Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | January 5, 2010

A Word About Optimism

During the holidays (which for some of us are still in full swing; the twelfth day of Christmas, or the Feast of Epiphany, isn’t until the 6th), there were some comments at this blog and elsewhere – i.e., at blogs that linked to it – about the Optimistic Conservative losing her optimism.  I wanted to discuss that briefly at the time, but it got away from me.  Herewith a few thoughts on “optimism.”

Being optimistic doesn’t mean assuming that bad consequences won’t befall us when we do stupid things.  The true optimist, in my definition, is a realist about unvarying patterns.  Appease an evil dictator and he will push you for more concessions.  Create a public entitlement and it will quickly put your treasury in the red, as well as attracting aspirants – including many you did not foresee in your original calculations – to its guaranteed distributions.  Teach children that they are entitled to comprehensive, a priori approval and ungoverned self-expression, and you will raise generations that have no inner defenses against adversity, and no ability to be temperate and tolerant in their human interactions.

I don’t regard it as pessimistic in the slightest to point out the likelihood – indeed, the inevitability – of consequences like this.  Ignoring them, or hoping unrealistically that they simply won’t happen, is not optimism.  It’s a Polyanna-ish refusal to face reality.

So you won’t find me whitewashing policy errors, or errors in political thinking that are bound to produce evil consequences, intended or merely foreseeable.  My optimism is not of the irrational kind.

It lies instead in a reality that appears to be more intellectually and spiritually challenging for many people, which is that taking the tougher line to resist tyranny, promote liberty, cultivate individual responsibility, and carefully circumscribe all forms of collective dependency, produces good consequences.  This proposition, this one right here, is the source of “optimistic conservatism.”

We have every reason to expect religious, political, and economy liberty to produce good consequences.  It’s entirely rational to believe in these quiescent mechanisms as the facilitators of good outcomes for humanity.  We have seen that they do.  We have also seen, by contrast, that forcible constraints on people in the matters of religious belief, political bent, and economic activity have bad consequences.

Not all the policy mechanisms that inherently produce bad consequences work at the same pace, or to the same level of effectiveness.  Public entitlements, for example, yield budget deficits with breathtaking efficiency; but ideas about rearing and teaching the young, implemented through the schools and popular culture, must of necessity have a less pervasive and less speedy impact.  The effect of adding 1% to a local sales tax is typically felt marginally and over time, whereas increasing the federal capital gains tax promptly drives investment funds out of small business formation.  In international relations, another nation is often affected at least as much by its overall circumstances as it is by the exhortations of foreign politicians:  our policies cannot change everything, and may matter only in marginal or long-term contexts.

So there will always be mitigations to argue about, affecting the pristine and analytically obvious operation of the axiom I outline above.  Optimistic conservatism doesn’t mean dismissing those mitigations, or waving them away as if they don’t matter.  It does, however, mean recognizing that they are only sometimes decisive, and then only in the short run; i.e., for a particular transient circumstance.  It means, further, recognizing that we can, in fact, identify and consider mitigating conditions with an accuracy and comprehensiveness that are good enough to make tie-breaking decisions on.

For the kind of optimism I advocate, realism is essential.  It’s not optimistic to hope that things won’t be too bad if we just let the left have its way and seize control of America’s health care system.  That’s not optimism, it’s foolishness.  Genuine optimism lies in predicting that, whatever the problems with our health care system today, releasing the heavy burden on it of government regulation and mandated cost-shifting will lessen the problems significantly.  The price of being a “paying patient” or an “insured patient” has been made too high for many Americans by regulation; reducing the regulation would reduce that price.

It is realistic, informed optimism to project that this approach would produce more Americans satisfied with both the quality and price of their health care.  It’s important to me to emphasize the optimism, and the positive prediction, because this is what political conservatism in the US is all about:  the positive consequences of liberty.

What we have to be clear on, however, is that we can’t achieve the positive consequences of liberty by following the path toward collectivism, suppressing individualism, and ridiculing or dealing out of the political equation the irreducible principle of personal responsibility.  Going that way cannot possibly foster or protect liberty.  And without liberty, we will not – we cannot – have the positive consequences liberty brings.  It simply doesn’t work that way.

