Last Exit To Utopia

On April 10, 2010, in Culture, Economics, History, Politics, by marc

U·to·pi·a [yoo-toh-pee-uh]- noun - an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect. The word was first used in the book Utopia (1516) by Sir Thomas More. The opposite of dystopia.
ORIGIN based on Greek ou not + tóp(os) a place

Last Exit to Utopia

Last Exit to Utopia by Jean-François Revel

Note, dear reader, the origin of the term “utopia”: the Greek root indicates that utopia is, literally, nowhere.  It is not a place.  It does not exist.  Sir Thomas More, who first used the term, certainly never considered such a place to be realistically possible.  And the truth of the matter is that anyone remotely acquainted with the reality of human nature and history must admit that we do not live in a perfect world, and that such a place is impossible to create.

Anyone, that is, besides leftist intellectuals and politicians, who continue to insist – against the overwhelming evidence of history – that socialism can work, that indeed it must work!  They argue, in spite of all the plain evidence against them, that socialist solutions are more efficient and equitable than market solutions, and that the classical liberal system that has created the most vibrant societies and powerful economies in world history should be at least reined in and subjected to strict scrutiny, and at most outright replaced by a “more humane” socialist system.

Jean-François Revel was a French intellectual, a member of the Académie française, and one of the greatest French political philosophers of the 20th century, at least in the seemingly small branch of 20th century French political philosophy that wasn’t completely enamored of totalitarian schemes.  Prior to his death in 2006, he penned a book called Le Grande Parade, which has now been translated into English and re-titled Last Exit to Utopia, in which he exposes the intellectual and moral failure of leftist intellectuals who have served as apologists for the brutal communist regimes that brought misery and death to millions in the last century, and examines the project that was undertaken by the left after the fall of communism to rehabilitate Marxist and socialist ideas.

Anthony Daniels – AKA Theodore Dalrymple – contributes a fantastic preface to the English edition of the work.  An excerpt:

As Jean-François Revel establishes very clearly in this book, the left-leaning intelligentsia’s long infatuation with the Soviet Union and other Communist countries was not merely an intellectual error but, if not quite a criem itself, at the very least complicity with crime; and moreover crime on a scale virtually unparalleled in human history before the Nazis came on the scene.  With very few honorable exceptions, the whole of the left-leaning intelligentsia devoted a great deal of its formidable powers of sophistry to denying or exculpating the crimes of Communism, thus siding with the mass executioners rather than with the victims in the mass graves.

When the moral, economic, social and philosophical failure of Communism was admitted in the land of its birth, the Western left-leaning intelligentsia found itself with a serious and embarrassing problem.  It stood revealed for all to see as having, for many years, been morally not very different from, and not any better than, M. Le Pen of the French National Front, who once famously (or infamously) declared that the Holocaust was nothing but a detail of history.  While it is relatively easy, especially as one grows older, to admit to having been in error, even in gross error, it is very difficult to admit to having been a willing accomplice to evil, and evil of the most obvious and evident kind.  As M. Ravel convincingly explains, this accounts for the difference in the reception in France of two magisterial books about Communism by French scholars, François Furet’s Le passé d’une illusion, and Stephane Courtois’s Le Livre noir du communisme.

The first deals with what might be called the fashion for Communism as an intellectual error.  Anyone can be mistaken in his philosophy, and few people never change their philosophy in the light of experience and further reflection.  (An unchanging person would be suffering from what a medical friend of mine once called “a hardening of the concepts.”)  Therefore, however preposterous Marxism-Leninism might be as an intellectual system – “a farrago of nonsense,” as Professor Acton once called it – those who adhered to it do not stand convicted of wickedness or defect of character.  Hence Furet’s book, whose exposure of the errors of Communist doctrine could hardly be denied, was received respectfully and even with acclimation.

It was quite otherwise with Livre noir.  This book showed implacably that evil was implicit in both the theory and the practice of Communism, and that everywhere and anywhere it was tried, it resulted in the same appalling conduct of affairs, differing only as to scale.  Evil was in Communism’s DNA, as it were; and the crimes of Communist polities were not the result of a perversion of noble ideals, but were caused by the adoption of evil ideals.

