The Search for the "Good Society"
[From The Rise and Fall of Society (1959)]
The search for a formula for the "good society" has never been abandoned, hope being what it is, and out of the laboratory of the human mind has come a congeries of utopias. The connotation of unreality that the word has acquired follows from the fact that every utopia ignores the central operating lever of man: he seeks to satisfy his desires with the least expenditure of effort.
Every "good society" conjured up by philosophers and reformers presupposes an imaginary man managing his behavior by the dictates of pure reason and keeping in mind the long-range effects of his every act. Since there is no such man, or none we know of, every utopian scheme is indulgently put into the category of a fairy tale, interesting but unreal.
To be sure, man is a reasoning animal, and if he were to refer the matter to his reason he would conclude that something-for-nothing is an impossibility; what one acquires "for free" must be provided by another. He would admit that a Society consisting entirely of consumers, say pirates, could not exist. He would concede without argument that production must precede consumption, that the purpose of production is consumption, that nothing would be produced if there were no prospect of enjoyment. He need not be an economist to arrive at such conclusions. All that, he would say, is common sense.
Yet, how easily does common sense take flight before the prospect of a gratuity or an unearned profit! Reason is not lacking in sufficient logic to circumvent reason when a handout is involved. The beneficiary finds nothing incongruous in a regimen of "bread and circuses"; here is visible evidence that something-for-nothing is not a mirage.
Is it cold logic that generates urgency for "protective" tariffs or a passion for getting more than one gives? When the State undertakes to provide "cheap" electricity for one section of the population at the expense of another, there are reasoners enough to support the arrangement. The libraries are full of tomes justifying subsidies of all sorts, and leveling — or the forcible taking from one to give to another — has long been the favorite preoccupation of professorial brains. Aristotle, the peer of logicians, found a syllogism to support the oldest form of exploitation known to man.
Yes, man is endowed with the gift of reason, but he is also possessed of appetites and an aversion to labor, and too often his reason bends to his other characteristics. The failure of utopians to accept this fact, or to accept man as he is, not as he ought to be, gives their schemes a dreamlike quality.
Generally speaking, utopianism falls into two main categories: the anarchistic and the communistic. The one posits as its primary premise the essential reasonableness and goodness of man, which are perverted by the introduction of force. It is the policeman, says the anarchist, who makes the criminal; remove the one and the other disappears."All utopias are characterized by an avoidance of the fact that the State is made by man and in his own image, that if he were not constantly on the prowl for something-for-nothing he would never build such an institution."
The communistic utopian, on the other hand, puts all the blame for social disorder on the institution of private property; abolish that institution (with or without force, according to the utopian's conceit), and the "good society" will follow as a matter of course. (Incidentally, most anarchistic utopians would also abolish private property by the very force they decry; apparently, force is commendable when it is used by the right person for the right purpose.)
The anarchistic premise, that the policeman came before and made the thief, is lacking in historical support; the sheriff came only because cattle rustling called for him. The communistic premise, that private property is the root of all social evil, assumes that man works for the sake of working, and without regard for the prospect of possession and enjoyment. Neither premise coincides with observable experience, and therefore the syllogisms built on each hangs in the midair of unreality.
Significantly, all utopian programs pay considerable attention to the political organization of man. The philosophic anarchist (relying on the perfectibility of man through education) is convinced that when the individual comes to his senses he will not need or tolerate the State. The communist believes that an all-powerful State is necessary not only for the wiping out of private property but also of the inclination of the individual to own, and expects that instrument to "wither away" when it has accomplished that purpose.
Then there are the utopians who dwell somewhere between these schools; accepting the State as a desirable or unavoidable fact of life (or even enjoying divine sanction), they propose to rid it of its admitted imperfections by legalistic tinkering; The Republic of Plato is the best known of this type. All utopias are characterized by an avoidance of the fact that the State is made by man and in his own image, that if he were not constantly on the prowl for something-for-nothing he would never build such an institution.
Some indirect recognition of the fact that the State is the image of man, or vice versa, is found in those utopias that lay claim to scientific exactitude. Beginning with a theory that is nothing but an unproven hypothesis, they do pretty well in endowing the State with a socially beneficial character. The theory holds that man is not a reasoning animal, or even a thinking one, and is certainly without fixed or immutable instincts; his behavior consists entirely of reflex actions induced by environmental conditioning.
From this premise (which its proponents accept as axiomatic) it follows that man will be what his environmental influences compel him to be, and that the "perfect" man will emerge from the "perfect" environment. It is the mold that makes the man. If, therefore, we would improve the condition of man we must apply ourselves to the improvement of the mold into which this bit of protoplasm is to be poured.
But how and by whom is this mold to be built? It is admittedly a colossal job, which only the State with its monopoly of power is capable of performing. But the State itself is a human institution, and the question arises as to the capacity of the nonthinking human to put the State on the job of producing the "perfect" environment.
The "scientists" get themselves out of this logical quandary by simply putting their basic theory aside for the moment and admitting, at least tacitly, that some people are in fact capable of thinking. For an as-yet-unexplained reason, these "scientists" have been able to free themselves from their environmental influences and are actually capable of cerebration; for that reason they have been chosen (by themselves, of course, since nobody else is capable of passing judgment on their capacities) to draw up the blueprint for the "perfect" environment that, by use of its force, the State can effectuate.
Certainty of success will be assured by entrusting the power to the "scientists." And we who cannot think are for that very reason estopped from questioning either their logic or the soundness of their utopia.
This article is excerpted from The Rise and Fall of Society (1959).
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.