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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: James Q. Wilson

The following is from our November issue. Forty-one symposium contributors were asked to respond to the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?

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Many years ago, I confidently published an essay in which I made a prediction. It was hopelessly, embarrassingly wrong. Since then I have embraced the view that social scientists should never predict; leave that job to pundits. If you doubt me, make a list of the economists who predicted the 2008 recession, political scientists who predicted the Arab Spring, or criminologists who said that this recession would be accompanied by falling crime rates. A few names may make the list, but very few.

Historians may do a better job than other scholars in making generalizations, but that is because the good ones never predict, they generalize from past experiences. Those experiences suggest that this country has been extraordinarily lucky, and they hint at some reasons for that good fortune: an adaptable government, an optimistic national character—and extraordinary good fortune (we won the Revolutionary War against a superior enemy, defeated the Confederacy despite a series of terrible northern generals, overcame the Great Depression because the Second World War increased the demand for goods and services, sent transports to confront Germany just at the time when the Nazi code had been broken, confronted an armed Japan that made every conceivable tactical mistake, and defeated Saddam Hussein by discovering that he was an incompetent military leader). We had some bad luck as well (racism and Vietnam, for example), but the good outweighed it.

It is easy to understand why Commentary would ask whether one is optimistic or pessimistic. We remain in the depths of a major recession, the nation’s deficit grew by more than $4 trillion in the first three years of the current administration, our military faces unjustified cuts in its budget, many people who want to vote against President Obama feel they lack a suitable Republican alternative, the federal government (except for the military) lacks any public confidence, and most Americans think the country is on the wrong track.

It would be easy to be grumpy, but it also would not be hard to be optimistic. We face serious problems, but this recession like all before it will end, something will probably be done to reduce the growth in the deficit, international reality will require the maintenance of a serious military force, and somebody will run against Obama and may well defeat him. Dislike of government institutions will no doubt persist (but without any reduction in American patriotism), and the meaning of answers to the poll question about whether the country is on the right track will remain, as it is now, obscure. Take your pick.

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James Q. Wilson teaches at Pepperdine University and is the coauthor ofAmerican Government: Institutions and Policies (Wadsworth).



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