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Thoughts about optimism and pessimism for the End of the World Club

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.

15 comments to Thoughts about optimism and pessimism for the End of the World Club

  • Alastair James

    Brian, I’ve jyst finished re-reading Henry Hazlitt’s ‘Economics in One Lesson’. It’s the 1970′s edition which includes a chapter on how much worse things had become in the thirty years since the book was first published. Now we are another 30 years or so on from that edition and much of what he describes is even more indescribably worse than in the 70′s – with perhaps a few improvements on Union power and price controls. So is that reason for optimism or pessimism? People in the 70′s did appear to be much wealthier than in the 40′s and those today than in the 70′s. Does that mean that the free market is very robust in it’s ability to make progress in the face of such levels of state interference? Are we just lucky to have lived through a period of significant technological progress which has outweighed the dead hand of the state? Or does it mean that we are approaching a truly cataclismic disater as the modern state finally collapses under the weight of it’s own contradictions? Would an Austrian in the 40′s or 70′s have believed we could have got to where we have todat without that collapse already having happened? If so – why were they wrong? Or does it mean that we are going into some sort of endless stasis where the state has reached such a level that it’s breaking effect is almost equal and opposite to the prodcutive power of what remains of the free market? I look forward to your talk!

  • TheHat

    I check this site daily. It is one of my favorites as it is well written and thought provoking. So kudos aside…

    I wonder if you are not missing a different kind of concern about socialists/liberals/communists. Your thoughts seem to reflect only those liberals with limited power. Consider the thought, “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.” Liberals without military power are forced to see the economics around them. They don’t like it and ignore it presupposing their own philosophy would still improve things. Then consider the powerful liberals/communists/socialists. (Past USSR and Asian communists for example.) They rule as tyrants imposing the socialist economy. These liberals/socialists/communists are neither optimists nor pessimists. The concept of optimism and pessimism is only present in liberals with limited power.

  • Alsadius

    I like it. Seems like a good topic.

  • Laird

    I agree, a good topic, but I remain a pessimist. “Other free marketeers are now supremely optimistic that free market policies will work superbly, provided those policies are followed.” Aye, there’s the rub. I’d be an optimist, too, if I thought there was even a remote possibility of free market policies being followed, but I don’t believe there is. The entire world is in the grip of some form of socialism (some countries more, some less, but nearly all to some degree) combined with a world-wide hegemony of fiat currencies and a wholly interrelated (if not actually integrated) financial and economic system. The politicians and oligarch aren’t about to give up their power and the serfs aren’t about to give up their bread and circuses. None of that can permit true free markets to exist, so until the current system collapses under its own unsustainable weight nothing will change (for the better, anyway). And once it does collapse, we are far more likely to see the rise of regional despots and tyrannies than anything resembling a free market. So frankly, I can’t see any rational basis for optimism. We’ll all just have to muddle along and survive as best we can in a world gone to sh*t.

  • Red Dorking

    Laird,
    Do you think it good to “muddle along and survive as best we can…” in economies that can no longer support division of labor, with traders resorting to barter because none will accept worthless paper money?

    The avid survivalists in my country will eventually find they need goods no longer being produced, and there are no replacement parts being made for equipment they own. There is a robust market today for publications about blacksmithing, gun repair, gardening, and so on, but those skills are best acquired by practice, not just by reading manuals. And realistically, few of us can retreat to our own Galt’s Gulch.

    Waiting until the current system collapses is folly. Plan for that day and prepare for it; there is much knowledge needed to survive with chaos all about. Seek out that knowledge now. Some of it can be found on the Internet as current technology (Popular Science online), and some can be learned from hundred-year-old works of literature: works about wartime/depression that can be downloaded in eBook format, or found in used bookstores or public libraries.

    Advanced thinking would take you to the underground economy, or black market. Although it is certain that official controls would be imposed, even the Soviet Union was forced to tolerate black marketeers because of the chronic shortages caused by socialism.

    What kind of needs would be unmet after a collapse? Meet with trusted friends and brainstorm these questions: What goods to sell? Where could you find suppliers? What kind of money should be accepted? How much capital (and in what form) should one store before the events occur?

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    Does ‘End of the World’ mean end of the planet, or end of the culture you are used to, the end of the world as you know it? Since the term can mean either, it will survive.

  • Laird

    Red, you didn’t read what I wrote very carefully. I don’t disagree with anything you said; I was merely responding to Brian’s “optimism”. Of course we should prepare (and I am), but that doesn’t mean that when the system collapses we will be doing anything other than muddling along as best we can, however solid we think our preps are. I dind’t say that was good, merely necessary.

