LXV – Utopia and Reality

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I
occasionally receive e-mails from readers who label me "utopian."
I suspect such assessments proceed from an awareness that my social
opinions are so contrary to the prevailing thinking in our world
that I must have some fundamentally new and improved social system
to fasten upon humanity. For those who have not understood the basic
assumptions from which I operate, let me assure you: I am no utopian.

One
dictionary defines "utopia" as "a place of ideal
perfection, esp. in laws, government, and social conditions."
I have never been impressed with Platonic thinking, with
its idealized forms and systems. The world is simply too complex,
and my understanding of it too limited, for me to have any sense
of what would constitute a state of "perfection." I would
go even further and state that "perfection," like Plato's
idealized objects, is nothing more than the product of abstract
thought. It is just such thinking that has generated the personal
and social problems with which humanity continues to struggle.

If
you seek perfection, my advice is to study mathematics. Otherwise,
as the study of economics suggests, learn to evaluate options on
the basis of comparative advantages. But, in doing so, be certain
you are considering all the costs and benefits of your actions;
the long-term as well as the short-term; the psychological and spiritual
as well as the material. Do you endorse political programs because
you truly consider them more beneficial than non-political ones,
or have you simply failed to account for many of the costs of
such programs, costs which their authors prefer to keep hidden from
your calculations?

I
think of myself as a realist, preferring to focus my attention
on better and worse ways of accomplishing ends, mindful
that our visions of the "ideal" will be forever changing
and beyond our grasp. Focused experience is a far better teacher
than abstract reasoning. I believe that drinking a quart of orange
juice each day is better for your health than drinking a quart of
Scotch. I believe that a market economy is far more conducive to
our material well-being than is a socialistic system. I believe
that respecting the lives and properties of others is a better way
of living in society than is a life of predation; that contractual
undertakings with others produce a better life for all than does
confiscation or conscription. I know how the violent methods of
the state are destructive of life, and that peaceful behavior is
life-sustaining. Above all else, my experiences inform me that social
systems grounded in politics, with its use of force, produce worse
consequences for humanity than do those that are free of coercion.

If
I reject murder, rape, robbery, mayhem, and warfare as ways of dealing
with others, does that qualify me as a utopian? Am I a hopeless
visionary if I insist on not trespassing the interests of others
as I pursue my own interests?

In
a world dominated by materialistic and power-seeking motives, there
is often a tendency to confuse the expression of philosophic principles
with the pursuit of visionary social systems. Has our world become
so corrupt and morally bankrupt that we feel obliged to regard a
fundamental examination of our thinking and behavior as unreal
and impractical? Because so many of us identify our sense
of being with existing institutional entities, does labeling critics
of such systems "utopians" or "romantics" become
a convenient way of dismissing adverse judgments without having
to burden our thinking with disturbing questions?

On
several occasions, the world has come within minutes of being embroiled
in multilateral nuclear wars that were, fortunately, able to be
prevented. On 9/11, airliners were crashed into New York City skyscrapers
as an apparent retaliation for years of American government military
involvement in foreign countries. In the Middle East, American and
Israeli warplanes attack civilian targets, to which suicide bombers
react against equally innocent civilians. Are such violent and destructive
practices to be unquestioningly embraced as the essence of pragmatism?
Are those who prefer freer, more peaceful and humane social systems
to be dismissed as "unrealistic?" When the very existence
of humanity, itself, turns on how such questions get answered, how
will intelligent minds respond?

Do
these questions matter at all? Is it important whether you and I
live as responsible persons? Institutional authorities have
conditioned us to believe that responsibility is synonymous with
obedience to their dictates. "Ours is not to reason u2018why?',
ours is but to do or die," is the mindset preferred by the
military, the police, and other state functionaries. Is this the
standard by which you desire to be held accountable for your actions?

Those
who criticize me for alleged visionary tendencies are, more often
than not, themselves the defenders of the most pervasive of utopian
schemes: constitutional democracy. Most Westerners have an
unquestioning attachment to the belief that political power can
be limited by the scribbling of words on parchment! Most of us have
been conditioned in the myth that a so-called "separation of
powers" among the various branches of government will generate
a competition assuring that governmental authority will not be exceeded.
Students of law and political science become rhapsodic over the
writings of 18th and 19th century philosophers
who were the architects of such air castles!

