The Uses of Pessimism and the Danger of False Hope by Roger Scruton. Atlantic Books, 232 pp, £15.99
June 24, 2010            



            As an American, I can't help but find the timing of Roger Scruton's The Uses of Pessimism a little curious. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the American Right continued its long march through the country's political institutions. Taxes on the rich were slashed and inequality reached Gilded Age proportions. Regulations on major industries were rolled back, while the regulatory agencies were underfunded and overseen by industry flacks. A relentless assault on the Social Security system, employing statistical falsifications, has given rise to a new attempt to cut benefits (under a Democratic president, no less).

            The labor movement is prostrate, the victim of deindustrialization and a bipartisan determination not to enforce existing labor laws. Proposed legislative reforms of health care and finance have been rendered skeletal by locust-like swarms of industry lobbyists. The inheritance tax affects only the obscenely wealthy - the richest one-quarter of one percent of Americans - yet every Republican in Congress and many Democrats are pledged to its abolition. There is not a single avowed socialist in Congress (well, one: a Senator from the not very large and powerful state of Vermont), in the mass media, or at the head of any major foundation or university. The last best hope of American liberals was elected president in 2008 and appears to have no other desire than to please Wall Street, the Pentagon, and the Business Roundtable in all things. The most conservative Supreme Court in memory has recently removed all limits on political spending by corporations, guaranteeing the continuation of plutocracy into the indefinite future. At such a moment, is there really a pressing need for an eloquent and impassioned manifesto against irresponsible idealism, excessive optimism, and revolutionary left-wing utopianism?

Scruton is a philosopher and may perhaps be forgiven for not taking much notice of these purely phenomenal matters. Besides, he is English and very grumpy about the encroachment of the European Union and its rules upon merry, eccentric old England. Perhaps he is right to be, though to perceive in the elite of bankers and conservative bureaucrats who direct the EU a cadre of radicals driving the Continent single-mindedly along the road to socialism is evidence of a very strong imaginative predisposition.

            Scruton does indeed have a bee - several bees - in his bonnet. Each chapter in The Uses of Pessimism is devoted to chasing after and swatting at a different one of these pesky buzzing creatures, which have names like "The Best Case Fallacy," "The Utopian Fallacy," "The Zero Sum Fallacy," "The Planning Fallacy," and so on. Alas, they are immortal bees, he admonishes us; they swarm again in every generation, plaguing ordinary, sensible people who are just trying to get on with their lives and have no interest in utopia or revolution. Eternal pest control is the price of freedom.

            The various fallacies that Scruton hunts down and vanquishes reduce to one prime delusion: "that human beings can either foresee the future or control it to their own advantage." This is the belief of "unscrupulous optimists," who imagine that "the difficulties and disorders of humankind can be overcome by some large-scale adjustment." Their "illusions of mastery" and "abstract schemes for human improvement" invariably come to nothing - or worse, lead straight to totalitarianism. (Lenin and Mao were the quintessential unscrupulous optimists.) Only "personal virtue" - patience, cheerfulness, humility - allows us to "play the small part that it is given to humans to play in bettering the lot of their fellows." Burke, Santayana, and other conservatives were right: "prejudice," the inherited wisdom of custom and tradition, is superior to theory; "piety and caution in worldly affairs" are always more salutary than rebelliousness and large ambitions.

            By "pessimism" Scruton means - at least in his calmer moments - moderation, a sense of limits, and a preference for local, small-scale solutions wherever possible. Put that way, who could disagree? Stated carefully and fair-mindedly, Scruton's deep skepticism about radical innovation might indeed have been useful. In all societies, capitalist or non-capitalist, officials should be accountable to the public they allegedly serve and experts should be able to satisfy the ordinary people whose lives and money they propose to experiment with. This is non-partisan wisdom: it applies to all governments. And not only to governments but also to those more powerful institutions and individuals whom governments today in fact mainly serve: corporations and large investors.

            Unfortunately, Scruton's exposition is not careful or fair-minded; it is exasperatingly careless and infuriatingly tendentious - a succession of right-wing talking points such as one might hear from Sarah Palin or Rush Limbaugh. For example, according to Scruton, the cause of the recent global financial crisis was government over-regulation: banks had been "pressured into ignoring the demands of prudence" and forced to issue mortgages to poor people who couldn't afford them. In reality, the regulations in question specifically required lenders to evaluate borrowers' creditworthiness by existing standards. Moreover, only a small fraction of financial institutions at risk were mortgage-issuers; most were large-scale purchasers of derivatives, CDOs (collateralized debt obligations), and other financial gimmicks. The financial crisis - as even Alan Greenspan has acknowledged - was the result of not enough government regulation.

            According to Scruton, "laws of bankruptcy have been weakened and credit made easier," another government-forced dereliction that contributed to our present woes. Every part of this claim is wrong. First, credit was made "easier" by the aggressive and often deceitful marketing of the credit-card and mortgage-lending industries. Then, to prevent their victims from escaping, these industries pressured Congress to strengthen the bankruptcy laws against borrowers and in favor of lenders.

            Trade unions and consumer protection agencies are apparently superfluous. Dismissing the "zero sum" fallacy and the very possibility of "exploitation," Scruton writes blandly: "Consensual agreements benefit both parties: why else would they enter into them? And that is as true of the wage contract as it is of any contract of sale." Can Scruton truly believe that dealings between a politically well-connected, lawyer-heavy multi-billion-dollar company and each and every one of its employees or customers are fully consensual in any meaningful sense? If so, then he must believe in the neoclassical dogmas of perfect competition and symmetrical information, which are at least as implausible as the Marxist theory of "surplus value" that he derides.

            And so on and on, one right-wing shibboleth after another. Scruton simply will not acknowledge that many contemporary problems - I would say the most urgent ones - are caused not by the utopian zeal of unscrupulous optimists but by the raw greed of investors and executives, who generally have federal, regional, and local governments securely under their thumb. When Scruton intones magisterially that the free market is an "exemplary manifestation of our collective rationality" and "the only peaceful solution to the problem of coordination in a society of strangers," one can only stammer incredulously in reply: "But ... Halliburton? ... Enron? ... Goldman Sachs? ... British Petroleum?"

            Pace Scruton, there is another "peaceful solution to the problem of coordination in a society of strangers." It's called democracy. Not the ersatz kind we currently enjoy, which consists of choosing every few years among a narrow range of options determined by those who have power to set the political agenda and manufacture popular consent; but the real thing, in which an active, informed citizenry continually discusses the public business, demands access to all necessary information, regularly instructs its representatives, and monitors the government's performance more diligently than can be done by merely tuning in each night to the evening news.

            I daresay Scruton would approve of real democracy. After all, he inveighs frequently against "top-down planning." This shows the right spirit: top-down anything is undemocratic. If only Scruton had the beginning of a clue about who's actually on top in the contemporary world, he might well have written a useful book.




George Scialabba is the author of What Are Intellectuals Good For?