16 December 2016

The glad tidings we refuse to believe


On New Year’s Day, I wrote a piece for CapX entitled “Sixteen Reasons to be cheerful about 2016”.

Some of those reasons were general (poverty would fall, average IQ would rise) and some were tied to specific forecasts (driverless cars would move from the labs to the roads, Britain would vote to leave the EU).

Depending on precisely how you define them, I reckon I got between 12 and 14 of my prophecies right. Daesh has not been defeated, though my prediction that Mosul would fall to the Iraqi Army this year looks as though it may be out by only a few weeks. Nor has India quite made the breakthrough to the first rank of world powers – though, again, that is surely a matter of time.

But driverless cars are indeed on the roads in California and Texas, with Australia set to follow. The world economy grew – albeit by slightly less than was predicted last year. Extreme poverty continued to fall.

Our screens are filled with the horrors of Iraq and Yemen; but we forget about the conflicts where violence is tapering away: the Mexican drug wars, the Colombian civil war, the insurgencies in Burma, Xinjiang, North-West Pakistan and Burundi, the Eritrea-Ethiopia border war which claimed more than 70,000 lives. Even in Syria, the overall death toll continues to drop from its 2014 peak.

Meanwhile, the world continues to get cleaner, greener, healthier and wealthier.

So will we extrapolate from the uplifting news? Nope. We will continue to believe, like every generation that has gone before, that ours is a uniquely troubled, violent, corrupt and soulless age.

Books predicting disasters – planetary overheating, asteroid strikes, drugs-resistant superbugs, a collapse of the monetary system, the imposition of sharia law on Europe – will continue to sell. Few publishers will give time to authors who argue that, in general, things will get better – patchily and erratically, perhaps, but better none the less.

If you go to church over Christmas, you will be enjoined from the pulpit to think of the homeless and the hungry, and quite right, too. But you almost certainly won’t hear a clergyman admit that the homeless and the hungry are proportionately fewer than at any moment in history. This is the season when Christian ministers are meant to preach the Good News; yet they struggle, like the rest of us, to admit that it can have an earthly as well as a celestial manifestation.

Why are we all such moaners? Because we still have the instincts of hunter-gatherers. On the savannahs of Pleistocene Africa, pessimism was a survival mechanism. Our ancestors lived in a world of constant danger and violence: strangers were more likely to be a threat than an opportunity. Hopeful and trusting souls were less likely to survive.

Optimism, in the present age, represents a victory of intellect over intuition. It reflects the rich, secure, interconnected world of voluntary exchange and private property, not the Hobbesian terror of the tribe.

And here’s the really good news. Once you accept, intellectually, what is happening to the world, you start to realise how extraordinarily lucky you are. When that happens, your emotions catch up, and you truly become more cheerful. Seriously – try it.

Daniel Hannan is an MEP and author of 'What Next: How to get the Best from Brexit' (Head of Zeus).