Originally published in Random Notes August 10, 2009
I have written a lot about the mindset of liberals. I wrote about the generally negative view of their fellow man ( "The Citizen Dichotomy", "Man's Nature and Government" ,"In A Nutshell", "Cognitive Dissonance Part 2"). About the arrogance inherent in much liberalism("Arrogance and Gun Control", "Appealing to Arrogance"). About the anti-man agenda of many environmentalists("The Lie of Environmentalism", "Anti-Man Intellectuals"). About the pessimism inherent in much of liberalism's view of mankind ("Two Kinds of Liberal"). About their failure to recognize their own limitations ("The Limits of "Scientific" Management","Knowing Our Limits","Greed Versus Evil"). Even about their condescension, bordering on chauvinism ("Eurocentrism? Racism? Liberal Traits All"). However, today I plan to write about something positive. Unfortunately, like many good things, it has been somewhat misdirected, and as a result has rather negative outcomes, but still, it is one of the more positive aspects of liberalism.
That is the liberal tendency toward utopianism.
Now, let's start by saying there is nothing wrong with striving for perfection. It is unreachable, but striving toward perfection can lead individuals to better themselves. So utopianism is not, in itself, a bad thing. The problem here is that desire to push toward perfection is, in liberalism, coupled with a lack of faith in one's fellow man, combined with a faith in the omnipotence of government, and that has dire results.
For instance, let us look at the course torts have taken over the years. Originally torts was, as other's have described it, the sleepy backwater of the legal system. It was mostly concerned with auto accidents and other encounters between strangers. Most of what we now think of as tort law was instead included in contract law. When individuals entered into consensual agreements, by sales, hiring of services, employment, or any other voluntary contact, they would assign liability in the contract formed, explicit or implicit, and if they failed to do so, excluding a few very narrow areas where statute controlled, the principle of "caveat emptor" controlled. It was not a perfect system, but it was predictable, it gave the greatest control to the individual, and required the least interpretation on the part of judges. In short, it was perfectly in accord with the idea that anything not touching on public policy should be controlled by private agreement.
But some judges and other legal theorists noticed that the system often produced less than ideal outcomes. Many times buyers and sellers failed to foresee possible accidents and individuals were injured without being compensated. Or, as every first year law student learns in the MacPherson case, buyers of second hand goods, even if defective, had no action against the manufacturer, as no contractual relation existed. (Though they did have a cause of action against the individual who sold to them, provided they contracted properly.) And, of course, as always, there was the argument that big companies were so huge and powerful that they could simply force any terms they wished upon consumers. And so, they theorized, the law needed to change.
But rather than wait for the legislature to step in, to force some sort of standard of care upon sellers, or adjust the presumption of "caveat emptor", or, to wait for the free market to favor those sellers who provided better warranties (provided consumers wanted them), the theorists were driven by these utopian impulses to immediately reshape the law into a system which provided a fair outcome for all.
The result is what we have today, a system where contractual assignment of liability is all but impossible, where lawyers seek deep pockets regardless of relative liability, where some services are simply not provided due to the risk of suit. Instead of a system where individuals sometimes went without compensation, but outcomes were predictable, we have a system where some individuals get tremendous payouts, while others still get nothing, but now where nothing is predictable and contracts have been gutted.
But it was a predictable outcome. Justice, in the sense of predictability, is possible. Justice, in the sense of everyone getting precisely what they deserve, is not. The first existed under the old system. It was not perfect, sometimes innocent victims got nothing, sometimes those who did wrong walked away unscathed, but it was a fair system in the sense that everyone knew what they were getting into from the beginning. On the other hand, the utopian goal of giving each his due is impossible, primarily because no one can know in advance what a given judge or jury will think is "just". As a result, the utopian system, seeking perfect justice, instead results in random outcomes, unpredictable from the outset, which cause many companies to either cease production or to scale back operations, simply to avoid the possibility of litigation.
And that tends to be the outcome of chasing perfection, at least chasing it through the use of the government. But perhaps another example will help to illustrate this.
Let us look at a topic I mentioned earlier ("In Defense of Discrimination", "Private Versus Public Racism", "How to Handle Idiots"), eliminating racism.
