Saturday, May 29, 2010

Looking at Some Bright Points

Tibor R. Machan

My specialty as a columnist is political economic commentary, with a good bit of cultural observation thrown in to round things off. So what my columns focus on tend to be unwelcome news and trends, such as the widespread loss of commitment to liberty, the abandonment of natural rights jurisprudence, the virtual abolition of the legal respect for private property rights, freedom of contract, and the growth of the scope of governmental power--all those calls for more and more regulations, as if the regulators were a special omniscient and virtuous species--by leaps and bounds.

But just as people's political convictions aren't all that constitute their character, so political economic features of our world are but a fraction of what is important. I like to check things around my own premises--my family, friends, colleagues, the home in which I live and spend most of my time, the restaurants and shops and stores I frequent, so as to gain a proper perspective. (One point I have made again and again is that for a half hour of news from, say, CNN or Fox-TV or MSNBC, I usually turn to a half hour of the travel channel or science TV or some other source of mostly positive news and information. Even the history channel can cheer up a person, given how often it shows how much more miserable matters were in ancient and medieval times, on average, than today.) And on my trip back to Budapest a year ago I observed, in a follow-up column, just how much worse was much of the twentieth century for the bulk of the world than it is now.

I am, then, in full accord with the outlook of the late Julian Simon who was what is certainly optimistic about where the world is headed (and who won a bet with Paul Ehrlich, the doomsayer from Stanford University and author of The Population Bomb [1968], about how bad things are going to get in soon when Ehrlich swore the world would go to hell in a hand basket and quite incredibly is holding on to his views despite the fact that his predicted doom by the 1970s never materialized). A book that recently came out, contrarian in its way as well, is Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist (Harper, 2010). It follows in the footsteps of Simon's work, much of it conveyed in his follow-up to his The Ultimate Resource (1981), namely, The Ultimate Resource II: People, Materials, and Environment (1996). You want to cheer up a bit, read the Ridley book ASAP.

My reason for listing these works and reminding readers of the dismal failure of doomsday predictors like Paul Ehrlich is that I consider it one of the media's major disservices to us all that so little time is spent on good news. I suppose it is understandable, since there appears to be little profit in discussing welcome information--most people run across it all the time anyway, right around their lives, at home, work, school, the market place. Just the other day I decided for once to indulge myself and do my grocery shopping at Whole Foods and the abundance of exceptional grocery items therein just took my breath away. I have shopped in one of them near where by daughter lives in New York City but never actually bought a basket full from the place, nor sat down to have a proper little (health food) meal there, which I did this time. And when one considers the kind of grocery shopping my mother was doing back in Budapest in the 1950s and what millions of people faced in earlier times, who can doubt that things are looking up all the time, at least as far as the non-political dimensions of our lives are concerned.

Of course not all can be beneficiaries of all such welcome development. One thinks of the people of Greece who, ignoring the teaching of their great ancient thinkers like Socrates and Aristotle, forgot all about the virtue of prudence and seemed to have fully embraced the entitlement mentality that helped bring about the recent financial fiasco there and elsewhere.

Still, amidst all the irrational exuberance of the last several decades--not to mention the growing governmental habit--there has also been a great deal of useful innovation, creativity, initiative, entrepreneurship, discovery, and engineering in most areas of human concern. So it seems to me that Ridley is on the right track to chronicle what should give most of us a sense of optimism rather than doom and gloom.

And it makes sense to keep in mind that one reason doom and gloom are so evident--only one among many--is that the delivery of news from all corners of the globe happens so much more rapidly these days than it used to. Given, then, that news reporting agencies seem to believe, rightly or wrongly, that audiences want bad news, they can dish it up much faster than before. Which contributes to the misperceptions that can get anyone into a funk. But don't believed it--turn on your iPod, put in on "shuffle," and listen to your selection of wonderful music and leave the doomsayers in the dust.

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