Thus, those who espoused or sympathized with Communist ideals were convicted of harboring evil within themselves; and this is not an easy thing for people, especially those without a belief in original sin, to accept.  Courtois’s book was roundly condemned, therefore, by France’s left-leaning intelligentsia; and since it could not actually point to any serious factual errors contained in this massive work of scholarship, it resorted to defamation and the raising of smokescreens, such as that the book would bring relief and confort to the Front National.

Revel’s perspective seems to me a necessary antidote to the statist surge currently underway here in the United States.  Goodness knows this book is (unfortunately) on very few shelves among the current cadre of Washington “leaders.”  One can only hope the an electoral corrective is on the way, and that those who assume positions of power after the coming vote will take Ravel’s message to heart.

I was made aware of this book via a book review in the Wall Street Journal.  You can read it here.

A Quick Hit from Hayek

On January 29, 2010, in Culture, Economics, History, Politics, by marc

The Road to Serfdom, page 174:

…wherever liberty as we understand it has been destroyed, this has almost always been done in the name of some new freedom promised to the people.

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Tending Towards Totalitarianism

On January 19, 2010, in Culture, Economics, History, Politics, by marc

In honor of the most important by-election in the history of the Unites States of America, I picked up Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom once again.  As usual with this book, I almost immediately ran across a passage worth quoting:

The Road To Serfdom

The Road To Serfdom

No doubt an American or English “Fascist” system would greatly differ from the Italian or German models; no doubt, if the transition were effected without violence, we might expect to get a better type of leader.  And, if I had to live under a Fascist system, I have no doubt that I would rather live under one run by Englishmen or Americans than under one run by anybody else.  Yet all this does not mean that, judged on our present standards, our Fascist system would in the end prove so very different or much less intolerable than its prototypes. There are strong reasons for believing that what to us appear the worst features of the existing totalitarian systems are not accidental by-products but phenomena which totalitarianism is certain sooner or later to produce. Just as the democratic statesman who sets out to plan economic life will soon be confronted with the alternative of either assuming dictatorial powers or abandoning his plans, so the totalitarian dictator would soon have to choose between disregard of ordinary morals and failure. It is for this reason that the unscrupulous and uninhibited are likely to be more successful in a society tending toward totalitarianism.  Who does not see this has not yet grasped the full width of the gulf which separates totalitarianism from a liberal regime, the utter difference between the whole moral atmosphere under collectivism and the essentially individualist Western civilization.

Emphasis mine.  We are currently ruled by a collection of miniature tyrants who believe that they can plan our economic life and have little concern for individual liberty.  Today’s election in Massachusetts is an opportunity to discipline said tyrants and send the message that the citizens may be ready to reassume control over their own lives.  I’m hoping and praying for a Scott Brown win, and ultimately a resurgence of individual liberty in the country that did more to bring that concept to the world than any other.

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Exciting news: a friend and former (well, I suppose still current) colleague of mine, Anthony Bradley, has written a book examining the spiritual and social impact of Black Liberation Theology. Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America is set to be released in February, and it promises to be a worthwhile read for anyone who took an interest in the controversy surrounding Rev. Jeremiah Wright in the 2008 presidential campaign.  Below are some reviews posted on Amazon.com:

Liberating Black Theology by Anthony B. Bradley

Liberating Black Theology by Anthony B. Bradley

“Anthony Bradley’s analysis of black liberation theology is by far the best thing that I have read on the subject. Anthony’s book is comprehensive and in-depth. He covers all of the bases, and thereby provides the reader with all of the information that he needs to understand the critical issues involved with black liberation theology. By covering such figures as James Cone, Cornell West, and Jeremiah Wright, we see all of the nuances involved with their approaches to the subject. His explanation of victimology, Marxism, and aberrant Christian doctrine make a noxious mix of ideas that would make any true Christian wary of anything even approaching black liberation theology. His keen insight into these ideas and his clarity of writing make this book a jewel. Anthony has done the Christian community a great service by writing this book. There was a significant need for a work of this type and its arrival is long overdue.”
Craig Vincent Mitchell, Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

