Posts Tagged Utopianism

Conservatives and Coercion in Morality and Economics

One Way signOver at Public Discourse, Nathan Schlueter explains why he’s not a libertarian, providing concise conservative responses to 10 popular libertarian claims.

This week at Values & Capitalism, I look at two of those claims, related specifically to coercion and market intervention. Finding myself arguing alongside libertarians on most economics-related issues, I thought Schlueter’s points were helpful in illuminating a key distinguisher between conservatism and libertarianism, even if the policy outcome ends up looking similar.

Here’s Schlueter’s sixth point/response:

6. Virtue cannot be coerced, therefore government should not legislate morality. Coercive law cannot make people virtuous. But it can assist or thwart individuals in making themselves virtuous. Law is both coercive and expressive. Not only does it shape behavior by attaching to it penalties or rewards; it also helps shape attitudes, understandings, and character … The law, both by prohibition and by silence, is a powerful signal of acceptable behavior, and thus a powerful influence on character. When the behavior in question involves moral norms that are consequential for the rest of society, it is a proper object of law.

This is not to say that the law must prohibit every vice or mandate every virtue, as libertarians often suggest. Aristotle, Aquinas, the Declaration itself all make clear that “prudence will dictate” whether the costs outweigh the benefits in concrete circumstances (e.g., difficulty of enforcement; more pressing needs with scarce resources; the danger of encouraging underground crime, etc.). But this is prudence in the service of principle, not mere pragmatism. (emphasis added)

The question for conservatives, I argue, seems to be that we think coercion may sometimes be justified and/or helpful. We certainly don’t think it should be in play to the extent progressives do—who seem to pursue centralized control as an ideal—but conservatives recognize that certain features of human nature demand it.

In the end, I argue—piggy-backing on Schlueter—that much of this comes down to realism:

This hits at the deeper level of why conservatives think coercion in economics is sometimes necessary to preserve order. It is here, I believe, that conservatives find themselves fighting between two forms of utopianism: one which actively pursues coercion with little regard for real-life liberty, and one which actively pursues so-called liberty with little regard for real-life humans (or the real extent of certain real-life consequences).

Schlueter points out this distinguisher in his #9 response, which I believe draws the clearest line between both orientations. Conservatism’s “true realism,” as Schlueter notes, is summed up aptly by James Madison, in a line from Federalist No. 57 containing plenty for both libertarians and progressives to detest:

‘The aim of every political constitution is first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.’

Read the full post here.

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Communism’s Rational Faith vs. the Logic of the Soul

Witness, Whittaker Chambers, logic of the soulI’m currently reading Witness, an autobiographical account of former Soviet spy Whittaker Chambers’s flight from communism and the events that ensued thereafter.

This week at Values & Capitalism, I take a brief look at two extended quotes from the book’s introduction, each pertaining to the moral and spiritual backdrop of communism.

The first, on communism’s age-old resemblance:

Communists are that part of mankind which has recovered the power to live or die—to bear witness—for its faith. And it is a simple, rational faith that inspires men to live or die for it.

It is not new. It is, in fact, man’s second oldest faith. Its promise was whispered in the first days of the Creation under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: “Ye shall be as gods.” It is the great alternative faith of mankind. Like all great faiths, its force derives from a simple vision…The Communist vision is the vision of Man without God.

It is the vision of man’s mind displacing God as the creative intelligence of the world. It is the vision of man’s liberated mind, by the sole force of its rational intelligence, redirecting man’s destiny and reorganizing man’s life and the world. It is the vision of man, once more the central figure of the Creation, not because God made man in His image, but because man’s mind makes him the most intelligent of the animals. Copernicus and his successors displaced man as the central fact of the universe by proving that the earth was not the central star of the universe. Communism restores man to his sovereignty by the simple method of denying God.

The second, on how one might convert from such a noble, utopian approach:

Yet there is one experience which most sincere ex-Communists share, whether or not they go only part way to the end of the question it poses. The daughter of a former German diplomat in Moscow was trying to explain to me why her father, who, as an enlightened modern man, had been extremely pro-Communist, had become an implacable anti-Communist. It was hard for her because, as an enlightened modern girl, she shared the Communist vision without being a Communist. But she loved her father and the irrationality of his defection embarrassed her. ‘He was immensely pro-Soviet,’ she said,’ and then — you will laugh at me — but you must not laugh at my father — and then — one night — in Moscow — he heard screams. That’s all. Simply one night he heard screams.’

A child of Reason and the 20th century, she knew that there is a logic of the mind. She did not know that the soul has a logic that may be more compelling than the mind’s. She did not know at all that she had swept away the logic of the mind, the logic of history, the logic of politics, the myth of the 20th century, with five annihilating words: one night he heard screams.

Given that communism per se is not currently a prominent threat in the West, how might we think about Chambers’ critique of “rational faith” and his elevation of Read the rest of this entry »

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A Robot’s Utopia: Socialism’s Reduction of the Human Person

robot, utopia, socialism, human natureMany opponents of socialism often concede that it would be wonderful if only it actually “worked.” This week at Ethika Politika, I argue that such claims require an extremely strange version of “wonderful.”

Socialism may indeed propose utopian ends, but such a utopia is one that humans could never — and should never — identify with.

The argument centers on the notion that humans tend to desire freedom and that we will ultimately be discontent without it. If we rid ourselves completely of such liberty and cede ultimate control to others, how can this really be a “utopia” in any human sense?