  • the other rob

    Laird – In my darkest moments, I sometimes fear that it’s exactly as you describe. Indeed, I worry that we’re in a nightmare scenario where the politicians and oligarchs have decided to “drive it off a cliff”, on the basis that it’s better to reign in Hell…

    It’s true that despair is a sin, but I’m smoking again.

  • MoscowEast

    The next big tyranny excuse:
    Stopping increases in (non-existent, of course) HBD through genetic engineering. Some will try to gain advantage for their own sprogs, which isn’t fair. Making sure this doesn’t happen will require the complete control of every aspect of society, as any such advantage could be passed down the line forever. This could also be coupled to the growing anti-White hysteria amongst the Left.

  • Tedd

    The industrial revolution was built around technological advances that tended to drive society toward uniformity. Steam power, electricity, and mass production created a society where large-scale industry, state regulation, and product uniformity were the norm, and those symptoms came to be seen by many as the source of the benefits of industrialization. (“What’s good for General Motors is what’s good for America.”) While I’m sure that the tendency for government and state power to grow is a natural law, to some extent, there’s no denying that the last couple of centuries have been rife with technological developments that also favoured it.

    So it doesn’t seem out of the question to me that the new technological revolution, which is very different in character from the industrial era, will tend to produce a very different kind of society from the kind the industrial revolution produced. I’m often tempted to think that all human history is the history of technology, with events and characters only a secondary phenomenon.

  • That’s a very interesting point, Tedd. I sure hope it proves to be correct.

  • the other rob

    On the other hand, Tedd, one might argue that technological revolutions proceed in stages. The first stage is the disruptive, innovative one. In the case of the industrial revolution, that stage saw industrialists building new factories, inventing new products, a plethora of independent railways built and operated by private sector actors, and so forth. Lots of good stuff happening, improving the lot of all. Then, sadly, comes the second stage – consolidation, state interference and a decline into government sponsored corporatism. If Henry Ford exemplified the first stage, Government Motors exemplified the latter.

    Viewed through that lens, the special aspect of the new technological revolution is not any fundamental difference in character. Rather, it’s that, up until now, we’ve largely been living through the first stage of a technological revolution and reaping the benefits of all that disruption and innovation. Alas, we are now headed into the second stage and the tools that our revolution provides seem likely to do more to favour the growth of state power and governmental control than those of the industrial revolution ever did.

  • Tedd

    Other Rob:

    Yes, you’re right, although I don’t think the two ideas are mutually exclusive.

    What you’re describing is the arc of a technology. As it becomes more influential and forms a larger part of the economy, more and more people find ways to make money from it indirectly, such as by regulating it. I’m thinking more of how the nature of the technology itself affects how people live their lives, and so how society becomes structured.

    The famous examples are the printing press reducing the influence of traditional authority (monarchs and churches), and industrialization leading to urbanization, centralization, and institutionalization. But I suspect all major technological innovations have influenced the ordering of society in some way. It would be foolish for me to try to predict how the technologies of the 21st century will influence society, but I’m confident that their influence will be in a different direction than that of many of the technologies of the 19th and 20th centuries.

  • the other rob

    Tedd:

    Got it – I hadn’t quite grasped the distinction. I do like your suggestion “that all human history is the history of technology” – it has a certain aesthetic appeal that plays to the whole truth / beauty thing.

    That said and to continue my pessimistic counterpoint to your optimism, it seems reasonable to suggest that, if the last technological revolution was essentially impersonal then, as the arc of technology progressed, that impersonality necessarily gave birth to to impersonal, generic and therefore inefficient mechanisms of state control and abridgment of individual freedoms.

    My fear is that the very things that make the current technological revolution so special – personalisation, granularity and so on will, in time, lead to much more finely grained mechanisms of state control, with no individual freedom so insignificant that it can not be efficiently abridged.

    This is one discussion in which I sincerely hope to be wrong!

  • Tedd

    Other Rob:

    My fear is that the very things that make the current technological revolution so special – personalisation, granularity and so on will, in time, lead to much more finely grained mechanisms of state control, with no individual freedom so insignificant that it can not be efficiently abridged.

    I agree that that is a legitimate concern. I often think of the Unibomber’s manifesto, in which he made the case (quite well, I thought) that technology is inherently hostile to liberty. I’m not convinced he was right, but his arguments (which were in some ways like yours) were pretty strong. Technology leads to freedom, which leads to fear, which leads to regulation, which leads to information-gathering, which leads to power, which leads to abuse of power. Something like that.

    One thing that could be different about present technological trends is that the rate of change of technology keeps increasing, whereas the speed of the rest of the cycle doesn’t, so much. That might be an important difference. It would be nice if technology could always stay a step or two ahead of our ability to regulate it. But that might be too much to hope for.