Governing by Hope Instead of Fear

A liberal program must also be a responsible program, a reasonable, rational, realistic program. We must know how much it will cost and where the money is coming from. Benefits must be measured against burdens. A program which pampers the people or threatens our solvency is as irresponsible as the one which ignores a vital need. But we will always remember that there is a difference between responsibility and timidity, and we are resolved to be governed more by our hopes than by our fears.”

Edmund G. “Pat” Brown
nd Governor of California
First Inaugural Address, January 7, 1963

Even in California, most people forget that before there was Governor Jerry Brown, there was his father, Governor Pat Brown. Unlike his son, a Malthusian who ushered in California’s “era of limits,” the elder Brown was a Californian who, perhaps more than anyone else at the time, exercised the leadership and political will during the 1950s and 1960s that led to California building the finest universities, the best freeways, and the state water project, which in turn provided the foundation for broad middle-class prosperity that for a time was unequaled anywhere on earth.

Unfortunately, it is the ideology of the son rather than the father that has taken root in California and is spreading into the rest of America. It is an ideology of not only limits but also fear, division, and ultimately poverty and tyranny. It must be refuted, then banished. It is, to use an overused phrase, an existential threat threat to our democracy.

The challenge is daunting. Refuting a narrative that serves the interests of almost every powerful special interest in American society won’t happen overnight. But it is possible. This dark narrative has two fatal flaws. First, it is false. Second, the truth is positive and can be conveyed with hope and optimism. The challenges facing Americans today will be overcome, as they always have. As we move further into the 21st century, liberty and prosperity are enjoyed by more people in more places than ever before. By every metric of human achievement and quality of life, the world has never been better.

This fact—that almost anyone presented with a complete and objective assessment of life today compared to any other time in human history would choose to be alive right now—is a core premise that back in the Pat Brown era used to govern society. Everything we face today, every unsettling trend, disgraceful corruption, impossible odds, or misguided policies, and the tragic waste of time and money and opportunities that result, must be viewed and must be contended with from this core premise. The world has never been perfect. With wars, oppression, disease, and poverty, life has never been easy. But this era, despite ongoing calamities, is nonetheless a moment that, more than anything else, holds promise and possibilities that have no precedent and no equal.

This should be obvious, but it’s not. We are taught that the planet’s ecosystems are on the brink of collapse, that we must inoculate ourselves against myriad new diseases, and whenever told to do so, we must submit to isolation and quarantines. Without irony, we are taught that our democracy is imperiled and that we may have to use any undemocratic means necessary to protect and preserve it. For every major issue facing Americans, there is an alarming narrative we are urged to accept, and in every case, extraordinary measures are called for if we are to remain safe. Why is this, if the trajectory of humanity has the potential to be so positive? Why so much fear?

A friend of mine who, as a boy, fled with his family from Kazakhstan in the waning days of the USSR once said to me, “The safest place for anyone would be in prison.” I didn’t immediately understand what he meant because I took his statement literally, and an American prison is anything but a safe place. But he was speaking from his experience living under a regime that had turned their entire nation into a prison and their entire population into slaves. They had no human rights, but the rhetoric the regime utilized to justify their enslavement was the need to keep them safe.

Talk to immigrants from Eastern Europe who are old enough to remember the 1980s or prior decades. Ask them how they feel when they hear the government talk about keeping them safe. Power corrupts, and power is clever. No nation is immune. Not even ours. Those who have lived under tyranny and have been steeped in its deceptions and rationalizations are the first to recognize the deception.

Responding to the Narrative

The prevailing narrative in America and the messages from politicians and corporations alike are not taking our country in the right direction. In every case, the underlying appeal is to the desire for safety. We must be safe from climate change, bigotry, hate, malevolent foreign actors, and insurrectionists at home. But there are other values we can’t lose sight of in pursuit of safety. Appeals to our primal desire for safety can mask other motives, and some of the threats we’ve been told we must counter at all costs are overstated threats, if they are threats at all.

There aren’t words to describe, much less contain the outrage that anyone who’s realized “safety” is often a smokescreen to hide an agenda-driven transition from being free to being controlled in everything you do, from every economic transaction you make to the food you eat, where you live, where you go, how you manage your health, and how you raise your children. But mere outrage is a fatally flawed approach.

An iconic American short story is “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” written in 1936 by Stephen Vincent Benét. It’s a story about a man, Jabez Stone, who, in desperate circumstances, made a bargain with the Devil. In exchange for seven years of good fortune, he sold his soul. At the end of seven years, terrified of what was about to happen to him, he talked a young attorney, Daniel Webster, into negotiating with the Devil on his behalf. In the story, Webster is not yet the famous statesman and orator that history remembers, but he agrees to help and convinces the Devil to allow a trial where he can argue Jabez Stone’s case. At first, it doesn’t go well.

As part of the deal, the Devil is permitted to choose the judge and jury, and into the room come the ghosts of infamous traitors and murderers, all of them rising from Hell to participate in the trial. After enduring continuous setbacks during the prosecution’s arguments, all of them unfair, and after becoming furious with frustration, it’s finally Daniel Webster’s turn to speak for the defense.

“But before he started, he looked over the judge and jury for a moment, such being his custom. And he noticed the glitter in their eyes was twice as strong as before, and they all leaned forward. Like hounds, just before they get the fox, they looked, and the blue mist of evil in the room thickened as he watched them. Then he saw what he’d been about to do, and he wiped his forehead, as man might who’s just escaped falling into a pit in the dark. For it was him they’d come for, not only Jabez Stone. He read it in the glitter of their eyes and in the way the stranger hid his mouth with one hand. And if he fought them with their own weapons, he’d fall into their power; he knew that, though he couldn’t have told you how. It was his own anger and horror that burned in their eyes, and he’d have to wipe that out or the case was lost.”

