Are you an optimist or a pessimist? And why should it matter? After what for many of us has been an annus horribilis in 2016, pessimists seem to have all the best tunes. Terror attacks, horror headlines from Syria, a tide of hatred and resentment poisoning our politics: the world looks increasingly grim. But what about the actual facts? If you step back and examine the data, it’s clear that life is better today for the majority of people than at any previous time in history. And we’re not just talking about the developing world, where progress has been remarkable. Here in the West, most of us have never had it so good. Just look at the improvements in health and longevity, the breadth of entertainment available, and the opportunities to travel that we blithely take for granted.
In this special Intelligence Squared event, we examined two fundamentally opposing worldviews. In the optimists’ corner were Matt Ridley, author of the prize-winning The Rational Optimist, and Johan Norberg, whose latest book is Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future. They argued that the progress that has been made over the past centuries – whether in education, child labour, poverty or violent deaths – is now running at an unprecedented pace and that there is every reason to think that it will continue for decades to come.
But is their essentially rationalist approach one that can really explain what appears to be the conflict-ridden world we live in? After all, many of us have never felt so gloomy and perplexed. This tension is not new. It has run through mainstream political thought since the Enlightenment. It set rationalists such as Adam Smith and J. S. Mill against those who sought to interpret the darker side of human nature such as Rousseau and Dostoevsky. They have been joined more recently by behavioural economists such as Daniel Kahneman and Richard Thaler. For these latter thinkers, rationalism will always fail to give a full account of human behaviour. Exploring this line of thought in our event was the acclaimed political scientist David Runciman. And steering the discussion was the BBC’s star political editor Laura Kuenssberg.
Optimist or pessimist? Some say that pessimism is dangerous, as it’s the emotions of fear and nostalgia that are fertile breeding grounds for populist demagogues. Others argue that too optimistic a view can blind us to the real threats facing our freedoms and democracy.