“I have read a number of books which purport to explain, define, or critique black liberation theology, but Liberating Black Theology is the easiest to understand. This is because Dr. Bradley unapologetically maintains a biblical, orthodox perspective while being sympathetic to the issues and concerns of black liberation theologians. The book should be required reading for any seminary class on biblical interpretation and for seminary students and pastors interested in understanding the history and struggles of the black church in America.”
Wy Plummer, African American Ministries Coordinator, Mission to North America, Presbyterian Church in America

“With irenic tone Bradley reveals the theological justification of racial separation inherent within the victimization philosophy of both first generation and second generation black theology. His analysis demonstrates how the vision of Cone and his intellectual offspring contributes to rather than resolves DuBois’ problem of the twentieth (now twenty-first!) century.”
Eric C. Redmond, Author, Where Are All the Brothers? Straight Answers to Men’s Questions about the Church

Another one for the books I’d like page…

Hayek on Exchanging Liberty for Security

On November 4, 2009, in Culture, Economics, by marc

From The Road to Serfdom, Chapter 9 – Security and Freedom:

F.A. Hayek (1899-1992)

F.A. Hayek (1899-1992)

There can be no question that adequate security against severe privation, and the reduction of the avoidable causes of misdirected effort and consequent disappointment, will have to be one of the main goals of policy. But if these endeavors are to be successful and are not to destroy individual freedom, security must be provided outside the market and competition be left to function unobstructed. Some security is essential if freedom is to be preserved, because most men are willing to bear the risk which freedom inevitably involves only so long as that risk is not too great. But while this is a truth of which we must never lose sight, nothing is more fatal than the present fashion among intellectual leaders of extolling security at the expense of freedom. It is essential that we should re-learn frankly to face the fact that freedom can be had only at a price and that as individuals we must be prepared to make severe material sacrifices to preserve our liberty. If we want to retain this, we must regain the conviction on which the rule of liberty in the Anglo-Saxon countries has been based and which Benjamin Franklin expressed in a phrase applicable to us in our lives as individuals no less than as nations: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

My emphasis there. Think of our current situation: bailouts for companies “too big to fail,” government ownership of failing automakers, the desire for state-provided universal healthcare, demands for more and more regulation of businesses and executive salaries, “windfall” profits condemned and threatened with confiscation, the demonization of productive classes, etc. Are we really better off after massive government intervention to protect our economic security – much of which has since proven to be wasteful and ineffective anyway? What have we given away in exchange? Was it worth it?

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The End of Liberation Theology

On November 3, 2009, in Culture, Economics, Religion, Theology, by marc

Lester DeKoster & Gerard Berghoef, from Liberation Theology: The Church’s Future Shock:

…[Liberation Theology] exposes itself to the same fate already befallen Marxism wherever it takes historical form as Communism. Though born of great genius and immense self-denial, though inspired by a vision of a new humanity born with a boundlessly progressive future, Marxism in practice always gives rise to the dull, gray brutalism of the totalitarian state. Why?

Lester DeKoster (1916-2009)

Lester DeKoster (1916-2009)

Well, when the “old” man, inheritor of the depravity visited upon humankind by Adam’s transgression, seizes dictatorial power for the purpose of making others “new,” (deluding himself that he is “new” already!), the fact of his unredeemed depravity is soon writ large in the horrors of Gulag, murder and unrelieved oppression. Whatever may have been the chains and slavery of pre-Marxist societies – in Russia, in China, in Cuba, in Vietnam, everywhere – the shackles forged by communism are more binding, more absolute, more pervasive and more deadly than the revolution swept away. The more loudly Marxism denies human depravity in words, the more resolutely Marxism-in-action demonstrates its own depravity in deeds. It will not be otherwise wherever LT engineers the rebellions it schemes for.

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Books I’d Like, Vol. 1

On October 23, 2009, in Economics, Reformed Theology, Theology, by marc

This seems like as good a place as any to start keeping a list of books I’d like to add to my library, so let’s rock and roll.

Human Action by Ludwig von Mises

On October 16, 2009, in Economics, by marc

A rather ambitious start, wouldn’t you say?

