The Utopian Fallacy vs. Today’s Reality
I’m hard pressed to distill my thoughts on the subject I was handed last night on Facebook As usual, it could be a book to respond to this — this is the quick post. A friend there posted this picture:
And so, I commented:
“But, we already are taking care of everybody on earth at a higher standard of living than they have ever known — why, the wealth pouring out of the end of socialism in so many places it is astounding — cell phones, clean water, cars, electronics, computers, better housing — egad — where have you been? Join the capitalist revolution and make things even better … oh, as for “selfishness” — it’s the very heart of wealth production — and weirdly, everyone gets richer — while when we get all soft and altruistic, we wind up broke. Go figure.”
My friend, the man who posted the picture, responded thus:
“As always, I enjoy your input Jim. Unfortunately I cannot agree that everybody on earth is already being taken care of at a higher standard of living. Corporate profit seeking has destroyed many countries and their people are dying, not from a lack of resources, but from a lack of money to pay for the resources. It is sad to me and I thought that this post expressed that.”
At this point it’s clear that my friend and I have wholly different views on what exactly is happening and why – not that we disagree on a goal of sorts, no – merely what underlies the goal. So how do I address this succinctly? But, then there were other comments, which I won’t quote in full, but only pick out a few comments.
“People once lived as tribes for thousands of years, but eventually tribes began to join and trade and became civilization. Civilization brought about great wonders and advances, but also brought stratification of the people and created wars and fights over the resources that were bestowed to us all and the ones in control benefited more than the people.”
Then, in reference to any extraterrestrials that might wander by:
“Much like when a neighbor just drops by and your house is a mess, how could we possibly explain to another species how we live? It would be awful! We destroy ourselves and other life forms that we share this planet with and destroy the planet itself for what?”
Then a lady says: “I feel that the standard of living has actually declined significantly in the past 50 years and even since I was a child. Standard of living involves the community we have with others and the health of that which sustains us. The levels of greed and excess that are pushing out all other species and ruining our own health is astounding. I choose to remain optimistic that we can use our technology for good rather than greed………..”
then to that my friend responded:
“ I also hope that one day technology can help.”
And, well, wow.
I suppose first let’s deal with extraterrestrials, since that’s the most utopian of all these utopian ideals, and what we may have to explain to them. First of all, some people have the idea that these other beings, if they exist, will be these enlightened perfect beings who will cringe at our backwardness or violence, or whatever else might seem to ail us. But that’s just as much supposition that these beings will be rapacious monsters come to eat us out of house and home, and often us too. Hollywood seems to be of the latter idea, while utopians and progressives seem to be of the former idea of aliens.
If they are the rapacious sort, or, “human like” then, well, I suppose war it shall be. Given the technology involved in getting here, I’d suppose it would be to the death and violent. Though, if they are the benign sort, of some Zen perfection of peace and harmony, never mind explaining us humans and our violence … virtually every specie on earth is rapacious in its way. The carnivores far more so, obviously, but the zebras, ah, they’ll abandon a sick foal, and even probably nudge a sickly elder zebra to the end of the herd, to be lion feast. Who is to say that there is not a pecking order among the zebra? There is among the chickens, I hear. Some roosters come to rule the roost.
The peaceful, though tree destroying, elephant also has a strict pecking order, of a sort of similar way as human civilization operates, and within elephant herds there’s no way to tell which individual will get to the top, it’s not just age or beauty. But something else, a personality. Perhaps “leadership” it could be called, the sort that leads the matriarch of the herd to direct her herd to better places, or so she thinks – it’s all guess work even for her. And all the other elephants follow her lead.
Sharks would be a bit hard to explain to peace loving aliens, especially as they rip baby seals from their mother’s flippers on flocking beaches. Same with baby seals and polar bears. Oh, how rare the image seen of a polar bear with the blood and bone of baby seal enveloping that gorgeous whiteness of environmental poster. Oh, the magnificent beast! What do they think it eats? It’s not a pretty picture for the baby seal, or the mother/father watching the feast of their child in front of their eyes. Indeed, I would say we humans, if we’re not animal like the rest, learned our rapacious killing from others, and they not from us.
