Brett Hall recently published a reaction to Sam Harris’ Making Sense Podcast episode “The End of Global Order”. The podcast is an interview with Peter Zeihan and Ian Bremmer on Zeihan’s new book The End of the World Is Just the Beginning: Mapping the Collapse of Globalization.
Brett criticizes the pessimistic arguments from the podcast and book, and even more so, how the participants make prophecies but sell them as confident predictions. The critique of pessimism and the difference between prophecies and predictions are both themes from David Deutsch ‘s work, in particular from his masterpiece The Beginning of Infinity, which Brett is doing a great job at popularizing.
Here’s my reaction to Brett’s reaction. Even though my observations stand on their own, I recommend you listen to both pieces to get the whole picture.
It’s easy to be a pessimist
The kind of optimism Deutsch advocates in The Beginning of Infinity can be briefly summarized as the belief that problems are inevitable but also soluble and that all evils are due to lack of knowledge.
Being an optimist in such a way is hard work. It requires:
- Actively working towards knowledge creation and problem-solving
- Trusting people to create solutions and give them the space to do it
Solving problems is hard, but a pessimist can instead go by complaining and making an observation about the status quo.
Optimism requires coming to terms with one’s own fallibilism. On the other hand, the pessimist prophet can always claim certainty because no one is there from the future to refute them. And even when faced with criticism because their prophecies didn’t materialize, they can always escape it by shifting the goal post.
Pessimism is counterproductive
There’s a passage in chapter 12 of The Beginning of Infinity that shows how bad philosophy, like Zeihan’s, Bremmer’s, and Harris’ pessimism, slows down the growth of knowledge.
Similarly, [the study] cannot detect whether a book will be written one day which will persuade some proportion of the population that all evils are due to lack of knowledge, and that knowledge is created by seeking good explanations. If some of those people consequently create more knowledge than they otherwise would have, and become happier than they otherwise would have been, then part of the 50 per cent of happiness that was ‘genetically determined’ in all previous studies will no longer be so.
The interpreters of the study may respond that it has proved that there can be no such book! Certainly none of them will write such a book, or arrive at such a thesis. And so the bad philosophy will have caused bad science, which will have stifled the growth of knowledge.
If you don’t believe a book that makes things better can be written, you certainly will never write one. If you don’t believe progress is possible, you’ll never make progress.
Zeihan and the gang could employ their excellent analytical and writing skills to promote the growth of knowledge but instead choose to take the easier path and go against it.
Pessimism is profitable
Whenever taking advice from someone, it helps to understand their background and incentives.
Zeihan runs an agency offering “customized executive briefings” on “geopolitical strategist” and “international affairs.” His customized briefing wouldn’t grant their fee if they said, “don’t worry, everything will keep getting better, just do your best.”
There’s money to be made with pessimism. Catastrophes are horrifying but also enticing. This is why newspapers mostly print bad news, and you need to get out of your way to find a consistent stream of good ones.
I’m not accusing Zeihan of being intentionally deceiving, but it seems clear his incentives are geared towards pessimism. People can go down counterproductive paths on good intentions. It might turn out I’m doing that right now.
People have value even when they don’t earn a paycheck!
All the above could be field away as difference in opinions (but I encourage you to read The Beginning of Infinity to see why optimism is the only rational path towards problem-solving). I’m probably being over critical in my cherry picked synthesis and am sure there’s a lot of valuable insight in Zeihan and Bremmer’s work.
Something I find hard to excuse, however, is how the three amigos in the podcast seem to view children and elderly people. Maybe if you were to speak with them in person, it would be clear that they love their children as well as their parents and grandparents, but that’s not what I got from the conversation.
They seem to think retired people are useless because they don’t earn money and that couples have fewer children these days because they no longer can use them as free labor on the farm—”they are just an expense.”
What the heck?! People are more than the money they put into the economy.
Children are wonderful people in their own right, not incomplete humans waiting to be molded to fulfill whatever ambitions or needs parents have for them.
Old people are a treasury of wisdom and stories. Many of them keep contributing to society way past their retirement, if they’re lucky enough to have good health. Personal anecdote on that note: I know several families where the grandparents help with childcare, sparing hefty fees.
I’ll admit, I don’t have a premium Making Sense subscription, so I didn’t listen to the whole conversation. Maybe it took a better, constructive turn after the part available to everyone. But I don’t know if I’d have kept listening after the initial premise, even if I could have.
If I have to listen to prophecies of doom for how the West will crumble under it’s own weight, I’d rather listen to Balaji Srinivasan. At least he comes up with alternatives that aim to empower individuals to thrive.
Every day, new knowledge is created. Things that seemed impossible in the past, like flying, are now mundane. We can expect that things that seem impossible to us today will be equally mundane in the future. There is no such thing as “the world as we know it” or “global order” because everything is in constant flux and trending towards improvement.
The end of the world as we know it today is really just the beginning. It’s up to us whether to make it the beginning of the end or the beginning of infinity.
Cover image by Marcus Castro on Unsplash.