To embrace socialism is to reject “economic knowledge” (as Art Carden recently explained), but it is also to reject something much deeper.

Here’s an excerpt:

To escape this fundamental craving [for freedom], one assumes that a different sort of rebellion needs to take place—one aimed at the control of others rather than the control of one’s self. This is why any fantasies about “realistically sustainable” socialism are problematic: They rely on a view of humanity that is unrealistic, and in turn, they promote unreal humans. Based on such premises, true utopia—the kind we might actually enjoy—is something that cannot exist, even in theory. We can call this “idealism,” but I’m not sure it leads to ideal outcomes. We are who we are, and that is not a bad thing.

Indeed, “idealism” is often just another word for glorified falsehood, and in the case of socialism, that is certainly the case. Such falsehood might be admirable if reality were really that grim, but it isn’t. There is a beauty in humanity that must be tapped, channeled and ultimately embraced. This beauty is inherently linked with truth, which is why to be an “idealist” of the socialist order is to worship a lie — and an ugly one at that.

As I argue, the “ideal” of socialism does not elevate humanity; it degrades Read the rest of this entry »

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WALL-E vs. the Jetsons: Materialism and Technological Progress

Jetsons, WALL-E, technology, progress, innovation, Jeffrey TuckerIn my most recent post at Common Sense Concept, I build on Jeffrey Tucker’s piece on the Jetsons and innovation, focusing on the bleak alternative to healthy modernization. As I argue, the society may very well result in the misaligned World of WALL-E.

For Tucker, the Jetsons represent a healthy view of technological progress — one in which the more important human struggles still remain largely intact, with the material stuff staying secondary:

The whole scene — which anticipated so much of the technology we have today but, strangely, not email or texting — reflected the ethos of time: a love of progress and a vision of a future that stayed on courseIt was neither utopian nor dystopian. It was the best of life as we know it projected far into the future.

Yet there is another possibility we all should be wary of.

Here’s an excerpt from my response:

This distinction about a society that “stays on course” is what separates the World of the Jetsons from the World of WALL-E, a realm in which humans assume the role of virtual robots, controlled by their possessions, consumed by their leisure, and subsequently doomed to an existence of myopic and self-destructive idleness.

Instead, the World of the Jetsons is one in which human potential is unleashed. There is a “love of progress,” but such a love is not detached from higher responsibilities and does not confuse or pervert the moral order. For the Jetsons, the stuff remains stuff and life moves on, whether that entails personal goals, family development, community engagement, or a relationship with God (one can only hope, George!).

So what separates the two?  If both worlds experience drastic technological improvements, what changes the people within them? How can we Read the rest of this entry »

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The Harmony of Individual Interests: Discovering the Common Good

puzzle, community, individual, common goodThis week at Ethika Politika, I examine two distinct approaches to the common good, one of which thinks it can be dictated, and another of which thinks it must be discovered.

Using Michael Tomasky’s now-famous essay as a starting point, I examine the fundamental errors in assuming that the common good can be achieved by enacting pushy policies from the top down.

Here’s an excerpt:

…In Tomasky’s view, the common good is not something we should participate in or collaborate toward; rather, it is a god we should be “demanded” to serve. It is not a goal to pursue, a mystery to unravel, or a fight to win, but a preexisting plan to be enacted – a candyland of utopian perfectionism, ready and waiting to be implemented in full. No longer must we waste our time “cultivating conditions” for a moral society, for such an achievement only requires that a legion of properly informed elites step up to the task — followed, of course, by a nation of noble slaves, anxiously awaiting direction and correction from their masters on top of the hill.

An additional problem with Tomasky’s approach is his false dichotomy between individual and community interests.

The real tension, I argue, is between top-down direction and organic imperative:

For the progressive, being “asked to contribute to a project larger than ourselves” (Tomasky) is akin to being bumped into submission by the bureaucrat’s billy club. In the approach presented here, such demands come primarily through the guidance our personal journeys, community struggles, and, above all, our moral understanding of ourselves and the world around us. Whereas the top-downers believe that truth is already known and thus freedom is unnecessary, the bottom-uppers see a world in which truth must be actively pursued, with freedom being the only thing that will get us there.

I also point to Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises along the way, whose “harmony of all individual interests” provides great support.

To read the full post, click here.

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Obama Gnosticism: Creating Heaven on Earth

Long ago, humans thought they could provide free, high-quality health care to everyone who wanted it. Actually, they thought they could build a tower to heaven.

Robert Cheeks recently wrote a piece on the prevalence of Gnosticism in current American politics. His basic argument is that our society has recently been energized and engaged by utopian heaven-on-earth fantasies, particularly those promoted by Obama’s administration.

The following excerpt sums up the piece most succinctly:

The Obama regime proffers on the basis of the immanetization of human existence, a false representation of concrete society as an eschaton, the fallacious Utopian dreamworld of a madman.

Cheeks borrows the “immanentizing the eschaton” phrase from political philosopher Eric Voegelin, who spent much of his career emphasizing the dangers of widespread Gnosticism (as manifested by Nazism and communism). Voegelin claimed that such a philosophical framework represented a “theoretical fallacy.”

Indeed, if we are trying to create heaven on earth, and we are trying to do so precisely on those terms, what exactly do we think “heaven” is in the first place?

The Gnostic mindset is founded on the premise that evil in the world is not a Read the rest of this entry »

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