Why Liberals Should Be More Optimistic

Optimists think that the course of events will be positive, for them personally or for society in general. Realists, on the other hand, think that the course of events might turn out to be positive; they concede, however, that they can’t really know since reality consists of complex phenomena. Optimism and realism are sometimes used as contradictory concepts. That doesn’t necessarily follow though.

Liberal thinkers can often be described as optimists with a strong sense of reality. On the one hand, they hope that a particular situation will turn out well; they even provide policy recommendations in order to facilitate the process. On the other hand, liberal thinkers are skeptical of what men, in particular politicians and bureaucrats, are capable of achieving. They have a realistic perception about the nature of humans and their capabilities.

Liberal thinkers can often be described as optimists with a strong sense of reality.

Personally, I’ve always perceived liberalism as a philosophy advocating a realistic optimism. For instance, we can look back to the big controversy about socialist planning in the 1920s (the “socialist calculation debate“). Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich A. von Hayek and later Murray N. Rothbard argued that a planned economy must inevitably fail at some point because its planners lack the knowledge necessary to determine economic in- and outputs. Mises and Hayek were proven right with their predictions when the Soviet system collapsed economically and politically in the early 1990s. They were pessimistic about the Soviet economy, but both Mises and Hayek felt optimistic about their own policy proposals regarding the market economy.

Many people nowadays think that capitalism and the free enterprise system have failed, given widespread poverty, the waste of resources, corruption, and so on. However, contrary to common belief, figures show that the world has become a fundamentally better place (please click on the picture to increase its size):

Liberals (read libertarians) can (and should) be more optimistic given the continuing overall trend which constantly confirms that people have become healthier, live in freer societies, and are better educated than in the 19th century (let alone earlier periods of mankind).

At the same time, we have been warned that we should remain skeptical towards supposed panaceas and prophecies coming from the ones that think they will change the world single-handedly; the ones that feel confident that they possess the recipes to solve all the ills of mankind; and those claiming that their proposed solutions are without alternative. In his Nobel Prize lecture, Hayek invoked us not to be imprudent or foolish when it comes to people that pretend to know everything (“The Pretence of Knowledge”). His statement emphasizes that we should exercise restraint in our own dealings, but also remain extremely cautious about what politics can actually accomplish for the good of society.

To conclude this short essay, I’d like to quote Karl Popper. He was that kind of optimistic thinker with an insistent sense of reality:

“The future is open. It is not predetermined and thus cannot be predicted – except by accident. The possibilities that lie in the future are infinite. When I say ‘It is our duty to remain optimists’, this includes not only the openness of the future but also that which all of us contribute to it by everything we do: we are all responsible for what the future holds in store. Thus it is our duty, not to prophesy evil, but, rather, to fight for a better world.”

Karl Popper, The Myth of the Framework, 1994

The Right to Be Let Alone in a World of Cultural Diversity

The right to be let alone, as Justice Louis Brandeis famously put it in “Olmstead v. United States”, is commonly associated with the right to privacy in the Fourth Amendment. The constitutional “[…] right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures […]” critically separates the spheres of life and wards off many dangers from the government. However, in a society so culturally diverse as ours, the right to be let alone takes on much greater significance than just separating the spheres between the individual and the state.

Bridges are not built overnight

A recent poll shows that Americans are divided on the role of culture in their society. Coming from Europe, the U.S. is undoubtedly a much more culturally diverse nation than most European countries, if not all. Unlike Switzerland, for example, Americans cannot rely on ethnic kinship for a shared identity. The U.S. is truly a nation of immigrants. The more surprising are the results of that poll showing that conservative and social-democratic opinions diverge in terms of fundamental cultural values.

If we accept the fact that culture matters, we also have to concede that foreign culture should have a place in our society.

