Why Be Optimistic?

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This talk was prepared for delivery in San Mateo, California, on August 31, 2003, at a benefit for LewRockwell.com.

Hardly a day passes that I don’t receive an email from some despairing soul who is either convinced we are going to lose, or is at a loss concerning what to do to prevent us from losing. Most people are looking for a way out of this line of thinking, and I hope to give that to you today.

Now, some people, I’m quite sure, are very pleased to feel relentlessly pessimistic. The 19th century Kantian philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, a brilliant man, made a long career out of it. He began his book Studies in Pessimism with the following words: “Unless suffering is the direct and immediate object of life, our existence must entirely fail of its aim.”

Chapter two of his book goes on: “Human life must be some kind of mistake.” The subject of chapter three is suicide. He was so dour and depressing that his own mother forbid him from attending her dinner parties.

Well, if we don’t want to go the way of Schopenhauer, we had better rethink the way we view the world.

Step one is to turn off the television. The purpose here is not to shut yourself off to world affairs or the culture at large. It is only to cease to wallow in the worst the culture and the world have to offer. In that sense it is entirely artificial: from the society it puts on display to the news it reports to the commentary it airs.

Television is structured and intended to capture and keep your attention, and it does this quite well. It is not the first medium to do so. Every period of history in every country has had its cultural pit, from the ancient world to the Middle Ages to modern times. It has always been possible to seek out these pits, throw yourself into them, and emerge with the verdict that everything and everyone is going to Hell.

The only difference these days is that the pit is available with the click of a button, and most people are oddly convinced that watching television is just something that modern people do. So they keep on doing it. This is a huge mistake. Television gives the viewer a wildly distorted view of the world. Turn it off and observe how different the world looks.

You will not be alone in your actions. Television viewing is declining, as is the view that it should work as some sort of cultural glue for the entire culture. In fact, it serves a niche market, one that will always be there but need not infect everything. The web, a far more interactive medium, is working as a completely viable replacement for the need for information. And the web thrives on serving individuals, not manipulating whole societies.

Step two is to read the right books. Again, the purpose here is not to shield yourself from forbidden literature. It is simply a matter of the scarcity of time. We have very few years on this earth, and more worthy books to read than we could ever get to. This means we must select carefully. Whether we love fiction, nonfiction, or biography, it is easy to find junk but much harder to find the good material. This is why scholars at the Mises Institute and LewRockwell.com spend so much time assembling bibliographies. Have a good look at them and from them assemble a set of lifetime reading goals. That way you won’t be distracted by every new tract that comes along.

Now, it’s true that there are more bad books published today than ever before. Many of them are no better than prime-time television. But that is simply because more books in general are published than ever before. If you read the right ones, and eschew the wrong ones, your outlook will begin to change, provided you don’t start with Schopenhauer. In any case, reading, unlike television, is an active medium that stimulates the brain and thus mental energy and intellectual creativity.

The same is true for movies. Watching enough bad ones can cast clouds over the very meaning of life itself. We pine for the old movies but, here again, we need to remember that many more movies are made today than ever before. Picking one at random is a very bad idea. One the other hand, many great films are appearing all the time. We show them at Mises Institute events. At the Mises University this year, we saw a dystopian movie about a total state and the liberating forces that overthrew it. I publish movie reviews on LRC all the time, and the Mises Institute has a list of recommended films.

Now, these three suggestions might at first sound like they won’t do a lot to affect your mental outlook, but I’m really talking about a bigger issue: the responsibility of shaping your own intellectual and cultural outlook by the world you create for yourself. You can do an amazing amount of good just by exercising your power as a consumer, not only for yourself but for society at large. A solid culture that can give rise to a renaissance of freedom begins at home. It means strong families, solid civic organizations, healthy religious congregations, and a population that eschews the bad and embraces the good.

But in creating a good culture for ourselves, and thereby becoming optimistic toward our future prospects and the prospects for society, are we not embracing a myth? Where is the evidence that the future of liberty is bright? I suggest that it is all around us.

First, our side has enough energy and enthusiasm to match and exceed anything coming from the partisans of stagnation and state power. The application of this energy in the area of political and intellectual activism has a cumulative effect over time. As you know, in the workplace, the employee who is just slightly more productive than the average can end up as a champion in a year or two. It is the same in the intellectual arena.

Our scholars are turning out books and articles and lectures packed with new ideas and new applications of old ideas, which are being distributed to ever wider audiences. Also, our movement is disproportionately young, and with youth comes idealism and the willingness to take necessary risks. These young people distrust official institutions and are willing to look at radical new ideas. Once they do, they are drawn into our ideological orbit and become part of a burgeoning army of dissident thinkers and activists.

