Bill Whittle's latest essay Trinity contains some wonderful remarks about optimism and its role in a creative capitalist society:
Now I can see a few honest souls who don't really see how cut-throat capitalism helps the poor. Well, that's fair, because capitalism is a study in contrasts. In fact, this would be as good a time as any to admit that I've spent much of my life worrying myself sick about making enough money to pay the bills. You'll just have to take my word for this. I know what it's like to have your phone and electricity cut off. I know what it's like to avoid the telephone and the mailbox – in fact, I know what it's like to avoid a stern knock on the door.
But even during the many times I've been out of work, flat broke, worried sick and living off the kindness of my life-saving friends – you guys know who you are – even then, when I was practically throwing up from fear, even then – I have never, ever considered myself a poor person. I have always thought of myself as a rich person experiencing severe cash flow problems.
That is a distinctly American attitude. Optimism. Hope. Ambition. You break these chains in your head first – everything else will follow.
All this applies directly to TCS. This may seem paradoxical at first. The rhythm of life that a TCS family aims for has the property that children experience a continual stream of what might be called getting-what-they-want. Their parents try to spare them from pain and frustration whenever that is humanly possible, in just the way that governments do not seek to spare citizens in a capitalist society. Right-wingers, especially, might well interpret Bill Whittle's story as a parable about the inevitability of suffering in the great scheme of things, and of the virtue of embracing it. If they made that mistake about entrepreneurs, they would certainly make it about children too.
But they would be fundamentally wrong about both. (And about the analogy between the two: Parents are not governments. They are there to help.) What is satisfying in the life of a rich person is not receiving money or spending money, it is the process of solving problems, including the problem of what to want. Their objectives and their means of achieving them co-evolve, and it is this process that satisfies them, not the outcome, for the outcome is invariably a new set of unsolved problems and unmet objectives. Likewise, the TCS aspiration is not that of children automatically and instantaneously achieving whatever objective occurs to them, but of their being part of a continuous process of changing and meeting objectives which is itself what-they-want. Not a life free of problems, but a life full of problems that get solved.
They get solved by thought – the child's and the parents’ – and by time and attention and money and so on. The application of creativity and resources to solving problems, including the modification of one's own preferences as part of one's preferred solution, is not the price that one pays in return for the what-one-wants payoff. On the contrary, the exercise of creativity is the payoff, and material objects and other resources are simply the means of exercising it again in the face of the new and better problems (including new and better preferences) created by the solution of the previous problems.
None of the aspirations of TCS engenders more rage and hostility than that of children experiencing a life of getting-what-they-want. The same is true of the creative capitalist lifestyle portrayed by Bill Whittle in Trinity. In both cases, the idea – pessimism – that such a lifestyle is not possible is intimately related with the feeling that it is not desirable, that it is not right: that if we arrange for some people to have it, then this can only corrupt them and impoverish everyone else. In both cases the opposite is true. In both cases optimism, which is both the feeling that problems can be solved and the enjoyment of solving them, breaks the chains of the self-fulfilling prophesy of endless suffering.