Still, we’d have a lot of explaining to do about all sorts of weird things on earth, and why we don’t do something about them, to bring about “Livingry” instead of “weaponry” – why, nature is filled with rather intense defense and attack mechanisms. We are not alone in this. Frankly, I think aliens will be quite at home here, for we can’t be all that different – that’s a faith based human hubris I haven’t adopted.
Which leads me to “The levels of greed and excess that are pushing out all other species and ruining our own health is astounding.” – and I’m thinking this lady is not quite aware, apparently, of what is happening in this world. Greed is not pushing out other species, say in Africa – but humans trying to live in the same space as wild rapacious animals – certainly no corporation is pushing the Kenyans to have such a high birth rate that causes them to move into the Serengeti. What “greed” is she talking about?
And ruining our own health? Why, the world has never been healthier. We know of more diseases, perhaps, or defined them better than “consumption” or “the vapors” – why, 75 years ago there were no antibiotics – and the “greed” perhaps of drug companies created them – or rather, took the mostly strange happenstances and blatant mistakes of science and made something of them. Penicillin was an error – it was not being looked for – it was noticed. It had to have been there all along, for thousands of years. And in the I suppose, “pre-greed” time, this halcyon days we are perhaps to return to, well, no one noticed. Ever.
Once noticed it took someone’s energy, someone’s gumption, their greed, even, to make the noticed thing into a real thing that could be used. Still, more people are living longer healthier lives today than ever before in world history. Every complaint, or potential problem is pounced upon – AIDS seems to have taught that one trick … go after the disease when it seems to surface – alas, we’ve gone to alarmism – which is nothing more than recycled superstition that prevailed before the “greed” of the industrial revolution and the “greed” of England (and to a lesser extant, Spain, France and the Dutch,) to learn the world. It was the “greedy” corporation East India Company – a created monopoly of the British Government, and not something that “greed” created other than the “greed” for power – which the Queen conferred on them – by excluding all others. She didn’t give them a dime.
But to assure their success all the members of the company pledged every dime they had to pay for their mistakes, (and quite a few lost it all, and made Lloyd’s of London to battle that bit of problem,) and thus reap the rewards of their successes. In the beginning, when the East India Company went looking at the world, they took along scientists and naturalists and linguists – why, yes, it was “greed” for knowledge which led to this vast exploration of the world – and the greed which led to the technology which enabled it. It took a 100,000 Pounds Sterling prize money to get anyone to invent a good way to figure out where was one in the world. Prior to the 1700s it was pure guess work – they knew north and south, that was easy – but east and west, that was impossible. What sort of greed for knowledge led the parliament to offer such a stupendous sum of money? Why, that’s Hundreds of Millions of Dollars today – could you imagine a prize for an invention of that magnitude? You only get a million for a peace prize, even if you don’t bring peace.
Then this knowledge led to vast new ways of doing things, and enormous numbers of new products, and it began the enrichment of the world. For prior to this people lived traditionally – short, nasty brutish lives with no real economy. In fact, to speak of poverty today, or poor people, in poor countries is merely to define their condition prior the industrial revolution. Mali is not poor because anything was taken, they are poor because they’ve always been poor, they never had anything.
None of today’s truly destitute people are poor because someone’s greed took anything away from them. The average African, South American, Asian, European for that matter, had nothing in 1700 – they were all equal. All over the world the ebb and flow of civilizations was just raw violent power, often accompanied by the leveling of cities and slaughtering of populations that haven’t occurred in centuries. Not even the Germans, Japanese or Allies bombed and killed in cities the likes of which Attila the Hun, Julius Caesar, Frederick Barbarossa or Louis XV did. This last one, he reduced the city of La Rochelle and it’s 160,000 inhabitants into mere rubble and debris and dried bones scavenged by mangy dogs. And this in the French Enlightenment and Rococo Furniture, Louis Quinze! Robespierre killed in ways that make Syria’s dictator look rather peaceful. He reduced Lyon to rubble and killed 250,000 people, almost by hand. The guillotine at least – the brutality of past ages is something to behold.