But protecting and fostering liberty does work to bring the positive results historically associated with it.

That is what the optimism of the Optimistic Conservative is about.


  1. I for one have never doubted your optimism.

    Most recently you reminded me, in response to the grim prognosis I had offered, that such an outcome was entirely dependent upon the public consistently making ‘bad’ choices.

    Given the election of Obama and the distortions of the MSM in their ‘reportage’… holding out the possibility that a majority of the public might come to a proper understanding of the issue’s and act accordingly was, if not wishful thinking then certainly optimistic in outlook 😉

    BTW and FWIW, I share your openness to the possibility that Lincoln’s dictum still holds true, “I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.”

    Hope you and yours had the finest of holidays and, an epiphany is a very fine thing indeed.

  2. Yes, OC, agree with all of that and indeed must say that I have always been puzzled by the notion of liberals as hopeful optimists and conservatives as gloom and doomers (propagated by many conservatives). This notion of general economic equality, healthcare for all and world peace of only government provides the goodies and reaches out to our “misunderstood” “prospective” partners has always stuck me as being not truly optimistic but rather utterly, irredeemably delusional in conception and appallingly harmful in application. Conservatism has always seemed to me to be based on what you speak of as a realistic appraisal of human nature and history but not a reason that would preclude superior outcomes for most. A firm American strategic posture might not create peace in our or any other time but it can lead to good deal of peaceable stability and at least somewhat greater safety for for billions of people. Perhaps we cannot have quality universal health care for all (to be fair I don’t think even most libs are actually promising this and many are at least implicitly conceding the savage rationing that awaits), but the introduction of certain market reforms and adjustments in the tort law will make somewhat more affordable, somewhat higher quality healthcare available to more than the 87% of American already covered. And so forth. Not utopia but better situations for most all around hence the optimism.

    That is all theory, however. In today’s Rasmussen track Barry was at 49%, his highest in almost a month (and this in the wake of his masterful handling of the barely avoided Christmas bombing). Maybe people are just in a jolly mood with the new year. I don’t know. Hmm. In any case there will be a massive campaign to sell the healthcare abomination, massive stimulus $ to “create and save” more jobs (oh goody), and Dem looses could be kept under 30 in the house and perhaps to 2 or 3 in the Senate. Certainly Barry’s chances of reelection can’t be dismissed although he will have a hard time. Given the urgent need to REPEAL THE HEALTH CARE BILL TO THE LAST DOT OVER THE I CROSS OF A T AND COMMA, the need to meaningfully update and reinforce our nuclear arsenal to deal with emerging contingencies and at least another half a dozen crucial agenda items.

    Certainly the reaction of the American people is, as Geoffrey Britain writes above a reason for optimism. However, as he also writes and implies, the chances that in the current media environment there will be sufficiently large and sufficiently committed majorities to quickly reverse the obscene policies currently (if rather clumsily) cannot realistically be considered very good. And it will be hard to be optimistic in the absence of such. What your loyal readers want from you, OC is a realistic yet conservatively optimistic assurance that we will indeed have the needed political turnover in appropriate number and intensity. In the absence of such we understandably get antsy.

  3. Perhaps there’s a hang up here on the terms “optimism” and “conservative”. The original group of males who started what is now the U.S. were “revolutionaries”. If they lost the war against the prevailing legal authority, they were going to hang. They won the war and suddenly, they were the founding fathers. Militarily, I think it is amazing that they won the war. I guess the British just tired of the whole mess and withdrew, but I’m no military expert. My readings of history have always been on the intersection of art and theology. Throughout history great religious movements have succeeded because of commitment. So commitment will win the battle. So far the polls keep picking up a massive disgust possibly even hatred of the elites. No political leader has really built on that yet but someone will. Hopefully, those new leaders will be men and women who still respect Western civilization and constitutional representative government.

