The virtues of pessimism
Dec 17th 2009
From The Economist print edition
IN AN odd footnote to the health-care debate, Christian Scientists are lobbying to make health insurers pay for “faith healing”. Mary Baker Eddy, the sect’s 19th-century founder, taught that sickness is a delusion and prayer the best medicine. Her followers sometimes pay others to pray for them instead of popping pills, and they think insurers should pick up the tab. This idea is unlikely to become law, but a former presidential candidate, Senator John Kerry, thinks it respectable enough to merit his support.
Two recent books, one from the left, one from the right, lament the American tendency towards mindless optimism. Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America” has a smiley-face balloon on its cover. John Derbyshire’s “We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism” has the most miserable-looking mugshot of an author that Lexington has ever seen. Both writers confront the upbeat and beat them down.
A few years ago Ms Ehrenreich was diagnosed with breast cancer. She started to talk to other afflicted women. She discovered that a positive attitude was more or less compulsory. Most of her fellow sufferers thought it would help them recover. Some even said that cancer was a “gift” that helped one find life’s purpose. Ms Ehrenreich disagreed. On a breast-cancer bulletin board she posted a message entitled “Angry”. She complained about the debilitating effects of chemotherapy, recalcitrant insurance companies and, most daringly, “sappy pink ribbons”. In reply came a chorus of rebukes. One said: “You need to run, not walk, to some counselling.” This made Ms Ehrenreich even angrier. After sifting through heaps of conflicting evidence, she concluded that positive thinking is probably no help at all.
More generally, Ms Ehrenreich sees an “ideological force in American culture�that encourages us to deny reality.” She offers many examples. At a confab for motivational speakers, she is told that anyone can achieve “infinite power” by resonating in tune with the universe. From a popular preacher in Houston, she discovers that God will give big houses and nice tables in restaurants to those who sincerely wish for them. After slogging through countless books and lectures, she learns that food doesn’t make you fat unless you think it will, and that you can solve many of life’s problems by avoiding negative people. Ms Ehrenreich wonders what that might mean in practice. One can dump a carping husband, but what of whiny toddlers and sullen teens? And although it’s “probably advisable” to exclude from the workplace those who show signs of becoming mass-killers, other annoying people may have something useful to say. America would be in better shape if banks had listened to the killjoys who warned that house prices would not rise for ever.
The prattling pedlars of positivism deserve to be mocked. But Ms Ehrenreich goes further. She argues that the cult of positive thinking makes capitalism even more heartless. Big corporations use self-help mumbo-jumbo to convince employees that they bear responsibility for their own fate, absolving employers from having to care for them. Outplacement agencies teach the freshly “downsized” to smile and polish their interview skills. Ms Ehrenreich wishes workers would agitate for job security and more “democratically organised workplaces”. Good luck with that.
Mr Derbyshire, meanwhile, attacks the mindless optimism of the left. Hardly anyone in Barack Obama’s cabinet “has ever created a dime of wealth”, he grumbles, yet Americans expect them to fix the economy. He is disgusted that presidents are revered as “omnipotent pharaonic priest-kings”. He quotes a New York Times reporter who says that “given the opportunity, most people could do most anything.” Nonsense, says Mr Derbyshire. Half of American children must, mathematically, be below average. Good schools can help them reach their potential, to be sure, but they cannot work miracles. The idea that you can tinker with the education system and suddenly, as George Bush put it, leave no child behind is drivel. Mr Derbyshire also thwacks Mr Bush for imagining he could impose democracy on the Middle East. Ms Ehrenreich concurs, noting that the 43rd president was once a cheerleader.
Cassandra was right. But so were the Wright brothers
Pessimism has its virtues. It spurs people to buy flood insurance or to take action against the threat of climate change. It helps them to avoid big mistakes. With hindsight, it is obvious that those who expected that Iraq would be a cakewalk or that fancy computer models would take the risk out of finance were blinded by optimism. On a smaller scale, children may be set up for disappointment if they are told they can be anything they want to be. Lexington would love to be a rock star; alas, he is tone-deaf. Yet pessimism need not be enervating. It can be “bracing, like foul weather”, says Mr Derbyshire, who grew up in England.
One can take this argument too far. Progress depends on trial and error. Someone has to be bold enough to risk making those errors. Inventors and entrepreneurs must often ignore legions of naysayers. That requires self-belief that borders on self-delusion. Politicians should be more cautious, since they wield more power. But even they must sometimes act boldly despite bewildering uncertainty, as Mr Obama explained in his Nobel speech last week. Finally, pessimists are often wrong. Ms Ehrenreich sees no upside to the ease with which American firms can lay off workers. Here’s one: firms that cannot fire are reluctant to hire. America’s jobless rate may be high now, but it has recovered swiftly after previous recessions, whereas Europe’s has not. Mr Derbyshire thinks only those with “treacle for brains” believe mass immigration will benefit America. Yet America was built on the mass immigration of optimists.