Friday, June 3, 2011

Who should read 'The Case for Rational Optimism'?

After I finished reading ‘The Case for Rational Optimism’ by Frank S Robinson, my first thought was that I would not have any problem recommending this book. The next thought was: Who would I recommend should read it? The answer will emerge after I describe the book.

The Case for Rational OptimismThe first point I should make is that Frank Robinson’s book should not be confused with ‘The Rational Optimist’ by Matt Ridley. It is not difficult to confuse the two books because they cover some similar ground and contain similar views.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Robinson’s book is the breadth of topics it covers. These include: human nature and virtue, the good life, happiness, free will, science and technology, freedom from fear, sex, individualism, the problem of government, America, capitalism, globalization, war and peace, and global warming. That list should be long enough.

Each topic is covered in a chapter of about 10-12 pages and each chapter is more or less self-contained. That seems to me to be both a strength and a weakness. It is a strength because it is possible to read a chapter or two in one sitting and then put the book aside for a few days without fear of losing the thread. It is a weakness because it may be easy to put the book aside for longer than a few days (as I did). While reading it I didn’t get the feeling that the book was building towards a strong conclusion. It is the kind of book I would normally tend to dip into rather than read from cover to cover.

The most valuable characteristic of Robinson’s book is its heavy reliance on leading thinkers in a wide range of areas. I consider myself to have read fairly widely, but Frank Robinson seems to have read every book in the library. And he is adept at explaining and discussing the views expressed in the many books he has read.

Robinson’s politics could probably be described as conservative-libertarian. His views on foreign policy are conservative. His libertarian views are evident in his support for free markets and an attitude of live and let live. He even supports gay marriage. I would have liked to have had the benefit of Robinson’s views on the war on drugs, but unfortunately that is one topic that he does not seem to have covered in this book.

Whatever topic Frank Robinson discusses, he always seems to be able to find a rational case for optimism. In reading the chapter discussing the problems of government, however, I thought for a moment that his optimism might be about to waver. He discusses the problems of holding government accountable, information problems, the law of unintended consequences, bureaucratization, special interest politics and the trend toward bigger and bossier government. Yet he manages to end the chapter on an optimistic note by pointing out that, despite its imperfections, democracy ensures that nothing important can be done against the will of ‘we the people’.

The next chapter, ‘America the Beautiful’, is the one I liked most. Since I am not an American and am actually strongly opposed to American exceptionalism, I have some difficulty explaining my positive response. I found it refreshing to see crazy anti-American views being challenged in a thoughtful manner. But that is only part of the story. Robinson makes it clear that he thinks America is ‘the most noble, most idealistic, most generous nation ever’. That message is not everyone’s cup of tea – and I’m not entirely persuaded that it is actually correct. My normal response to such views is to stop listening, or reading. However, I found Robinson’s non-chauvinistic presentation interesting and persuasive. I don’t think I have seen a stronger case made anywhere else that America still stands for high ideals.

When I reached the end of the book I found that my feeling that it was not building towards a strong conclusion was not entirely accurate. This passage close to the end seems to me to capture the theme of the book:

‘Progress is not some mystical force pushing us forward. What does drive it is our own efforts in gaining knowledge. That is not cyclical or random, but cumulative: it builds upon itself. It is no coincidence that modernity has seen explosive growth in human understanding, and at the same time huge improvements in the human condition. War and violence have been receding while freedom and human rights are spreading. Society grows not only richer, but more open, tolerant, humane, and fair.’ (p.313).

In my view the people who have most to gain from reading the book will be open to the possibility that such views are accurate, but not yet persuaded that they are accurate. They will be open to the possibility that it is still rational to be optimistic and interested to see whether it is possible to make a strong case in favour of optimism.


Frank Robinson has given me his permission to post this response:

'Winton! Thanks!!

I am really extremely gratified that you read my book and took the trouble to post a generally favorable review.

Regarding your question about the "war on drugs," I had a chapter about that in a previous book (Life, Liberty, and Happiness) that was a precursor of sorts to Optimism, which does actually borrow a lot from it. As you might guess, I think the war on drugs is a totally misguided disaster.

That previous book also had a much more extensive critique of government and statism, which was boiled down into the single chapter of Optimism because I didn't think the topic could be avoided. I'm not sure my optimistic conclusion to that chapter was strong enough. But it was not insincere. I can get pretty cynical about democratic politics. But, heck, look at the alternative -- which humanity had to endure through most of history! I do get misty-eyed when I go to vote.

I particularly appreciate your prefacing your review with a quote from J.S. Mill -- my favorite philosopher. And a right-on quote it is.'


Thought Bubble Ten said...

Winton, your reading rate and volume is indeed impressive! You must enjoy it :)

I must admit I was surprised to read that Robinson seems to think that there are fewer wars today than there have been in the past. I'm not a historian but I can't help wondering about the accuracy of his claim. Do you agree with it?

As for America being the epitome of idealism...could this impression be formed because its the kid who's always jumping up and down and making the most noise?

There's no doubt it has set itself up to be the champion of the world, overseeing every one else but whether it's qualified to be that, (assuming we agree such a role is indeed desired)is hardly worth asking...sigh

Winton Bates said...

I do enjoy reading, TBT. For a long time I didn't seem to have enough time to read. Now it is sometimes difficult to find time for other things.

The question of whether there have been few wars is interesting. Apparently the per capita death rate from wars has been declining, century by century and actually reached a low point in the 20th century. Our perception is otherwise because of the very high casualty rate in absolute terms in the two world wars. World population has grown more rapidly than deaths from war.

Leaving statistics aside there is reason for optimism that war is on the decline because of the spread of democracy. Democracies tend not to go to war with each other.

American idealism - is it just the kid making the most noise? Nah! The roots run very deep. The nation was founded on high ideals. Frank's book demonstrates to me that the ideals are still there and they really mean it when they talk about the light on the hill.

The ideals also tend to explain what I see as foreign policy excesses. You expect a great power to send out the message loud and clear that 'anyone who messes with us will regret it'. America tries to send out the message that if despots mess with them they will impose democracy, liberate thir wives and send their daughters to school. Nice ideals, but you can't impose them.

I more or less agree with the sentiments in your last para ... sigh.

Thought Bubble Ten said...

When I think of war, I include any kind of factional/political fighting where physical weaponry is used and for this reason, I would include the ongoing battles in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

It's interesting however the point you make about democracies not going to war with each other...

As for the deep roots of American idealism, yes, I was aware of them but don't feel that they are expressed and defended in the same spirit as they originally held.

I enjoy reading too, immensely - the boxes of books I've been carrying around from one house move to the next is a reflection of this. But these days, I tend to do most of my reading online - a tragic situation for my eyes!!!

Winton Bates said...

I think those kinds of wars are included in the data. I get the impression from meagre knowledge of history that that kind of war was the normal state of affairs in much of the world a few centuries ago.
Re American idealism, I think that we observe a culural divide in the US - but when they are scratched they all turn out to be read blooded.
Re reading - I don't much like reading on-line either, but I'm hoping that the experience will improve when I eventually buy an iPad.

Winton Bates said...

I did mean red-blooded!

Anonymous said...

Hi, I am from Melbourne.

Please find a completely different understanding of the state of the world and how we got to here via these references.

A very sobering essay.

Related essays

A wider view on the origins & consequences of the "culture" created in the image of scientism (as distinct from science as a method of open-ended free enquiry)

Winton Bates said...

The essay you refer me to suggests:

"The universe is a self-organizing, self-correcting, and self-rightening process."

Nice thought! It means that everything must come right in the end.