Zeitgeist

Silver Linings

November 24, 2011

Multiple Pages
Silver Linings

I am a pessimist, for reasons I have expatiated upon at book length. In that book’s first chapter, I distinguished two usages of the key word:

I’m using the word “pessimism” in two slightly different senses: to indicate low expectations of one’s fellow men, and to name a belief about the probable future. If we expect too much of people, we’ll be disappointed, and our schemes will fail. Heady optimism about human nature leads directly to disaster. To put it in the style of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress: The Road of Denial leads to the Precipice of Destruction. Didn’t the great utopian experiments of the twentieth century teach us that? We’ve repeated those experiments—in a less brazen way, to be sure, but with the same inevitable result now coming upon us.

The inclination to pessimism is in part temperamental and probably, like most other aspects of one’s personality, considerably inherited. That does not invalidate pessimism: The disposition to be fearful of carnivorous megafauna is considerably inherited, but it is nonetheless wise.

A thinker of high thoughts should, however, strive for objectivity—for that “view from nowhere” that we attain when all personal biases have been stripped away.

“I am, as one of my oldest and dearest English friends reports, ‘a gloomy fucker.’”

I am therefore going to obey Oliver Cromwell’s exhortation to the Scots: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” I am going to look for silver linings.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

There are two styles of pessimism: 1) beliefs about the probable future and 2) low expectations of one’s fellow men.

1) Beliefs About the Probable Future

1a: Fiscal catastrophe. We all know the issue: Modern liberal democracies with big welfare states have, or soon will have, more money commitments to citizens than they can meet through state revenues and borrowing in rational credit markets.

My assumption is that these nations’ political systems are not capable of solving this problem, that they will patch and fudge and postpone all they can, and that the inevitable occasional crises will be survived somehow, with the political system more or less intact, followed by more patches, fudges, and postponements. In other words, decades of Argentina.

One swallow doesn’t make a summer, though, and one Argentina doesn’t make an inevitable model for the civilized world. Argentina is atypical in all sorts of ways: Her economy is more agricultural than most, her national mean IQ is lower, and her political history is nasty, brutish, and short.

Some nation somewhere will be smart enough to figure out a solution—to pass through the inevitable crisis to a new plateau of social stability, with curtailed government spending and a population reasonably content with their reduced entitlements. It will only need one, and the rest will follow.

1b: Ethnic disaggregation. A population made up of big sub-populations differing in race or ethnicity is unstable. It will eventually disaggregate, with ethnic cleansings and secessions.

But what about Switzerland? The ethnic differences are slight—mainly linguistic—and the country exceptionally decentralized. But doesn’t (1a) point toward more decentralized nations anyway? Come to think of it, isn’t linguistic diversity as bad as it gets? At least American blacks and whites can talk to each other.

Sure, local ethnic disaggregation is inevitable. Different peoples just don’t want to live mixed with each other in close quarters. Nations can survive, though, once disaggregation has reached the point where ethnies occupy self-sustaining regions—states, provinces, cantons.

Even if you think that some peoples have too little human capital among them to be self-sustaining, there may be stable equilibria without disaggregation. We may even already have found one.

1c: Differential demographics. The more civilized, higher-IQ nations of north Eurasia, together with their settler nations elsewhere, are reproducing below replacement—well below, in the case of the East Asian and South European nations. Meanwhile, barbarous regions with low human capital have high fertility. How can this end well?

Answer: In the first place, by not being a permanent feature of the scene. Fertility rates are falling almost everywhere. Sure, when they’ve leveled out worldwide, the proportion of Ice People in the planet’s population will be at a historic low, but there’ll still be plenty of us. With our mean-IQ advantage, we should be able to hold our territories against Sun People attacks if they get aggressive.

And what evidence is there that they will get aggressive? Most people are pretty happy where they live. As modern technologies and political/managerial systems continue to seep southward, why shouldn’t the Sun People lands settle into stability, albeit at a lower civilizational level? The invading hordes in The Camp of the Saints were supposed to be from India; yet 40 years on, India’s pretty stable and content.

1d: War. China, like Wilhelmine Germany, has modernized and industrialized under an illiberal regime with hegemonic ambitions. They have a surplus of males to boot. The Middle East—six major wars and counting since WWII—is as inflammable as ever, with big players nuking up. India and Pakistan—three major wars and counting—still hate each other and already are nuked up. Russia is dwindling, angry, and paranoid. There must be a big war in our future.

No, there mustn’t. Modernity has brought worldwide changes of attitude. The mechanized trench massacres and city-flattenings of 1914-53 have been repeated only once, and then only between semi-civilized states (Iran-Iraq, 1980-88). The evidence is good, and growing, that the world is settling into a Kantian peace, with major conflict as unthinkable as promiscuous cigarette-smoking.

China? Look at those dwindling demographics. Chinese parents don’t want their “little emperors” to be cannon fodder. As for that surplus of males: strictly temporary. Sex ratio at birth is already back to normal in South Korea. It’s normal for first births everywhere; and with low fertility, first births are well-nigh all there are. Hitler came to power in a Germany with huge surpluses of women due to WWI male battle deaths.

The Middle East? Israel not only has a human-capital advantage (all those super-smart Ashkenazim) but also a demographic one: Total Fertility Rate 2.70—and no, it’s not only the ultra-Orthodox, still less Israeli Arabs. Saudi Arabia is at 2.31, Iran at 1.88. We’re running out of cannon fodder all over. India-Pakistan? So they’re nuked up and hate each other. So were we and the USSR. Speaking of Russia…

2) Low Expectations of One’s Fellow Men

People are self-deceiving and not very rational. “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”

But human nature is obviously improvable, if slowly. We no longer—except in a few isolated dark spots—enslave, eradicate, or eat each other. In advanced countries we no longer smoke in the office, grope the opposite sex uninvited, or say “cripple,” “coon,” or “faggot” outside the most private circles. Boxing is no longer a big-ticket entertainment—to say nothing of bear-baiting, cockfighting, or public executions.

And technology follows close behind pure science. The kind of understandings about human nature that Kahneman or Herrnstein and Murray delivered will be followed by tweaks and enhancements at the molecular-genetic level to iron out unwelcome traits.

Failing any of that, one can always hope for the Singularity!

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Do I believe any of this happy talk? No, of course not. Too many things can go wrong. And there’s the issue of temperament: I am, as one of my oldest and dearest English friends reports, “a gloomy fucker.”

You never know, though. None of it’s impossible. Are we doomed? Probably, but there is no certainty in human affairs.

 

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