I am not much given to optimism, neither the “unscrupulous” kind so brilliantly exposed by Roger Scruton, nor the complacent kind that assumes all is already well as it is. The first deplores present evils, it is true. It calls for revolution and the rule of an enlightened, progressive elite or party. But then, after its victory, all will be well. If it turns out not to be, as inevitably happens, that will be the fault of reactionaries or traitors in the party itself. The revolution devours its own young. The second kind of optimism, proclaiming that we already live in the best of all possible worlds – a view with which many pessimists will concur - underestimates both the need for and possibilities of change.
The unscrupulous optimist foments dissatisfaction, even an indignation addiction, if not moral panic, in order to motivate social change. The solution always involves expanding state power over civil society, ever more control and coercion of families, churches and communities of conscience, businesses and markets. There ought to be a law, the offended and outraged cry. The informal sources of care and control, safety and order in families and communities, must be replaced by bureaucrats and professionals.
So what to make of this past year? It was a year besmirched by a rising tide of vocal and violent anti-Semitism in Europe and on American campuses; of religious persecution, kidnappings, beheadings and enslavement in the Middle East and Nigeria, with the control by ISIS (staggeringly underestimated by Obama as a junior team version of Al Qaeda) of territory the size of Great Britain. We witnessed the fall into lawlessness and violence of some African-American communities, with police use of force provoking riots, looting, and the destruction of economic life. NYPD, at the time of writing, is on a slowdown that is close to a strike in response to the murder of two officers in New York and the failure of the mayor there to support the police. The destruction of marriage by liberal elites through the courts, egged on by media and academia, continues apace, as the sexual revolution and the raising of unprecedented millions of children without one or either of their own parents continued to wreck the lives of whole communities where father absence was the norm.
There is much to lament even without the bogus indignation of statists who want the state to increase its management of the economy in order to impose its version of a more equitable distribution of resources, to restrict freedom of speech, religion, and conscience, and to impose on campuses ever more restrictions on what can be thought, said, and done while denying due process and assuming guilt.
But let us not lose sight, in our addiction to indignation, of the fact that 2014 was a year in which health and longevity improved worldwide, dire poverty continued its steep decline as capitalism, for all the continuing distortions of cronyism and corruption, lifted average living standards worldwide. War became less frequent and less violent, rates of murder and violent crime plummeted, and racism and discrimination declined (with the major exception of resurgence of the ancient prejudice of Jew hatred, now often in liberal disguise, in Europe).
In a column on campus sexual assault: real and imagined, Anne Hendershott cites a government study that flatly contradicts the narrative of rampant sexual assault on campus that feeds the moral panic used by other government agencies and indignant-liberal media to call for ever tighter control of campus life by government and through its agencies of faculty, staff, and students. The study, released last month by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, shows that the
…rate of rape and other sexual assault over the past two decades was 1.2 times higher for non-students of college age than for students on college campuses. In fact, campus sexual assault has actually declined from 9.2 per 1,000 college students in 1997 to 4.4 per 1,000 in 2013. Far from being a site of violence, the study found that female college students are safer from sexual assault while in college than at any other time in their lives.
Hendershott describes how the promoters of panic have pilloried and denied platforms to anyone who questions their bogus statistics – yet another example of social liberals’ seeking to close the American mind to rational or open debate.
So the threats to freedom – political, economic, and cultural – are real and serious. But let us not be panicked by the purveyors of moral panic into statist solutions that make matters worse and undermine civil society. Nor should we be discouraged from doing what can and needs to be done to strengthen families and communities, to resist terrorism, and to eradicate poverty worldwide and remove the obstacles to the poor’s use of their creativity and initiative to improve their condition.