Why We Believe: The Power of Utopia, Part II


In Part I of this article, I discussed how people are vulnerable to belief when they are unhappy or unsatisfied, and most people are one or the other most of the time.  In times of dramatic change, people are scared, insecure, and eager for anything that promises certainty.  Unsure of themselves, they are quick to follow any Confidence Man or Group who exudes a high level of certainty and self-assurance, whether the facts warrant it or not (and they usually don’t).  When the Confidence Man (or Group) also promises some form of utopia that people want, and if that Utopian suggests that the crowd can have what they want by taking it from someone else, few will resist that temptation.  Such plunder is always camouflaged in language of some form of altruism, of everyone sacrificing or giving up for the common good.  Such behavior is successful because historically, for millennia property existed by permission, not by right, and it was usually acquired by military acquisition, not by trade.  Those who actually produced economic values were viewed as serfs, as socially inferior to those who controlled their products by force.  In addition to this historical emphasis on property acquired by force and kept by permission, feudal society viewed the tribe, not the individual, as the core unit of society.  So when we moved to the Industrial Revolution, property earned was considered the property of the group, or tribe, rather than the individual.  The prevailing philosophy has been one of altruism, meaning that the individual was expected to give up some part of his earnings, without compensation, to the tribe.  Although technology has changed dramatically, we still cling to these ancient paradigms.Altruism, like its political offspring, socialism, represents a view of life based on need, want, sympathy, pity, handouts.  In a society where these values are paramount, the greatest virtue is achieved by those who sacrifice their life, time, and resources to distribute to those in need.  While there is a place for charity in life, a time when those of us who have done well want to help others less fortunate, particularly through no fault of their own, and who are therefore eager to get back on their feet, something ugly happens when a person’s need becomes accepted as a moral claim on another person.  Helping then ceases to become charity, and is extended either through social pressure (guilt) or coercion (expropriation and redistribution).    I remember, almost ten years ago, when I was introduced to a professor in the Humanities Department of Ohio State University who quickly engaged me in debate over raising taxes to fund some of her pet projects of a humanitarian nature; that when I objected on the grounds that such taxes ceased to be charitable gifts but in fact became the forced and immoral seizure of private property, she looked at me with half a sneer and said ‘surely you can live without some of your precious profits’.  The point was not whether I could, or could not, live without some of my profits.  The point was that they were my profits that I earned through the use of my mind, and were for me to dispose of as I saw fit.  Her viewpoint was that my abilities, the product of my mind’s effort, did not belong to me, but belonged to the tribe or the collective.  The harder I worked the more I was to be penalized in a scheme called “soak the rich”.  She did not view my earnings as my property, but rather the property of the collective, and I could keep only what the collective decided, by their permission.

I understood this feudal attitude, because I grew up under this philosophy.  My father, for whom financial literacy was NOT an outstanding character trait, fervently believed that there was only so much wealth in the world, and so if some had more than we did, they obviously took it out of our pocket somehow.  He had no idea that this concept was a holdover from the days of feudalism when wealth was not created, but only confiscated.  The King owned all property, and he awarded land and castles to noblemen in reward for successful military service (which in fact meant the successful seizure of other people’s property).  These gifts of land to the nobles were held by the King’s permission, and “ownership” could be revoked at the pleasure of the King.

 My Dad’s sense of economics served him well.  He never understood money or wealth, had virtually no  financial literacy, and he died very poor.  Under the feudal system, people were born into their economic circumstances or social class, and no movement upward was possible, except to become a successful warrior and kill or enslave other property owners and confiscate that property.  Serfs were the producers, and they got no thanks for their efforts, other than permission to keep enough of their own  product to subsist—barely.  This was an agrarian society, and production was of the brawn, not the brain, variety.  Brawn was looked down on, and the products of brawn were expropriated by the nobles and the King.  The serfs survived by permission; the nobility survived by brute force.

 There was a psychological payoff for the serfs though.  The serf’s wife or children could not, and would not, ask him why they did not live in as nice a house as the nobleman in the castle.  A man’s lot in life was inherited and unchangeable and accepted.  In a capitalistic society, however, it was another story altogether.  With free trade, based on one’s ability and hard work, output varied considerably, and consequently, so did wealth.  So a man’s wife, could, and would, point to the better neighborhoods and pointedly ask why their family was not doing as well as the Smiths, or the Jones.  People compared themselves to others, and envy and resentments developed to a far greater degree than existed before.  The class society began to weaken, and upward mobility became a real possibility, as did a Middle Class.