If you look at the demographics of the partisans of the state, they are much older, educated in times when the Keynesian consensus dominated economics, when all news was network news, and the militarism and government worship of the Cold War period was the reigning theme of public life. These days, the theme of public life is far fuzzier. The government claims it needs to take away your liberty to protect you from enemies it constantly stirs up with its wars abroad. That line isn’t selling as well as the government had hoped.

Second, there are more of us than we thought. Long ago, we had become accustomed to thinking of ourselves as a tiny remnant of true believers, glad to write for anyone willing to read, but seriously hindered in our ability to get the message out. After 1996, all that changed with the web, when suddenly we found ourselves in a position to get our message out not only to the thousands we knew were interested but also to the millions we did not know anything about. Today, the Mises Institute is easily the most heavily trafficked think-tank site on the web, and LewRockwell.com is among the largest commentary sites of any sort.

This isn’t owing to the talents behind the sites. It is due to the ideas they profess. And they are hardly the only examples. The libertarian idea is hugely prominent, not in the official press but in the unofficial world of web journalism, including the millions and millions of bloggers drawn to our work. Applications for the Mises University this year outpaced any previous year, and our books sell so well that we find we are better off publishing many of them ourselves rather than relying on the dated distribution channels of the mainstream presses.

The bottom line is that the new media have allowed us to discover our fondest dream: our ideas are extremely appealing to masses of people, and intellectual movement broadly speaking is much larger than we thought. Many more people are fed up with the oppression of the welfare-warfare-central banking state than we knew. Whereas the demand had previously been unexpressed and unchanneled, we are now in a position to meet the demand in ways we never thought possible.

Third, we are making progress. A key question to ask of any body of ideas is whether it is living or dying. Looking at body of ideas of the Austro-libertarian tradition, and where they stand today as compared with 10 or 20 years ago, there can be no doubt as to our status. We are living and growing at compounded rates, and this is paying off in so many ways. Homeschooling is spreading, anger at the nation-state is swelling, and the love of liberty is growing. Mises and Rothbard are mentioned in news stories without explanation, as if readers should just know who they are. This would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.

Consider the case of academia. Twenty years ago, there were only a handful of Austrians teaching in economics departments around the world. Today there are hundreds, and they no longer have to hide their views. On the contrary, they are hired precisely for their Austrian connections. It is easy to see where this is headed. Not too many years from now, it will become the rule rather than the exception for every economics department at a vibrant institution to have at least one faculty member who embraces the Misesian tradition.

In investment banking houses around the country, the economists have learned that the Austrian explanation of the 1990s boom and millennium bust is the most compelling. It is the one their clients understand. Economists at major institutions have been scouring the works of Mises, Hayek, and Rothbard if only to find some means of explaining world affairs. But of course it doesn’t stop there. If you see what loose credit brings about, you start looking at the need for monetary reform. Once that is understood, the merit of the gold standard is the next step, then abolishing the Fed, and the next thing you know, we’ve got a host of monetary radicals making waves at major investment houses around the world.

This is intellectual guerilla warfare, and I’ll tell you why it works, and in doing so cover my fourth point: our opponents live on untruths. They say that social security is a good deal because it protects you in your old age, but everyone knows the truth: it loots you during your productive years and puts you on welfare in your later years. They say the war in Iraq was good for American security because Saddam was going to unleash weapons of mass destruction on Americans. They say that it is essential to regulate our businesses in the name of promoting safety and social justice. They say that the government must deliver essential services because the market cannot.

On and on it goes, world without end, but it has never been easier to see through this nonsense.

Of course, seeing error is not the same as seeing truth. But never forget the following, and this is my final and most compelling reason for optimism: The truth is on our side. Sometimes Austro-libertarians are accused of dogmatically adhering to a cult and ignoring contrary evidence. Let me tell you that when it comes to believing in liberty, there is no reason for ignoring evidence or otherwise attaching yourself uncritically to some ideology. Not a day goes by when the newspapers aren’t filled with evidence, properly interpreted.

This isn’t to say that it is easy to understand economics or libertarian political theory. It is not as intuitive as at it may seem to those of us steeped in it for years. It takes struggle and patience to understand. But once you do, a whole world opens up to you. You begin to understand that the failure of government and the success of markets is not an accident or random but part of the very structure of reality. And once you understand that structure of reality, you can anticipate certain things with nearly perfect foresight. The news confirms the ideology, and the ideology explains the news. World events never let us forget that we have the truth on our side.

