“When Did Optimism Become Uncool?”

Gregg Easterbook asks, in The New York Times this week, “When Did Optimism Become Uncool?”

“Social media and cable news, which highlight scare stories and overstate anger, bear part of the blame. So does the long-running decline in respect for the clergy, the news media, the courts and other institutions. The Republican Party’s strange insistence on disparaging the United States doesn’t help, either. But the core reason for the disconnect between the nation’s pretty-good condition and the gloomy conventional wisdom is that optimism itself has stopped being respectable. Pessimism is now the mainstream, with optimists viewed as Pollyannas.”

Easterbook shows there’s now actually rather a lot to be optimistic about in the U.S., provided that workers have the intelligence to turn round and face the future. Maybe also re-train, move to a new state, or start an online business. His implication, for the type of pessimist who denies progress and who browbeats rational optimists, is that the pessimists of both the left and the right now risk being left behind by history.

But Easterbook’s final paragraphs more clearly reveal the reason why he thinks pessimists should allow optimists to speak. It’s a cynically liberal reason. He thinks that if the U.S. feels optimistic about its economic future then it will be happier about big government stepping in to “fix”, control and tax even more lives and livelihoods.

Easterbook tries to claim, in passing, that such government interventions have largely proven to be benign. I’m no economist but, as a long-time listener to EconTalk, I have strong doubts about that. For instance, attempts to “fix” alleged inequalities in the housing market led directly to the recent global economic collapse. In fact, one is immediately reminded here of Rand’s well-known character of Wesley Mouch, a weasel of a bureaucrat who binds the U.S. economy so tight with heavy-handed, inflexible top-down regulations and bureaucracy, all in the name of ‘the people’, that the great nation can no longer function and comes crashing down. Attempts to “fix” inequality by diktat are often deeply immoral in their actual effects. The ongoing collapse of Venezuela under socialism might make a powerful case-study, in that regard.

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