Arnold Kling  

Are Intellectuals Pessimistic?

Retirement Policy Question... Mankiw's Clarity on Kidney Exc...

I'm asking Bryan. "Pessimistic bias" is one of the four biases he finds among people who are ignorant of economics. He also claims that educated people are generally better than the less-educated on economic issues. But in an interview with James Pethokoukis, Matt Ridley says,

You did not ask me why intellectuals are all such pessimists. And my answer is that pessimism gets attention - from funders, from the media, from governments. Also, for reasons I do not fully understand, it sounds wiser than optimism.

Comments and Sharing

CATEGORIES: Growth: Consequences

COMMENTS (6 to date)
Alan Watson writes:

The dishonesty inherent in Progressivism is another major reason for the pessimism of the intellectuals.

The American Revolution was based on two profound ideas about how society works: first, that government power is dangerous and needs to be limited, and second, that free people can generate order and prosperity without central control. These two ideas dominated our nation's first century, but beginning in the late 1800's, the Progressive movement began to reverse both of them. Impressed by the rapidly growing productivity of factories and corporations, and by German economic growth under Bismarck, Progressives imagined that a similar hierarchical organization of our government would help us achieve our social and economic goals more rapidly. They saw decentralized power and checks and balances on government as impediments to progress, rather than safeguards of our freedom.

While Progressives spent considerable effort arguing the merits of their new world view, they would probably have made little headway against so much tradition and historical evidence, had their vision not given them the perfect opportunity to promise specific benefits to laborers, farmers, and other favored groups. Ultimately, Progressives came to power not because their arguments were intellectually compelling, but because they were able to buy off enough voters with promises of government favors. Without a compelling intellectual argument, they justified their actions by generating self-serving myths: that individual action is selfish, greedy, and anti-social; that free markets are exploitation; and that resistance to the Progressive program is unimaginative and futile.

Most modern intellectuals share the Progressive world view. After all, if society gives power to those most qualified to lead it, who is more qualified than intellectuals? But the myths of Progressivism are inconsistent with progress that is not centrally directed. Thus uncontrolled population growth must lead to disaster, uncontrolled economic activity must lead to environmental catastrophe and to terrible social outcomes, and if evidence of prosperity and wealth is all around us, then it must be hollow, unequal, unsustainable, and corrosive to the human soul.

Andrew_M_Garland writes:

An intellectual attempts to analyze and understand things.

Self-describing as an intellectual greatly reduces the chance that a useful understanding will result. So, intellectuals rarely come to a useful undertanding of what they study.

That produces pessimism.

fundamentalist writes:

Pessimism is public relations 101: it sells. A study of advertising tested the effects of all of the emotional appeals used in the media and found that only fear works. Only fear moves people to action.

Mencken wrote that politicians are in the fear business. They know that people don't pay attention to them unless there is a crisis. So politicians generate crises in order to get attention and to get campaign contributions. I would extend Mencken's rule to the mainstream media. CNN is particularly vulnerable to crises. CNN makes a ton of money when there is a major crisis, and starves when there isn't.

Look at books that sell. They're all about looming disasters. That's why global warming hysteria is so popular and why films like the one about 2012 sell so well. Imagine a motion picture about how wonderful the next 30 years will be. Boring!

David C writes:

Why would anybody want to write a paper arguing that something has been completely solved, there's nothing more to do with it, and things are all going to go great for the next several years? The whole point of science is to find ways to improve, so they have to start by looking at what's wrong with the world. I'm sure a lot of intellectuals are very optimistic about the world even though they spend most of their day focusing on the bad parts. This might create the appearance of pessimism where there isn't any.

MernaMoose writes:


Mencken wrote that politicians are in the fear business. They know that people don't pay attention to them unless there is a crisis.

Yet another reason that I argue, democratic electoral politics is a flawed concept at root.

Not that I've come up with anything better to replace it with.

My. How pessimistic of me. :)

Maybe Congressional seats should be filled by something like a jury duty system. The problem is that the people we'd most benefit from having in those positions, are too busy doing other (gasp! productive) things and don't want the job of politician.

Ed H. writes:

Negative thinking can be contagious. And that's dangerous when you have an economy puttering along like ours.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top