July 4, 2015

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As we approached the Fourth of July weekend, I found myself in a pessimistic mood, and cursing myself for my pessimism. But I learned to enjoy it.

Of course, the mood itself isn’t hard to explain. Probably you feel it too. The presidential campaign has produced candidates ranging from the dismal to the palpably evil. The Supreme Court, in its Obamacare decisions, has reached new depths of sophistry. The current president is one of the worst in history, and would be still worse if not for his fecklessness. Virtually all members of Congress appear to have abandoned, or never to have entertained, the idea that there could be any just or even natural limits to their power to decide things for other people.

So are there grounds for pessimism? Yes, plenty. Yet pessimism per se is always suspect. Pure pessimism deters any form of action. Yeats was thinking in this way when he wrote his poem “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” a meditation on the violent end of a relatively sane, modern, and progressive world, in the catastrophe of the Great War. The poem embodies a critique of optimists and their complacency:

Come let us mock at the good
That fancied goodness might be gay,
And sick of solitude
Might proclaim a holiday:
Wind shrieked — and where are they?

Yet in the next stanza Yeats turns with greater disgust to the pessimists and cynics:

Mock mockers after that
That would not lift a hand maybe
To help good, wise or great
To bar that foul storm out, for we
Traffic in mockery.

I thought of Yeats’ poem, and then I thought of the pessimism — the vigorous and mordant pessimism — of the tenth Federalist paper, where Madison discovers the foundation of constitutional government not in optimistic feelings about the people’s wisdom but in an awareness of their vanity and stupidity:

A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.. . .

It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm. Nor, in many cases, can such an adjustment be made at all without taking into view indirect and remote considerations, which will rarely prevail over the immediate interest which one party may find in disregarding the rights of another or the good of the whole.

As you know, Madison’s argument is that in a government with many organs continually checking one another, the contest between various kinds of wickedness and stupidity will prevent the ruin of the whole.

No one ever expected this to work perfectly, or to work all the time. It’s working pretty badly now, although it’s working well enough for me to write this reflection, and for you to read it — and that’s something. That’s a lot; and if you don’t think so, you can make the comparison with about 150 other countries. This business of distrusting human nature can produce a lot of limited government, and a lot of liberty, too.

Are there grounds for pessimism? Yes, plenty. Yet pessimism per se is always suspect.

I’m sorry to say that we libertarians often see just one side of the matter. Chronic pessimists forecast the imminent destruction of freedom and its pleasant companion, material well-being. Chronic optimists insist that if people were only free from the trammels of the state, all would be well, forgetting that the state results, in very large part, from people’s inherent desire “to vex and oppress each other.”

So this may be a time when optimism and pessimism can show due regard for one another, and for all to appreciate the clear-eyed pessimism about ourselves on which any polity dedicated to the optimistic idea of liberty depends. In this peculiar sense, I agree with old Stephen Decatur, and with the reviser of his famous statement, Carl Schurz, in saying: “My country, right or wrong.” I say this because my country, the United States, was founded on the right and true idea that its people will usually, jointly and severally, be in the wrong.

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