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Monday, December 21, 2015

Václav Havel, Steven Pinker, and Robert Nozick on the Word of the Year

-Ism, ideology, and violence


Merriam-Webster has declared the suffix “-ism” to be the word of the year for 2015, based on surges in web traffic from people looking up various -isms. 

The top isms to earn high traffic spikes and big bumps in lookups on the dictionary company’s website in 2015 over the year before are socialism, fascism, racism, feminism, communism, capitalism and terrorism.

Surges in lookups for “fascism” are associated with a number of high-profile police shootings and stories on police militarization, and more recently with Donald Trump’s campaign. Socialism and communism earned top spots, the dictionary company believes, because of Bernie Sanders’ campaign.

In honor of the year of -ism, here are three quotes about ideologies from three brilliant classical liberal writers and thinkers.


Václav Havel, Czech dissident: “The Power of the Powerless” (1978).

Our system is most frequently characterized as a dictatorship or, more precisely, as the dictatorship of a political bureaucracy over a society which has undergone economic and social leveling. I am afraid that the term “dictatorship,” regardless of how intelligible it may otherwise be, tends to obscure rather than clarify the real nature of power in this system. …

[Our system] commands an incomparably more precise, logically structured, generally comprehensible and, in essence, extremely flexible ideology that, in its elaborateness and completeness, is almost a secularized religion. It offers a ready answer to any question whatsoever; it can scarcely be accepted only in part, and accepting it has profound implications for human life.

In an era when metaphysical and existential certainties are in a state of crisis, when people are being uprooted and alienated and are losing their sense of what this world means, this ideology inevitably has a certain hypnotic charm. To wandering humankind it offers an immediately available home: all one has to do is accept it, and suddenly everything becomes clear once more, life takes on new meaning, and all mysteries, unanswered questions, anxiety, and loneliness vanish.

Of course, one pays dearly for this low-rent home: the price is abdication of one’s own reason, conscience, and responsibility, for an essential aspect of this ideology is the consignment of reason and conscience to a higher authority. The principle involved here is that the center of power is identical with the center of truth. …

Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them. As the repository of something suprapersonal and objective, it enables people to deceive their conscience and conceal their true position and their inglorious modus vivendi, both from the world and from themselves.

It is a very pragmatic but, at the same time, an apparently dignified way of legitimizing what is above, below, and on either side. It is directed toward people and toward God. It is a veil behind which human beings can hide their own fallen existence, their trivialization, and their adaptation to the status quo.

It is an excuse that everyone can use, from the greengrocer, who conceals his fear of losing his job behind an alleged interest in the unification of the workers of the world, to the highest functionary, whose interest in staying in power can be cloaked in phrases about service to the working class.

The primary excusatory function of ideology, therefore, is to provide people, both as victims and pillars of the post-totalitarian system, with the illusion that the system is in harmony with the human order and the order of the universe.

Read the whole essay here.


Steven Pinker, evolutionary psychologist: “The Better Angels of Our Nature” (2011).

What are the motives for violence? … There are ideologies, such as those of militant religions, nationalism, Nazism, and Communism, that justify vast outlays of violence by a Utopian cost-benefit analysis: If your belief system holds out the hope of a world that will be infinitely good forever, how much violence are you entitled to perpetrate in pursuit of this infinitely perfect world?

Well, as much as much as you want, and you’re always ahead of the game. The benefits always outweigh the costs. 

Moreover, imagine that there are people who hear about your scheme for a perfect world and just don’t get with the program. They might oppose you in bringing heaven to Earth. How evil are they? They’re the only thing standing in the way of an infinitely good world. Well, you do the math.

Watch the whole lecture or read the book.


Robert Nozick, philosophy professor: Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974).

Utopian authors, each very confident of the virtues of his own vision and of its singular correctness, have differed among themselves … in the institutions and kinds of life they present for emulation. Though the picture of an ideal society that each presents is much too simple … we should take the fact of differences very seriously.

No utopian author has everyone in his society leading exactly the same life, allocating exactly the same amount of time to exactly the same activities. Why not? Don’t the reasons also count against just one kind of community?

The conclusion to draw is that there will not be one kind of community existing and one kind of life led in utopia. Utopia will consist of utopias, of many different and divergent communities in which people lead different kinds of lives under different institutions. Some kinds of communities will be more attractive to most than others; communities will wax and wane. People will leave some for others or spend their whole lives in one.

Utopia is a framework for utopias, a place where people are at liberty to join together voluntarily to pursue and attempt to realize their own vision of the good life in the ideal community but where no one can impose his own utopian vision upon others. …

Some communities will be abandoned, others will struggle along, others will split, others will flourish, gain members, and be duplicated elsewhere. Each community must win and hold the voluntary adherence of its members. No pattern is imposed on everyone, and the result will be one pattern if and only if everyone voluntarily chooses to live in accordance with that pattern of community. …

Is not the minimal state, the framework for utopia, an inspiring vision? The minimal state treats us as inviolate individuals, who may not be used in certain ways by others as means or tools or instruments or resources; it treats us as persons having individual rights with the dignity this constitutes. Treating us with respect by respecting our rights, it allows us, individually or with whom we please, to choose our life and to realize our ends and our conception of ourselves, insofar as we can, aided by the voluntary cooperation of other individuals possessing the same dignity.

How dare any state or group of individuals do more? Or less?

Read the whole book here.


  • Daniel Bier is the executive editor of The Skeptical Libertarian.