Is There a Utopia out There After All?
For those people who are just joining us, I’m an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or “Mormons” as most people know us. And deep in its heart of hearts this blog is built around Mormon apologetics, though much of the
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For those people who are just joining us, I’m an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or “Mormons” as most people know us. And deep in its heart of hearts this blog is built around Mormon apologetics, though much of the time you have to squint quite a bit to see it. Last week I said I was going to talk about how communism might be implemented, which makes this a weird time to remind people I’m a Mormon, since, at first glance, Mormonism and communism would appear to have absolutely nothing in common. Rather, if anything, the recent past is full of well known Mormons who were extremely anti-communist. Ezra Taft Benson, the thirteenth president of the Church had a particularly strong reputation for being opposed to communism, penning such books as An Enemy Hath Done This as well as being (for awhile) a big supporter of the John Birch Society. But once you go farther back in Church history, the picture looks different.
In the early days of the Church, on and off starting in 1830, but reaching a peak between 1874 and 1877, Brigham Young (the second president of the Church after Joseph Smith) implemented something called the United Order. Now, since that time, the Church has taken great pains to clarify that this was not Marxist communism, and indeed there are many differences, some subtle, some less so. But it was a collectivist arrangement as well as an attempt to practice Christian communalism (the Christian part is one of those less subtle differences), so it had lots of elements in common with communism. But all that aside, it was nevertheless an attempt at creating a society which worked better than the one they already had in place. Of moving from one system to a better system, but whatever its aspirations and whatever its differences, similar to communism, it failed.
Based on these failures and other similar failures it’s easy to assume that communalism/socialism/communism will never work. Indeed there’s a meme going around, where they take the list of 7 things every kid needs to hear, initially created by Josh Shipp, which is full of advice like telling your kid you love them and you forgive them, and replacing one of the items with “Communism has failed every time it was tried.” And to be fair, perhaps every kid does need to hear that. I’m certainly no fan of Communism. I would even go so far as to argue that it’s worse even than most people realize, but as I have previously pointed out, this fact wasn’t apparent at the beginning. Nor was it apparent at the beginning of our own republic that it was going to be a success, and yet in the intervening years it clearly was.
In all these cases (and there are many more) people were trying to move to a new system, one which fixed some of the weaknesses of the old system. And most of the time when people make this attempt, it fails, somewhat unusually the American Revolution succeeded. A group of people did move to a different system, and whatever your complaints about the founding and the founders it was definitely a better system as well. You might label this system democratic capitalism, and while the United States was the first to try it on a large scale (a point we’ll get to) many nations, though not all, have gone on to adopt it. When one sees how successful it’s been, it’s worth asking why no one did it sooner and why some nations still haven’t done it.
Starting with the first question, people had tried democracies and republics before, but the conventional wisdom at the time of the revolution was that democracy could only work on a small scale, in places like Switzerland or Ancient Athens. This thinking explains why we ended up with a republic and not a democracy and is one of the reasons why the battle between Jefferson and Hamilton was so fierce, but regardless of the measures they took to mitigate the perceived failures of democracy or the passion they brought to the task of ensuring the success of the new country, it was still a huge risk. So why did it work in North America, but not in Afghanistan, or Venezuela, or for that matter Russia in the 90s?
Speaking of that time period in Russia, I just got done reading the book Once Upon a Time in Russia: The Rise of the Oligarchs―A True Story of Ambition, Wealth, Betrayal, and Murder. (I’m still playing around with how I’m going to do book reviews, so I may or may not end up doing a full review later.) The book discusses the chaotic time right after the fall of the Soviet Union and what came out of that chaos. In a very real sense, the Russians were trying to accomplish the same thing that the early Americans did. They were attempting to transition from one, obviously broken system to a presumably new and better system. In this effort they had lots of people willing to help, and the citizens really wanted to make the transition. Beyond that, there were lots of successful countries to copy from. And despite all of these factors very few people would look at Russia today and consider it a fully functioning constitutional democracy. What happened? Why did they fail?
