“Why does pessimism sound so smart?”

In mid-January Morgan Housel published a fine short article asking “Why does pessimism sound so smart?” I’m pleased to see it has been moderately well syndicated over the last week.

Fine though it is, I do have a few friendly criticisms. Housel passes rather too quickly over the likely evolutionary advantages of caution. He fails to stop for a moment to distinguish between…

i) sensible everyday caution (“watch out for that wolf in the bushes, kids, and don’t eat the poisonous berries”);

ii) a self-fulfilling neurotic pessimism (“sigh…. it stands to reason that the wolf is going to eat the kids one day soon, so why shouldn’t they eat a few poison berries today and have a more pleasant death…?”);

iii) and ‘the boy who cried wolf’ type of career alarmist.

Quite possibly a larger taxonomy could be devised, and perhaps already has been, but those are the ones which immediately spring to mind.

Housel suggests that in the modern day…

“Optimism appears oblivious to risks, so by default pessimism looks more intelligent.”

True, but there’s a more subtle point to be made there. Cynical journalists know reflexively that “bad news sells, good news doesn’t”, and they may also mistake rational optimists for mere ‘happy clappy’ optimists. That means rational optimists are far less likely to be asked to publicly state why they are optimistic about a topic. If they are asked then they will often find themselves mired in a standard ‘bad news’ studio interview framework, or appearing in a lone newspaper column surrounded by the day’s regular diet of gloom and shock-horror.

So optimists will get far less practice at being public intellectuals, and at presenting our case in a rational and measured way, compared to quick-fire political alarmists. Over time, as a group, we thus become less able to present our case due to our general lack of media experience. Those hardy souls who do struggle to make their voice heard may soon back off, deciding that it’s just not worth the trouble to reach an audience that’s either indifferent or hostile.

Housel makes a very fine point about the likely difference in time-frame between pessimism and optimism. This point alone is worth reading his article for…

“To the pessimist, a bad event is the end of the story. To the optimist, it’s a slow chapter in an otherwise excellent book. The difference between an optimist and a pessimist often comes down to endurance and time frame.”

True, and I’d elaborate on that by saying that rational evidence-based optimists may consider both ends of the time frame. We may draw more deeply from the past, as well a looking further ahead into the future. And when drawing on that widened sense of time, we use a framework of understanding which assumes: i) that the world is not a fixed pie where if someone gets a bigger slice, someone else must therefore get less; and ii) that governments and free-range experts very often get things wrong.

Housel also notes that there is a lazy personal advantage for pessimists…

“Pessimism […] helps you rationalize the personal shortcomings we all have [ by suggesting that ] things outside your control could be the cause of your own problems [and that] is a comforting feeling, so we’re attracted to it.”

I’d suggest that this also relates to the short time-frame in which pessimists seem to operate. If the future leads inevitably to a foretold apocalypse, then one is effectively absolved to live for today and to forget about the future. Which, in many societies, can become a dangerously self-fulfilling prophesy.

Housel’s article is a just little too easy on pessimists, I think. At the end of the article he seems to rather too casually dismiss them, as a corrective rudder for a society sailing on choppy seas. There’s something to be said for that idea in a few cases of honest and well-informed alarm, but here — again — his article could have usefully distinguished between the different types of ingrained pessimism.

He almost gets the types of pessimism untangled, when he talks of i) the pessimism that sounds like it’s trying to help…

“Optimism sounds like a sales pitch, while pessimism sounds like someone trying to help you. And that’s often the truth [and] pessimistic views often start with a foundation of rational analysis, so the warning appears as reasonable as it is scary.”

Housel then also nearly nails the other type of pessimism, which I would label as ii) a well-oiled and politicised ‘boy who cried wolf’ type of pessimism. One that’s now hand-in-glove with a threadbare leftist politics, and which all-too often deals in the sort of outright lies and shifting half-truths that the far-left have been experts at purveying since the 1930s. Housel skirts close to this second type, when he talks of the…

“Pessimism [that] requires action [. It] grabs your attention because it’s an action you need to take right now.”

This is a type of pessimism that ‘has its cake and eats it too’. It not only scares the public into hedonistic live-for-today apathy. It also scares the authorities and thus raises the funds to keep the snowball of icy pessimism rolling along and growing. It then provokes hasty knee-jerk actions which often: i) make the alleged problem worse; ii) have unintended consequences; and iii) prevent natural free-market and common-sense correctives from operating in their own good time.

So, just as Matt Ridley (The Rational Optimist) has broadly and usefully distinguished between rational optimists and irrational ‘happy-clappy’ optimists, I’d suggest that we might also find it useful to distinguish between the various different types of pessimist. Which, in a way, was what my recent notion of a ‘Socialist Supervillians’ collectable card set was about.