Culture is a delicate issue. F.A. Hayek argued that culture matters and that it shouldn’t be denied in the political processes of a constitutional democracy, unless one wants to question the stability of a society. However, culture isn’t a rigid phenomenon either. The basic values of a society can change, and quite obviously, have done so significantly. Slavery, for example, once a shared value among many Americans and Europeans, was abolished in a justified fight against unjust values.

If we accept the fact that culture matters, we also have to concede that foreign culture should have a place in our society. This doesn’t mean, though, that people native to a country have to give up on their own values. Quite naturally, the burden of responsibility must rest on those who immigrate to a foreign culture. However, we shouldn’t expect that everyone is willing to assimilate entirely. And this is where the crux begins.

The “great society”, not government is the solution

Many bureaucrats think that seamless integration is simply a question of the right laws and forceful state mediation between two cultures. They assume that by designing sophisticated programs immigrants will necessarily start feeling as members of society. This is wrong, though. Hayek made clear that culture doesn’t work that way:

“[…] the extended order resulted not from human design or intention but spontaneously: it arose from unintentionally conforming to certain traditional and largely moral practices, many of which men tend to dislike, whose significance they usually fail to understand, whose validity they cannot prove, and which have nonetheless fairly rapidly spread by means of an evolutionary selection – the comparative increase of population and wealth – of those groups that happened to follow them.”

(F. A. Hayek, in: W. W. Bartley, III (ed.), The Fatal Conceit, Vol. 1 of The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek, Chicago 1988, 6)

To put it in a nutshell, culture is omnipresent, it possesses a formative role in life like no other informal social institution. Cultural values are deeply embedded in social relations, parenting, education, and so forth, which is why we should never expect perfect assimilation from top-down integration programs, as sophisticated as they may be.

However, the market, unlike any other institution, has the power to create peaceful cooperation among people of different cultures. It creates opportunities for those who are willing to integrate and to accept the traditions of the local population. Even more importantly, the market discourages people from thinking in entitlements. The culture of dependency, created by the welfare state, has not only made millions of individuals depending but has also evoked antipathy for foreigners and their diverse values with which they arrive at our borders. As Donald Trump’s presidential campaign platform impressively showed, once the state has created the feeling of being left behind, politics quickly becomes an outlet for racial slurs and cultural defamation.

A government siding with one group of its population is highly problematic. In doing so, it does not only sow a lot of mistrust and resentment among those people with conflicting opinions but also conveys the belief that government is able to solve the problem, if necessary using force.

What remains for us to do then?

What then are the ideal conditions for the peaceful coexistence of people of a different cultural background? The German classical liberal economist and philosopher, Roland Baader, once said that there exists only one human right, the right to be let alone (“Das einzig wahre Menschenrecht ist das Recht, in Ruhe gelassen zu werden […]”). This is in fact how every human tribe started off before becoming part of a more involved society. Well, some groups, like the Amish people in the U.S. and Canada, believe in the fulfilled existence of remaining unaffected by unfamiliar values till this day.

Oftentimes, however, foregoing the opportunities of cooperation will cost those people dear. In his book “Living Economics”, Peter Boettke shows that there exist myriad institutions that allow people to engage actively with each other, while living peacefully side by side. It is these “organic” institutions of self-governance that have proven themselves valuable throughout the world and that have supported people in coming together and starting exchanging not only goods but eventually ideas and their cultural heritage.

However, to concede that culture matters, that of immigrants as much as ours, is the first step to recognize that peaceful community relies on everyone’s right to be let alone if he or she wishes to do so.

In a very biological sense, the right to be let alone gives us the time needed to prepare ourselves for the world outside of our “cultural backyard”. It is true that we will always have to accept that some people are not willing to become part of a more heterogenous society. As I said, this is their very right. And sometimes, we’ll even have to defend the principles of an open society against violent aggressors. However, to concede that culture matters, that of immigrants as much as ours, is the first step to recognize that peaceful community relies on everyone’s right to be let alone if he or she wishes to do so.

Published by The Libertarian Institute