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.

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.

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