Utopianism

In his introduction to the latest edition of Robert Nozick’s book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Thomas Nagel says the following:

If some flourish and others are left behind, there is nothing wrong in that, nothing that the state may use its power forcibly to correct. As Nozick says repeatedly, it is no more wrong than the fact that A cannot marry B because B prefers to marry C. A may be miserable, but no one has suffered a wrong or an injustice. There is no moral presumption in favor of equality; the separateness of persons is the basis of the moral order.

The general point, I think, is sound. I’ve noted before the problematic tendency of many on the left to conflate any and all inequality or unhappiness with injustice. Even in the most idealized socialist utopia, in which evils arising from material need — and perhaps the moral evils of our baser nature — have been eliminated, there would still be inequality and unhappiness. After all, ‘natural evil’ and ‘moral evil’ — to use the old theological categories — are not the only sources of human unhappiness; the game theoretic interactions of human beings, even if they are innocent of any malice, inevitably benefit some and harm others. No less a leftist than Theodor Adorno recognizes this point in a selection from Minima Moralia. Note the similarity to Nozick’s example:

While literature has treated all the psychological species of erotic conflict, the simplest external source of conflict has remained unnoticed because of its obviousness. It is the phenomenon of prior engagement: a loved person refuses herself to us not through inner antagonisms and inhibitions, too much coldness or repressed warmth, but because a relationship already exists that excludes another …. Even, and precisely, in a society cured of the anarchy of commodity production, there could scarcely be rules governing the order in which one met people. Such an arrangement would amount to the most intolerable interference with freedom.

No doubt there are disanalogies between market interactions and interpersonal relationships. One might have principled arguments for thinking that the state is justified in intervening in the first but not the second. It’s not my intention to get into the debate about the proper role and scope of government in this post. However, this little exercise helps us guard against utopian thinking. For the socialist, there will never be a perfectly egalitarian utopia. For the anarchist, there will never be a perfectly free utopia. The game theoretic dimensions of the human condition guarantee that there are hard limits to the amount and kinds of equality and freedom we can achieve through state action, or lack thereof. In other words, if complete human happiness is the goal of our politics, then our politics is destined to fail.

4 comments on “Utopianism

  1. M. Hatzel says:

    I picked up David Brooks’s Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (I think it is about 15 years old now). He calls it comic sociology, and begins it with a commentary of the wedding announcements of the new meritocracy’s upper class… what else could couple better than mating and socio-economics?

  2. I am somehow reminded about how it’s become fashionable to also expand the term “violence” to also include other forms of what we often term “abuse.” To many–not me, I might point out–things like name-calling and gossiping also constitute violence as they cause some sort of harm to another. To my more simplistic way of looking at the world, that’s just unnecessarily complicating the world. As a parent and (former) teacher I take very seriously my role in protecting my charges from harm. There are limits to which I will go, though. Some cases are easy: on the one hand stopping a fight or preventing someone from extorting lunch money on the threat of violence, for example and on the other teasing one another based on the choice of which sports team they support. Then there are the hard cases, the ones in which the choice may be controversial. For me, in those situations I do not resort to some complicated code of behaviour and then make a choice based on it. Rater I dig down, get as much information on the situation as I can, confer with others if feasible and then act. No code.
    As for Utopia, I am reminded of a story by Thích Nhất Hạnh. He noted at one point that if there was a heaven it would have to be one that included suffering. how else are we to find meaning, else through it? I agree. I don’t love misery but I do know that if I ever found myself devoid of any stress or pain then I would yearn for oblivion..

  3. elkement says:

    What I find amusing about these discussions about inequality is that very often people have strong opinions about how wealthy you can get at maximum through honest work. If you make or own more you basically have to be a criminal. What I simply don’t get is – why is it so difficult to extrapolate to people who are a bit ‘poorer’ than yourself – and who would then, applying the same line of thinking, accuse you of being a criminal or lazy heir?

    I guess the root problem is – as often in politics – the appeal to emotions versus so-called cold-hearted reasoning. I applaud any politician who does the latter – but those are not likely to win elections. I confess I recently read a politically incorrect book I found quite refreshing: Spoilt Rotten: The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spoilt_Rotten

    • danielmullin81 says:

      Yes, people who earn minimum wage are less well-off than I am. Should I feel bad about that? Should they hate me simply because I earn more? By the same token, should I hate the guy who drives a Bentley. Probably not. I do think there’s some truth to the conservative critique of Marxism that says it’s a systematic attempt to turn a vice — namely envy — into a virtue: the classless society. But equality is a relative value. I’d rather live in a relatively rich society, with the occasional bout of Bentley envy, than in a society where everyone is equally poor.

      You’re right that this debate usually devolves into emotional appeals. If you have different views about the legitimate scope of government than the income equality fetishists, then you’re accused of lacking compassion. But that’s just moral vanity on their part. Thanks for the book recommendation. I’ll have to add that one to the list.

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