Robert Reich Drops Old Errors About Human Nature, Finds Optimism Is No Substitute for Hope

COMMENTARY: The hope people once placed in God, they now place in technological progress, democracy, globalization and the blind forces of history.

Former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich is shown in 2014 testifying before the Joint Economic Committee.
Former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich is shown in 2014 testifying before the Joint Economic Committee. (photo: Win McNamee / Getty Images)

He seems weirdly naive for a former cabinet member, professor at a prestigious university, and major public intellectual. Robert Reich admits that the world of the 21st century didn’t turn out the way he expected. 

What did Reich expect? He expected the world to get better. More peaceful. More cooperative. More democratic. Basically, that kids who’d been fighting on the playground all their lives would suddenly act like those implausibly well-behaved children in ’50s movies. 

Writing in the English newspaper The Guardian, Reich admitted to seven false beliefs. Props to him for admitting it in print. Few pundits would. Most wouldn’t risk exposing themselves to criticism of the sort I’m about to give. 

Reich began the list with “Nationalism Is Disappearing” and ended with “Democracy Is Inevitable.” He believed that “advanced nations” wouldn’t go to war to get more land, they wouldn’t threaten each other with nuclear weapons, and when they went to war, they wouldn’t target civilians. 


This one’s a good example of how wrong he got it. He’d believed that “Nations can no longer control what their citizens know.” Why? “I assumed that emerging digital technologies, including the internet, would make it impossible to control worldwide flows of information and knowledge. Tyrants could no longer keep their people in the dark or hoodwink them with propaganda.” 

He’s a very smart guy. How did he miss the obvious fact that tyrants could control the ways outside information gets to their people? Reich should have known that a someone like Putin could control Russia’s web connections and block sites he didn’t like. The people at Wired magazine could have explained it to him. 

How did he miss the equally obvious fact that tyrants can harness all the power of the state to present a single message to the people? That they can hit their people with their own propaganda 24/7? Threaten into silence anyone who knew the truth? Shut down any protest from people who get the real story from outside?  

This wasn’t, as the expression goes, rocket science. Reich apparently hadn’t learned anything from Orwell’s 1984 or Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, lessons middle school students learn. He apparently hadn’t noticed how successfully the Chinese communist regime controlled what its people knew. He’d apparently forgotten that Putin had been an officer in the KGB, the security agency that had run the Soviet totalitarian state. 

Every one of the mistakes he admits to was as clearly unbelievable as this one. Robert Reich thought the world would naturally get better. But the world doesn’t naturally get better.  

The Catholic Church knows that. It gets better sometimes and worse sometimes, and usually better for some and worse for others. Its getting better for some usually depends on its getting worse for others. It gets better in some respects and worse in others. Every gain brings losses. 

Think of any popular idea of a golden age. Like 19th-century America, with all its great books, and good manners, and brave settlers and hopeful, hard-working immigrants, and life-changing inventions, and industrial power. Some things did get better, for some.  

That progress rested on slavery before the Civil War and on Jim Crow afterward, on the oppression of Native Americans, on the exploitation of workers and environmental degradation. That’s the other side. Good for some, but as bad as before or even worse for others. 

Or the ’50s, which some Americans think of as the last good decade. The decade of Leave It to Beaver and I Love Lucy. Of an expanding economy and millions of people achieving the American dream. Catholics think of the Church growing and becoming a force in American society, so much so that in 1960 America elected its first Catholic president.  

True as far as it goes. But success did not bring continued success. By making Catholics comfortably at home in the world, it made them more worldly. Catholic families soon got as small as anyone else’s. Catholics soon divorced at the same rate as everyone else. They eventually used contraception and aborted their children at the same rates as people without religious belief. Catholic politicians became indistinguishable from any other politician in their party. 

That’s the way history works. Why did someone as smart as Reich believe the world would improve in seven ways when that was obviously untrue? Why was he so unwisely optimistic? And so naïve about human history?  

Because man lives for hope and therefore needs an eschatology. The eschatology explains how we will reach the world we hope for. Even people who don’t believe they will survive death want (unless they are very selfish) to believe that the world will get better, for their children and grandchildren.  

Reich doesn’t have hope in the religious sense. He doesn’t believe that someone or Someone stands outside human history and will someday bring it to a good end. If you don’t believe in God (and Reich doesn’t seem to) you must find a great impersonal force that will make everything better, preferably without us having to do anything, except go along for the ride. The hope people once placed in God, they now place in history with a capital H, technological progress, democracy, globalization. Reich believed in the second, third, and fourth. 

And now he’s disappointed. Apparently, he hasn’t reflected on why he believed such things. If you bought the Brooklyn Bridge once, you’d try to figure out why you were such a sap. You don’t want to get fooled again. Reich apparently doesn’t do this. He finishes the article with more faith in democracy, based on a romantic view of the Ukrainian resistance. 

“Ukrainians are reminding us that democracy survives only if people are willing to sacrifice for it.” Does he really believe that Ukrainians have fought the invaders to protect a system of government? They fight not for “democracy,” but for their homes, their families, their friends, neighbors and churches, for the whole Ukrainian way of life. A form of democracy is part of that, but not the central part. I’d be surprised if any soldier on the front, facing the invading Russians, would say “democracy” when asked what he is fighting for. 

But Reich invokes the idea anyway, even having just admitted a few hundred words before that he’d been comprehensively wrong about the whole century. He has to, I suppose. He has no other hope. 

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