Now to the final issue: dealing with despair and what you can do right now to assist in changing the world. The sense of despair that comes with being at a loss as to how to get from point A to point B. How do we make the reform from statism to liberty? How do we change the world? Above all, I counsel patience. A little work done each day adds up over time. Multiply that work by millions and we have a revolution on our hands.

What should that work be? It depends on circumstances of time and place. We must first work to improve our own cultural circumstances, and this is something we can control. We must free ourselves from the party line and help others to do the same. We must be good examples. An outstanding entrepreneur like Burt Blumert is the living embodiment of the power of private enterprise. A great teacher like Thomas DiLorenzo who cares about his students is a living example of idealism in practice. A great father or mother, of which we have many here, is living proof that the family is not a den of pathology as the left claims. A wonderful statesman like Ron Paul is proof that not all politicians need to care about self-interest only.

We can all do our part by reading more, telling the truth to others, and supporting organizations and publications and websites dedicated to liberty. How will this make a difference?

With time and patience, we will find out. No revolution in history has gone precisely according to plan. The timing and nature of social change surprises its most brilliant intellectual architects. But know this: every time you learn something new about liberty; share a book, article or idea; contribute to a good cause; write a letter to the editor; or give another hero of liberty moral support, you are taking a sledge hammer to the foundation of despotism in our time. We don’t know when it will finally crack but we do know that it is intellectual work, above all, that will bring it down. In its place, we must plant a garden of liberty.

All states everywhere enjoy power only because people are willing to grant it to them, which in turn means that power is ultimately based on that illusive notion called legitimacy. Legitimacy can vanish in an instant, exposed as a façade that covers up the massive looting machine that is government. But this is even more true in a system like our own, where it has been tested and tested, and failed and failed again.

We can and must be confident of victory. Vladimir Ilych Lenin, holed up in exile and plotting the Bolshevik Revolution, never doubted that the Russian tsar could be overthrown. He saw his job as finding the weak spots — in this case it was the Russian involvement in the Great War that was killing off an entire generation in a pointless maelstrom. Had he sat around fretting about the risks and doubting the victory of his cause, it is likely that he never would have triumphed. The cause he was promoting, namely communism, was evil incarnate, and it resulted in incredible calamity. Given the truth of freedom, how much more passionate and sure-footed should we be?

Power fears ideas. That’s why governments resort to censorship. That’s why they want to control education. That’s why they would like to jail every intellectual dissident. For now, they can’t get away with it. And that is why we must act — with patience but with determination. An old hymn offers us this famous couplet: “Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne.” It was Murray Rothbard’s favorite hymn because of the lines that follow: “Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown, Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.”

Ultimately, this is the source of our hope and the strongest reason against despair. As we work for liberty, let us use moral courage and never shrink from saying and doing what is right. Our future is what acting individuals make of it. Let us go forward with confidence, tenacity, and, always, good cheer.

And speaking of Murray, whom many of us had the privilege to know, what a great champion of liberty and role model as to how to act in a time of statism and personal adversity, with great humor and hard work, decency and intransigence. The dean of the Austrian School of economics, carrying on and improving the legacy of his great teacher, Ludwig von Mises; the creator of modern libertarianism combining Austrian economics, Thomist natural law and natural rights, and the vision of a peaceful, prosperous society without that band of thieves we call the state.

Murray could have had it all, as the world reckons it — wealth, fame, high government position. Yet compromise never crossed the mind of this happy warrior of freedom.

When Mr. George W. Connell decided to establish an annual gold medal to honor a lifetime of achievement in liberty, it was only natural that he ask it to be named for Murray N. Rothbard. When we consulted on the proper first recipient, there was also no dissent. It should be Burton S. Blumert. Mr. Connell asked me to read this message:

“In his decades as a practicing capitalist, Burt has shown us all in the most practical terms, why we love that system and the entrepreneurs who drive it. In his patronage of Murray [and so many others] he has shown why the productive and successful are essential to our culture and to the struggle for freedom; in his leadership of the Mises Institute and the Center for Libertarian Studies, he has helped erect the structure of scholarship and freedom that can help win this fight.

“Whether hosting Dr. Mises for a speech not far from where you are many years ago, or holding this event today, he has never stopped fighting, never stopped believing, never stopped achieving.

“Burt, Murray loved you, and so do we. On behalf of all your admirers and of the Mises Institute, it is my great honor and pleasure to help make possible the Murray N. Rothbard Medal of Freedom, and its first award to you. Lew, please do your duty.”

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. [send him mail] is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, and editor of LewRockwell.com.

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