The crisis of optimism

Source: IPSOS MORI

The world is undergoing a crisis of optimism. Citizens especially but not only in developed countries are losing their hope for a better future. After decades of growth and prosperity following the world wars, now stagnation, loss of purchasing power and fear of decreasing wealth are the new default. That’s why seductive authoritarian strongmen are gaining support – once again. They promise a better future. Certainly only “better” in the sense of “for those of you who have always lived in this country and share a certain zero-sum worldview”, but nonetheless. The group is obviously big enough to make someone U.S. president.

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When Donald Trump wants to “make America great again”, he gives people who are expecting a bleak future hope for better times. The slogan doesn’t actually mean that there was a period which objectively was better than today. There wasn’t. The slogan refers to a moment in time at which the majority of people were enjoying steady improvements to their life quality and income – year after year, small but steady improvements. This is how it must have felt in the 50s and 60s, in the United States as well as in Europe and elsewhere.

People want to be optimistic. Right now, especially for the middle class, there is little reason for optimism. In order to stop the continued decay of Western democracies and institutions, a comeback of widespread optimism is urgently needed.

David Deutsch’s “principle of optimism”

In his enlightening book “The Beginning of Infinity”, David Deutsch defines the concept of optimism as the trust in that the right knowledge is sought out and acquired in order to solve the pressing problems of a time. Consequently, he comes up with what he calls the “principle of optimism”: “All evils are caused by insufficient knowledge”. Following this line of thought, the contemporary absence of optimism would mean that people lack the trust in that the challenges their societies are faced with can be properly solved. And so they misunderstand the banal methods of the past whispered into their ears by questionable political characters as knowledge for how to solve the problems. In order to piggyback on a current meme: it’s fake optimism caused by fake knowledge about how to tackle the world’s challenges.

In Silicon Valley, optimism abound

It’s not surprising that the protagonists of the technology industry in Silicon Valley and elsewhere do not share the widespread pessimism. People in this industry are euphorically awaiting utopias to become true within their lifetime. Singularity, self-driving electrical cars, flying to Mars, extending the duration of life and so on.

For most people on this planet however, these innovations are not attractive primary visions of a better future. You don’t get excited about living forever or seeing you neighbor moving to a colony on Mars or Jupiter, if you yourself wonder how you can sustain your or your family’s standard of living for the next decades. This is why even though technology makes everyone’s life more convenient and connected, this type of innovation does not translate into optimism. Something else needs to come first. Such as the basic income. People who support a basic income (like your’s truly) have intuitively understood how such an approach would take some existential fears away from people and thereby allow optimism to sneak back into their minds. Putting all ideological disagreement aside, enabling a comeback of durable optimism should be everyone’s priority.

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