I’ve described conservatives as more optimistic and leftists as more pessimistic, but there is a pretty big exception to both of those generalizations.
Conservatives see a lot of critical flaws in human nature, which would seem to be a hallmark of pessimism. Religious conservatives (especially) hold the paradoxical Christian view that while people are made in God’s image and capable of great good, they are also fallen and broken, and capable of great evil. The Founders – most of whom were Christians, but all of whom were philosophically grounded in the Judeo-Christian worldview, even if they were Deists or agnostic or atheists – built a political system that depends on a non-rose-colored-glasses view of human nature in general.
Because they knew that humans would seek power over others, they created a set of governmental checks and balances, “setting ambition against ambition” to counter the natural impulse toward tyranny. They believed that economic and other freedoms would help counter the self-serving greed of the human heart.
The great conservative thinker Adam Smith (peace be upon him) pointed out that it’s not from the benevolence of the brewer or baker that we get our beer or bread, but from their self-interest. A baker might well be greedy, but in a free market economy, his best path to making money is through serving his customers well; if he provides the best quality product he can at the lowest profitable price, he will be better off, and so will his customer.
(Sidebar: One great advantage of conservatism over leftism is that the former turns one of the common sins of humanity to a positive purpose, while the latter makes a related but different sin even worse. Free market economics diverts greed toward a benign purpose, because to prosper I must serve my fellow citizens, by providing them with goods or services that they want. But leftist ideology takes one of the 7 deadly sins – envy – and inflames it. Socialism tells you that to envy your more successful neighbors is not only NOT a sin, it’s a righteous act. It’s not right that they have more than you do. They didn’t build that! Those evil 1%ers need a holy jihad brought down on them! Power to the collective!!)
So while conservatives and conservative philosophy has a strong pessimistic streak too, I would argue that it’s a mostly functional and useful pessimism. Because conservatism recognizes human flaws and weaknesses, it establishes a system in which incentives and disincentives redirect such flaws toward positive ends.
Similarly, mostly pessimistic leftists also have a strong strain of optimism, in the form of a near-utopian confidence that a small elite – themselves, naturally – have the wisdom needed to re-design society from the ground up, and eliminate all social ills.
The USSR was continually coming up with new pie-in-the-sky 5-year plans that would create a glorious socialist future… never mind that the previous six 5-year plans had produced the grim, impoverished socialist present. The French revolutionaries confidently tore down centuries of political, social, religious and economic traditions – because their ideas were better. Perfect, in fact. They even re-started the calendar at Year One, to correspond with their glorious revolution, which would fundamentally change the world forever.
Now THAT is optimism!
But it’s a dysfunctional, delusional optimism. It is optimistic only about your own ability to run everyone else’s lives, and metaphysically pessimistic about 99% of humans’ capacity to reason, or chart their own course in life.
Fortunately for the world, all of those big brains that plotted the French Revolution were encased in heads that soon formed a big, gory pile at the foot of the guillotine that they had built to launch their glorious new age. (Cue whatever French instrument was the 18th century equivalent of the sad trombone.) (The “sackbut,” I guess?)
But you can still see the disastrous effects of utopian leftist optimism in our society to this day. The motley gaggle of antifa mouth-breathers and coddled man-buns in Seattle staked out their own little utopia of CHOP… which ended two weeks later in a miasma of chaos, violence, badly spelled cardboard signs, and body odor.
Only a utopian leftist could run on a promise that he was going to “fundamentally transform” one of the most successful societies in the history of the planet. But Obama didn’t think twice about making that claim.
He also had no trouble saying that he could design a greatly improved health care system from the ground up, despite the fact that he had no medical training, and couldn’t tell the difference between a stethoscope and a catheter. And AOC knows how to run the largest economy in the world, even though her previous business experience consists of screwing up drink orders in several bars where she worked.
And leftist judges know better than the Founders what the constitution should say, and if it doesn’t happen to say that, hold their Pinot Noir… and voila! Here is a brand new right to privacy, and abortion, and taxpayer-funded sex change operations, and anything else they can dream up.
Also, that part about the right to bear arms, which would seem to be ACTUALLY written into the constitution? The Founders were idiots, and we know better, so that is now non-operational.
So I’ve blathered on for three columns about the psychological and political implications of optimism vs. pessimism, but I’d like to end where I began. All things being equal – and even when they aren’t – we should strive to be optimists. Sure, you should prepare for the worst and take precautions – that’s only prudent. But hope for the best, and look for the positive in every situation.
I’ll leave you with two of my favorite ideas on this subject. The first I’ve seen attributed to Amos Tversky, and it says something like “to be a pessimist is to suffer twice: once when you fear that the bad thing might happen, and again when it does.”
The other comes from one of my favorite presidents, Calvin Coolidge.
(I’m going to write a small appreciation of Coolidge in a future column. He’s the most under-rated president in our history, an assertion that I can go halfway to proving just by citing his nickname: “Silent Cal.” After the last 30 years, can you imagine a more refreshing and longed-for adjective to apply to a US president than “silent?!”)
My man Coolidge said, “If you see 10 troubles coming down the road, you can be sure 9 will go in the ditch and you have only one to battle with.”
I don’t care who you are, your quality of life would almost certainly go up if you reminded yourself of those two quotes on a daily basis. Throw in God, speaking through Paul (IMHO) – “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” – and you’ve got yourself a recipe for Ray Charles-singing-“Oh-Happy-Day” levels of happiness.
I can’t end these rambling without referencing the name of this website. Why do we all congregate here?
Is it to be in the enigmatic presence of the great and powerful CO? Is it to bask in the economic wisdom of Christopher Silber, or the good hearted sense of salon nurtured by the COSE, or the political insight and everyday common sense of the hundreds of stand-up guys and wise women and all around good eggs who comment and contribute here, or even the hilariously apt sackbut references and boyish (some might say “childish”) charm of yours truly?
I hope the answer is all of the above, but I know that it’s at least in part because this site is NOT called Cautious Pessimism!
Now let’s get out there and win the day!
Avenatti/Seattle Man-Bun Guy 2020!