Thursday, August 4, 2011

Negatives of Optimism

Some things I leave lying around for rereading. The Intercollegiate Review (available at is one of those things. At the back they book reviews, and there’s one from the Spring 2011 issue I’ve reread a couple of times (even though I still haven’t gone to get the book itself). The book being reviewed is The Uses of Pessimism: And the Danger of False Hope by Roger Scruton. The review is by Molly Brigid Flynn. 

This has gotten my attention because of the idea that optimism doesn’t always lead to good things; sometimes a good dose of reality is actually more positive. The book outlines some logical fallacies that are common pitfalls of the optimist. Since yesterday we talked about the need for change in order to regain our hope, following losses caused by the hope-and-change president, I thought this might be instructive.  

One of the things I’m looking at is how the “let us control your life” types are likely to fall into these pits—so maybe there’s even more reason we shouldn’t trust them. Here are the fallacies: 
  • Best Case Fallacy—a person puts out of mind the possible bad outcomes and acts on the assumption of inevitable success. If you’re debating an issue and say, “But what if this happens?” and they say, “That will never happen,” beware. (I’m thinking, for example, about the amount of oil imported from countries that express hatred for us, and when we say, “Shouldn’t we develop our own resources, rather than risk their control over us if they decide no longer to supply what we need,” and we get, “That would never happen—and we shouldn’t be using so much oil anyway.” Reason to worry.)
  • Aggregation Fallacy—ignores mutual limits on various human goods, for example: liberty and equality, safety and excitement, offering help and allowing individual initiative. If a politician tries to impose a maximization of both at once, rather than finding an appropriate balance, the inevitable outcome will be less satisfaction with both.
  • Born Free Fallacy—“conceives of human liberty as our primordial state, to be re-won by the overthrow of legal and traditional barriers.” While we do indeed have God-given rights to life, liberty, and property (liberty and property being extensions of the right to life), we do not have those rights where they interfere with the life, liberty, and property rights of another. So to pursue whatever you want as an end in itself, in Spherical Model terms, is southern hemisphere in the right, or anarchy, quadrant.
  • Moving Spirit Fallacy—“imagines history to be a determined progress of ages…. We need only identify and eliminate another splint by which civilization cramps the growth of some natural human desire.” In fact, human nature has remained pretty much intact throughout the ages of mankind. Those who believe in evolution are inexplicably impatient with humans, assuming we have evolved in a mere few millennia when they describe the process as taking eons for any other species. It is simply more accurate to say “mankind is likely to be this way,” and then deal with those qualities and flaws.
  • Zero Sum Fallacy—“identifies the villains spoiling our plans as whoever is prospering when other people are not.” Assuming the rich got that way on the backs of the poor is a common tool of the liberal to manipulate people with class envy. “The Zero Sum Fallacy refuses to see that the common good is not diminished by sharing; it records any person’s good as a social debit.”
  • Utopian Fallacy—the optimistic dream that doesn’t have to defend itself. “The impossibility of my visionary, better future—which is obvious, but stated only by the irreverent and boorish—protects me from having to take responsibility for my failures to achieve it, or its failure to live up to what I prophesied.” Three years ago, the “hope and change” utopia wasn’t even spelled out, but anyone who asked for details was derided as hopelessly negative. Now that the results are obviously disastrous, maybe a little more negative detail-requiring would have been a good thing.
  • Planning Fallacy—“presumes that all goods enjoyed by people living together can be achieved through planned action. It failed to see that much of what we need and love arises not by planned cooperation but by a type of unplanned coordination arising from shared place, habits, and laws.” I’ve been especially interested in this one, since the economic dichotomy in this country consists of mutually exclusive planners and free marketers. Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom delineates this debate and shows why the planners can never have the needed information that dispersed individuals easily hold. The review continues, “The activist stance of the Planning Fallacy is blind to how our common goods often come about as by-products, not goals, the unplanned result of many unorganized persons acting according to their own plans. This fallacy is dangerous because many of the schemes hatched in the minds of would-be central planners undermine the goods secured only by persons running their own lives in their own smaller places.”
I like this summary: “The politics of hope often blames normal people—non-busybodies—for being selfish, for not realizing how ‘we’ must take care of all, rather than each taking care of his own.” If only those busybodies would limit themselves to giving what is their own, rather than assuming what is mine is theirs to give to whomever they deem worthy, we would all be positively better off.

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