Against Pessimism

I’m fairly certain he’ll write me off as part of the problem for saying this, but Jonathan Schwarz wrote something fairly recently that I think is worth responding to:

The problem is that the people who run America, and every other country on earth, have almost always been mind-numbingly brutal, cruel and stupid. Even the ones who aren’t (in Sweden, maybe?) are no prize.

For instance, take a look at the below scene from the documentary Our Brand in Crisis. In it, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, a rich white presidential candidate in Bolivia, talks with his rich white acquaintances at a campaign event in the garden of his home. Everything about it could have happened in any number of countries in history — because elites aren’t just always brutal, cruel and stupid, they’re brutal, cruel and stupid in exactly the same ways. A demagogue has somehow illegitimately gained support among the poor! The poor are massing at the gates and about to attack us!

This leads me to believe the problem isn’t one of bad individuals, but bad systems — and that these bad systems, since they’re almost universal in human history, grow out of some aspect of human nature. Hence, eating the people at the top won’t change much for very long. We’ll just have to eat a new crop a few years later.

Great movie. But I think this kind of world-historical pessimism is really mistaken. The average Chinese person today is clearly much better off than the average Chinese person of 30 years ago. Same in India or Brazil or Indonesia. The same in all the Central European countries that are now liberal democracies. And the same is true even in Russia that’s not a liberal democracy. Median income in the United States is only up slightly over thirty years and that’s a shame, but there is the “new goods” issue along with the fact that an awful lot of the families in this country were in Mexico 30 years ago where average living standards are much lower. But for that matter, the average Mexican in Mexico is much better-off than the average Mexican was 30 years ago.


Which is all just to say that for all the world is a rotten and cruel place ruled by rotten and cruel people, it really is getting better. A lot better. And there’s something ultimately very conservative about the kind of apocalyptic worldview that just writes everyone and everything off as irremediably rotten and cruel. Things have improved a lot. Things should improve more in the future. Progress is slow and frustrating, but also real.