Optimism or Pessimism?
Tibor R. Machan
At year’s end, after columns and commentaries galore lamenting the state of contemporary society with respect to the slow growth and frequent setbacks on the road to individual liberty, it’s worth asking whether an attitude of pessimism or optimism is warranted. These attitudes are, unlike, say, hope or anxiety, capable of being given rational support. Pessimists and optimists can, in principle, debate the respective merits of their stance and reach a conclusion in favor of one or the other.
I my case, I am without apology an cautious optimist. But, for someone so critical of contemporary institutions and official activities as I am, how do I defend this? After all, if one were to add up all the observations and analyses I put on record over the course of a year, one will not easily find much that has happened that I praise or champion, especially in public affairs. Am I, then, deluded, engaged in wishful thinking when I stand up for optimism? More drastically, might I need my head examined?
Not at all. To gain a proper perspective on how the world is, one must keep in mind the bulk of by now quite lengthy human history during which people were ruled mostly by conquest, bullying, brute force, and intimidation. Only over the last several hundred years were those with power made to share it with everyone else. And here the proverbial allusion to taking two steps forward and one or sometimes more back is quite appropriate. With the record of the 20th century and its massive horrors, and not much relief in the initial years of the 21st, maybe pessimism is correct.
But it is only recently that the very idea of a firm ban on using people against their own will has gained prominence. There are traces of that idea from time immemorial but faint ones at the most. But in the last few centuries even some heads of government have acknowledged the possibility that others are just like them, namely, human individuals, and so they should enjoy full sovereignty rather than the perennial status of servitude that most people suffered and still suffer in many places.
The American Founders and Framers were the first group of officials of government who began to see that they are not innately superior to the people whom they were governing, that they are properly not rulers but rather serve the rest of us because we asked them to do so and who gave prominent voice to this notion, a voice that has been heard now throughout the world.
Still, adjustments to these ideas are terribly difficult and thousands across the globe have resisted them. Even Americans haven’t managed to appreciate just how radical, albeit very true, is the idea of individual sovereignty, how seriously it undermines the status quo of thousands of years of human political history. That’s why slavery took decades to end even in Jefferson’s and Madison’s America.
There is also good news about all the innovations of our time, unleashed by the creative energy of mostly free human beings, such as technological inventors and entrepreneurs. The telephone, radio, television and, of course, the Internet have encouraged the careful scrutinizing of all of society’s institutions, especially politics and economics. Today we are beneficiaries of thorough and rapid information dissemination.
Sure, as my own writings and comments attest—and as do the works of others within the community of champions of human liberty everywhere—we are a long way from achieving the fully free society and the journey may never end and will often have to cope with reversals. But progress has clearly been made—just ask those who recently got rid of Soviet fascism, of South African apartheid, and many other forms of oppression around the globe. Sure, vigilance will continue to be required. But major advances are evident in many places. And just because it would be irrational to expect great leaps forward by tomorrow morning at 9 o’clock, it would be even more irrational to abandon the effort, an effort that has already reaped plenty of fruit.
So, please, do not become dejected because of some admitted setbacks. Happy New Year to you all.