All versions of popular politics are to some degree insane. This is because they try to reduce a complex, variegated equation into a simple, understandable formula. And then they try to produce the formula as some version of reality. Not smart.
I pity the Marxists and their brothers and sisters among the socialists and other collectivists. They believe that if they can reduce economics to a system of distribution governed by dispassionate technical experts in the government, then poverty, unmet needs, and inequality will disappear. Then history—the history of colonial exploitation, aristocratic dynasties, and economic revolutions—will come to an end. By invoking the power of a single-minded state and the obedience of all who dwell within it, they believe they can achieve paradise on Earth and that nothing will ever change after that.
I pity the libertarians and their brothers and sisters among the anarchists1 and rabidly rugged individualists. They believe that if they can end the stultifying maze of laws and regulations raised by an archaic and backward-looking society, then humanity will be freed to become truly dynamic and creative. Then human creativity will be invited to achieve … what exactly? Honest relations among men, between men and women, between parents and children? The opportunity for each man and woman to get—and take—what they want in a paradise where the ripe fruit is always low on the tree and everyone has a set of pruning shears? I’m not sure what the point of anarchy would be.2
The socialists and other collectivists don’t understand that the human condition is compounded of desire, restlessness, and imagination. Oh, and not a little greed and envy. The underlying principle of economics, all economics, is that wants and needs are infinite while resources are finite. From this principle the marketplace naturally arises, where people measure their wants and desires against what they will have to pay in terms of their time, energy, and the stored value of these gifts in currency.
This is true even in fantasy futures like Star Trek’s, where unlimited energy through matter-antimatter conversion and unlimited material goods through energy-to-matter replication can satisfy all human needs. Do you know what it costs to generate a few grams of antimatter? The stuff is more valuable than gold or diamonds. And do you know how much energy it takes to transmute streaming photons or electrons into protons and neutrons and them fuse them into the atoms and molecules of actual matter? Your whole society would go broke in a nanosecond trying to burn enough antimatter to make a replicated dish of ice cream. And none of that will bend the “fabric of spacetime” so that you can go galivanting through the galaxy with warp drive. But I digress …
Any political program that tells you wants and needs can be satisfied equitably by relinquishing human initiative to a dispassionate government—or to an incorruptible team of robots or artificial intelligences, because we know how inventive humans are and how easily machines can be hacked—is selling you utopia, the place that never was or will be, Heaven on Earth, a dream.
The libertarians and anarchists don’t realize that the human disposition is not kindly—not where matters of life and death and the survival of one’s children are concerned. The underlying principle of society, of all social organizations, is that the individual must give up some measure of freedom to achieve some measure of safety. From this disposition arises the tribe, the village, the nation-state, and the civilization that imposes laws and asks for obedience. And when an individual will not observe the laws and render obedience, it imposes sanctions and penalties.
This is true even in the many post-apocalyptic futures, played out in endless movies and television series, where society has fallen apart due to nuclear war, environmental catastrophe, or other unspecified collapse. Then the average human being—and even those among the main characters with superior intelligence, coping mechanisms, and fighting skills—are free and happy for about five seconds. But if they are lucky and the writers of these stories are smart, they quickly begin to form tribes and villages with laws and protections, recreating civilization all over again. The clean slate is not a happy state but a dangerous place that no one wants to occupy for long.
The political programs that work are those that recognize human and resource limitations, the need for compromise, and an understanding of the balance between personal freedom and cooperation. There are no end states, not on either side of the spectrum. No one will achieve any lasting condition of total control or total freedom. The Nazis and the Soviets tried the former, and their Nirvana lasted twelve years in one case and seventy in the other, and they caused untold suffering in one case and bitter stagnation with a heap of suffering in the other. No one has yet achieved much in the way of unlimited freedom, although the French Revolution tried and quickly—just about four years, with devastation already brewing—devolved into political infighting and the Reign of Terror, complete with daily executions. People simply are not designed, morally or psychologically, to be transformed into paradise all at once while still living.
And the reality is that any society after an excursion into totalitarian control or social anarchy always reverts to some kind of economic and political mean. The average citizen still has to get up in the morning, go to work, take care of the family, and pay taxes. The sun rises and sets. Life goes on as a struggle. And it will be this way until the sun burns out or humanity dies out and leaves the planet to the care of the earthworms and cockroaches.
This country, with its blend of free-market economy and shareholder capitalism balanced against a system of government taxation, regulation, and safety nets, enjoying a huge admixture of technological imagination and creativity, has come the closest to satisfying the most needs of the most people—ever, in the history of the world. Yes, there are pockets of want and misery, although our poor people are rich compared to most of the developing world. This is why other people are willing to walk across deserts and suffocate inside freight containers in order to get here. We can always tinker with the blend of freedom, regulation, and technology, nipping here and tucking there. But we throw away the whole thing and start again on a dream of total control or total freedom at our peril.
And that is the politics of realists, not dreamers.
1. And yes, anarchists often ride along with the Marxists and socialists in the early stages of the political struggle, believing that the fastest way to get to Nirvana is to begin by tearing down the structures that already exist.
2. Although I sometimes vote with the libertarians—being a small-government, more-market, greater-personal-freedom kind of guy—I really do not understand the extreme position or the hunger of the anarchists. (Remember, I’m not a purist or absolutist about anything.) In my view, the anarchists are not moving toward anything good but away from a political and economic situation that they find too complex, too boring, or too troublesome to be allowed to continue. It’s a form of nihilism.