“We must mistrust utopias: they usually end in holocausts.”—Mario Vargas Llosa
It turns out that Ayn Rand believed in Utopia too—what she described as the “Utopia of Greed.” This was my big takeaway when I read Atlas Shrugged last year at the not-so-impressionable age of 46. Rand’s heroine, Dagny Taggart, finds this utopia when her plane crashes deep in the Colorado mountains. In “Galt’s Gulch,” she meets all of the creative and talented people who have been disappearing from society—including the legendary John Galt, the übermencsh über alles who has been convincing all of the superior, productive people of the world to go on strike.
The thing is, though, that these immensely talented artists, inventors, scientists, and industrialists have created nothing less than a pastoral utopia. Brilliant scientists are happily raising pigs and planting small corn crops. World-moving industrialists have set up blacksmith shops. It turns out that this is all that the ultra-rich really want. Money was never an end in itself–just a way for one productive human being to produce the best he can and exchange the value he creates for the best of someone else.
Once upon a time, this was known as 'anarchism.' Today it goes under the name of 'liberty.'Michael Austin
The more I read, though, the more convinced I am that precisely this kind of Utopian thinking lies at the center of much of today’s political discourse. Government, in this version of utopia, is the great downward force that prevents creative people from creating and productive people from producing. If we could just do away with taxes and government regulations, the argument goes, these avatars of excellence would enrich themselves beyond anybody’s wildest dreams and somehow, in the process, save us from our sorry, mediocre selves. Once upon a time, this was known as “anarchism.” Today it goes under the name of “liberty.” But the concept is pretty much the same. And it is every bit as utopian.
It is a concept that we must resist, however, for the same reason we must resist it’s opposite: Utopias don’t work — not for our species anyway. We just aren’t built for it. Ants, sure. Super intelligent bees, absolutely. But human beings lack one of the key requirements necessary for a perfect society: we, or most of us anyway, are incapable of ever thinking that we have enough.
This is why communism doesn’t work. “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” sounds really good on paper, but it requires huge numbers of people to work against some of the fundamental assumptions of human nature.
It is also why the untaxed and unregulated capitalism that Ayn Rand favored has always failed to produce anything other than great wealth concentrated in the hands of very few, and a life of hard work with no chance of success for everybody else. This was the case for much of America and Europe in the 19th century, and it was not a society that most people wanted to live in. So we changed it.
Did we get utopia? Of course not. But the societies of America and Western Europe in the second half of the 20th century—with their mixtures of capitalist production and socialist redistribution—produced more productive economies, and more just societies, than the world had ever seen before. And they did it by abandoning the kinds of ideologically pure, but pragmatically flawed utopian assumptions of the previous century.
One of the most important lessons we can learn from the history of the 20th century is that pure ideologies don’t create the kinds of countries that anybody wants to live in–though they all look good on paper. As John Kenneth Galbraith famously quipped, “Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it’s just the opposite.” Successful societies in the modern era require blended economies, mixed political systems, and a willingness to abandon pure ideological positions in favor of what actually works.
For everybody else, there is the Worker’s Utopia of North Korea and the Libertarian Paradise of Somalia.