Which End, if Any, Is Near?

Some people have always occupied themselves in crying out that the end is near. This sort of thing has been going on for millennia. But lately, it seems to me, the volume of such doom-saying has risen markedly. Websites that feature apocalyptic forecasts have grown like weeds on the Web, and at least one well-known libertarian site has shifted from more analytical material to heavy doses of gloom-and-doom. An odd aspect of this increasing tendency toward Chicken-Little-ism is that it now comes for the most part in two completely different versions. Let’s call them the Left Version and the Right Version.

The Left Version, of course, has been bombarding us for the past forty or fifty years mainly as a warning of imminent environmental catastrophe ― of near-term exhaustion of natural resources, terminal ruin of a hyper-polluted physical environment and, most recently, overheating of the earth’s atmosphere with countless attendant climatic disasters. Leftists who peddle this terrifying prospect seek to allay the threat by ceding totalitarian powers to government officials who in their copious wisdom will save the day, if only narrowly and at the cost of our liberties and our modern standard of living.

The Right Version has resided for decades more in the shadows cast by millenarians, goldbugs, and self-anointed financial gurus than in the bright media glow that has illuminated the leftists’ prophecies. Recently, however, many more people seem to have concluded that the only sane course is to forsake all hope for the continuation of socio-economic life as we have known it, and hence that preparation for a complete social and economic meltdown ― Greater-than-Great Depression, hyperinflation, dollar collapse ― obliges us to stock up on guns, ammo, gold, and a larder full of dried beans and other survivalist goodies.

It is interesting that although many people take an ominous forecast more or less seriously, they have embraced dramatically different conceptions of the nature of the impending doom. Are those who foresee the future so differently living in the same world? If so, how can they have come to such clashing conclusions about the events to come?

The answer, I believe, has to do with ideology, which I have long defined as a somewhat coherent, rather comprehensive belief system about social relations, noting that each such system has four distinct aspects: cognitive, moral, programmatic, and solidary. Ideologies permit people to understand, evaluate, and cope with a social world otherwise too vast and complicated to comprehend. If two persons embrace starkly different ideologies, they can easily arrive at starkly different visions of future developments, even when presented with the same information.

Can objective facts and established scientific theories cut through all of this ideological noise, substituting the pure, harmonious tones of truth for the cacophony of wild-eyed, mutually inconsistent ideologies? No, they cannot. In the determination of human beliefs, ideological outlooks and propensities have the power to override virtually any kind of inconsistent information or knowledge. Decades may pass, yet the Club of Rome remains as convinced as ever that environmental and natural-resource disasters are imminent. Stock markets may soar by multiples while confirmed “bears” never lose their faith that selling short is the road to financial paradise ― hedge-fund manager Michael Berger defrauded a multitude of trusting investors, not to mention tricking the government regulators, and drove his firm Manhattan Capital into bankruptcy because he could not surrender his bearish convictions even during a prolonged run-up in stock prices in the late 1990s.

So, the answer to my previous question is, yes, different sets of people in effect do live in different worlds, notwithstanding their physical coexistence on planet earth during extended time spans. And therefore you’ll have a devil of a time disabusing any of them of their cherished visions. Strange to say, many people fall in love even with their preferred brand of apocalypse. Doomster Paul Erlich might have lost his famous bet with Julian Simon, but he never “cried uncle.” As Ed Regis wrote in Wired:

 A more perfect resolution of the Ehrlich-Simon debate could not be imagined. All of the former’s grim predictions had been decisively overturned by events. Ehrlich was wrong about higher natural resource prices, about “famines of unbelievable proportions” occurring by 1975, about “hundreds of millions of people starving to death” in the 1970s and ’80s, about the world “entering a genuine age of scarcity.”

In 1990, for his having promoted “greater public understanding of environmental problems,” Ehrlich received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award.

And so it goes.

If you want to load up on gold, who am I to tell you that you’re making a bad bet? I don’t know what the price of gold, or anything else, will be in the future. (I also happen to believe that nobody else knows, or can know. Someone who knew the course of future prices could easily and quickly acquire the wealth of Croesus simply by making appropriate transactions in the futures markets.)

What I do know is that for thousands of years, some people have been telling their fellows that the end is near, and although some terrible things did happen from time to time, hardly ever did they prove to be as catastrophic as the prophets’ most foreboding warnings had foretold. The sky never rained blood, the oceans never boiled, the ground never rose up to crush squealing humanity between heaven and earth. Of course, as David Hume has taught us, this history is no guarantee that such an apocalypse won’t happen.  Nevertheless, I am inclined to make my bets on the basis of a somewhat more temperate outlook.

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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