Saturday, July 08, 2006

The Utopian Temptation

As part of my summer reading I am currently finishing Fouad Ajami’s The Foreigner’s Gift. I read his works as much for the beautiful writing contained therein as for his ability to interpret for non-Arab eyes the current shambolic state of Arab civilization. I am most struck by his description, here and elsewhere in his work, of the tendency of Arabs to fall for ideas that solve all of their problems - first socialism, then pan-Arab nationalism (which reached its pathological endpoint in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq), and now Islamism. In each case a deeply troubled people were looking for a simple idea that would fix all that ailed them - lack of development, miserable governance, what they see as the Palestine humiliation, etc.

The Utopian fallacy has a long and sad history. The word itself comes from the Thomas More story, which tells of a society in which private property is absent, work is carried out for the public purpose, and most of life is devoted to higher callings involving ideas, literature and the like. It is part of a long strain of Western thought and action dating at least to Plato on either the ideal society, or the horrors the pursuit of it brings about (e.g., Orwell's 1984). From the guillotine to the gulag, the infatuation with the perfect society has often had horrific consequences. The only mystery is Utopia’s continuing allure despite its toll in corpses.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Utopianism would come from a society, the West, hailing from the Judeo-Christian tradition, which hinges on the fall of man in paradise. The lesson of that story, one would think, is that perfection on this earth is unattainable, and must await the hereafter. And yet it is the West that has generated socialism, communism, fascism and the other ideal societies that, almost as though governed by an iron law, end up so tragically.

We are fortunate in the U.S. to have avoided the worst consequences of these movements. While Europe launched communism and fascism, and indeed societies like Weimar Germany tore themselves apart over the conflict between these dueling Utopias, such ideas have never really taken root in this country. Even in the 1930s there was never any serious prospect that the U.S. would adopt fascism or communism, and sympathizers such as Charles Lindbergh were regarded as misled eccentrics. To be sure we have suffered from anti-utopian excesses during the Red Scares of the second and fifth decades of the last century, but much better that than the thing itself. Equally true, we have our utopian communities - communes and religious communities and the like, which seek to create happiness here and now by adherence to some set of principles governing human behavior. But that our utopianism is channeled into Tocquevillian private communities rather than an attempt to grab the reins of the government - the privatization of paradise - is our blessing.

Why have we avoided the worst Utopian excesses - the Cultural Revolution, the Paris Commune, etc? Is it something in our temperament, a sort of show-me skepticism? It is probably partly this innate American pragmatism but also the genius of the Founders, who recognized that man is prone to manias in politics. The task of the government designer is then to prevent those manias from becoming law. All of that dreary stuff from my high-school government class (do they still have it?) about checks and balances turns out to be of capital importance. (It was probably a mistake to stop calling it “civics” and to start calling it “government,” but that is another conversation.)

Even the virtues of limited government, which I have often proclaimed, are perhaps best seen as a bulwark against evil rather than a guarantee of the good. In proclaiming such things as the ability of the market to promote cooperation and of the state to promote conflict I must constantly be aware in my own writings of the dangers of overstating its virtues. (On the other hand hatred of “the market” - work, property rights, etc. - looms large in Utopian literature. The idea that work could be an independent source of dignity and a way for men to achieve their goals with relatively little conflict, rather than mere toil that Utopia banishes never occurs to Utopian authors.) In the end, the best-laid government plans designs come to the worst sort of grief - as a boot in the face of humanity for all time, whether as the Khmer Rouge executing anyone found with glasses, which they took as a mark of Westernization, or Somali Islamists beating and shooting people for the anti-Utopian (in its Islamist strain) sin of watching a World Cup game or having music at their wedding. In this life at any rate, all we have is man and all his flaws, which he does not shed when he takes the reins of state in order to implement this or that grand vision. That is something we cannot afford to forget. (Ideas, perhaps Utopian and perhaps not, can be our undoing too.


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