 It is a mistake to underestimate the importance of this phenomenon.  From the times of earliest man, in all our tribal societies, status has been very important to our species.  In this respect we are like many other species, and we quickly develop a pecking order, a power structure, a hierarchy of status.  Among early man, pre-ideology, even pre-religion, we subscribed to a form of animism, wherein we ascribed human attributes to  animals.  Even in these primitive civilizations, enclaves, and villages, we erected totems which were not so much religious symbols, but rather symbols of  social status in the hierarchy of the village.  The taller, wider, more elaborately carved and ostentatiously decorated totems belonged to those with the highest standing in the village.  Not much has changed.  Today our totems are our luxury cars, our beautiful homes and neighborhoods, the clothes and jewelry we wear; anything to tell the outward world what our status is in the social hierarchy in which we live.  Because such comparisons are so easy, we can come to hate those who have more than us, and class warfare can set in.  We can also come to despise the system that makes such comparisons so unwelcome.  How do I tell my wife that Fred down the street was just smarter than me, worked harder than me, caught opportunities that I missed?  How do I tell her that in the marriage sweepstakes she didn’t do as well as Fred’s wife?  Rather than deal with this reality, I now resent Fred, and my wife now resents Fred’s wife.  And since we can’t afford what Fred has, we attempt to fake reality by buying the same things that Fred has on credit that we can’t afford.  Envy has a lot to do with a consumer society.  We want what others have, not so much because we  need it, but because they have it and it has become a “totem”.  The more things change the more they stay the same!

 In the case of my family, my mother developed a personal philosophy that served her well:  she knew others had more because they were dishonest.  This included all entrepreneurs and business people.  With the feudal paradigm to draw from, we had less, they had more; somehow they had stolen our birthright, our fair share of Nature.  How?  We didn’t know how, but somehow they had.  There was no reasoning with this position. We confused fantasy with reality.    Did anyone force employees to work for this businessman?  No.  Did anyone force the customers to buy from this businessman?  No.  Did anyone force other business people to sell to this businessman?  No.  Then if everyone is making their own choices with no coercion, how did this businessman steal from all of us?  No answer.  We just know he did.  This was our family’s way of evading the reality that we did not understand the creation of wealth.  It also meant that until or unless we improved our financial literacy, we had no chance of changing our economic situation.  (To our credit, we did not consider our need a claim on anyone else.  We went to the doctor only when we could afford it; we took on extra jobs, or we did without.)  Socialism operates on a principle that does not exist anywhere in Nature.  It attempts to legislate into existence an equality of result that runs counter to reality, to what IS.  Imagine trying to grow a forest where it was required that every tree be exactly as tall as every other tree.  Imagine trying to fertilize the scrawny ones to encourage them to grow faster and taller, and that failing, trying to limit the growth of the taller ones, or pruning them back, in the spirit “of fairness.”  Such is the challenge of the utopians of the human species.

 There are other historical and psychological reasons why we long to believe the utopians.  There is for example, the matter of intrinsic worth.  In a market society, you become wealthy by selling a good or service that a lot of people want.  It does not matter whether the item in question reflects good taste or atrocious taste; what matters is if it appeals to the taste of a mass market.  There are many who take great offense at this, including intellectuals, artists, scientists, educators, etc.  They may consider themselves to have great intrinsic talent, only to find that those who pandered to a more common taste earned much more money.  Once again envy comes home to roost, as we have to deal with the awkward business of comparing our totems, or stature, with others in our society.  So a professor may disdain a former student who has been much more financially successful than he, the professor, could ever be.  When the market does not reward my clearly superior talents, it is only appropriate that the government, and its elite, give me the recognition, of which  the market in its blindness, deprives me.

 Socialism always involves forms of elitism, substituting the taste and opinions of the few over the wishes of the many.  The use of force, or coercion, to accomplish this is a given.  Government subsidizes what the market will not recognize.  If you don’t believe this, go in any art museum today and ask yourself if the “market” put a lot of that stuff on the walls?  As George Orwell once said “Some things are so preposterous, only an intellectual could believe them.”

