Two “state we’re in” analyses by a pessimistic philosopher and an optimistic scientist are best taken with a tot of scepticismby Simon Blackburn / August 25, 2010 / Leave a comment
The Uses of Pessimism and the Danger of False Hope by Roger Scruton (Atlantic, £15.99)
The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley (4th Estate, £20)
The contrast between the titles of these books is a little misleading, since they have a great deal in common. Each of them could have been read with pleasure by Margaret Thatcher, whom Scruton admired, and in whose government Matt Ridley’s uncle—Nicholas Ridley, the minister of state responsible for the Falkland Islands—played such a prominent role. Scruton’s book, as befits that of a philosopher, is more nuanced, more profound, and is in many ways more pleasing than Ridley’s, whose one-dimensional message becomes a little tiresome. But both are brimful of intelligence and learning.
For Scruton, the uses of pessimism are to counter various fallacies that underpin many utopian and visionary political philosophies. He elegantly skewers the mistakes involved in myopically concentrating on the best-case scenario, as gamblers do when they don’t admit they are taking risks. He magnificently demolishes Rousseau, whose belief that before civil society men were “born free” underpins so much utopian thinking, and its associated habit of finding sacrificial victims such as kulaks, Jews, or yesterday’s comrades in the revolution when utopia fails to materialise.
He points out the error in supposing that all human transactions are zero-sum, so that if A is rich and B poor, one’s success can automatically be assumed to be the mirror image of the other’s failure, giving B just cause to resent A. He loathes “top-down” planning—as does Ridley—but Scruton’s venom against the planners in Brussels is incomparable. He excoriates the “aggregation” fallacy which supposes that you can simply heap good things together (liberty, equality, fraternity) without trade-offs, refusing to accept that different types of good can diminish or even cancel out each other. On the way, Scruton scatters valuable insights into terrorism and its mindset, the Islamist opposition to usury, the errors of modern architecture, the idiocies of farming policy, and much else.
Once a small dose of pessimism douses the flames of conviction, what remains? Scruton’s spiritual ancestors are Burke, Hayek, and Oakeshott, and the objects of his admiration are the long, faltering, experimental, and eventually time-honoured institutions and habits that have led to civil society—to the replacement of “I” by “we.” One of his paradigms is the common law, with its accumulated record of ever-increasing wisdom: the practical…