, 2017

The New Optimists


The Guardian just ran an excellent essay on the "New Optimists", which the essay introduces as follows:
[O]ne group of increasingly prominent commentators has seemed uniquely immune to [today's] gloom. In December, in an article headlined “Never forget that we live in the best of times”, the Times columnist Philip Collins provided an end-of-year summary of reasons to be cheerful: during 2016, he noted, the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty had fallen below 10% for the first time; global carbon emissions from fossil fuels had failed to rise for the third year running; the death penalty had been ruled illegal in more than half of all countries – and giant pandas had been removed from the endangered species list.
In the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof declared that by many measures, “2016 was the best year in the history of humanity”, with falling global inequality, child mortality roughly half what it had been as recently as 1990, and 300,000 more people gaining access to electricity each day. Throughout 2016 and into 2017, alongside Collins at the Times, the author and former Northern Rock chairman Matt Ridley – the title of whose book The Rational Optimist makes his inclinations plain – kept up his weekly output of ebullient columns celebrating the promise of artificial intelligence, free trade and fracking. By the time the professional contrarian Brendan O’Neill delivered his own version of the argument, in the Spectator (“Nothing better sums up the aloofness of the chattering class … than their blathering about 2016 being the worst year ever”) the viewpoint was becoming sufficiently well-entrenched that O’Neill seemed in danger of forfeiting his contrarianism.
The loose but growing collection of pundits, academics and thinktank operatives who endorse this stubbornly cheerful, handbasket-free account of our situation have occasionally been labelled “the New Optimists”, a name intended to evoke the rebellious scepticism of the New Atheists led by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris. And from their perspective, our prevailing mood of despair is irrational, and frankly a bit self-indulgent. They argue that it says more about us than it does about how things really are – illustrating a certain tendency toward collective self-flagellation, and an unwillingness to believe in the power of human ingenuity. 
I find two things particularly interesting about the essay. The first is that, even though the article purports to be a bit of a critique, it doesn't really dispute any of the various New Optimist claims about how much the world has improved in the past, including the recent past. The critique, such as it is, amounts to: well, what if things stop getting better? What about that, huh? Maybe the last 200 years were the aberration and the normal state of humanity is stagnation, if not regression. This amounts to the claim that there is something very distinctly different about today's world compared to, say, 20, 40, 60, 80  or more years ago that would prevent further progress. Doubtful. And certainly the essay does not make a compelling case along theses lines, other than to note that the future is inherently uncertain. Fair enough.

The second thing is that most of these New Optimists are, with some exceptions (Kristof is a mild left), libertarians. As the essay notes, "At its heart, the New Optimism is an ideological argument: broadly speaking, its proponents are advocates for the power of free markets, and they intend their sunny picture of humanity’s recent past and imminent future to vindicate their politics." True enough, which I think is kind of tragic.

Why can't the left acknowledge and celebrate the tremendous progress humanity has been making? Why can't the left assert with confidence that progress can continue and that the left will play a central role in making this progress happen just as it has in the past? Why doesn't someone write a book about this? (Wait a minute: I did.)

Optimism about the future is too important to be left to the libertarians! As the British science journalist Leigh Phillips put it:
Once upon a time, the left….promised more innovation, faster progress, greater abundance. One of the reasons I believe that the historically fringe ideology of libertarianism is today so surprisingly popular in Silicon Valley and with tech-savvy young people more broadly…is that libertarianism is the only extant ideology that so substantially promises a significantly materially better future.
Just so.

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