We Need Hope
Hope is in short supply these days, while despair and hate are enjoying an enormous surplus.
To give an example, there are currently two types of stories that fill my news feed. The first are about politics and the perpetual horrors it unleashes on the world: there’s a new scandal every day, and war, protectionism, and nationalism are on the rise, with staggering human costs to pay as a result. Now, in a way, it makes sense that these stories dominate most people’s attention, as they represent widespread problems that deeply influence our lives. However, this attention has brought with it a kind of despair. Many people are falling silent or are ending long-time friendships simply because they want to avoid the onslaught of bad news—along with vicious fighting and personal conflict—that appears day after day.
But there’s a second kind of story I’ve seen lately: stories about amazing new technologies and enterprises that are, or soon will be, available to the public. Social media is full of stories that show how apps and drones and 3D printed devices can save our lives, or reinvent them, or simply make them a bit more convenient. These wonders are designed by young people: DIY geniuses, tech visionaries, social entrepreneurs, and many others with a passion for creating value for others.
The contrast between these two kinds of stories could not be starker. The first are assaults on justice as well as economic sense, while the second demonstrate the extraordinary benefits of social cooperation. They represent innovative ways not just to make money, but to make peace. But in a small way, the second group offers something more, something absolutely vital for our everyday lives: hope.
When faced with bad news week after week, it’s easy to despair of humanity’s future. But we can’t let the evils of politics convince us that change for the better is impossible. We have to hope.
That in turn means we have to make a conscious effort not to become victims of political events and of the news that surrounds them. It’s not just that focusing too narrowly on government distorts one’s view of the political process and of justice, although it certainly does that: politics also has a profound effect on our spirits, because it teaches us to believe that there is no life outside of it, while there’s simultaneously no hope to be found within it. We feel as if we’re all shackled to a sinking ship.
However, by resisting the forces that pull us into the black hole of politics, we can remind ourselves of the enormous and often wonderful world in which we’re fortunate to live. Letting go of politics and its many evils produces a fundamental change in our worldview. In fact, just taking a moment to watch a cheerful video can be a powerful remedy for the misery and destruction that we see in so much of the world. In this day and age, such simple resistance to political news is an almost revolutionary act.
We need to disengage from politics and the neurosis it causes, and reengage with the real world. We can’t change the nature of politics, but we can change our own lives and the lives of those around us through peaceful action, especially through commerce and entrepreneurship. Our hope doesn’t lie in politics or presidents or kings and the hate that they breed, but in the recognition of our mutual social interests.
Yes, things in the political world are bad, and are likely to get worse before they get better. Yet consider that just three centuries ago in Western Europe, it must also have also seemed as if there was no hope. In fact, economic development was so minimal, and people had so little exposure to the world of ideas that the concept of hope must have made little sense: hope for what? A better life? The idea must have been alien to most ordinary people of the time. Hence it was easy for millions of individuals to think of themselves as a part (namely, the bottom) of a “natural” social hierarchy dictated to them from birth. The evils wrought by kings and other monarchs must have seemed inescapable. And yet, from this economic and social stasis grew the greatest flourishing of human life and prosperity in history.
In order words, even though things are bad now, human beings have survived worse. But it took the rise of classical liberalism and its values of liberty and commercial society to do it. Today, it’s likely that we’ll need another such revolution in ideas to overturn the rising tide of statism that threatens us from both the left and right. Yet although winning this battle might seem impossible, there is hope, but only if we refuse to let evil, hatred, and melancholy conquer our lives, and set ourselves to the task of improving the world rather than passively accepting its decline. Mises’s personal motto and example come to mind.
I think the idea of hope is summed up beautifully in the great film The Lion in Winter:
Henry II: We’re in the cellar and you’re going back to prison and my life is wasted and we’ve lost each other… and you’re smiling.
Eleanor: It’s the way I register despair. There’s everything in life but hope.
Henry II: We’re both alive… and for all I know that’s what hope is.