Apologies in advance, Gentle Reader. If I were to demand absolute lexical accuracy of myself, the title would have been “The Unattainable Condition.” But I decided to cheat a bit, in the interests of “punch.”
Everyone has his own conception of Utopia. No two are identical, which is why Robert Nozick’s gedankenexperiment at the conclusion of his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia is critically important to the understanding of human yearnings and failings. Sensible persons concerned with social structures regard a real-world Utopia as unattainable. But their problems don’t end there.
Once Smith has decided that Utopia, however he conceives it, is not an achievable option, he must decide what conditions he’d settle for that are plausibly achievable. Perhaps those conditions will possess historical precedents. They may even be in force somewhere at this very moment. But there’s a terrible irony involved in any such compromise:
Nor social harmony.
This falls just barely short of mathematically provable.
Nozick’s gedankenexperiment is based on this observation.
The Utopians of today sneer at the Utopians of the past, while committing identical errors. Whatever their Holy Grail – select from the large-font list above, or add your own – they imagine that by some exertion of force they can bring about that condition to some degree and maintain it thereafter. But this is not possible, for reasons of sociodynamics that have the force of natural law.
A piercing bit of dialogue from a favorite novel comes to mind:
“You don’t understand what time is,” he said. “You say the past is gone, the future is not real, there is no change, no hope. You think Anarres is a future that cannot be reached, as your past cannot be changed. So there is nothing but the present, this Urras, the rich, real, stable present, the moment now. And you think that is something which can be possessed! You envy it a little. You think it’s something you would like to have. But it is not real, you know. It is not stable, not solid—nothing is. Things change, change. You cannot have anything. . . . And least of all can you have the present, unless you accept with it the past and the future. Not only the past but also the future, not only the future but also the past! Because they are real: only their reality makes the present real.
That pronouncement was made by Le Guin’s protagonist Shevek to an ambassador from Earth: in her imagined future, a planet ruined by “greed.” But the anarcho-syndicalist quasi-Utopia from which Shevek hails is crumbling as he speaks, because of the very truth he has just enunciated. Nothing is stable.
In our various quests for this or that “value,” we resolutely ignore the absolute instability of all systems and structures. That’s not a reason to abandon our pursuits. Indeed, it’s a precondition for pursuing anything at all. But even such success as the laws of nature – particularly human nature – will allow us will be transitory.
If there’s a defining difference between the Utopian and the realist, it’s that the realist understands and concedes the inherent instability of all things, whereas the Utopian vows to fight it to his last breath.
Just now, we’re enmeshed in the throes of a truly tragic degeneration: the collapse of the American Constitutional order and those values it was constructed to uphold. I shan’t say that “it was inevitable;” that’s a species of hubris I’ve struggled to avoid. But given the social forces in play, I can’t see how it could have been avoided for much longer.
Conservative commentators have often referred to the American Constitutional structure as an attempt to fuse liberty with order, preserving both to the maximum degree the tensions between them would permit. But those tensions cannot be eradicated, nor can they be put in an enduring dynamic balance. An observation from Nobel laureate Milton Friedman provides a clue as to why:
If you look at each evil as it arises, in and of itself, there will almost always tend to be strong pressures to do something about it. This will be so because the direct effects are clear and obvious while the indirect effects are remote and devious and because there tends to be a concentrated group of people who have strong interests in favor of a particular measure whereas the opponents, like the indirect effects of the measure, are diffused.
For any particular condition that some favor but others find noxious, there will be an opposition of forces that, even if it is momentarily perfectly balanced, will eventually degrade in one or the other direction. When that happens, it sets the sociopolitical pendulum swinging. Attempts to dampen that swing tend rather to amplify it. The reason is simple: regardless of the issue, there will be persons who see a benefit to themselves in worsening the strife over it. Friedman’s pithy analysis above addresses a special case, that of protective tariffs. But the dynamic applies regardless of the issue.
Those with no allegiance to either side of a cleavage issue, who want merely to be left alone, will want to escape the scuffles over it. But that has become ever less feasible as time has passed. The disappearance of the land frontier, about which I’ve written before, is the key:
The closing of the land frontiers has led many to believe, whatever they believed beforehand, that at long last government has become inevitable. After all, there’s no patch of habitable land that remains unclaimed by a government of some sort. (Some are claimed by several entities claiming to be governments, but that’s a topic for another tirade.) While there is a prospect of a “high frontier,” which entices many to believe that Mankind might reach for freedom once again, few imagine that it will open in their lifetimes. Indeed, governments have done all they can to control access even to low Earth orbit – and while that’s a generally inhospitable locale, it’s a necessary “first step” to more agreeable real estate elsewhere in the Solar System.
When a society is that tightly confined, such that escape from it is either impossible or would involve accepting even worse conditions, sociopolitical degradation toward chaos is the eventual result. There doesn’t appear to be a way to halt that degradation today. Indeed, it might even qualify for the characterization of “inevitable.”
The readers of Liberty’s Torch know me as an advocate for individual freedom. While that’s so, I maintain that the possibility of escape is of supreme importance to anyone, regardless of his supreme value. For escape – physically removing oneself from conditions one dislikes – is the one and only guaranteed way to “have it your way,” even for a little while.
Friends of mine are attempting to construct and populate “interior escapes:” physically concentrated communities of like-minded individuals resolved to resist what’s happening outside their boundaries. I wish them well, but the sociodynamics of the no-frontier society make their enduring success against the odds. They will be targeted – perhaps even from within their own number.
We who prize freedom and are desperate to regain it must focus on escape rather than political reform. Politics has proved to be a trap that absorbs money, energy, and hope while returning next to nothing to the freedom advocate. Let it be admitted at once that he who succeeds in escaping disliked conditions will find his new domain to be unstable as well. But if an exit door is open, he will always have the possibility of escaping again to seek his preferences anew…whatever his chosen value may be.