 In a free market, as in all of nature, each produces and survives according to his ability.  Those with less cannot blame it on living in a class society where they have no chance to change their station in life.  Those who compare less favorably with their colleagues and peers often hate the free society that invites such unfavorable comparisons and takes away the excuses.  I learned this lesson well in the early seventies in Brooklyn and Newark, NJ, where I developed many friendships among the Haitian immigrants of that period.  They had everything against them; some spoke poor English, many were illegal, almost all were quite poor and lived many families per apartment.  But they had good minds and a great work ethic, and the vast majority of them within a few short years became successful business owners and landlords in former slum areas burned out by the race riots of the period.  When most of the population around them were complaining that they had no chance because of racial bias,  the Haitians, who were of the same race as their neighbors, created wealth.  To this day they serve as an inspiration to me of what can be done with intelligence and great desire.

Those on the other hand who are unwilling to deal with their own limitations, and do not  work to expand their abilities may choose to find refuge in platitudes, such as “We are more spiritual; we do not trade in material things”.  Authors of little-known book titles scoff at the “material” or “poor taste” of the buying public.  They find the worth of their own writings suffused with intrinsic worth that clearly cannot be evaluated by their lack of financial success.  All of this is a form of pretentiousness, the intellectual equivalent of leasing a luxury car we cannot afford in order to fake a success we have not achieved.  Great literary works are by definition authored by people who went against the conventional wisdom of the time, and whose fame was often posthumous.  That does not mean however that an economic system that allows for others who did achieve financial success by catering to a popular taste is to be condemned.  Personally I have found some of the great classics a real treat, and with some of the others, I couldn’t help wonder by what standard they made the cut into “greatness”.  I have always had the arrogance to reserve the right to my own judgment in such things.  Just because someone tells me that a work is great art does not mean I am going to agree.  I still cannot bring myself to accept the crude scribblings of a small mind as “art” just because it came to hang on a museum wall by some fraud of the popular culture.

 When all else fails, when we observe, and envy, those who have achieved much more than we have, we can fall back on the old standby:  “But they’re not happy.”  This conclusion is more ubiquitous than one might think.  In the interests of brevity, I will only say this:  It is true that neither money, nor wealth, will bring happiness.  But it is also very true that the absence of it can bring a lot of unhappiness, debilitating stress, and grief.  For all those who bemoan the modern state of society, I can only ask how many of us would like to live without our medical science, our conveniences that we take so for granted, our mobility, our leisure time, our extended lifespans?  It is one thing to denigrate these things in “chic” social banter; it is quite another to survive as the noble savage, the primitive man who lost all his teeth by the age of 20 and who was exhausted, diseased, or dead by 30; who had no time for such leisurely pursuits, and most of whose children died before they ever reached maturity.  How very interesting that our culture considers charitable work a great virtue, but rarely speaks out in praise of all the men (and women) of the mind who created the wonderful world we live in, and whose minds keep it going.  They are often forgotten because, just like in the millenia of the past, production was expected of the competent.  Why? Because they were competent.  The producers were serfs; the nobility redistributed the value of what they produced.  The nobility were the lords of confiscation and reallocation of resources. 

 Ultimately, what is the appeal of all utopias?  It is the belief that we can get something for nothing.  It doesn’t matter whether the goal is material or spiritual, whether it is financial success, or respect,  admiration, or love.  If it is a desire to have what we have not earned, we will choose to believe what facts and reason will not support.  When you scratch the surface of all utopian philosophies, somewhere below the shiny surface is an ugliness of power lusting, greed for the unearned, envy of those who have earned it, and a desire to fake a reality that doesn’t exist except in our wishful thinking.  Utopia is the suspension of disbelief; it is the attempted triumph of consciousness over existence; the belief that we can remake what IS by no greater effort than wishing it to be so.

Thanks for visiting!  John Bechtel, Greenville, SC


One Response to “Why We Believe: The Power of Utopia, Part II”
  1. Irwin J. Brown says:

    Hello John,

    Thanks for heading me towards your blog. I read the entries with great enthusiasm and appreciation. Your commitment to giving back to the community through education is admirable. You are an amazingly talented writer and (from the two You Tube videos) communicator. . .
    I applaud and admire your generous contributions to society. Don’t stop educating me and the population at large. We need more tell it like it is and less feel good information.

    You made my day.



    CHICAGO, IL 60601

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