The rest of the story is a terrific parable, a testament to the power of empathy over hate. By the time Daniel Webster finished talking, it was nearly morning, and a jury of the damned had defied the Devil himself to acquit Jabez Stone. Daniel Webster had spoken to this jury without rancor, appealing to their humanity and touching the vestiges of goodness that were still inside of each of them. With this authentic gesture of controlled passion and respectful reason instead of mere confrontation, he accomplished what was otherwise impossible.

That is an inspiring story that we don’t have to entirely assimilate in order for it to benefit our cause. We’re not dealing with a jury of the damned, although it can feel that way when we confront the seeming unanimity and power of the opposition. We are trying to convince the living, and most of them harbor intentions that are entirely innocent. They believe they are doing good. They believe the causes they support are going to do good and that the politicians they vote for represent, at the very least, the best choices possible. And it is here that our message must take root, and it can because it is a message of hope and optimism. The prevailing narrative in America today is based on fear. It is pessimistic about the future and cynical about people. It is the precise opposite of what anyone challenging this narrative should project.

Along with well-founded optimism must come humility. We don’t have all the answers. We don’t have any special insight into the future, apart from the fact that we have looked at data and trends and have concluded that the future can indeed be very bright. But how exactly we get to that future is uncertain. And here again, we have an advantage over the opposition, because while we don’t have their certainty—you will go solar and ration water, and you will like it—we have faith in the power of human ingenuity, operating in a free country, to solve any challenge, no matter how daunting.

In that spirit, and while believing the future can be great, at times we will inevitably realize that, in some detail or on some issue, we’ve been on the wrong track. That’s not something to take lightly, but it, too, is unavoidable. We will commit errors of judgement and a few factual errors, and this brings up another point worth mentioning. When we support things that are supported by every establishment institution, it doesn’t hurt so much to make a mistake. You’re part of a team of pundits, analysts, and scientists who have all come to similar conclusions. You’re fighting for the winning team; you meant well, and flawed or not, your arguments are building the edifice of the narrative. If you make a mistake, you will move on, with your reputation and the credibility of your ideas most likely intact.

But when you’re part of the contrarian resistance—the true “resistance,” by the way—anything you miss will be seized on by the opposition. If you make a mistake, you will do it as part of a small, fledgling team comprised of underfunded and maligned fellows on the outside looking in. When you make an assertion that is proven false, even when your error is unintentional, you’ve let down a group that has nothing to spare, and you’ve damaged the cause. And regardless, we have to try. Because the prevailing narrative, and often the facts used to support it, are misguided.

The Heresy of Optimism

There is a profound heresy in asserting that we are not in a climate crisis, that there are not too many people on earth, and that it is possible to achieve sustainable abundance of affordable energy and water. There is even heresy in suggesting that American history is mostly good and that the American people today are already the most inclusive, tolerant, and welcoming society in human history. There is heresy in saying everything is going to be okay if we just preserve individual freedom and protect private property.

And there is heresy—here is where it gets complicated—in claiming labels such as right-wing and left-wing are increasingly obsolete. We want private property and capitalism, but we reject and must regulate oligopoly and crony capitalism. We want privatization wherever possible, but recognize that sometimes public utilities cannot deliver efficiency and affordable abundance without intervention and funding from the government. To be more specific, and to be shamelessly heretical, we don’t want the government to pick winners, but nonetheless, sometimes we have to.

As it is, for example, the government has decided to subsidize offshore wind and high-speed rail, which are both guaranteed to be economic drains in perpetuity, while, considering their cost, offering almost nothing of value towards solving our energy or transportation requirements. But perhaps government should be subsidizing practical water infrastructure projects and upgrades to our freeways. In California and elsewhere, they did that in the 1950s and 1960s, and we are still reaping the benefits today. We have to wade into the waters of picking winners, or the winners will be picked for us. And the winners that the prevailing narrative wants to pick are not winners at all. They’re epic losers, set to waste trillions.

Which brings us back to California, but, to echo a truism that is no less true despite being parroted endlessly, as goes California, so goes America. And as goes America, so goes the world. When the purveyors of the prevailing narrative claim California must set an example for the world, they’re not exactly correct. California doesn’t have to set an example for the world. But California is setting an example for the world, and it’s a bad example. Nobody in the world wants to live under a regime where everything is monitored, micromanaged, controlled, and rationed. Yet that is exactly where we’re headed in California. That is the world we must oppose, with rational arguments fortified with optimism and empathy.

Over the past fifty years, California has shifted 180 degrees from being a welcoming, affordable place to a state where the population is hyper-regulated and overtaxed, enduring a punitive cost of living where productive and law-abiding citizens are treated with hostility. This hostility may not be overt, although it often is, but the impact is unmitigated and repellent. California has become a place where no rational person would want to put down roots. The only thing left in California that is undeniably friendly—most of the time—is the weather, and that’s simply not enough.

This explains why people born there are forced to leave California. One recent exile actually chastised me for still living there. My state taxes, he said, are supporting a regime and a culture that is using its power—i.e., Silicon Valley technology and Hollywood influencers—to export a narrative that will destroy Western civilization.

The counterargument to this accusation? Stay here and fight. And to fight, we must reject the Malthusian mentality first institutionalized in California by Governor Jerry Brown and adhere instead to the words of his progenitor in life and in politics, Governor Pat Brown, who said “we are resolved to be governed more by our hopes than by our fears.”

This article originally appeared in American Greatness.

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