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.
As America faces her great historic crossroads, one of the most important advantages conservatism brings to the table is its inherent optimism. I think even Churchill, who famously said conservatives are pessimists, would agree with me on this. Because the optimism of conservatives isn’t about what government-enforced collective projects can achieve – it’s about the inherent benefits, and the predictably superior outcomes, of liberty.
Churchill’s characterization accepted the definition of moral and political optimism that was pervasive in the West of his time: an optimism that was about great corporate enterprises for human improvement, based on universalist abstractions that ignored big chunks of human reality. Redesigning mankind, managing him through bureaucracy and technology better than he could manage himself: these were the parameters of “optimism” against which Churchill opposed the greater realism of conservatives.
But while I agree that it is inherent in conservatism to be realistic, I disagree that realism is inevitably pessimistic. The context in which I make this judgment is precisely the one that matters to the main dispute between conservatives and leftists in America today: that is, the dispute over the size and proper scope of government. In this dispute, conservatives are by far the more optimistic faction regarding the features and prospects of human life.
Conservatives don’t get up in the morning thinking, “If only the government were punishing X, subsidizing Y, and regulating Z, I might have a chance today. But since government hasn’t gotten on the stick about that, I’m screwed.” Conservatives don’t think in terms of the deck being stacked against them or others – as an inevitable condition of existence – unless the state is intervening in various activist ways to restack it. Conservatives, in short, have a whole dense, varied, and meaningful concept of “life” that doesn’t depend on institutionalized coercion of others as a bulwark against scary monsters hiding under the bed of human existence.
The basic idea of life in the mind of the conservative is an optimistic one. It is optimism that says all you need is opportunity, and if you work hard you can have as much as you, personally, want. It’s optimism that says it matters if you exercise discipline and self-control, because you can set yourself up for good things later, instead of bad things. It’s optimism that says we hold the means of happiness in our own hands; that no condition of poverty or lowly position is or must be permanent; that the successes of others are not losses for us, and indeed may often enhance our own prospects for success. It’s optimism to recognize that human existence is not a zero-sum game, in which we start out with a finite “pie” and are fated merely to spend eternity refining our rules for carving it up.
Understanding that the pie is constantly enlarged, refreshed, assembled and baked anew by the sum total of lives being lived around us – that’s optimism, and it is integral to the conservative mindset.
The progressivist left, by contrast, is profoundly pessimistic about human life, at least to the extent it is lived without the intervention of state-imposed collectivist rules. The left takes every snapshot in time as an enduring and changeless reality that will do nothing but fester if it is not addressed by centralized state action.
It sees, for example, young adults starting life with low incomes, little or no savings, no credit history, and very little in valuable property, and it is horrified that people have to live that way. In fact, this reaction is emblematic of the abstract obtuseness of the left, because very often its public voices excoriate “poverty” without realizing that most people in it are in a transient state, and are already progressing out of it without help from the “government.”
I venture to suspect that just about everyone reading this post has been a young adult before, squeezing every penny from a tiny paycheck, living on ramen noodles, doughnuts, and overripe fruit from the break room at work, and hoping the car isn’t going to break down somewhere today. Many have been young parents whose income would afford a much more comfortable lifestyle if they weren’t raising children. Some have been through divorces in which their incomes and lifestyles suffered major setbacks in mid-life. Others deliberately chose to seek professional qualifications requiring years of low income and accumulating debt. Still others lived with amazing frugality on unimpressive incomes in order to be able to start businesses of their own and work for themselves. And others still decided at some point that their calling in life involved volunteer or missionary work, perhaps going overseas to serve the world’s poorest, or joining the clergy in places where they make little money but are happy and fulfilled.
People in all these conditions could fall under the US government’s official poverty line – without any of them being in a grinding, systemic poverty that justifies either them rethinking their priorities from top to bottom, or mankind rethinking his social organization from stem to stern. The people actually in each situation see – have a vision for – their goals, their opportunities, and their prospects. They see their present state as a waypoint, not an end-state, and see their lives as their lives, and not as a social or political problem to be solved.
It is characteristic of conservative realism to understand that. Indeed, focusing on the trajectory of the typical American life over time is a good way to reveal the deepest chasm between conservatives’ realistic optimism and the deep, abstract pessimism of the left. The conservative doesn’t assume that everyone is either victimizing others or being a victim, that the deck is permanently stacked against whoever hasn’t bustled his way to the head of the line at a given point in time, or that whatever we can see before us on 21 February, 2010 (Happy Birthday, Sis!) is all there is and all there ever will be.