These are the good old days for violence, for, like Fuller and my friends wish, there’s so much less war; it’s almost obsolete. Sure, we have miscreants left, no one is arguing that there aren’t crazed dictators – but it’s not corporations which are killing people – it’s governments. To the degree any corporation joins government – well, that’s just the way it’s always been – this is nothing new. Why, corporations were created by governments – precisely to prevent greed! Why, they were to control all the profit at a set level, they were to keep this amount of workers employed, and no more or less – the rules and regulations of the guilds, which were the first corporations, were the direct product of government. They were monopolies – which are only caused by government. Oddly, governments preventing “greed” have to create monopolies to control it, which then, alas, abuse their power, as all power is abused. To the degree that Fuller (no, I haven’t forgotten him,) thinks we should have “livingry” and that my friend agrees – then it’s to the modern corporation we should thank – not some decree of government or utopian idealists.
When a modern company opens a sneaker factor in Vietnam it’s not depriving people of some great jobs and great wages that is supplanted. It’s supply jobs that never existed, at wages far higher than local standards ever had. By American standards a $1 an hour is horrid – but by Vietnamese standards it’s 10 times better than $1 a day, which is what they made before the factory. Same with Mexicans who come to the US – constant bleating how they “only” make $7 – (more likely $10 and $20) an hour as gardeners and construction workers – without a single realization by these bleaters that in Mexico they make $7 to $10 a day for the same hours worked. And yet, the prices aren’t lower. A pair of sneakers in Mexico – the same identical pair that is made in Vietnam for $1 an hour, is $100 – I kid you not. Mexico puts an astounding import tax on shoes to make sure that somehow a Mexican show industry develops. It hasn’t. The business regulations and cronyism and greed prevention policies has ensured that no company has surfaced that makes shoes in Mexico. Meanwhile, that same pair of sneakers – even if $100 in the US (and it’s actually cheaper here – -and more like $80 bucks) then it’s still 10 times less expensive, since we make $10 an hour and they make $1 an hour – they must work 100 hours and we work 10 – it’s cheaper for us.
In fact, in measuring how much things cost, and the “standard of living” – it’s not the price, or the absolute number that is compared between yesteryear and today – say, a $5,000 car in 1950 and a $20,000 car today – so we can “see” it’s more expensive – but it’s not. It used to take a year’s worth of work to buy the car, in hours worked, while today it’s less. Yes, there’s ups and downs in the ratio of hours worked per any two years examined – that is, if you look at say, the year 2000 and today, there has been a stagnation, or even a raise in the number of hours to work to buy the car … as government grows, so does poverty, weirdly.
For it’s not because of corporate greed raising the price – it’s because of taxes on the cars, and the parts therein, and on the “free” stuff that companies are required now to give to their employees – like, say, health care. The idea of health care tied to a job is so medieval I can’t shake it from my head. We have morphed into the idea that to leave your job is very bad for you health care – and we’ve lionized the idea of kids following their father’s footsteps into good factory manufacturing jobs with health care – making the same things they made um, 50 years ago. Yes, well, that’s what the plantation master offered, and the liege lord. Indeed, there’s plenty of legislation in the kings of England’s history that required the Lords and Earls and Dukes to provide for the health care (even if it was a potion of no merit and a bleeding) of the masses, who were tied to their jobs for health care.
The idea that living standards have declined (as the lady says she “feels” – well, emotions, schmotions, let’s look at facts, eh?) is absurd in every conventional measurement known to us, and by all the metaphysical ones – except idealism – that’s unreachable. By length of life, by leisure hours, by what we can buy, by our heating and cooling, by our calorie intake (so good is the “health care” and “Livingry” in this nation that 1/3 of us are fat, supposedly; in Mexico it’s only ¼ fat.) and in clothes, shoes, and not just Americans, but Europeans – and the rest of the world. 50 years ago the numbers of people in “industrialized” or “civil societies” was pretty much America and the English speaking world, and even England was bad off, what with the War only 20 years gone. But Europe was still destitute; rubble was still hanging around. The East more than the West, but still, I recall “there’s children starving in Europe.” It was true. Why, the USA has been subsidizing Europe precisely because their lack of greed has led them to the doldrums. They’re all for equality, and they have it – they slowly, inexorably, all becoming as broke as they were um, 50 years ago. Even 500 years ago.
