Fighting Pessimistic Bias

In his post on “Escape from Freedom,” Julian offers some interesting observations and speculations about various ways in which freedom’s momentum could be throttled or reversed. Of course one must always keep such dark possibilities in mind — eternal vigilance and all that.

But I really think that, while I may be a cockeyed optimist, most people are more vulnerable to — and should be on their guard against — slipping into the opposite kind of error. In The Myth of the Rational Voter (see here for a helpful, busy-reader-friendly excerpt), Bryan Caplan tells us that public opinion, on economic issues at least, is afflicted with what he calls “pessimistic bias,” or “a tendency to overestimate the severity of economic problems and underestimate the (recent) past, present, and future performance of the economy.”

A similar kind of pessimistic bias is almost de rigueur for intellectuals contemplating the human condition and its prospects. Anything that hints of a belief in progress is vulnerable to being dismissed as simple-minded Whiggish naivete. Serious people are supposed to sound like Woody Allen:

“More than any time in history mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”

Personal experience has stripped me of pessimistic bias. I was born in 1962, the year of the Cuban missile crisis. When my parents built the house I grew up in, they installed a fallout shelter in the backyard. I remember going to bed as a kid and hearing sirens, and wondering to myself if it was a civil defense warning and I should wake my parents. I fully expected to live my whole life under the shadow of endless global conflict with communism. And then, in my twenties, communism went poof.

I came to political awareness during the ’70s, when the economy and the country seemed to be falling apart. And then, just a few years later, inflation went poof and we embarked on a quarter-century-long boom that’s still going strong.

Taking the longer view, I look at graphs of one indicator of human well-being after another, and each one looks the same. Time after time, the line runs along the bottom of the page for 10,000 dismal, dreary years until, a couple centuries ago, it starts rocketing upward. Looking at these graphs, I just can’t shake the conviction that, as the subtitle of one of my favorite books puts it, there is a logic of human destiny. And that this logic is inextricably connected with the unfolding of human freedom.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

Response Essays

  • National Review Online editor-at-large and LA Times columnist Jonah Golberg offers a critical assessment of what he calls “the Brink Lindsey Project” — “a new fusionism which will make us stuffy conservatives lighten up and make pie-eyed liberals give up their enduring weakness for Gosplans.” According to Goldberg, Lindsey’s “libertarian centrism” involves a suspiciously convenient confluence of forces. “His definition of libertarian centrism is really Lindseyan centrism,” Goldberg argues. “And by writing his own priorities into the grand sweep of history, he misdiagnoses the nature of the liberal-conservative divide.”

  • Atlantic Monthly associate editor Matthew Yglesias joins Brink Lindsey in thinking that the relaxation of traditional social strictures over the past few deacades is a good thing, but he doesn’t see anything libertarian about it, citing the role of Civil Rights Act and other intrusive anti-discrimination laws in bringing about the shift. Yglesias concedes that the economy has in some ways become less regulated, but argues that this didn’t signal an “ideological triumph.” Furthermore, he argues, “libertarians interested in practical politics might want to consider that a federal commitment to health security and retirement security isn’t going away,” and suggests that Lindsey himself may have explained why.

  • Reason contributing editor Julian Sanchez spots several ambiguities in Brink Lindsey’s argument leading him to doubt the conclusion that America has become more libertarian in a meaningful sense. “To speak confidently about America’s growing libertarianism,” Sanchez writes, “we need to establish that at least some of the changes Lindsey lauds are driven by a shared conception of justice” that leans increasingly libertarian. Yet Sanchez is unimpressed by the polling data Lindsey recruits to his cause. There is no doubt we now have more choice due to increasing abundance, but “the conception of freedom that has always centrally concerned libertarians has been the freedom from restraints on choice, not the variety of available options.” But, Sanchez argues, “much of the plausibility of Lindsey’s thesis relies on [the] conflation” of these two conceptions of freedom.