As 2006 Closes, Reasons for Optimism

As 2006 draws to a close you will doubtless be hearing a lot of jeremiads on how things are running down, running out and generally not as good as they used to be.

In truth, however, I cannot end the year on a pessimistic note. Yes, the Iraq war seems a mess; yes, government still spends too much money badly; and yes, the culture ain't what it used to be. But if you think things look bleak now, you weren't around when I started writing a column in the early 1980s.

Crime, illegitimacy and drug use were spiraling out of control. Oil prices, in inflation-adjusted terms, had recently been even higher than they are now. The country was still suffering the lingering effects of double-digit inflation and unemployment. In my hometown of Detroit, Ford Motor Co., then as now, was said to be on the brink of bankruptcy.

President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II had both been shot, and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had narrowly escaped a terrorist bomb. Huge anti-American demonstrations, fanned by Soviet propaganda and cash, were taking place in Western Europe over the issue of whether to allow deployment of modernized missiles. Japan was thought to be in the process of replacing America as the planet's leading economic power.

And the intellectuals were approvingly reciting to each other the glum lines from the Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet William Yeats in the wake of the slaughter of World War I: "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold...The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

As we now know, however, the center did hold. The missiles were deployed, and it was the Soviet Union, not the Free World, which collapsed. The American economy not only recovered, it went on to nearly a quarter century of robust expansion interrupted by only two mild pauses. The social fabric finally began to show signs of repair, helped along by a welfare reform bill signed into law by a Democratic President.

This time could be different, of course.

Al Gore has attacked the Iraq war as "the worst strategic mistake in the entire history of the United States," and maybe he will turn out to be right, though one wonders what he makes of the decision to send troops into Vietnam, where 47,000 of them were killed. Predictions that the fiscal deficit and the trade deficit could bring an economic reckoning may turn out to be correct, too. And we may not see the likes of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul any time soon.

But each of our historical crises seems to have brought forth the leadership and the ideas needed to deal with them. For that I credit our republican system of government. It is not just the best except for all the others, as Winston Churchill famously put it. It is qualitatively superior, a great and very durable system based on a realistic appraisal of human nature, which allows for adaptation, correction and collective judgments that tend to be wiser than that of any single individual.

There may be no permanent victories. But neither are there any permanent defeats. And I also credit our capitalist economic system. Its dynamism, based, as my old friend and colleague Warren Brookes used to say, on "the economy in mind," the unlimited natural resource known as the human spirit, not only builds wealth, it builds decency, civility and space for political liberty. That doesn't mean there won't be tough times, but it does mean that progress is possible, even likely.

So, as John Paul told the Poles in a much darker time than this, "be not afraid." There are good reasons to think that even better times lie ahead.