Speaking of “destroying countries,” and “corporate” “greed” and slaughtering people and weaponry and livingry – I point out that Europe barely 2 decades ago went again on a killing spree based on supposed differences. Croats, Serbs and Bosnians, Montenegrins and Macedonians all speak the same language, as different as between English in Los Angeles, Jackson Mississippi and Brooklyn, and that’s about it – but they have three religions and two alphabets, and they’re not going to take it anymore. So they went to war and slaughter – the only corporations involved were the McDonald’s bombed in Belgrade and Sarajevo and the Holiday Inn shelled to rubble in Sarajevo. What did corporation’s greed have to do with any of this I’m afraid I can’t ever figure out – there it is – destroying nations. Not even the “profits” and “greed” of military defense contractors in France and Germany and Russia (which supplied the vast arms used by the various sides, with us barely doing a thing until we had to bomb them into peace with each other,) could explain this war in modern enlightened liberal socially tolerant Europe. No military contractor raised up the Serbian desire to revenge a battle lost in 1389 on the Fields of Kosovo.
Supposedly, perhaps it’s “Resources” – yes, well, Marx and the Catholic Church, Thomas More and Plato, and many other great and learned philosophers all supposed that all the resources not only belonged to everyone equally but that they are spread out over the world equally – or should be – and that they are there for the simple taking. That’s the point of Thomas More’s Utopia. That’s what’s in Aristotle’s Politics – the equal spread of resources, that are supposedly there for the plucking. And so, Tin, let’s look at tin, which we need, for various purposes – where is Tin from? Why, today it’s from the Andes Mountains, in Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador – and did the Inca use tin? Nope. They had no known use for this rock. They looked at it as actually bad rocks, because you can’t use it for construction, too soft. And it decays. And crumbles. Terrible stuff. They had no use for Tin. But we do.
And we (western civilization, if we can remove us from the Inca for a moment,) used to get Tin, back in Roman times, from the “corporate greed” of the Celts of Cornwall. Rather crafty fellows, they charged high prices for Tin. The Romans weren’t pleased, though you could pick the stuff up from the ground in ingots, so invaded. But it was government that went for the tin, for the weapons. It was certainly not the Tin Belt Buckle Company of Rome that did it – they were well happy to pay whatever the going price for tin was – why, they weren’t even sure where it came from, or how it came to be – but when the boat came in, they bought, and made their buckles. Then the Roman government worked over the tin industry, to get rid of the corporate greed, and presto – no more tin. Just like that. Fast forward 1800 years and we find Tin in Bolivia and Peru, and some “greedy” man figures out how to get the soft rock out of hard to reach mountain passes into a useable form for export to the other greedy corporations out destroying countries by making belt buckles.
Preposterous, I say – it is the corporations which have made life better – and the stricter we are in keeping them away from government, and government away from them, the better off we all are. But to use the Fuller idea, this utopian, lets all have us all get all the resources we need from some utopian fabrication scheme – I can’t fathom exactly what utopians wish actually – is nuts. The resources don’t belong to all of us – neither physical or mental resources belong to anyone but those who develop them. If I come and offer you a buck for a rock you can’t use and is in your way, and then I make $5 after investing $2 – and my profit is $2 – then you already got your share – the buck. You aren’t also entitled to a share of the two bucks in profit because you have determined my greed took your worthless rock that you sold to me because you thought I was a sucker and now you see I know what to do with that rock and you want a piece of my brain power. No, no one is entitled to that. Slavery is long gone, and so is indentured servitude.
It’s “peace” and “harmony” for sure, that many want – but how to do it other than exhortation is hard to imagine. And if you exhort too much than you lay aside the “peace” and “harmony” for force and pain of punishment for not going along with the utopia.