A
belief in constitutional government remains nothing but a collection
of undigested reveries. Like the gullible soul who purchases stock
in a non-existent gold mine and hangs onto his investment lest he
admit to himself that he was bilked, most of us are fearful of confronting
the inherent dishonesty of the idea of "limited government."
We prefer a new illusion: there is some "outsider" who
can be elected to the presidency, and who will go to Washington
and "clean up" the place. What is more utopian than the
current tunnel vision mindset that, whatever the problem, the state
can resolve it? From obesity to smoking, from deciding the amount
of sun exposure our children are to receive to the wearing of seat
belts, most of us embrace a social ideology as detached from reality
as were 18th century communal "time stores."

Utopians
are those who believe they can allow others to have coercive power
over their lives and property and, at the same time, limit the exercise
of such power. Please tell me: what are the dynamics of human character
that would attract some people to coercively dominate others, while
allowing the others to be dominated? What kinds of people,
in other words, would such a system be expected to produce? Would
it be anything other than the assemblage of moral slugs who now
hold high office? Would those who go to places like Washington,
D.C., in order to further their business interests, resemble anything
so much as leeches and vampires who are incapable of surviving other
than on the lifeblood of others?

Our
politically structured world has become so destructive of life that
we can no longer indulge fantasies about idealized systems dreamed
up by men who lived more than two centuries ago. Neither Locke,
Hobbes, Montesquieu, Jefferson, Madison, nor Paine had the experience
of dealing with political systems whose levels of violence and imbalances
of power vis-à-vis ordinary people have rendered the past
one hundred years so deadly and inhumane. Phantom "social contracts"
or principal/agency theories of the state no longer inform political
behavior. It is time for decent, intelligent, thoughtful men and
women to move beyond the daydreams of our ancestors and confront
the modern world as realistically as we can.

Richard
Weaver's classic observation that "ideas have consequences"
has equal application to the assumptions around which we choose
to organize our social systems. We can select from various models
those which we believe will best serve our interests. We may not,
however, choose to avoid the consequences of the choices we make.
While the interplay of complex systems renders events unpredictable,
it is nonetheless the mark of an intelligent mind to discern what
is implicit in our actions.

We
are living the consequences of belief systems that war against life
and its spontaneous processes. In the name of pragmatism, we have
constructed institutional forms that degrade even our material
requirements for living well; that bankrupt and exterminate us in
the wars and other conflicts that inhere in their structures. Having
been ground down and consumed by systems that serve no interests
but their own ambitions for power, we then condemn those who dare
to question such arrangements as "utopians" or "hopeless
idealists." To live well is to live without division or contradiction
between our philosophic and materialistic values.

Perhaps
we can learn from basic chemistry how organizational forms can determine
the comparative efficacies of systems. Diamond is the hardest
known substance, while pencil lead is one of the softest,
and yet each is composed of pure carbon. The molecules in pencil
lead are organized in parallel layers, whose structure is so weak
that rubbing them across a piece of paper will transfer them from
the pencil to the paper. The molecular structure of diamonds, on
the other hand, consists of complex networks, whose strength derives
from an interconnectedness of its constituent elements.

The
diamond may serve as a useful metaphor for the design of social
systems grounded in the connected, horizontally-based strength of
their members, rather than in vertical power structures. The Amish
— who have no coercive political organization and who embrace the
private ownership of property — know what we have long since forgotten:
politics divides us and, in so doing, weakens our
social connectedness. Political systems set group against group,
engendering a distrust of everyone except, of course, political
leaders. By such means, the networks that would otherwise connect
us to one another as we pursue our various self-interests, become
cleaved.

When
our informal, spontaneous social systems are weakened by the personal
fears that institutions — including the media — help to generate
within us, we become eager to have such fears assuaged by the expansion
of institutional power over our lives. A vertically-structured political
system enjoys the exercise of power only because its underlying
social system has become weak.

When
top-down coercion replaces the autonomous patterns of horizontal
connectedness, we lose all sense of respect for the inviolability
of ourselves and others. Look at how easily the state was able to
sever our connectedness with others immediately after 9/11. With
almost no questioning, most of us accepted the piling up of lies
by the president and other administration officials; waved flags
in the faces of those who dared to suggest inquiries; and accepted
the inflation of police-state powers over anything the administration
sought to control.

Those
who persist in trying to breathe life into dead horses are the real
utopians. The political structuring of society has long been grounded
in pie-in-the-sky fantasies that power-hungry men and women can
make us better than we are; that ever-more sophisticated weapons
of death and destruction can bring peace to the world; and that,
in the words of Herbert Spencer, there is a "political alchemy
by which you can get golden conduct out of leaden instincts."
As our formal world continues to disintegrate before us, it is time
that we abandon the utopian fictions in which we are conditioned
and face the stark reality that whatever future we have will be
decided by the content of our thinking. Because only you and I are
in control of — and, thus, responsible for — our thinking, only
you and I are capable of bringing order to our world.

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