Racism was a very real problem, especially in areas where it had gained the force of law through legislation enforcing segregation or banning interracial marriage1. The was also racism on the part of individuals, what I describe as "private racism", but such racism had a limited scope, being restricted tot he property of the racist individual himself, and was clearly not universally held, as evidenced by the need to use laws to enforce segregation, rather than relying on individual racist business owners. Still, there was clearly a problem with racial discrimination.
However, the solution eventually adopted was the utopian one, and hence both the most expansive and most disastrous. Rather than simply end government enforced racism, and then allow societal pressures to eventually bring around the majority, the solution adopted was to not only force government to treat races equally, but private individuals as well. And, not even that was enough. Instead, citing the impact of past racism and the injustice of leaving such a legacy uncorrected, the left began pushing for various affirmative action schemes to attempt to put minorities back in the position they would have been but for racism2.
The problems with affirmative action are manifold. First there are the speculative nature of its goals. Where WOULD minorities have been but for racism? without slavery most blacks would not be in the US at all, so any response is simple guesswork or fiction. Which means that no one can tell when affirmative actions has met its goals, and so makes it an ultimately open ended program without any clearly defined goals or measures of success. Second, by favoring one group at the expense of another, it opens up future claims of discrimination by other groups, with the possibility of a "reverse affirmative action" at some date, logically followed by yet another reversal, and another. Which brings me tot he final complaint, that by breaking people into competing pressure groups it ends up exacerbating, rather than healing, racial divides, by making race a primary category of thought and keeping concepts of race foremost in everyone's minds. In fact, by openly favoring one race over others, it creates feelings of hostility where there were previously none, likely creating racism it is trying to redress3.
But even without taking affirmative action into account, the equal opportunity component was itself overreaching, thanks to utopian goals. The obvious answer to racism supported by law is to repeal the laws, but in the liberal mind that would do too little, as it would leave individuals free to discriminate. In their utopian vision, nothing would be enough unless it ended all racism in one blow, and so we ended up destroying individual property rights and rights of assembly, setting the stage for countless discrimination suits, tremendous costs to avoid such suits, and providing a justification for ever increasing government intervention.
At the same time, the laws themselves have done nothing to change social attitudes. Yes, racism is declining, and yes people have in general come to see racism as a bad thing, but that was in the cards with or without the laws. If anything, as I mentioned above, the laws have served to keep racism alive, and keep racial animosity active. Politicians, proposing new racial preferences, need to play up the amount of racism remaining, while the need to hire minorities to "keep the numbers right' make whites denied jobs wondering if they lost out solely because of their race, while minorities are often stigmatized, fairly or unfairly, as token hires, making others, and sometimes themselves, doubt their abilities. The entire system does nothing but perpetuate the racial problems it was supposed to cure, and in a way simply eliminating racist laws, or requiring the government to be colorblind, would not4.
The topic of racism leads naturally into the more general topic of trying to eliminate "bad ideas", a concept I criticized in "The Danger Inherent in Banning "Bad Ideas"". While this is less popular among those on the left, mainly due to their very vocal support for the first amendment, there are still some utopians whose schemes involve this idea.
For instance, many feminists think that their task not only involves opening the workplace to women, but changing the workplace to eliminate any "hostile environments". That is, basically banning any ideas critical of the feminist goals. And again, by over-reaching, the outcomes are predictable. As with the attempts to change the world to reach all their goals at once concerning race, their efforts to transform the world in terms of sex have had similar outcomes.
I could go on, but I think that should make it clear. There is no reason to go into the many other utopian dreams such as the efforts to eliminate unfair advantages of birth through confiscatory inheritance taxes. From the examples above, it should be obvious that the pursuit of perfection, the utopian strain inherent in liberalism, is a damaging trend, at least when combined with liberalism's view of man and faith in government. But why?
First, and most obviously, the utopian solutions require giving tremendous power to the state. As with most solutions on the left, the tool used to redress any wrongs is the government in some form or another, as only the government has the requisite power to enact the instant leveling utopians desire. And so, for any solution to work, the government must be granted tremendous power.
However, as I wrote elsewhere, once you have handed the government power, and given it a mission, the logic of that mission becomes a force unto itself. You may only want to ban transfats, but once you admit the government can stop us form doing anything harmful to ourselves, how can you resist draconian laws against pre or extra marital sex, sky diving or motorcycles? After all, each is no more necessary than tranfats, and carries health risks of its own. And that is the primary problem with utopian levelers, they want to create a secular heaven, but they end up crafting a totalitarian hell. Speech codes may seem a good idea when you are banning racist slurs, but who is to say that same logic cannot be turned against words or thoughts that are important to you?
