• 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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