Mat Ridley, the author of the Rational Optimist, describes the book’s main thesis as follows:…human beings are not only wealthier, but healthier, happier, cleaner, cleverer, kinder, freer, more peaceful and more equal than they have ever been. This is because the source of human innovation is, and has been for 100,000 years, not individual inspiration through reason but collective intelligence evolving by trial and error resulting from the sharing of ideas through exchange and specialization. The secret of human prosperity is that everybody is working for everybody else.
Although it goes right against the grain of my outlook, it would be silly to deny that lots of that is true. I am a strong believer in taking what you don’t agree with seriously, so devoured his book and took a lot from it; but not his optimism. Both optimism and pessimism are stances toward the future and the human record of prediction is pretty laughable. Literally, Dan Gardner‘s Future Babble makes you laugh (on top of that it is a good introduction to the academic research on predictions, as exemplified by the work of Philip Tetlock of foxes and hedgehogs fame.
Before I go really dark, let’s lighten up a bit, because ultimately, my stance is as laughable as any other and is not supposed to ruin the timeless present. It more often than not does, which is sad thing to admit to. So the least I can do is make a conscious effort to not drag you down.
My main reason for being pessimistic – beyond neurotransmitter calibration that is – is that all that increase in complexity has taken place over a ridiculously short time, and has created realities that are either dependent upon nothing seriously going wrong, which, given our species and the universe, is a pretty unrealistic assumption, or when things start going wrong require the kinda drastic painful action that our political systems are just not capable of.
I know that apocalyptic visions are of all times. And we’re still here, aren’t we? True, but I don’t think most realize the horrors our species already has gone through over time, and only survived in numbers, because we were not yet as connected, technologically advanced and dependent upon our own creations.
About things not going wrong, I know of few better reminders than this documentary about Robert McNamara, looking back upon his eventful life. I wouldn’t trust all of his stories – the need to legitimate what were wrong decisions for anyone with his kinda history must be psychologically strong – but the one about the decision-making during the Cuban missile crisis impresses me as genuine. Even stronger: the whole point of going along with filming this documentary seems to have been to get the message out how very lucky we were.
Now about our political systems. I am not an anarchist and believe we cannot do without governments. I also subscribe to the perspective that democracy has many flaws but is still the best alternative available. However, I also believe that the flaws of government are generic, that the difference between tyrants and democrats is relative, that governments do not differ in kind but only in the number of essential supporters whose backs need scratching, as is so eloquently argued in The Dictator’s Handbook.
A ‘nice’ illustration is that one can make a good case for Henry Kissinger being a war criminal. You may be aware of the j’accuse that Christopher Hitchins published in 2001, The trials of Henry Kissinger. It’s not an uplifting depiction, this look behind the scenes of political decision-making. He also made a documentary about it. Like the McNamara one, it’s movie length. But I can seriously recommend it. I read the book, but that was because the Cambodian sideshow to the Vietnam war plays a prominent part in it, and I’ve lived in Cambodia for a couple of years. The doc gives you the gist of it, and the gist is shocking.
To avoid any misunderstanding: one can dispute if we’re currently in the sunset of the US empire or not, but I have no illusions that any other empire let alone an era of warring states was or would be any better. If anything it would probably be worse. Anyway, if that is what drives politics, how on earth can that be expected to take decisive action for the long-term common good? It cannot would be my gut feeling, but I’m a pessimist. And rational at that because I just cannot reason myself out of it.