Meanwhile, finally to Fuller and his statement – he spoke some 50 years ago, given, I recall, his death several decades ago. Well, we achieved what he wanted in ways he couldn’t imagine. And well, there is less war – precisely because corporations are bringing new wealth to everyone. The 6 billion people on the planet are no longer just 200,000,000 rich Americans and 4 billion poverty stricken in their traditionalism – some Papau New Guinea native is not living in “Poverty,” he’s living traditionally, and this too we are to support, while wishing he get wealthy, I guess – and that’s impossible – you can’t keep traditionalism, which is no economics, and have wealth too. Now it’s 320 million Americans who are rather rich – why, the poorest in this nation have annual incomes several times that of many dozens of nations – and have access to more goods, more health, more food than even the middle class or rich could imagine in say, Cameroon or Honduras – and 4 billion people who are richer and healthier and better off and living in more peace with their neighbors – precisely because they engage in peaceful corporate greed – and not the old Roman way of doing things and just going in and taking stuff. And if the poor of this nation were a little greedier, and didn’t buy into the “we’re all in this together and it all belongs to us” stuff, and they exhibited a bit of self-interest in wealth gaining, well, they wouldn’t be as poor.
The Quechua who sell the tin, or the Bolivian Government which controls the tin, to help the people, I’m sure, had never sold a jot of tin in their existence until some “greedy corporation” came in and found it and did something with it. By any measure the Quechua and the Bolivians won the lottery – they had to do nothing but wait around for several millennia until someone came an offered them money, goods and services for stuff they had no use for and had never sold before. That’s wealth creation, those people are better off by any known measure. Or, if they hadn’t sold their tin, they’d be “Living in poverty” of traditionalism – which is fine – but you can’t then blame poverty on corporations when the poverty is just as indigenous as the people, and the tin they never used or even really knew about just lay around in the way. There were no smelters in the Inca empire, except for gold and silver, which is far different in process.
I can’t imagine what Fuller’s problem is – he was a smart guy – developed a distinct housing form that no one thought was good – maybe that’s what miffed him. He was a utopian without a following. But he’s so wrong about this “selfishness” I can’t fathom it. This quality of man is what leads to improvement. It is the selfish & greedy desire of every man and woman and child on this earth since the dawn of time to do more with less, to work less and get paid more, to labor less for any item, and to get more items, and to play more than work – it’s the greed for the good life that has led to the incredible increase in living standards of our times.
I read this quote today, on a book blurb — this qualifies here: “I agree with George Bernard Shaw that the reasonable man adapts himself to the world, whilst the unreasonable man persists in adapting the world to himself, and therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Yes, well, progress depends on the selfish greed of everyone – not the lounging around awaiting what is yours because it all belongs to all of us.
Oh, it’s not perfect yet? Well, don’t blame those who bring us the tin and penicillin, but blame the utopians who keep striving for some governmental form that will “take care of everyone on earth at a higher living standard” – and it will take, and has taken, far more than some wishful thinking that “war is obsolete” – it’s a fine sentiment – one that selfish greedy people well know – for we’d rather trade than have to join the army and fight the guy with some product we want over there – and all because two governments have this utopian ideal that they shall provide for all the “Livingry” of me and he – and say that because we merely trade across a border we are damaging our respective sides of it – and so they need weaponry to fight anyone who disagrees with them. Which is usually greedy selfish people making something of themselves and for their folks as they see fit – which never, absolutely never meets with the gusto approval of governments seeking the ideal for all – which always leads to the squashing of the “unreasonable” “greedy” man and thus we have no progress.
Don’t blame greed or selfishness for the problems of this world – that’s survival, and the best way we can peace and harmony.
Blame utopian ideals of the Fuller sort – and pounding people into submission who don’t agree.
And if my friend still thinks that corporate greed kills people then I really can’t do much more than keep pointing out example after example, every time the opportunity presents itself. And I shall disabuse any utopian ideals as not only pie in the sky, but dangerous to my health and wealth, as all such systems are.
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