Bryan Caplan  

About What Am I Optimistic and Pessimistic?

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The Decline in U.S. Economic F... Political Cynicism...
Here's Tyler's list.  Here's mine:

1. I am a pessimist about the likelihood of making democracy work better than it does.  We can push the world in a better direction (as Bob Tollison says, "We're all part of the equilibrium"), but economic illiteracy and general mush-headedness will continue to plague mankind indefinitely.

2. I am a pessimist about our overall intellectual culture.  "Leading thinkers" will continue to be insipid, conventional, boring, obscurantist, and/or wrong.  Rational, high-IQ people will continue to be siphoned away from the path of common sense by the errors of materialism, determinism, and moral skepticism.

3. I am a pessimist about our overall political culture.  Social democracy and nationalism will continue to plague mankind indefinitely.

4. I am a pessimist about life extension.  The only path to centuries of healthy life (as opposed to mere simulation) is probably genetically engineering embryos - and it's too late for me and everyone I care about.

5. I am an optimist about world economic growth.  In a hundred years absolute poverty will be  gone, and marvels and wonders that Bill Gates lacks will be common.

6. I am an optimist about dictatorship.  In a hundred years, dictatorship will be gone.  And yes, democracy is a lot less bad.

7. I am an optimist about peace.  In a hundred years, a major war on earth will be an unthinkable as a major war in Europe is today.  There will be no major nuclear exchange or world war along the way.

8. I am an optimist about China.  In thirty years China will be democratic, rich, and peaceful.

9. I am an optimist about the best intellectual and political culture.  The Masonomic vision will not become dominant, but it will be a vibrant, self-sustaining intellectual and political counter-culture.

10. More generally, I am an optimist about the best life people can lead if they so choose.  Thirty years ago, you had to be a hermit to secede from the evils of the world.  Thanks to the Internet and related marvels, I now reside in the real world but live in an Epicurean garden.  I share my favorite books and games with my many children.  I have exciting conversations with brilliant minds every day.  I enjoy the best culture in the world, and killfile the rest.  As time goes on, this upper tail will keep getting better - and almost anyone who wants to partake will be able to do so cheaply and conveniently.


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COMMENTS (32 to date)
Dave Killion writes:

I think you intentionally listed pessimisms before optimisms, and I appreciate you having done so.

Philo writes:

"[A] major war in Europe is [unthinkable] today." Wasn't there some pretty serious fighting in the former Yugoslavia fairly recently? (Was it not "major"?)

Rohit writes:

I am optimistic that in 100 years the world will find a new economic system.

I am optimistic that this system wont resemble capitalism or socialism at all.

Brandon Reinhart writes:

What do you mean by "determinism" in point 2.

Shane writes:

Ah interesting!

But I suggest that a different electoral system might make democracy work better. Some kind of proportional representation could produce a cluster of smaller parties instead of two big ones. There might be a religious conservative party, a realist centre-right party and a stronger libertarian party taking the place of Republicans, for example.

RG writes:

Are you optimistic about secure energy sources? Without those, none of your other predictions will come to pass.

joecushing writes:

On point one--lack of economic understanding. I see this all the time. A friend just got scolded for buying a Honda. I agree with you in that, I don't see this changing. I used to think it would be good to push public schools to teach econ with the same priority that they teach math but I changed my mind. I'm affraid that, left to the government, such a class would be turned into a class on how and why capitalism is bad and the governmment needs to control everything.

The only way to do it would be for an organization like the Cato Institute to come into public schools and teach econ for free--saving the school distric money, so the superintendant has more to squander. Superintendants love having more money to squander, so it might be possible to use this carrot to sneak real education into the schools. Of course, such an organization would need deep pockets to pay for all the carrots. They would have to pay off the union somehow too. Perhaps by having the private teacher join it or at least pay dues.

Arthur B. writes:

Regarding life extension, molecular nanotechnology can achieve at the very least the same as embryo genetic modification. Are you also pessimistic on MNT, and if so why?

Rafal Smigrodzki writes:

Hey, what about cryonics? I am suprised that hanging out with Robin didn't convert you to this path!

Brian C writes:

I can promise you absolute poverty will still exist, and dictatorships will still exist just in a different form. Hopefully they will be rarer but I am pessimistic about that.
These are conditions of human nature and humans 100 years from now will not have evolved into more enlightened being. They never due.

Hume writes:

Bryan,

To what extent are "bad" policies really just benign, in the sense that they do not do much damage (see your optimisms regarding quality of life), and perhaps play a necessary ideological/appeasing role?

