Friday, October 26, 2012

Pessimists, Optimists, and the Hopeful

Tielhard de Chardin begins The Future of Man with an observation that there are two groups of people, those who do not believe the world changes and those who do. He identifies the first group as pessimistic and the latter as optimistic. One could easily identify the former as conservative, the latter as progressive.

The problem with the first group is, as F. A. Hayek observed in Why I Am Not a Conservative, that the conservative mindset rejects change, period. No matter what the society is like, the conservative wants to conserve it. And this is assuming the person believes anything can, in fact, change. There is a kind of deep conservative who does not believe anything can in fact change. People have always been the same (rotten), society has always  been the same (rotten), and there is nothing anyone can do about it. This is clearly the pessimistic world view.

The problem with the progressive, on the other hand, is that embracing change because it's change means that no matter what you have, it should change -- even if what you have is good. There is an eternal optimism that, if we just change, the change will be better. Out of this comes a belief that people have no identities at all (they always change), that societies have no identities at all (they always change), and therefore there are no rules/laws to be discovered. Humans and their societies are infinitely maleable if everything is always changing. We just have to change, and everything will be fine. This is clearly the optimistic world view.

But what if, like Hayek, you reject both? Or, to be more accurate, you accept both? Processes change in relation to what they already are. Yes, everything flows, but everything flows within the river beds in which they have been flowing. The flow has to be redirected in light of the current flows. This is what we learn from the constructal law. This is also known as the tragic world view. Humans have a basic nature, but one that is capable of change and growth. There are social laws, but those laws create degrees of freedom that allow society to change and grow. All change must take place from the position of where you are already and must be done with a recognition that there are other elements of society with which the changed element must necessarily interact. And you cannot predict how that changed element will interact with all the other elements of society, meaning you have to introduce the change slowly and be ready to withdraw it if it turns out to be more detrimental than good. This means there has to be a high degree of freedom in introducing elements -- it should be voluntary. Only in such a way can a society evolve in a healthy manner. Change must take place in light of tradition, and one must be aware that not all change is for the good, and that even good change can have negative consequences for some over time. This is the tragic world view. It is embraced by neither pessimists nor optimists, but those who embody both -- it is the world view of hope.

There are clear social consequences for each. The pessimist will rarely act, as nothing can change anyway. The optimist will always act, certain that all the world needs is change. The hopeful will act with caution, understanding that good intentions are not good enough, that good outcomes are a vital element to moral action, and that even the best outcomes are always going to have negative outcomes. However, the hopeful/tragic world view also recognizes that good can come out of the bad. That unintended consequences can be positive as well as negative. Spontaneous orders, for example, are an unintended consequences of the interactions of large groups of people. Yes, there can certainly be perverse orders -- but positive orders are also a real possibility. But what we cannot do is deny such orders emerge, nor can we rearrage them as we please (how does one organize an unintended consequence, anyway?). And this is why I am neither a pessimist/conservative nor an optimist/progressive, but rather am a hopeful/classical liberal.
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