Against utopianism

Utopian faith is a helluva drug.

- J. Bradford DeLong, Slouching Towards Utopia

In a delightful poem (which DeLong’s book brought to my attention) Bertold Brecht satirically suggested the East German government needed to “dissolve the people and elect another”. It’s a great summation of a problem that applies not just to communism, but to a wide range of ideologies: systems have to deal with the variety of real people, not just the kind of people who fit well with the system.

A communist society will continue to have misery and violence as long as many people are unhappy with what that society asks them to do. And—at least until we have technology advanced enough to provide both the necessities and a significant amount of luxury without much hard work—society will have to ask a lot. Because people have a wide range of values, desires, and personalities, it’s a safe bet that they’ll often disagree about what the society’s goals should be, and feel exploited when they are forced to work toward those goals while their own goals are not prioritized. History shows how hard it is to get an entire society to agree on the right course of action for more than a fleeting period.

So a communist government will always have to repress large numbers of dissidents - which is one of the key things that shouldn’t happen in a true utopia. I think communists believe this wouldn’t be the case because they believe that once people have the experience of living in a harmonious communist society, they’ll see how wonderful it is and not want anything else. Even if that were true, our lack of a way to transition to such a society (as evidenced by the disastrous failure of every historical attempt) renders it a moot point: it’s like saying how easy it would be to build a self-replicating machine if you already had a self-replicating machine. But there’s no reason to think it’s true in the first place. Even people who have every possible advantage in life tend to find reasons to disagree with and fight each other.

Libertarians face similar problems. If their ideal minimalist government were in power, it would constantly have to repress dissidents who do not accept the way property rights have been distributed or who want a more extensive state. Libertarians argue that a libertarian regime would lead to an increasingly marvelous society, where things are better for everyone—or at least for most non-lazy people—than they would be otherwise. So I think they believe that opposition to the regime would die off as people realized how great it is. But this is silly for the same reasons that the dream of everyone falling in line with a communist regime is silly. First, we have no plausible path to a stable libertarian government; deregulation always has side-effects that generate unrest and pushback. Second, even if everything is going great, it’s human nature to continuously imagine ways things could be better - and we’re not all going to agree on them.

This delusion, the dream that if I could just get everyone to do things my way they’d see how great it is and all dissent would disappear, afflicts more mundane aspects of our lives too. In my career as a software developer I’ve encountered it in the religious zeal that coalesces around particular technologies or architectural principles. Some influential developer or faction within a company becomes convinced that, for example, rewriting the whole code base using the latest trendy language or breaking every database table into a separate microservice is going to have incredible benefits. A huge effort is undertaken; a couple years later we’re all griping about the problems with the new approach and fighting about what to do next.

It’s not that the changes are always bad overall. Sometimes they are; other times they’re a step in the right direction. The delusion lies in believing that they’re going to be an unmitigated good with no tradeoffs. In particular we gloss over how the inevitable existence of people who just don’t like the new approach (whether they have good reasons to dislike it or not) will hinder its effectiveness. This applies to most proposals for radically, rather than incrementally, restructuring society. Lenin and Stalin justified mass murder by promising an infinitely bright future. Religious zealotry works the same way: purge the nonbelievers (or at least disenfranchise them) and God will finally turn our nation into a paradise. But again and again, what we get in exchange for all the violence is not a paradise, but just another messy society riddled with its own set of problems incubating the next round of violence.

So: I think a lot of pain could be avoided if we kept our expectations more realistic. I don’t mean that we shouldn’t work toward improving things, or even that forced radical changes are always bad (I’m glad the North forced the South to abolish slavery). But we’re way too quick to imagine that our favorite proposals are going to work out perfectly. We should notice this impulse in ourselves, and subject it to extreme skepticism. This will help us make wiser decisions about just how high a cost to pay—how many people to hurt, how many dissenting voices to trample over—trying to bring those proposals into effect.