Yancey Ward writes:

Maybe in 100 years we can read Bryan Caplan's updated list, and he tell us where he was wrong on this one.

ThomasL writes:

@Brandon Reinhart

I read "determinism" in context as something like what was called naturalism about 60 years ago. The idea that everything is a result of natural laws and chemical processes (some of which we understand, and some of which we don't yet).

A lot of people nod at that and agree at how scientific it sounds, until they realize that it means that there is no free will, consciousness is nothing more or less than self-deception, all choice is an illusion, and nothing could possibly be otherwise than it is.

Of course, if naturalism/determinism is the truth there really isn't anything we can do about it, since we can't do anything about anything since we, and the thoughts we "think" are just a meaningless byproduct of a chemical reaction.

If it isn't true, and people do make choices (as opposed to simply believing they make them), then it is the ultimate pessimistic mistake.

ThomasL writes:

FWIW, I am pessimistic about both 6 and 7.

All of human history is filled with dictators and with wars, and all of a sudden it stops? Why?

roystgnr writes:

What a strange attitude. If meaningful events can happen as the byproduct of chemical reactions, then that doesn't make the events meaningless, it makes the sum of reactions meaningful.

There's no need for the "if" and "then" in that sentence, either. It's easy to verify the first clause's truth, since we can produce changes in people's thoughts by experimentally adding to or reducing the levels of various chemicals in their brains.

So given those observations, perhaps it would help to formulate a better definition of "free will"? Lots of people have a vague notion that it can't be deterministic (i.e. uniquely determined by initial conditions) and it can't be partly random (i.e. not uniquely determined by initial conditions), but such restrictions wouldn't just contradict observation, they would contradict each other.

As a step in the right direction: there is no contradiction between the idea of "we can decide to do something" and "our decision is predetermined". That's not even a uniquely materialist viewpoint; the Calvinists (and any other believers in divine omniscience) had to wrestle with the apparent paradox long ago.

JP59 writes:
Rational, high-IQ people will continue to be siphoned away from the path of common sense by the errors of materialism, determinism, and moral skepticism.

This sounds surprisingly un-Caplan-like (to me, at least). Please tell us more.

kyle8 writes:

Rohit writes:

I am optimistic that in 100 years the world will find a new economic system.

I am optimistic that this system wont resemble capitalism or socialism at all.

Perhaps, if everything goes to hell we might end up with a primitive barter system.

Todd Fletcher writes:

"...will be an unthinkable as a major war in Europe is today"

This may be disproved before the decade is out. The combination of the end of the EU, if it happens, the welfare state hitting the last wall & islamic birth rates make it very "thinkable" to me. Not certain of course, but easy to imagine.

Lori writes:

#1: We are all part of the equilibrium, but not equal parts. One dollar one vote. That's why relative poverty matters. Some of us a so small a part of the equilibrium that we are destined to be passive participants in it. I think the antidemocratic attitudes of Masonomists (and their rejection of one-man[sic]-one-vote) can only amplify this phenomenon.

#4: Wouldn't the possibility of life extension for future generations be cause for optimism? Assuming life extension is something desirable in the first place, anyway. You'd think a basher of materialism and moral skepticism (your paleo is showing) would absolutely embrace mortality. Or at least celebrate enhanced longevity in from a less blatantly self-interested perspective.

#9: Masonomism is about as counterculture as dressing conservatively. It speaks on behalf of the business Establishment.

Noah Yetter writes:

#9: Masonomism is about as counterculture as dressing conservatively. It speaks on behalf of the business Establishment.

Your lack of comprehension defies description. I recommend you try reading what the Mason economists actually write instead of mentally substituting your preferred straw man.

Eric H writes:

Re #3 and #5: "Social democracy" and "major war on earth will be an unthinkable as a major war in Europe is today."

Any chance those two things are related?

Robb L writes:

I think that anyone who is optimistic about the long run of our society should explain their view of Fermi's Paradox.

Matt writes:

5. It's possible that technological progress will eventually eliminate subsistence poverty in a material sense for anyone with some brains, but in the absence of a welfare state some people will always be poor. Jesus was right.

7. Lack of major wars is more a function of unipolarity than anything else. It's possible that China or the UN would take the place of the declining US in that regard, but the jury is still out on China and the UN's influence is wholly a function of its members...imagine if the SC were made up wholly of poor countries instead of the world leaders of 1950.

