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Is Pessimism Rational?

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Here’s a letter to the Washington Post:

Reviewing Matt Ridley’s book The Rational Optimist [2], Wray Herbert isn’t convinced that Mr. Ridley’s optimism about both the likelihood and the benefits of continued economic growth is justified (“Matt Ridley’s ‘The Rational Optimist [3],'” July 18).

I pose today to Mr. Herbert the same question that Thomas Babington Macaulay posed in 1830 to the irrational pessimist Robert Southey – a question that Mr. Ridley wisely quotes as the introduction to Chapter 1 of his book: “On what principle is it, that when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?”*

Indeed, even today’s economic woes are tame and tender when considered in historical perspective.  The heavy hand and sticky fingers of government might yet prove Mr. Ridley’s prediction to be mistaken.  But if we somehow manage to keep markets reasonably free and private property reasonably secure, the future will shine even more brightly with prosperity and opportunity.

Donald J. Boudreaux

* Thomas Babington Macaulay, “Review of Southey’s Colloquies on Society [4].”

By the way, a good case can be made that the economic pessimism of persons who are skeptical of markets is odd – as the last part of this old post argues [5].