It’s in the conservative mindset to suppose that discovery and invention will continue, for example. So far they have never ceased, nor has man ever hit the brick wall he so regularly predicts in the earth’s ability to support an expanding human population. Every month brings a new discovery, a new understanding of our physical universe, and new recognition that something we thought before was wrong. We have never yet known enough to be correct about humankind outgrowing the earth; assuming that we now have reached that remarkable state is an attitude with no empirical justification – it can only be an article of faith.
History suggests we will adapt to new conditions with ingenuity and optimism. There is absolutely nothing in human history that would validate the pessimistic view of the left: that the glass is half empty, and now is the time to seize control of the glass, and start rationing the water and picking winners and losers by force. Similarly, in the matters of prosperity and poverty, history is on the side of optimism. Humans improve their lot, both individually and collectively, without being directed to that end by central governments. To be pessimistic about non-centrally-directed human outcomes is to ignore the evidence of our past.
When Churchill spoke about conservatism and pessimism, the lives of his era encompassed two world wars and the Great Depression, the onset of radical progressivism and the rise of ideological dictators. What that age had not yet seen was the immense difference between the economic and political power of the United States and that of all the other nations of the earth. It had not, in short, yet seen the true measure of the fulfillment of the promise of liberty. While Churchill was in many ways more aware than others of that promise, and of how it was being fulfilled through the life of England’s one-time colony, the sense of “American liberty” being no longer an experiment but a standard had yet to become widespread. Churchill was an Englishman, and the trajectory of his own life dovetailed so well with the demise of the British Empire that his philosophical thought was always oriented on, and even bounded by, that phenomenon of chronology.
The political expression of Western conservative optimism had to wait for another of the last century’s unique political leaders. I’m not sure we today understand the extent to which Ronald Reagan endowed us with that perspective. In a historical sense, I think whoever was going to do it had to come to public leadership after WWII and our recovery from the Depression: before those developments, America was still hanging on the edge of global power, and was not the center of global finance and commerce that we became after them. But Reagan was unique among even the big-name conservatives of the movement that paved his way.
William F. Buckley, Jr., for example, founded National Review explicitly to stand athwart history yelling “Stop!” Barry Goldwater rightly insisted that government was getting way too big, and that the Soviets had to be stood up to. But what Reagan made his name for was believing in the power of liberty: the inherent ability of a free people to do well – to outperform all other standards – on their own. He didn’t just want to roll back the weight of government, or decry the onset of a culture of dependency: he was after the increase in liberty because of the good increased liberty does for us, individually and collectively.
Where others issued warnings, Reagan pointed out incentives. By the time he was campaigning for president in 1980, he had gotten to where he spoke mainly of the positive consequences of the people being free. He could get lightly over the ground of criticizing big government – talking about its negative consequences – through one-liners and gentle jokes. Anyone who studies his earlier rhetoric from the 1960s, and his radio talks from the 1970s, will see that he spent a great deal of time explicating the intellectual case against big government during those periods. There was nothing shallow about his understanding of the relevant propositions. But his great power as a persuasive leader lay in his uniquely positive outlook about what the people, acting in their private, individual capacity, can accomplish. No one else of a similar stature in the last century made that his signature emphasis.
Conservatives should never lose sight of the fact that when we want liberty for the people – liberty from government intervention, government regulation, government direction, government taxation – we want it for a good purpose. We are not merely worried that entitlement dependency produces public debt and private sloth: we are concerned that it actively discourages the better consequences people create for themselves – historically, empirically, observably – when they have more liberty. The consequences of liberty are the good things people want.
We need never fear that by promoting liberty and opposing enlarged government, we are proposing a discouraging and difficult road for the people, one that’s all about withholding something good from them in the interest of an abstraction. What the left accuses us of wanting to withhold is no one’s to “give” or withhold anyway – it can only be produced and earned by individuals. The amazing truth is that if they have liberty, the people will produce and earn.
That is the optimistic perspective we have to keep in mind. Being pessimistic about government’s ability to transform mankind through coercion is simply evidence of sanity; it’s not a basis for hope or a positive outlook on the future. But we do have such a basis. The key is that our hope doesn’t lie in government, which has repeatedly proven it cannot make our lives better. It lies in the awesome power of political, religious, and economic liberty, which have proven that they can.