Bryan Caplan  

The Cynical Optimist

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Yesterday Robin Hanson, Tyler Cowen, Alex Tabarrok, and I had lunch at Morton's to celebrate Robin's tenure. As the guest of honor, Robin picked the main topic of discussion. His choice: Cynicism - what it is, who's got it, and when it's true.

I've thought of myself as a cynic since junior high at the latest. But I've also long considered myself an optimist. Is it possible to be both? At least as I use the terms, it is.

In large part, I think of cynicism as the view that the average quality of human beings and the world is a lot lower than it could and ought to be. Professors should be passionate about answering the Big Questions of their fields, but most of them are boring careerists. Movies and tv ought to be creative and thoughtful, but most of it is derivative claptrap. And so on.

So how can I think this and remain an optimist? Because optimism, as I practice it anyway, is an attitude and a strategy, not a description of the world. As an optimist, I try not to dwell on boring careerists and derivative claptrap. Instead, I seek out the exceptions to the rule and appreciate what I find. Just because the average is low doesn't mean that you can't personally consume high quality. And even when the quality I consume is far from ideal, I try to mentally change the subject to another dimension where I have blessings to count.

Thus, I'm not a big fan of modern culture, but I still see cultural pessimism as folly. Even if you think there hasn't been a good piece of music composed since 1900 (a gross exaggeration), you should count yourself very lucky to live in a world of recorded music, where you'll never run out of new-to-you performances of Bach and Wagner.

At risk of showing my age, it's worth mentioning that my teen-age years would have been vastly better if the Internet had been around. As a 14-year-old in 1985, the best things I could access just weren't very good. If I were growing up today, I could be a friendless weirdo in the real world, but still meet and learn from an endless stream of interesting people in cyberspace.

In short, not only is it possible to be a cynical optimist; in the modern world, it's hard to be anything else.


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The author at India Uncut in a related article titled A cynic and an optimist writes:
    In a post on EconLog titled "The Cynical Optimist," Bryan Caplan tells us how it is possible to be both a cynic and an optimist... [Tracked on September 20, 2005 4:56 AM]
COMMENTS (10 to date)
Matt McIntosh writes:

"If I were growing up today, I could be a friendless weirdo in the real world, but still meet and learn from an endless stream of interesting people in cyberspace."

I think I'm a 14-years-younger version of you.

Callahan writes:

The optimist thinks this is the best of all possible worlds -- the pessimist fears that it is true.


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...who picked up the tab at Morton's {..I sure can't afford to eat there} :-)

Since it doesn't appear to be online, I'll quote from memory, H.L. Mencken's The Cynic:

One of the most curious of human delusions is the notion that the cynic is an unhappy man....

What a cynic believes is, at least, usually true. And the truth is ever a rock. Hard and harsh, but solid under the feet.

The cynic is perennially in the position of a guest at a wedding, who has known the bride well and has had her confidence. Theoretically, the bridegroom, beautifully barbered and arrayed and about to embark on the honeymoon, is the happier man. But the cynic looks forward two weeks. Two months...two years....

Timothy writes:

I dunno, as a 14-year-old in 1996 AOL still charged hourly, I mostly got bitched at for being on the net too much.

surabaya johnny writes:

I've (reluctantly?) worn the tag of "cynic" from friends and myself over the years, so I am intrigued whether it is possible to be a cynic and an optimist. Looking back to the Source, would one necessarily look at the original Dog, Diogenes, as a pessimist? I don't necessarily think so, but I would appreciate more reportage of the original discussion.

Paul N writes:

Personally, I wouldn't trade the music composed since 1980 for everything before 1900. Or maybe even everything before 1980.

mjrmjr writes:

I've always had cynical tendancies but was never quite happy labeling myself a cynic since I also have some optomistic traits as well. One day I read an interview with George Carlin on (brace yourself, libertarians) Salon.com and he hit the nail on the head. He said that he's not a cynic but, rather, a 'disappointed idealist'. That's what I consider myself as well.

pontus writes:

I'm not sure who said it, but it is a nice quote:

"A cynic is just an idealist with extremely high standards"

rafinlay writes:

"Cynical Optimism" might be a very good synonym for classical economics. Cynical about motives and abilities of average individuals, but optimistic about the natural outcome if governed by market mechanisms.

kyrie writes:

This may be a dead thread now... but I was rather bemused to come across this threat having just labelled myself an optimistic cynic just last week. I too wasn't sure that you could be both an optimist and a cynic. But lately, I have been thinking whether there is a difference between an 'opimistic cynic' and a 'cynical optimist'. Anyone have any thoughts on this?

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