On one level the failure to successfully transition came from numerous sources:
Yeltsin tried to reform the economy too quickly.
The West offered a lot of useless advice, but not much actual help.
Rather than creating prosperity for everyone the reforms made most people poorer while creating vast wealth for a few oligarchs.
And if the economic problems weren’t bad enough, there was also:
Weak respect for the law
And the general hangover of 70+ years of Soviet dysfunction.
But considered from another angle the failure was caused by just one problem: Transitioning to a new system requires more than just ideology, it requires an enormous web of systems to support the ideology.
If we consider Russia and Eastern Europe, based on the things I read both at the time and since then, they would have liked nothing more than to have transitioned to mature capitalism, with public corporations, investors and a stock market. Instead they ended up with oligarchs and Ponzi schemes. Why? Because, among other things, they didn’t have a robust legal system, with things like contract enforcement, or a justice system free of corruption. And even if they had possessed all those things the actual logistics of a fully operational stock market are not trivial either. And this takes us to the answer to the second question I posed above, if democratic capitalism is so successful why hasn’t every country transitioned to it?
Certainly there are some countries where it’s not in the leader’s best interest to make the transition. (See my review of The Dictator’s Handbook.) And accordingly they prevent it from happening, but by all accounts Yeltsin and Gorbachev desperately wanted to make this transition yet were unable to because they didn’t have the necessary institutions, customs and attitudes in place.
Thus far most of what I’ve said is not particularly original, though given how much blood and treasure we’ve spent failing in exactly this fashion in Iraq and Afghanistan, perhaps these ideas are more obscure than one would think. Or perhaps those people trying to move from one system to the next recognize that supporting institutions are necessary, but feel that they should be easy to create. In any case at some level people have dramatically misjudged things, and as a consequence caused all kinds of problems. But, while that is definitely an interesting subject, it is not the subject of this post. No, in this post I want to approach things not from the perspective of what’s possible now, but from the perspective of what might be possible in the future.
I started off talking about communism and communalism, and asserting that attempts to implement them had repeatedly and spectacularly failed. But couldn’t the same thing be said about large scale democratic capitalism before the creation of the Constitution? What was different in 1788? The argument I’ve presented thus far is that the necessary framework of supporting institutions, cultural systems and laws finally existed which would allow it to succeed. From this it follows that it’s possible that there is a similar combination out there, waiting to be implemented which would allow communism or communalism to actually succeed as a system of government.
But what if there's another way to look at it? If it's true that any system of government requires specific institutions to be successful, we should apply this same understanding to communism. Certainly the Russian experience demonstrated that capitalism requires certain institutions or it won't work well. We might look back to attempts at establishing communism through this lens and say, "Of course it didn't work, they didn't have the institutions required for making it work."
To be clear, I’m not asserting that there are definitely institutions out there which would make communism/communalism work. (And specifically work better than democratic capitalism.) Only that there might be. There are still several reasons that such a system of government might be impossible.
For one, while this is an interesting possibility, it’s not even clear that this is how it normally works. The founding of the United States may be a unique exception. As I said above, we have lots of examples of failed attempts to dramatically transition from one system to another and very few examples of where it succeeded. Most of the time when we look through history it seems clear that most systems “evolved gradually” rather than “changed suddenly”. And I see very little evidence that this is the way things are evolving.
Speaking of which it should be pointed out, additionally, that there is no reason to limit this to communism/communalism, if progress and technology are going to create the culture, institutions and systems necessary for a dramatic shift to a new system of government it would seem that libertarianism is at least as likely as communalism, if not more so.
