Sunday, June 12, 2011

We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism

In his book We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism, John Derbyshire humorously extols the virtue of conservative pessimism. While he affirms that classic American Optimism has accomplished a great deal, he believes that "it has got completely out of hand. A corrective is needed. The corrective must come from conservatives..." Historically, most conservative philosophy had an underlying sober pessimism and a hard realism. It's not that conservatives do not crave progress like their liberal counterparts, but rather they are skeptical about human nature. The innate imperfections in human beings limit our capacity to perfect economic and social life. Revolutionary efforts to remake human beings and human society that did not take the limits of human beings into account always resulted in disasters. For this reason, most conservatives are content with gradual evolution driven by modest reform and are natural supporters of limited government that pursue attainable goals.

More than anything, the worldview of conservatives is driven by "is" and "are" rather than "should" and "would." I recall a discussion with a progressive family member of mine in which I stated that rising rents in south Evanston were driven primarily by property tax increases. Her response was that the landlords should eat the taxes and should accept a lower profit margin, in order to preserve affordable housing. This vision begged a great many questions: do we, as holders of limited information to determine if a group of landlords are "greedy"? Do we have the right or ability to determine what is sufficient compensation that should motivate them to invest their time and capital to providing housing or any other good or service?  And even if we determined that they were "greedy," should not a wise policy be based on the reality of human motivation and behavior, rather than how we wish them to be? More than anything a conservative is skeptical about the power of politicians and bureaucrats to wisely control social and economic life. For this reason, dour
conservatives or anyone knowledgeable about history and economics break into hives when progressives propose that we control prices to ensure the "affordability" of goods and services. Such efforts have always resulted in shortages and the growth of black markets.

In modest doses this skepticism and pessimism are healthy and leads to the pursuit of modest, yet attainable goals. Rather than engage in risky endeavors to spread democracy in the middle east, it would be wiser to focus on more modest counter-terrorism policies and let nations evolve at their own pace. And rather than continue the policy of indiscriminate mass immigration, it would behoove us to promote the healthy economic and culture integration of the diverse populations that are already residing in the United States. As Mr. Derbyshire states, "We must revive the fine tradition of conservative pessimism. In this age, optimism is for children and fools. And liberals."  If you need an inspirational let down, check out this book!

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