Viewpoint: The Pollyanna Prejudice


Since there are few mental attributes more rare than the judicial faculty which can sit in intelligent judgment between two sides of a question, of which only one is represented by an advocate before it, truth has no chance but in proportion as every side of it, every opinion which embodies any faction of the truth, not only finds advocates, but is so advanced as to be listened to.
—John Stuart Mill

For the better part of three years, I have been circulating a book proposal—no, several book proposals, under different titles, all of which aim to do the same thing: explain. Explain why politics malfunctions, why freedom is contracting, why there is a danger of economic decline for a long time to come.

I should say that I am really talking here about just one book—I have simply had to concoct one outline after another in an attempt to fine one that is commercially acceptable. It has been like trying to disguise a skunk in couturier fashions. I've made it more historical, more abstract, more sweeping, more narrow. Nothing worked. The basic nature of the animal kept showing through.

To have gone any further, I'd have had to make my ever-patient agent blush. I can see him now making the pitch. "Here's this new outline I was telling you about: 'How to Have a Firm Bottom Before Government Destroys the Economy.' Or if you don't like that, here's another by same author: 'Thirty Recipes Cheesecake That Won't Make You Fat until Free Trade Collapses.'"

If you think that's a joke, you're right. But just barely. Editor after editor had the same reaction to my basic thesis: "That's very interesting stuff. Fascinating. But you don't expect me to publish it, do you?" There is a message here that is of importance to people other than my agent, my loving mother, and me: the distortion in the flow of ideas that arises because some viewpoints are taboo.

They are taboo not because they are boring, nor probably wrong, but precisely because they are probably right. In my case, the ideas I have been struggling to articulate explain a great deal about why the world's systems of government keep churning out such unsatisfactory results. But they also imply—no, state outright—that it is extremely difficult to achieve reform. It is difficult because political malfunction is a consequence of rational behavior. It happens because people are following their own interests in the political process, just as they do as buyers and sellers in the commercial realm.

In other words, it's not a freak happening that our macroeconomic condition is changing for the worse as government does its work. That's to be expected. It's what our constitutional rules prescribe. If so, representative government, in current forms, is like one of Calvin's lost souls, "born to be damned."

Not a very happy conclusion. It may be true. But if it is, most people don't want to know about it, or at least that's what editors think. Here is an actual comment lifted directly from an actual rejection letter signed by an actual New York publisher: "Provocative and challenging, but ultimately so negative that I have doubts about the market for the book." Others ran in the same vein.

I happen to believe that these people are wrong, that many Americans would read a book that promised to better explain developments that will alter the world in which they live. The interesting point here is not what I think, however, but what the editors of major publishing houses think. They believe that only a bare chemical trace of the reading population is emotionally capable of tolerating unhappy conclusions. Consequently, they won't publish nonfiction books that fall outside of those emotional bounds. Thus, the whole spectrum of political debate is foreshortened.

In this unnatural environment of forced optimism, the enthusiasts for what comes easily, like Senator Kennedy, prosper even more than they should by promising to "make government work." They are believable because great numbers of people cannot face the thought that they are wrong.

Even Ronald Reagan's greatest applause line in his State of the Union address was a proclamation that government must play a role in reinvigorating our economy. Although he later softened the statement, what was in the minds of all those cheering Republican members of Congress? Perhaps the thought that it is better to enjoy what necessity sends one's way than to see its grimy reality. In that respect, they may have been like the Jews forced down at Entebbe, who shamelessly applauded anyway, almost as if history's indignities could be transformed in a cheer. That's optimism or, to misquote Johnson, "the triumph of hope over experience."

I don't like it. And not just because it means that there is no market for some of my more interesting ideas. I don't like it because it is unlikable. Craven. It is the optimism of those who refuse to hear the alarm, not of those who man the pumps. It is the optimism of wimps, of the townspeople in High Noon, trembling behind the curtain, afraid to draw it back and face what is really happening.

Jim Davidson is founder and chairman of the National Taxpayers Union and author of The Squeeze.