Summary: Pessimism pervades our era despite unparalleled material abundance. This mindset of decline threatens America’s core identity, which is rooted in optimism and the principles of its founding. To counter this, we must embrace an agenda of abundance, reform restrictive policies, and rekindle an imaginative vision for a better, more prosperous future.

This is the final entry in Discourse’s series on building an abundance agenda. You can read more from the series here.

We live in an era of unparalleled material abundance—but also a time of widespread pessimism, a sense of inevitable civilizational decline. This pessimism is not restricted to one domain of life; rather, it’s found across politics, the arts, education, business, the media and beyond. The dominant mode in many if not most of our institutions is one that embraces managed decline, with leaders hoping only that things don’t get appreciably worse on their watch. People are resigned to things becoming worse: The question is when, and by how much.

This fatalistic pessimism is as fundamental a threat to America as any external enemy. That comparison is not hyperbole: America’s national identity isn’t rooted in the land, a shared race or scriptural revelation, but in the principles of our founding, and an indefatigable optimism about the future and our ability to immanentize these principles. Optimism about what can be, both for the nation but also for our families, is inextricably part of American identity; it is one of the most fundamental sources of our success, and one of just a handful of vital beliefs that bind us together as a people. Widespread and systemic pessimism about our past, present and future strike at the core of who we are. A fatalistic America will cease to be, in any meaningful sense, the America we and our ancestors have known, up to this point.

Pessimism is Self-Defeating

Pessimism creates vicious cycles; pessimistic communities have less social capital and lower levels of trust, pessimistic voters demand more from governments and are more attracted to demagogues, pessimistic people see the world as zero-sum. A pessimistic world is one in which there’s less social trust, less innovation, less opportunity, less sense of meaning and agency—less of everything we need and cherish, across the board. A pessimistic world is one in which there’s no expectation that things can get better, and the best case is one of managed decline.

This pessimism is driven in no small part by the many areas in which we see scarcity all around us—a scarcity that is unfamiliar to a country used to unprecedented plenty. In many cases, this is scarcity not due to the natural order of things, but because of policy choices, for instance in energy, health care and transportation, where decades of legislation and regulation combine to make optimism all but impossible. In other areas, it’s simply because we have given up on things getting better and have instead accustomed ourselves to settling—or waiting for a deus ex machina to solve our challenges.

We’re even willing to put the brakes on progress in the name of dealing with these challenges: Those who urge “degrowth” rather than continued economic progress in the face of climate change are a perfect, unfortunate example of this. Regardless of whether this scarcity is policy-induced or apathy-induced, it strips individuals, families, firms and communities of their agency and unleashes a host of social pathologies.

The alternative to pessimism is optimism—and that means developing an agenda of abundance, not scarcity. Journalist Derek Thompson introduced the phrase “abundance agenda” in a 2022 column in The Atlantic; it’s an extraordinary and pithy way to position an optimistic vision in contradistinction to the prevailing zeitgeist. Abundance is the antidote to the poison of pessimism; an optimistic vision of the future is one of abundance, progress and intergenerational improvement.

The Work Continues

Recapturing the moral high ground of abundance and optimism requires two things. First, we must change the public policies that reduce innovation and supply, empower vetocracies, encourage precautionary principle rulemaking and raise regulatory compliance costs and uncertainty. This is scarcity as a policy choice.

But again, placing abundance front and center also requires rekindling an imagination for how things can be better and urging people to abandon settling for adequacy, kludgeocracy, low growth rates, intellectual incuriosity and “good enough.”

When it comes to abundance, we still have a choice to make. It’s true that a more abundant, optimistic, innovative, prosperous, peaceful, civil and pleasant future can be ours, and sooner than we think. This is no time to think small, and no time to turn inward. If we focus on our flaws and limitations rather than the opportunities and possibilities before us, abundance can’t and won’t be ours.

The real question is whether we are willing to roll up our sleeves and make abundance happen.

This article was published on Discourse on 5/23/2024.