7 April 2018

The dangers of pessimism


The headlines in Britain this week were dominated by those two eternal favourites: death and taxes.

In London, a gruesome spate of stabbings has pushed the issue of violent crime up the agenda, with some claiming that the city has now become even more dangerous than New York.

Almost as much media attention has been paid to a less obvious killer, with the government’s “sugar tax” coming into effect on Friday.

These two stories might not look like they have much in common. But both demonstrate a problem with the way we take in news: namely, the way we are hard-wired towards pessimism.

Some CapX readers may remember my predecessor beating this same drum, but both of these stories show powerfully how this mechanism works – and why it puts those defending free-market economics and liberal democracy at such a disadvantage.

As Tim Worstall pointed out on CapX this week, taxes on goodies like sugary drinks, alcohol and tobacco are designed to combat a global rise in deaths from non-communicable diseases. But that rise is a by-product of the tremendous progress humankind has made in the fight against pestilence. “We are all going to die of something,” he writes, “and if we don’t get felled by smallpox, cholera or polio then we will survive to die of heart problems and cancers.” In other words, it is good news masquerading as bad.

The recent surge in stabbings and shootings in London is – of course – unambiguously bad news. But the fact that New York and London’s murder rates are now even close to comparable is not, as some have made out, a sign that Britain’s capital is spiralling out of control. Rather, it is the product of New York’s remarkable transformation from a city where violent crime was a fact of everyday life to a place where a fatal stabbing or shooting is rare enough to be news.

In 1990, more than 2,000 New Yorkers were murdered (the comparable figure in London was 184). Last year that figure was 292 (compared to 130 in London). Both New Yorkers and Londoners live in cities that, by historic and global standards, are remarkably safe for their size.

None of this is to encourage complacency.  One murder is a murder too many – and if violent crime in London is trending upwards then perhaps we should rethink our response.

But a small step backwards should not block our view of the great strides we have taken.

Our predilection for pessimism – which, for evolutionary reasons, is hard to shake – is also on display in the panic about automation. All the fretting about the march of the robots ignores the ways in which previous waves of automation have transformed the world of work. I’m tempted to say things are immeasurably better, but the progress can be measured – and it is staggering. Fatality rates in coal mines, for example, have, as Andrew Lilico wrote on CapX on Thursday, dropped almost a thousand fold since their peak in 1908.

Tell someone that our problem today isn’t too many robots but not enough – an argument that you can also make from the productivity statistics – and you will be on the receiving end of some strange looks. But while it might no be what the news says, it’s true nonetheless.

This failure to keep things in perspective doesn’t just lead to a misunderstanding about the state of the world. It makes people all the more likely to listen to those – like, say, Jeremy Corbyn – who tell them that things are awful, and getting worse, and that the only solution is to abandon a system which has actually worked pretty damn well.

As editor of Human Progress, a site dedicated to cataloguing all the ways in which things are getting better, CapX contributor Marian Tupy is in the business of fighting pessimism. As he put it recently, counteracting bad news with the good “leads to a greater appreciation of the blessings of… open societies and strengthens people’s commitment to liberal political and economic institutions”.

Too often, instead, we take the ingredients for progress for granted. And only after they are gone will we realise their importance.

Oliver Wiseman is Editor of CapX.