    • Well, that founding optimistic conservatism is precisely what’s needed here. There can be no question that many of the framers were indeed conservative in the sense that OC means: they had a profound knowledge of history and human nature and understood very well the multiple abuses which a government can engage in and concerned to limit the opportunities for such. They were also conservative in the very basic sense that most people are in that they were property owners who wanted to protect their property (in this respect your average trial lawyer, union boss and enviro-industrialist is acting very “conservatively” indeed when he/she votes for a Democrat because the Democratic Party will protect and augment their property – however obscene and lawless the method by which such was acquired.) Given their dubious military prospects and the probable consequences of failure they must indeed have in many cases been very “optimistic” in the dramatically less conservative wing-and-a-prayer sort of way.

      As to your last I’d like to drink to that in one of the beverages Jefferson samples and collected (the little fella was quite the wine connoisseur) although what left of the bottles from the actual vintages probably costs more than the amount it takes Barry to go to embarrass himself in Europe.

  4. worthless words of approval for a spirit undaunted being unwanted….

    perhaps a quiet hiss of esteem may escape unscorned.

  5. Orcas — you have, as usual, a very good point, that our Founders were not “conservative” in the sense of wishing to conserve the existing political order.

    They were profoundly conservative in a cultural and social sense: unlike their counterparts in revolutionary France, they weren’t out to remake the nature of man. They didn’t even think that was a valid objective; it was neither achievable nor even desirable. Instead they took man’s nature, and indeed a core set of “laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” as givens. These factors constituted, for them, a framework within which government could be constituted in a limited and durable way.

    I esteem the Founders tremendously. They knew far more about history and the nature of man than the typical graduate of America’s school systems running around today.

    I would, however, agree that they were essentially pessimistic in outlook, in the following sense. Their focus was on the undesirable consequences of a government that was unfettered by guards against tyranny, by either a single sovereign or transient mob-majoritarianism.

    It was particularly important that they have such a perspective, in creating our form of government, because it was that perspective that made it so urgent to them that they make our government limited, federal, and constitutional.

    In a key way, they were also taking a great risk with their approach to creating a new government, because in 1789, there was no example of SUCCESS to adhere to. There was no “United States” already in existence. Although Western Europe had developed practices and patterns that were positive, in comparison with the rest of the world — and the Founders incorporated them, for that very reason — there was no guarantee from history that what the Founders gave us would produce POSITIVE results, as opposed to merely fending off negative ones.

    What we have now is more than two centuries of experience to inform us that limited, federal, and constitutional government DOES produce positive results.

    It’s when factions within the population use government to impose artificial constraints, that systemically bad consequences ensue. Examples include everything from an agriculture industry dependent on subsidies to government’s central role in creating commercial monopolies (this can’t be done WITHOUT collusion from government).

    Too many American students have been taught to associate the inevitable consequences of expanding regulation, taxation, and subsidy with “free market capitalism,” as if the latter operates unfettered in the USA. The truth is the reverse: that political liberty in the US has remained strong enough to fetter our collectivist factions in their project to wholly undo the power of free enterprise, which enables individuals and small wielders of capital in a way nothing else does, and government certainly can’t.

    The reason our political liberty has remained strong is the system of government the Founders set up. They set it up with essentially negative, pessimistic concerns in mind. But living under it, we have proven that it is a multiplier for POSITIVE outcomes in a way no other form of government is.

    We need not go back to the pessimism of the Founders. If they were alive today, they would (mostly) be optimists, because they would see what small-government republicanism has wrought.

    In terms of their being “revolutionaries,” I think most on the right today are praying fervently that it doesn’t become necessary to turn into revolutionaries again, to preserve the principles of limited, federal, constitutional government. But, of course, the Founders prayed that for themselves and their generation as well.

    Massachusetts might well be a significant indicator of how energized the people are, when its citizens vote on the 19th for a replacement to Ted Kennedy. I’d love to think Brown can win there, but even a close loss to Coakley would be significant, given the embedded voting patterns in the Bay State. As 2010 unfolds, I think we’ll see more of the intensity cavalier is looking for. People do respond to positive messages and constructive examples — that’s something the left never seems to learn.

  6. […] America at the Crossroads: Optimism This post continues the discussion of America’s philosophical decisions about our future as a nation – the “inner life” – with a focus on the need for conservatives to recognize the essential optimism of our ideas, and why that’s a valid and advantageous perspective.  For my previous posts on optimistic conservatism, see here and here. […]

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