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Bermond Scoggins – To be, or not to be, optimistic | Week 6

Bermond Scoggins

20 February 2017

The Free Market Road Show is a month away. Spirits are high; noses to the grindstone. The office is a flurry of activity – with a constant stream of incoming and outgoing phone calls and emails.

I imagine the same can be said for government departments and embassies around the world, albeit for very different reasons. During a time of such rapid change, it does make it interesting to be research assistant, especially in a world, to put it euphemistically, as ‘colourful’ as today’s.

This week’s events, notably the resignation of the U.S. National Security adviser, the alleged connection between Presidential staffers and Russian intelligence officers, and the assassination of the North Korean dictator’s self-exiled brother, resemble drunkenly scribbled bar napkin plotlines from John le Carré or Graham Greene.

These developments reminded me of a few lines from Voltaire’s Candide, when Cacambo asks Candide what is meant by the term ‘optimism’. Candide, in his witty style, replies “[i]t is the obstinacy of maintaining that everything is best when it is worst.” Of course, Voltaire also wrote that “[a] witty saying proves nothing”. Regardless, I imagine many are optimistic in today’s political climate, who are willing to brave these slings and arrows, in the hope that it will all resolve itself.

From the backwaters of Pennsylvania to the hallowed halls of Congress, the Forgotten People and their Washington representatives remain optimistic that White House boorishness, the overtures to Russia (a destabiliser of liberal democracies), and the President’s comments of a moral equivalence between Russia and the U.S., constitute nothing more than a necessary inconvenience on a path to renewed prosperity.

In Europe, many voters are receptive to their own peculiar brand of nativism, protectionism, and illiberalism – as demonstrated by the popularity of the Front National in France’s presidential election.

The calls to return to a nationalistic order, eschewing the liberal system that has given us our peace and prosperity, demonstrates a remarkably naïve and optimistic view of history – spuriously believing that history cannot repeat itself.

In a book of Hayek’s collected essays, I was amused to read that in 1983 he delivered a lecture lamenting that

…people in Germany are no longer so convinced that they owe everything to the return to a free-market economy. Old feelings about anti-trade, anti-competition, and anti-internationalism are again coming to the fore. I am no longer quite sure whether German liberalism is sufficiently deep seated…

Phillip Stephens, in his February 9 article in the Financial Times, echoes Hayek by writing “[w]hat was not predicted was that the rich democracies would turn against their own creation, and the question would become whether they could manage the insurrections within”. While the ‘insurrectionist’ impulses Hayek observed during the 1980s proved moot, today’s impulses seem stronger than ever. To overcome them, we ought not be quite so optimistic.

But, art still remains, and much of it. I attended Mass at the Hofburgkapelle, graced with the voices of the Vienna Boys Choir, and roamed through the exhibits at Vienna’s Museum of Modern Art (MUMOK). While the world of politics can make you an irredeemable cynic, art can remind you of all that is, and can be, good in the world.

Vienna Boys Choir at the Hofsburgkapelle

With the statue of Emperor Josef II at the Hofburg

A section of the permanent collection at Vienna's Museum of Modern Art

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