Why Am I So Cheerful?
After we taped a segment for the John Stossel show last Tuesday, John and I took the subway to his beautiful apartment on the Upper East Side, where he had invited me to dinner with him and his lovely wife. I have known John, in little bits, for about 20 years, but we’ve never had much time to talk. On the way there he asked me a question that I think had been perplexing him for quite a while: “Why are you so cheerful?”
What was behind the question was that he and I have a very similar view of the way we would like the world to be: where everyone has much more freedom than he/she has today. At the same time, we see that freedom constantly under assault and we see it diminishing. How can one be cheerful in the face of this?
Here, in a more organized way than I actually said it, was my answer.
When I grew up in rural Manitoba, we watched “The Wonderful World of Disney” every Sunday night. They had Frontierland (my favorite), Tomorrowland, Adventureland, and Fantasyland. But, to me, Disneyland was Fantasyland. If you had told me, when I was 11, or even when I was 15, that I would not only go to Disneyland but also go there at least 7 times and if you had told me that I would live in coastal California, which, from a distance, appeared to be one big Disneyland, I would have told you to quit pulling my leg. In short, one reason I’m so cheerful is that I’m so wealthy compared to what I ever expected. Notice that I said “compared to what I ever expected,” not “compared to other Canadians or Americans.” I think it was Russ Roberts who said once–I think in one of his novels–that life isn’t a race unless you make it one. Whether or not he said it, this has become one of my mottos that has helped me enjoy the world. I am wealthier than over 80% of Americans, but if I were wealthier than just 40% of them, I would still be able to go to Disneyland multiple times.
That’s about wealth, not about freedom. And although freedom generally leads to more wealth, one can be relatively wealthy but not that free. So let’s look at freedom.
I grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s. One of the big issues that worried adults around me, and worried me a little if I thought about it, was that the world would be destroyed by nuclear war. But I didn’t think about it much. My life, up until about age 12, was pretty good. Our family kind of fell apart in slow motion after that, but before that, as I say, it was pretty good. So there were two things I took out of that experience with the threat of nuclear war that help me be cheerful now. First, even with that threat, I had many happy times and, as I looked around at the time, I saw many adults having happy times. Second, that threat is now substantially less than it was. For a few days in October 1962, John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev looked as if they might be close to incinerating large parts of the world. When you’re burned to death, you’re not free, because you’re–not. So the decreased threat of being burned to death is a pretty big boost to freedom.
There’s one related thing that I didn’t say to John but that is part of why I enjoy life so much. It has to do with my view of people. Here’s where I depart from the thinking of my co-blogger Bryan Caplan. Bryan once wrote, “I find my society unacceptable. It is dreary, insipid, ugly, boring, wrong, and wicked.” I don’t. I think that much of what he finds dreary, insipid, ugly, boring, wrong, and wicked, I would too. But in many of those places, I would find real beauty and virtue also. As Renee Zellwegger’s character, Dorothy Boyd, said in one of my favorite scenes in one of my favorite movies from the 1990s, Jerry Maguire, “I still love the enemy.”