The End of the World Club (there seem to be quite a few – can’t find a link to the one I mean) is a bunch of Austrianist-inclined people who meet at London’s Institute of Economic Affairs every few weeks to talk about the state of the world, and than afterwards maybe drink and/or dine locally, to try to cheer themselves up again.
Simon Rose, the guy who runs the End of the World Club, has asked me to kick off the discussion on the evening of May 28th. The following is a hastily typed summary of what I have in mind to suggest that we all talk about. I emphasise the “hasty” bit. Under comment pressure I will surely want to modify or even abandon quite a few bits of what follows. My number one purpose here is not to be unchallengeably right about everything, although you never know your luck; my number one purpose is to provoke thought and talk, by looking at the world from a slightly different angle to the usual angles. It began as a mere email to Simon Rose, but as you can see, it got a bit out of hand. My email to Rose will now be the link to this.
Since it’s the “End of the World” Club, I thought it might make sense to think about optimism and pessimism. Is that title (“End of the World”) for real? Or is it playfully ironic? How optimistic or pessimistic are we End-of-the-Worlders about the near future, and the longer term future? How optimistic or pessimistic about the near and longer term future are our statist adversaries? How much difference does that make to anything?
In recent decades, it has been the Austrian School who have been most rationally and persuasively pessimistic about the short run (by which I mean the next few years and the next, say, couple of decades). And it has been the politically middle-of-the-road statists who have been most unthinkingly optimistic, first, that no sort of economic catastrophe was coming, and now, when they try to be as optimistic as they can about the catastrophe (that has happened despite their earlier unthinking optimism) not getting any worse. Austrianists, in contrast, regard the present turmoil as proof that they were and remain right about everything, and that their pessimism, now, about the short term (and actually not that short term) future will accordingly also be entirely justified. Austrianists are mostly pessimists now. (Think Detlev Schlichter.) But they are optimistic about their own thought processes, in which they have absolute confidence.
But when it comes to the bigger picture, it is the broader free marketeer tendency who are now the optimists.
Socialists used to be optimistic, about how their socialism would make humanity materially better off. They were only pessimistic in the sense that they feared that they might never be allowed to do socialism. But about half way through the twentieth century, socialists stopped saying that they would do affluence better than capitalism was doing it, because the claim that capitalism wasn’t doing affluence was becoming absurd. Instead they turned against affluence.
They became economic pessimists about their own policies, in other words. But they stuck with their policies and turned their backs on the idea of mass affluence being a good thing. The Green Movement, which is what socialism has mutated into, is a huge surrender on the economic policy front, and an attempt to engage with the world on a quite different front. Socialists have surrendered the happy future. You have to listen a bit carefully to hear this. It took the form of a huge change of subject, from making the future happier, to making it more virtuous and poverty-stricken. They used to like affluence. Now they trash it. (Have a listen, for instance, to this excellent Jeffrey Tucker talk.) They used to be leading us towards an imaginary heaven on earth. Now they claim merely to be saving us from an equally imaginary hell on earth (and thereby are actually trying to create a real one). I am optimistic that this imagined hell on earth is also now on the way to being abandoned (see, e.g., this blog posting by Pointman). (What will be their next Big Tyranny Excuse?)
Meanwhile, classical liberals (as opposed to the illiberal liberals of our own time) note how free market ideas have raised humanity from abject poverty to a standard of living that was formerly unimaginable even for kings and emperors. Some free marketeers are rationally optimistic (to echo Matt Ridley‘s recent book title) that life will continue to get better, despite everything the statists and socialists now try to throw at it. Other free marketeers are now supremely optimistic that free market policies will work superbly, provided those policies are followed. Think J. P. Floru (an earlier speaker to the End of the World Club – very eloquent, very confident, I was there). Conditional optimism, you might call this. This is the same optimism that the socialists had a hundred years ago or so. It is very potent. The future will be wonderful, but only if you join our cause and help us save this wonderful future from being trashed by our malevolent, idiotic adversaries.
In the first half of the twentieth century free marketeers were much more tentative and intellectually timid. They often agreed that material progress would only happen if big government (with or even without big business) made the running, but argued for freedom anyway, as something that should be sentimentally preserved despite its economic cost. No wonder they did so badly.
But free marketeers are now the optimists. In the long run this means we will win. Discuss. See also: optimism (even irrational optimism) as a technique for success, individually and collectively. See also: pessimism (even (especially?) rational pessimism) as a recipe for failure, individual and collective.
That is pretty much it, and is surely more than enough to keep us talking for however long is required. Email me (you surely know how by now) if the End of the World Club is of interest, and I’ll pass it on.