The Rational Optimist:
‘We cannot absolutely prove,’ said Macaulay in 1830, ‘that those are in error who tell us that society has reached a turning point, that we have seen our best days. But so said all who came before us, and with just as much apparent reason.’ So, too, would say all that came after him. Defining moments, tipping points, thresholds and points of no return have been encountered, it seems, by pessimists in every generation since. A fresh crop of pessimists springs up each decade, unabashed in its certainty that it stands balanced upon the fulcrum of history. Throughout the half-century between 1875 and 1925, while European living standards shot up to unimaginable levels, while electricity and cars, typewriters and movies, friendly societies and universities, indoor toilets and vaccines pressed their ameliorating influence out into the lives of so many, intellectuals were obsessed with imminent decline, degeneration and disaster. Again and again, just as Macaulay had said, they wailed that society had reached a turning point; we had seen our best days.
The runaway bestseller of the 1890s was a book called Degeneration, by the German Max Nordau, which painted a picture of a society morally collapsing because of crime, immigration and urbanisation: ‘we stand in the midst of an epidemic, a sort of Black Death of degeneration and hysteria.’ An American bestseller of 1901 was Charles Wagner’s The Simple Life, which argued that people had had enough of materialism and were about to migrate back to the farm. In 1914, Britain’s Robert Tressell’s posthumous The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists called his country ‘a nation of ignorant, unintelligent, half-starved, broken-spirited degenerates’. The craze for eugenics that swept the world, embraced by left and right with equal fervour, after 1900 and caused the passage of illiberal and cruel laws in democracies like America as well as autocracies like Germany, took as its premise the deterioration of the blood lines caused by the overbreeding of the poor and the less intelligent. A huge intellectual consensus gathered around the idea that a distant catastrophe must be averted by harsh measures today (sound familiar?). ‘The multiplication of the feeble-minded’ said Winston Churchill in a memo to the prime minister in 1910, ‘is a very terrible danger to the race.’ Theodore Roosevelt was even more explicit: ‘I wish very much that the wrong people could be prevented entirely from breeding; and when the evil nature of these people is sufficiently flagrant, this should be done. Criminals should be sterilized and feeble-minded persons forbidden to leave offspring behind them.’ In the end, eugenics did far more harm to members of the human race than the evil it was intended to combat would ever have done. Or, as Isaiah Berlin put it, ‘disregard for the preferences and interests of individuals alive today in order to pursue some distant social goal that their rulers have claimed is their duty to promote has been a common cause of misery for people throughout the ages.’