ThomasL writes:

@roystgnr

As a step in the right direction: there is no contradiction between the idea of "we can decide to do something" and "our decision is predetermined". That's not even a uniquely materialist viewpoint; the Calvinists (and any other believers in divine omniscience) had to wrestle with the apparent paradox long ago.

The contradiction isn't new, but the source is. St. Anselm wrote persuasively on the compatibility of "divine foreknowledge" with human free will well before the Protestants, and he was not the first.

But, in that there still exists the idea that God created Man with a free will, and the squares the circle of how can it really be free since God both knows what will happen and cannot be wrong. The answer most theologians arrive at is that God's foreknowledge does not constitute (of itself) necessity that it must happen. That is, it was possible to have been otherwise, even though it won't be. Or to put it another way, His knowledge of what we were going to do was not itself the cause of our doing it.

The contrast to determinism/naturalism is that those positions argue conditions are the necessary result of natural laws, and so outcomes, thoughts, actions, etc. couldn't have possibly been otherwise.

To create a mixed system, you have to allow for both natural things (physical and chemical reactions) and supernatural (will and consciousness). For systems that deny the supernatural, consciousness is inexplicable without explaining it away as nothing but an illusion. Religion is quick to recognize consciousness in humans as the result of a divine gift, but is faced with many other puzzles about how it can be influenced physically, whether animals have consciousness, etc.

Shane writes:

"..islamic birth rates"

How high are they? A Pew Forum report recently estimated that the Muslim population of Europe will rise over the next 20 years from 6% today to 8%. We're meant to be worried? No! Already fertility rates in North African Arab states are around or below replacement rate, as are the rates in Iran, Bosnia, etc. Muslims are heading along the demographic transition like everyone else.

Sunset Shazz writes:

Just curious about the evidence upon which you base #7, which seems the boldest prediction. I hope you're right; I would love to see your work.

Gian writes:

Since nationalism was a major cause of two 20C world wars, the prediction that nationalism would hold sway sits uneasy with the prediction of no major wars.

'Errors of materialism'

What are they?

hsk writes:

I think you're too pessimistic about longevity. But it would be interesting to hear why you're so pessimistic. So, hope you write a post about that.

Chris Koresko writes:

Bryan Caplan: 7. I am an optimist about peace. In a hundred years, a major war on earth will be an unthinkable as a major war in Europe is today. There will be no major nuclear exchange or world war along the way.

I really hope you're right. But this strikes me as wildly optimistic.

The end of big European wars coincided with the rise of the USA as the dominant military power at the end of WWII. That's unlikely to be a matter of luck: since that event, it has simply been infeasible for any nation in Europe to gain much by military aggression against any other. Likewise for much of the rest of the world. We've been living in the Pax Americana.

But over the next few decades we will see the return of a 'multi-polar world' in which regional powers contend for dominance. The U.S. portion of global military spending is falling, as is its dominance in military technology. Already the Chinese are making a big push toward the ability to thwart U.S. intervention in any Asian war, and China's neighbors are reacting with plans to beef up their own defenses as they become less confident in U.S. protection. There's even been talk of Japan developing nukes.

More power centers means more people living at the edges between them where aggression may be feasible.

Nukes and their delivery systems have been the ultimate weapons for the last half century. They were in the control of a relative handful of powerful nations whose interest in global stability and their own survival outweighed any desire for territorial gains. As these weapons become much more widely available, the old "mutually-assured destruction" balance of terror has essentially disappeared, and it hasn't really been replaced. Some of the nations currently racing toward completion of WMD and delivery systems have openly advocated their use to destroy neighboring peoples and/or the USA, and their leaders speak in apocalyptic terms that suggest they may regard destruction of their own people as an acceptable cost.

Frankly, I'll be relieved if we haven't seen a nuclear attack somewhere in the world in the next decade, much less the next century. And the probability that one occurs in a given year will continue to rise with time.

Seth writes:

It strikes me that your optimism may under appreciate the tenacity of bureaucrats to feed from and gain control the engines of wealth generation.

Michael Hamilton writes:

This is going to sound trivial, but that is most likely because the readers of this blog do not live in relative poverty. I think there is another thing to be optimistic about:

Fast food quality.

People who live in bad neighborhoods eat a lot of fast food, a lot of which isn't great. Take a look, however, at the how bad it was 20 years ago. A continuation of this trend, and the highly competitive market for these goods, will probably lead to better tasting, healthier, and cheaper food for people. The effects this has on quality of life can be fairly large.

Bruce writes:

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