Is a utopian society too idealistic?
It’s all too easy to wax utopian if someone asks your recommendations for achieving world peace and prosperity. “Just love each other”, “Stop the wars”, “Colonize Mars,” “Split up the banks”, “Remove Capitalism”, “Destroy Religion”, “Follow Jesus”: the recommendations are easy, but they’re also pointless.
I call these recommendations “utopian” because they share a common characteristic with people who live in many fictional utopias: people follow the “rules” of their society. What do I mean by this? Let’s look at what Wikipedia has to say about Plato’s Republic, probably the first proposed utopian society:
Part conversation, part fictional depiction, and part policy proposal, Republic would categorize citizens into a rigid class structure of “golden,” “silver,” “bronze” and “iron” socioeconomic classes. The golden citizens are trained in a rigorous 50-year-long educational program to be benign oligarchs, the “philosopher-kings.” The wisdom of these rulers will supposedly eliminate poverty and deprivation through fairly distributed resources, though the details on how to do this are unclear. The educational program for the rulers is the central notion of the proposal. It has few laws, no lawyers and rarely sends its citizens to war, but hires mercenaries from among its war-prone neighbors.
As long as the people in the Republic are wise enough to see how the entire society benefited from its design, and placid enough for the “silver” and “bronze” classes to follow the rule of the “golden” ones, the philosopher-kings, everything might very well be idyllic.
The problem with Utopia is always “people”
But people don’t readily accept their “roles” in life; they struggle to rise above their birth situations, or they seek ways to take advantage of their inheritance to do little. Inherited monarchies (and inherited aristocracies, in general) have struggled against the unpredictable mix of genetics and environment for ages, without making much headway.
So any society that is designed around the premise that its members will “behave themselves” so as to maximize the overall society’s benefit to all or its designed purpose, is bound to fail. People will always look for ways to gain advantage, to “game the system.” So societal systems need to be resilient, to be able to tolerate when their most advantaged members go too far.
Yet, at the same time, societies need to provide both mobility (in the sense of being able to move up or down the social ladder, as well as physically) and equality (e.g. of opportunity, or of rights). Both of these are contrary to the interests of powerful groups within any society that is based on competition, such as a democratic, capitalistic society. In such societies, power is concentrated in elected “representatives” and/or in the wealthy (often these are the same people or they have related interests).
Is Freedom the answer?
We need to think about our societies pragmatically rather in ideal terms. In a recent guest post, my friend, author George Weir laid out some of his prescription for things we need to have a “Golden Age.” These included:
- Freedom of Expression
- Education Free of Doctrine
- Freedom to Come and Go
- Freedom of Religion
- Freedom to Defend Oneself
- Freedom of Property
I don’t disagree with any of these. But I think basing a society on “rights” and “freedoms” is a pointless exercise in platitudes. Lofty ideals sound great, but they rarely work.
What do I mean? Let’s take a look at Freedom to Come and Go. Say you live in Los Angeles and you want to travel to New York for the weekend. Is there any legal reason you can’t? No, there aren’t any laws that stop the average American from traveling from one end of the country to the other.
What about practical reasons? Well imagine you’re a single parent of four and that the only work you could find pays ten dollars an hour. What are the odds you could afford a weekend jaunt to New York? Pretty low. So, while you have the *legal right* to travel, you don’t have the *economic ability* to do so.
Let’s have a look at the Freedom to Defend Oneself. Imagine you discover your water supply is being (accidentally or intentionally) poisoned by several large industrial plants. You try to sue them to defend your health and those of your family. Maybe you even try to sue your municipality. But they all band together and hire the biggest-name lawyers in the county. Meanwhile, you are a single parent of four making only ten dollars an hour. What are the odds you will be able to bring a successful suit against all that money and power?
Again, you have the *legal right* (or the freedom) to defend yourself, you just don’t have the *economic ability* to do it effectively.
One more example, not on the list. We all know it is neither legal nor ethical to directly pay a legislator (Member of Congress, Senator, Parliamentarian) or Civil Servant (Tax collector, Central Banker) to influence their vote on an upcoming bill. This seems like a pretty good idea for good governance, one that is blatantly violated in poorly-managed nations. But, even in the USA, ambitious and powerful people easily find “legal” ways around this.
Want to influence your favorite Central Banker to adjust interest rates in your favor? Don’t pay them under the table, just *promise* to engage them for speeches, conferences, special “consulting” sessions at exorbitant rates when their term is over. Or promise them employment in your firm when they return to private life. Nothing illegal; no one can show any untoward influence as the temporal gap between one “favor” and the next can be upwards of a decade.
A lot of people who live in societies, like the USA, are intensely aware of the difference between their “rights and freedoms” and their actual abilities. This causes a significant amount of societal stress. But what do we do about it? Do we demand yet more rights? More freedoms? More equality? Would that do any good?
If the difference between what is “permitted by law” and what is “enabled by ability” is great enough, demanding more laws won’t help. Instead, we need to design societies that enable. We need societies that enable people to express themselves, that enable them to become educated, that enable them to be mobile (both physically and socially), and so on.
If you make a law that you know will be followed only by those you can intimidate, trick, or control, what is the good of that law? What good would a thousand pages of such laws do for their society?
Enabling abilities through social engineering
Now I’m going to say a word, a phrase really, that is considered profane by many. Why it’s considered akin to swearing, I don’t know. It doesn’t sound all that bad. But, like “socialism” it is a grossly misunderstood phrase. Here it is: social engineering. Our “natural” societies have developed (for good or bad) naturally over historic times. Often, they are haphazard things, weird combinations of outdated laws, morals, and practices with little rhyme or reason.
A well-engineered society would take a pragmatic approach rather than an idealistic one. It would ask “what works?” rather than “what would a society of ideal rights and freedoms sound like?”
But without a clear expression of the rights and freedoms we are trying to uphold, is it possible to design and construct a society that works well for the vast majority of its members? Walk into a forest and look around you. Can you tell me the “rights and freedoms”, the principles, nature is trying to uphold in the way that forest has developed? There’s only one: Does it work?
I’ve written before on objective morality, the notion that “correct” and “survive” are essentially synonymous when it comes to the natural perspective of living beings. If life (at the species level) cannot survive, it has no “right” to continue on as a species. Nature’s judgement on this is harsh and final.
That’s how we should judge our societies; not on whether they are “good” or “bad” according to some arbitrary ideal, but on whether they are “functional” or “non-functional” for the majority of their members.
Let’s take one example. “Freedom to Defend Oneself” becomes “Ability to Defend Oneself.” This implies a legal system where the willingness of judges to hear your argument is not based on your ability to pay for excellent legal help. Sure, that might imply a functional, well-funded Legal Aid system and the taxes to pay for it. But would you rather live in a society where only the wealthy (and those with wealthy/powerful friends) have full access to the legal system?
If the problem is, that we don’t want to raise taxes to pay for “criminals” (especially poor ones) to get good legal representation, then maybe we need to correct other things about the legal system (like the cost of lawyers and judges, for example) or the taxation system. Social engineering recognizes that society contains many systems and that it’s impossible to fix any one system without addressing many others.
Where to start? That’ll be in the next post. Help me out with your thoughts on this post. Enter your comments on Facebook and let’s start a dialog.