And that is the primary problem with many liberal solutions, they are crafted by those on the left who think they will be the benevolent despot, or that the despot will be someone just like them. But there is no guarantee. Any state which depends for its existence and prosperity upon "good people" is doomed to failure. Once you unleash that sort of power, it is inevitable at least once it will fall into the wrong hands. Any plan should account for that reality, yet most utopians never even consider the possibility.
But even if trying to create "justice" did not entail creating an all powerful, constantly meddling, destructive state, if it could be done without those costs, would it work?
The answer is clearly no, for a number of reasons.
First, there are very often side effects, usually unanticipated, and often producing results exactly opposite those desired. For instance the way that many laws combating racism manage instead to keep racism alive, or even make it worse. Many times this is the outcome of the "keyhole thinking" I described in "Negative and Positive Rights" and "The Devil is in the Definitions (And Assumptions)", or the "pragmatism" I criticized in "Pragmatism Revistied, Again", "The Shortcomings of Pragmatism" and "Pragmatism Revisited". Confronted by a problem the utopians, themselves no great proponents of consistent political theories, instead adopt the approach that seems "to make sense", which is inevitably a "comprehensive" answer, that being one requiring the maximum intervention. As a result, they often overlook the possible side effects.
However, such side effects are not necessary consequences, they just seem to occur more often than not, so let us move on to those problems which are inherent in all utopian solutions.
First, and probably greatest, there is the simple problem of how to define justice. As I said when describing the change sin the old tort system, the original solution may not have been fair, but it was consistent. Everyone knew the way the law would rule in the vast majority of cases. Contracts controlled, and in general the meaning of those contracts was clear, even if many could argue the outcome was unfair.
The new tort system seeks to achieve "justice" or "equity"5 or "social insurance". The problem is, what do those terms mean? Under the old system, even in a tortious encounter between strangers, the goal set the limits to the case. Torts existed to "make the parties whole". So, whatever was lost was the limit of restitution. That is no longer the case, damages now can include suffering, punitive damages, and a host of other nebulous terms that allow juries to enact the theorists' vision of torts as a tool for justice.
The problem being, no one knows what a given judge or jury will think constitutes justice. That is why certain counties or certain judges are so sought after by trial lawyers, they have a record of ruling against companies and in favor of plaintiffs. On the other hand, in most cases, neither party has any idea what the ruling will be, nor what damages might result. And that is hardly a recipe for justice in either sense. Instead it creates an environment where some plaintiffs effectively "win the lottery" getting many times in damages what they once would, while others go home with nothing. On the other hand, this uncertainty often causes companies to refuse to provide much needed goods and services6.
Even ignoring the fact that often justice or even perfection is a difficult term to define, making utopian schemes impossible, or at the least resulting in contradictory interpretations, there are even greater problems. Often, despite the belief that there is "one proper way", the utopians fail to see that there can be honest disagreement, not just on what constitutes justice, but on a host of decisions. Many times seeming conflicts which the utopians hope to resolve are not the result of an innocent and a villain, but of a conflict between two innocents. In such cases the utopian system usually ends up making a villain of one innocent, picking sides and then pretending one innocent was really a villain7.
And that leads to the last problem with many utopian schemes. I touched upon it in my post "Life Is Not Fair - And Trying To Make It So Makes Things Worse". Many times, injustice, at least as defined by the utopians, is not the fault of some villain, nor even another innocent they can cast as villain, but simply the outcome of an impersonal, random event, be it a birth defect or a natural disaster. The problem being that to "make right" such people, the utopians need resources with which to pay for such remedies. However, without a villain to expropriate, they end up having to take from the rest of us, effectively punishing everyone for the injustice of the universe. Even were such solutions fully efficient, it would mean taking for a large number to make right a small number, which could not help but breed some resentment. But, given the inefficiency of most government solutions, not only does it breed such resentment, but it does so at the same time that it takes far more than ever reaches the beneficiary, leaving everyone as a whole less satisfied in the end.
