Higgs Is Just a Pessimist

“Higgs is just a pessimist” — how often I’ve come across expressions of that sentiment during the past twenty-five years! In certain circles, I have become the butt of jokes – some good-natured, some not – by virtue of my alleged pessimism.

Okay, maybe I am somewhat pessimistic. My wife, who is confident that she knows more about me than I know about myself, says so, and I am certainly not going to take issue with someone who possesses superior knowledge. But my reputation as a pessimist stems not from the kind of knowledge that my wife possesses in special measure, but from my writings over the years about the growth of government and related matters.

In this context, I have been rather puzzled by many of the accusations of pessimism, because whereas I have always tried to rest my expectations on my knowledge of what happened in the past and my understanding of why those events occurred, those who dismiss or depreciate my prognostications seem to me to be lapsing into wishful thinking – groundless optimism, if you will.

When my book Crisis and Leviathan was published in 1987, several reviewers took issue with it on the grounds that my forecast – which occupies less than one page at the end of the book – was unduly pessimistic, especially in view of the great transformation that some of them imagined had been wrought by the “Reagan Revolution.” What provoked this bizarre focus on three paragraphs in a book of 372 pages? After disavowing any pretense of knowing the future, I wrote that if human society survives (which is always iffy, given the combination of technological power and moral infirmity), we do know one thing:

We know that other great crises will come. Whether they will be occasioned by foreign wars, economic collapse, or rampant terrorism, no one can predict with assurance. Yet in one form of another, great crises will surely come again, as they have from time to time throughout all human history. When they do, governments almost certainly will gain new powers over economic and social affairs. Everything I have argued and documented in the preceding chapters points toward this conclusion.

For years afterward, I would tell those skeptical of my thesis – people who were convinced that Big Government was gradually being diminished – that the gains in freedom (which, even at the time, I considered to be more than offset by contemporaneous losses) would be swept away overnight at the onset of the next great crisis. When 9/11 occurred, I had occasion to put my views to the test.  Was I wrong then? When the current recession came to a head in the financial debacle of September and October 2008, I had another occasion to put my views to the test. Was I wrong then?

I’m not gloating. It’s possible that my views are altogether cockamamey and that the huge spurts of government growth after 9/11 and again after the financial debacle have occurred for reasons that simply appear to validate my views. I don’t think so, however: too many of the details fit my scheme. But consider again the matter I raised at the beginning of this essay: was I right (or apparently right) about these events only because these are bad developments, and such developments always seem to confirm the expectations of ex ante pessimists?

In my years as a basketball player, we used to say after a bad shot fell through the hoop that it’s better to be lucky than good. Have my well-confirmed expectations about the post-crisis events of the past decade been simply lucky, rather than soundly based?

In my work on the growth of government over the past three decades, I have always rested my conclusions on a combination of facts and theory. I may be wrong about the facts, although those who have disputed my views have not so much claimed that I got the facts wrong as that I misinterpreted them or that I committed sins of omission. I may also be wrong about the theory, but my theoretical views have seemingly proved their mettle in a variety of applications, in their details and their broad contours, and in one historical episode after another in the modern (post-Progressive) ideological era. In sum, I don’t believe that my views on the evolution of the U.S. politico-economic order ever did, or now do, simply express my psychological tendency toward pessimism.

So, it has always irritated me when my arguments were dismissed or depreciated on the grounds that “Higgs is just a pessimist.” Such a reaction strikes me as a sort of ad hominem fallacy. You might as well say that Higgs is wrong about the growth of government because he’s a jackass (a trait I am neither confirming nor denying).

This past week, however, we have seen President Barack Obama awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, and seen him use the occasion to present the same-old-same-old pseudo-justifications for enlarging the foolish war in Afghanistan and for perpetuating  global U.S. hegemony. As if that shameful travesty were not more than enough insult added to our injuries, we have seen Ben Bernanke named Time magazine’s person of the year, in the wake of the Fed’s having placed the U.S. economy in the kind of jeopardy that it has not suffered since World War II. If you wanted to invent news items to illustrate the black absurdity of our political and ideological situation, you could not have come up with nastier ones.

These sorts of events rarely come as a surprise to me, however:  they fit nicely into the analytical narratives I’ve been writing for decades about where the country is heading and why. But, as always, I may be wrong. So, to keep up your spirits, I recommend that you ask some well-established experts what they think. Chances are that they will reassure you. After all, as everybody knows, Higgs is just a pessimist.

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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