In a society such as ours … is appears crazy at first to want revolution. For we have whatever we want. But the aim here is to transform the will itself so that people no longer want what they now want… .The question with which we had to deal … amounts to the question of whether … in order to set free these needs, a dictatorship appears necessary…
–Herbert Marcuse, “The End of Utopia” (1967)
All ‘favourable’ Utopias seem to be alike in postulating perfection while being unable to suggest happiness ... The inhabitants of various [Utopias] are chiefly concerned with avoiding fuss. They live uneventful, subdued, ‘reasonable’ lives, free not only from quarrels, disorder or insecurity of any kind, but also from passion … Nearly all creators of Utopia have resembled the man who has toothache, and therefore thinks happiness consists in not having toothache. They wanted to produce a perfect society by an endless continuation of something that had only been valuable because it was temporary. The wiser course would be to say that there are certain lines along which humanity must move, the grand strategy is mapped out, but detailed prophecy is not our business. Whoever tries to imagine perfection simply reveals his own emptiness.
–George Orwell, “Why Socialists Don’t Believe in Fun” (1943)
If another group tie takes the place of the religious one – and the socialistic tie seems to be succeeding in doing so – then there will be the same intolerance towards outsiders as in the age of the Wars of Religion.
–Sigmund Freud, “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego” (1921).
The actual distribution of income or wealth has often been compared with a hypothetical ideal (Utopia), rather than actual experience in any country at any time.
Many Westerners once believed incomes were nearly equal in the former Soviet Union, for example, but we now know that substantial privileges did exist for a select few – based on political power rather than economic contribution. Even aside from bribery and corruption, special access to health care, education, housing and special shops was often granted to the Communist Party hierarchy and the bureaucratic elite. Urban people in general were subsidized at the expense of rural areas.
By the late 70s, only a handful of Western leftists continued to defend such dictatorships as Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Castro’s Cuba, or North Korea’s Kim Jong-il/Kim Jong-un feudal dynasty.
In recent years, the left’s previous romanticism of communism has sometimes been briefly salvaged by relabeling similar authoritarian regimes as “socialist” (Chavez in Venezuela), which sounds nicer, but isn’t. Others have switched to romanticizing some golden age of the past. In the US, for example, the Golden Age of greater equality was said to have occurred between 1930 and 1973. Yet the relatively egalitarian (“fair”?) suffering of 1930-39 is difficult to romanticize, for obvious reasons, as is the post-1973 stagflationary collapse of Nixon’s authoritarian price controls.
Political or Economic Criteria?
Vague allusions to social justice are often employed to suggest that a larger fraction of the economy’s benefits (food, housing, health care, etc.) could and should be distributed by government rather than by markets. In theory, we could turn over all of our income to democratically elected officials and let them decide who gets what. But distribution on the basis of political criteria is not necessarily fairer than distribution on the basis of economic criteria. Political markets also tend toward one-size-fits-all solutions, with less variety and innovation than in economic markets.
Those currently expecting politicians to make various goods or services “affordable” or “free” are really just asking government officials to force someone else to pay. But artificially low prices (e.g., for colleges or physicians) inflate demand and discourage supply, requiring some bureaucrat to use nonprice rationing such as waiting lists, lotteries or preferential treatment for those with the most political clout.
The only alternative to a free market is a politically rigged market, and that invariably turns out to be neither fair nor pleasant.
The only way to ban markets is to beat them down with force. And since markets are abstractions, the force is used against people. So the alternative to a market-oriented society in which everyone is required to respect everyone else’s rights is a society in which those in power use force on whomever they can get away with using it on.”
–David R. Henderson, The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (1997)
This first appeared at Cato.