“The present is getting better. The future, not at all.”
So begins a recent New York Times article about a Pew study that shows the public adopting a rather dim outlook. “Even as more Americans say the economy is improving, a clear majority remain fearful about their children’s financial prospects,” it continues.
The Pew study isn’t exactly bucking a trend, though. Other surveys indicate a similar level of pessimism, and not just about the economy. You have to wonder what happened to the optimism that once helped define the United States.
We were settled, after all, by the ultimate optimists. These were people willing to risk their lives during a dangerous three-month sea voyage in the hope of a better life in a land they had never laid eyes on. These new immigrants and pioneers had to be incredible optimists, just to overcome the inertia and resistance of leaving everything behind.
For generations, native-born and immigrant Americans alike have believed that they could create a better way of life and fashion a better future for themselves and their descendants. And they’ve been proven correct time and again.
Later immigrants came packed into third-class berths on steamships. Most understood they were making a one-way trip. They’d never see their homelands or their families again. Yet they were willing to take that risk and endure a dangerous trip because they optimistically believed a better life awaited them.
Their basic premise was that a transcendent and eternal God, not capricious political government, gave them their freedom. Under this providential dispensation, it was possible, by willingly undertaking incredible risks, to create a new life in a new world.
No matter how many problems they endured after arriving, they never lost sight of the idea of America’s greatness. This land afforded them and their children a multitude of opportunities if they were willing to work — and they were. This optimistic spirit, and the confidence in the future that characterized the menand women who built America, is central to our national heritage.
Yet now, in times of economic difficulty, many look to government for solutions. But history has shown that government lacks the ability to do much more than maintain the status quo. Indeed, government intervention often makes matters worse.
The pessimist in American society believes the reason some people are poor is that others are rich. He refuses to see any cause-and-effect relationship between behavior and result. This is the same as saying, “The reason some people are sick is that others are well.”
Because they blame others for their problems, pessimists seek solutions outside themselves for those problems. If you have no belief in yourself or your abilities, you’ll have no faith in your capacity to solve your problems. A pessimist is always demanding help, regardless of whether that help is effective.
Although the notion that government can solve, for example, the problem of poverty has been disproved in the United States and throughout Europe, this concept persists in the minds of many people. It seems that the one thing pessimists are optimistic about is that the failures of government will somehow correct themselves if they are allowed to continue indefinitely.
If we want to improve people’s attitudes — and, more importantly, their prospects — we need to increase their freedom, particularly through tax and regulatory reform. Individuals in the private sector will always be the key to economic success.
Optimism is the fuel that feeds our dreams. It provides us with the hope necessary to innovate, invent and aspire, and the willingness to take the risks essential for achievement.
Robbed of optimism, people will languish and wallow in self-pity. Their lives, and the lives of their children, will stagnate.
While not everyone can reach the highest levels of success, everyone can aspire and achieve things that will improve their lot in life and aid their children so they can do better still — provided that government stays out of the way.
Ed Feulner is founder of The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org). He can be reached at The Heritage Foundation, 214 Massachusetts Ave., NE, Washington, DC 20002 or call 1-800-546-2843