Finally, you’ll notice that when I talk about the “web of support” required to make a certain system work, that I go farther than Mark’s original idea and toss in culture as well. Certainly culture played a huge part in the successful formation of the United States, and equally it has always been the biggest problem with the successful implementation of any form of communalism. Or as Madison put it, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”
All this said, it is possible that a communist utopia will arrive as soon as we have the appropriate institutions and the right attitude. But, more broadly, it has to be acknowledged that even if we’re unlikely to transition to some dramatically better system of government after the fashion of the American Revolution, technological innovation is continually providing us with lots of tools to make our current system better. And this is the point where, finally, as promised, this post ties into the last post. This post is an argument against my last post. On one hand, as we saw in that last post, if system goes on long enough, it starts to accumulate deviations and those deviations end up being normalized. This leads to cycles where greater deviations eventually lead to catastrophe followed by retrenchment around improved norms. On the other hand technology gives us ways to mitigate system deviations, and may in fact provide a completely new and better system which will replace the old system before it fails catastrophically. Which would have the effect of breaking the cycle.
As a brief example, the last post spent quite a bit of time talking about plane crashes. One of the key methods for preventing these crashes is the checklist, and while the core technology for maintaining a checklist has been around since the invention of writing, it’s clear that even in the case of a simple system like this that technology has made things easier to implement and maintain. Consequently, there is less incentive for deviation because not-deviating requires only minimal additional effort. All of this then presumably pushes back potential catastrophes.
As is so often the case, all of the above takes us back to the same question we return to again and again, “Will technology save us?” And as usual, my answer (and I believe the safest way to bet) is, “We are not saved.” Nevertheless, as I repeatedly point out, I could be wrong. (That’s why I mention betting.)
There is no way to know how the future will turn out, but I think it is safe to say, as I did in my very first post, that we’re in a race between technological salvation and technological catastrophe. Meaning that, at least at first glance, there’s nothing particularly new about the topic of this post. I’ve been talking about this exact issue since the very beginning. It’s therefore reasonable to ask what this latest twist adds to the discussion. To begin with, I spend a lot of time in this space discussing different ways for catastrophe to occur, but not very much time on how it might be avoided. How the cycles of civilization, which have been present throughout all of recorded history, might be broken. Part of the reason is that there are always more ways to fail than there are to succeed. But part of it is also probably a genuine bias on my part. Thus, when I encountered this idea I thought it was worth investigating as a counterweight to that bias.
Beyond that, the key difference between this discussion and what I’ve written before, is that lots of people imagine that technology alone might save us. Particularly something like fusion, or superintelligence. I think there were a lot of people who thought the internet might even fill this roll. In contrast, the current discussion involves things which are helped by, but don’t require technology. Just institutional and cultural changes which might be brought about by sufficiently motivated individuals, allowing us to imagine “salvation” in a form which doesn’t hinge on one dramatic technological development. Technology is still very important, perhaps the most important element of the modern world, but many of the most impactful systems, as we saw with the checklist example (but also democratic capitalism) don’t necessarily require any specific technology. And, with technology appearing ever more destructive to systems, particularly political systems (think the polarization brought on by social media) this sort of salvation starts to appear more and more like our best hope.
However, in order to take this hope seriously you have to assume that we’re going to break out of the cycles and patterns that have defined human existence for thousands if not tens of thousands of years, that this time really is different. That, despite recent evidence to the contrary, technology will assist rather than hinder setting up the institutions and culture required to finally make the leap to a dramatically better system, a communist or a libertarian or a “something else” utopia. Or that, at a minimum, we’ll create something less earth shattering, but which nevertheless manages to save humanity from itself. Because that’s looking like an increasingly difficult task.
In my next post I’m going to finish out the series by examining that challenge, in particular the practical difficulties of implementing new systems, the historical cycles such systems would have to contend with, and the conflict between the new and better ways we’ve developed for managing those systems and the inevitable temptation to deviate from them, and to call those deviations “normal”.
Perhaps we will push through to a communist utopia where money is meaningless, but until that time we’re stuck with the next best system, democratic capitalism, which requires exchanging money for things you want to see more of. On the off chance this blog is in that category consider donating.