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Utopia and Parallels of History

Since COVID, the world as most of us have known it has turned on its head with democratically-elected politicians and unelected bureaucrats seizing the moment to amass enormous powers for themselves that violate civil liberties en masse. In the process, the World Economic Forum (WEF) rose to public consciousness for many who had only been vaguely familiar with the organization beforehand. The organization’s founder, Klaus Schwab, issued a call to action, declaring that “The pandemic represents a rare but narrow window of opportunity to reflect, reimagine, and reset our world.” 

For many among the billions of victims of totalitarian COVID policies around the world and for those familiar with the WEF’s rejuvenation of Malthusian thought (frequent warnings of overpopulation), its call to “degrow” the global economy, for us all to integrate insects into our diets while consuming less (or no) meat, its push for CBDCs (despite enormous public opposition), the “narrow window of opportunity” that Schwab calls for to “reset our world” hardly instigates feelings of excitement. It instead highlights the importance of remaining vigilant against ever-looming new rounds of human rights violations on a global scale. 

Thomas Sowell distinguishes between the two Visions in A Conflict of Visions. The ‘Constrained Vision’ sees human nature as flawed, selfish and fixed; while the ‘Unconstrained Vision’ sees it as endlessly malleable, like clay or putty—something that can be shaped and molded into something from a designer’s imagination. Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker builds upon Sowell’s framework in his own book The Blank Slate, where he argues that the ‘Unconstrained Vision’ (which Pinker calls the ‘Utopian Vision’) is a denial of human nature, rejecting that the human mind possesses an innate biological programming. It is this fallacy that inevitably led to some of the worst atrocities of the 20th Century, each committed in the name of egalitarianism. Among the several examples he cites are the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin, China’s Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong (responsible for as many as sixty-five million deaths), and Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot (during which a quarter of the nation’s population was killed). 

Pinker quotes Lenin’s admirer Maxim Gorky: “The working classes are to Lenin what minerals are to the metallurgist.” Mao echoed this sentiment in writing that “It is on a blank page that the most beautiful poems are written.” Similarly, a Khmer Rouge slogan stated that “Only the newborn babies are spotless.” 

In some important ways, our time is reminiscent of the French Revolution. As Sowell notes in yet another book, Knowledge and Decisions, “The French Revolution was based on abstract speculation on the nature of man by intellectuals, and on the potentiality of government as a means of human improvement,” while the “American Revolution was based on historical experience of man as he is and has been, and on the shortcomings and dangers of government as actually observed.” 

The French Revolution’s attempt to develop “the perfectability of man” is characterized by its combination of massacres and public executions of tens of thousands (many by guillotine) during the “Reign of Terror,” and Robespierre’s statement that the bloodshed would end only “when all people will have become equally devoted to their country and its laws.” 

The French revolutionaries also sought to bring about a new scientific man by means of reshaping institutions. One failed attempt consisted of instituting a 10-day week that was “designed to swallow up the Christian Sunday in a new cycle of work and recreation,” as the 7-day week of the Gregorian calendar “was viewed as nonscientific and tainted with religious associations.” In other words, if the French public was to hold an allegiance to a higher power (God), this would only distract from the utopian visions of revolutionaries who demanded absolute allegiance to themselves and to their plans. 

Beyond the week, standardization of measurement also brought about the so-called “metrical revolution.” As James C. Scott notes in his book Seeing Like a State, there was some organic demand from the public to standardize measurement in France (to facilitate commerce and from Enlightenment philosophy), but “the Revolution and especially Napoleonic state building actually enforced the metric system in France and the empire.” In other words, the metric system didn’t gain mass adoption on merit alone; it took a dictator (who even crowned himself emperor) and all the carnage that comes with such a figurehead. 

The American Founding Fathers, by contrast, (generally speaking) sought to deal with man’s nature head on, warts and all. As James Madison wrote in Federalist 51, 

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

History is full of instructive examples that reveal the conditions that allow for both human flourishing and those that end catastrophically. There is no shortage of examples to suggest what might happen if we redesign (or “reset”) a society from the imaginations of intellectuals pushing an agenda for the rest of us to comply with. Freedom is, above all, (to quote Sowell) “the right of ordinary people to find elbow room for themselves and a refuge from the rampaging presumptions of their ‘betters.’”

“Elbow room for ordinary people.” Now that’s a slogan worth repeating. 

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