The Limited Government Optimist

My college, like most, assigned summer reading for incoming first-year students. My cohort read “Half the Sky,” a book about women in developing countries written by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.

There are two ways to read this text, and at a women’s college such as the one I attended, the majority of students ended up taking one viewpoint: Life is really depressing.

They’re correct. Half the Sky describes the sometimes insurmountable odds that women in other parts of the world face — lack of freedom, civil rights, basic medical care and the sense that they have a say in their own lives. Westerners observing these struggles quickly realize how difficult it can be to improve their circumstances through charity work or cultural change. It’s frustrating, but sending old clothes and medical supplies to developing countries doesn’t solve the structural problems women often face there.

My classmates were despondent. Some of them couldn’t bring themselves to finish the book, feeling powerless to help improve the circumstances of their sisters across the globe. They didn’t see the value in reading about problems they couldn’t fix.

A small minority dissented from this view, myself included. I found the book strangely uplifting, precisely because I couldn’t do anything about the problems it presented, and I didn’t have to. These women were coming up with their own ways to improve their circumstances. They were in the best position to know what would improve their quality of life, and they didn’t need me or my classmates interfering with their work.

Pessimism is an easier path than optimism. Finding the good things in a tough situation can be really difficult — especially for a proponent of limited government. Government rarely reduces its size. It’s understandable to feel powerless in the face of policy that harms people, but is difficult to change.

Resisting government growth is not necessarily a winning battle. It is the nature of government to increase in size and accumulate power. Just look at the number of laws on the books. How many ever get repealed? The nature of my job forces me confront this reality every day. It can be exhausting.

But it’s important not to let the difficulties lead to defeatism and acquiescence. The liberty advocate must be an optimist. We believe in the power of people to improve their own lives. We believe in the power of communities to make the best decisions about the problems facing them. If we thought people were helpless, stupid or incompetent, then we would advocate for an increase in government.

Instead, we see the ingenuity and creativity of people. Too many humans still exist in deplorable circumstances on this planet, but the condition of the human race is improving at an accelerating rate. We are becoming more prosperous, healthier, happier and freer and there is no compelling reason to worry that this will not continue. Life is good, and getting better.

These days, I choose to remember that to believe in liberty is to be an optimist. Remembering that (and bearing it out in everyday life) is the best way to show people that more freedom is worth a try.