There is probably more to argue here, but I think that should be more than enough to make my point. Utopian solutions, at least utopian governmental solutions, inevitably over-reach, giving the government excessive power, usually bringing negative reactions from those int he vicinity, lack clear goals or even certain definitions, and often end up making others feel as if they are being punished for nothing, breeding resentment. All in all, utopianism, at least when coupled with the power of government, is perhaps even more harmful than simple corruption or lust for power or wealth. At least honest thieves and tyrants usually stop at some point, true believers, as most utopians are, respond to failure with still more effort.
And that means an even bigger disaster.
1. There were also cases where private racism had caused the legal system to break down, for instance areas where juries would not convict those guilty of racially-motivated crimes. However, that is a problem that is not easily solved, by any political system. Despite much ballyhoo about federal efforts to prosecute race-based crimes in the south, until attitudes changed, no government intervention accomplished much. The truth is majority antipathy is a hard thing to overcome. Short of military occupation and martial law, any reform needs to wait for eventual changes in attitude. Anything else will have little impact. I mention this as these cases are often thrown up as argument against federalism or local empowerment. However, for all the federal intervention and all the law making, the fact remains that little changed in those regions until people changed their own minds, which was hardly the result of government intervention.
2. Even beyond affirmative action and quotas, we now have pressure for reparations as well. Rather than explain the flaws of the reasoning behind reparations, I will point to my past criticism in "Some Logical Problems With Reparations".
3. It is an arguable point whether there is or is not a causal link, but it is interesting that the number of racial incidents on college campuses tends to vary with the aggressiveness of the "diversity" programs at the school. I have not seen numbers on this in some time, but it did hold in studies many years ago, as evidenced by the prevalence of racial incidents on campuses in the northeast, where race-based recruiting is also most popular. What is more interesting are the low number fo racial incidents on southern campuses, where traditional stereotypes would argue for the most. (Though in recent years southern elite schools have begun adopting many practices of the elite north eastern schools, as well as poaching teachers and administrators, so it would be interesting to see if this trend continues or changes.)
4. I have dealt with these topics in more detail in my posts "Private Versus Public Racism", "Mainstreaming hate", "Some Logical Problems With Reparations", "More Thoughts on Slavery", "The Important Lesson of Racism", "How to Become a Victim of Crime", "In Defense of Discrimination","A Statute of Limitations for Race","How to Handle Idiots" and "Back Again".
5. It is interesting that "courts of equity" in common law states have a similar reputation for inconsistency. While you can predict in broad outlines how a probate court or custodial hearing may go, you are often unable to predict the specifics. That is, because like the new tort system, equity courts are generally endowed with much more discretion, and as a result are much less predictable.
6. Many have pointed out that goods and services related to the greatest risks, as well as to the most severe health problems, are the ones most likely to be removed from the market, as they are the most likely targets for suits. So, instead of making the world safer, the tort system means the most needed safety measures and the most urgent medical procedures are often the ones which can no longer be obtained.
7. A perfect example is found in my post "An Old Bone of Contention". The question of women in the military is often painted by those on the left as being a conflict between right thinkers and neanderthals, but the truth is many who question women in combat, or even in the military at all, are not opposed to equality for women, but instead have questions about readiness, morale and recruiting. And as the many issues with pregnancies during the first Persian Gulf conflict show, some of thsoe readiness concerns were legitimate. However, because utopians cannot accept that those who oppose them are anything other than completely wrong, those questions were declare off limits by many on the left.
I have written on specific aspects of this problem before, though without voicing the more general principle. For example, in "The "Lucky" Rich", I pointed out that most wealthy individuals earn that wealth through their own efforts not through any innate advantage. In "Greed Versus Evil", as well as "A Great Quote", I argue that even the few who do inherit a fortune and maintain it through investment may not produce anything themselves, but serve a valuable social function by providing funds for new ventures, more than justifying their income. And in "Life Is Not Fair - And Trying To Make It So Makes Things Worse", I made the more general argument that trying to "level the playing field", being a subjective undertaking, tends to create more inequalities than it resolves, as well as creating massive problems for society in general. Finally, though not exactly on point, "Inescapable Logic" describes the way that one intervention justifies yet another, providing a good explanation of why such utopian measures not only grow in size, but often see their scope stretch beyond their original topic into seemingly unrelated areas.
Originally Posted in Examining the War on Drugs on 2009/09/29.