Human Action is Ludwig von Mises’ Magnum Opus, and sometimes described as the free-market’s counterpoint to Marx’s Das Kapital.  From the Ludwig von Mises Institute:

Human Action - Ludwig von Mises

Human Action - Ludwig von Mises

Mises’s most monumental achievement was his Human Action (1949), the first comprehensive treatise on economic theory written since the first World War. Here Mises took up the challenge of his own methodology and research program and elaborated an integrated and massive structure of economic theory on his own deductive, “praxeological” principles. Published in an era when economists and governments generally were totally dedicated to statism and Keynesian inflation, Human Action was unread by the economics profession.

Heady stuff, eh?  I picked up a copy of the paperback in June or thereabouts, and I could tell immediately that this one was not going to be something that I could read from cover to cover; it was going to require a LOT of time and a lot of concentration.  And even with concentration, I’d probably miss half of it anyway, because it’s much more scholarly than my normal fare.

I was correct: as of the present day, I’ve made it to page 35.  An excerpt:

…all were fully convinced that there was in the course of social events no such regularity and invariance of phenomena as had already been found in the operation of human reasoning and in the sequence of natural phenomena.  They did not search or the laws of social cooperation because they thought that man could organize society as he pleased.

Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973)

Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973)

If social conditions did not fulfill the wishes of the reformers, if their utopias proved unrealizable, the fault was seen in the moral failures of man.  Social problems were considered ethical problems.  What was needed in order to construct the ideal society, they thought, were good princes and virtuous citizens.  With righteous men any utopia might be realized.

The discovery of the inescapable interdependence of market phenomena overthrew this opinion. Bewildered, people had to face a new view of society.  They learned with stupefaction that there is another aspect from which human action might be viewed than that of good and bad, of fair and unfair, of just and unjust.  In the course of social events there prevails a regularity of phenomena to which man must adjust his actions if he wishes to succeed. It is futile to approach social facts with the attitude of a censor who approves or disapproves from the point of view of quite arbitrary standards and subjective judgments of value.  One must study the laws of human action and social cooperation as the physicist studies the laws of nature.  Human action and social cooperation seen as the object of a science of given relations, no longer as a normative discipline of things that ought to be — this was a revolution of tremendous consequences for knowledge and philosophy as well as for social action.

Some good stuff in there.  While I don’t have a firm handle on his religious beliefs (he was born into a “recently ennobled Jewish family” according to Wikipedia), there are some ideas expressed that mesh very nicely with my Christian and Calvinist worldview, although perhaps in a roundabout way.  Mises is also tapping into the same rich vein of thought on the ability of humans to plan for a more perfect society that F.A. Hayek used to produce his classic work, The Road to Serfdom. And of course, this is a direct attack on John Maynard Keynes and the sort of interventionist economic policies called for by Keynes’ theories and promoted by the governments of that day – and sadly, our day as well.

“What was needed in order to construct the ideal society, they thought, were good princes and virtuous citizens.  With righteous men any utopia might be realized.” This is, of course, why utopia will never be realized – at least from a Christian standpoint – because there is no such thing as a “good person.” In a theological sense I refer, of course, to the first of the five points of Calvinism: total depravity.  (See Romans 3:9-19, Westminster Confession Ch. 6, etc.  I’m about 99% sure that Mises didn’t intend to bring Romans and a Reformed confession to mind when he wrote those words, but c’est la vie.)  Mankind is not perfect, and as such we cannot plan perfectly.  A thought occurs to me:  even if we were perfect, would we be able to do so?  It seems obvious that an individual corrupted by sin could not lay out and execute a perfect plan for himself, much less an entire society, for the simple fact that the plan produced by the imperfect person would itself be imperfect, and an imperfect person could not be expected to execute a plan perfectly.  But even if we were not corrupted by nature, would it be possible to create a system that could anticipate the needs of an entire society or civilization?  Does perfection imply omniscience?  I doubt it.  Did Adam and Eve have perfect and full knowledge of God and His creation before the fall?  I don’t think so – and without that, I doubt it would be possible to effectively plan an entire society’s economic life, or anything else for that matter.

Mises notes that the problem the planners ran into was that their plans often went off track or failed altogether, and that problem was compounded by the fact that the planners themselves never considered that the problem was that they were trying to plan an ideal society in the first place.  But in order to plan, you have to be reasonably sure that the people involved in your plan are going to understand the plan and then do what you want them to do.  In an imperfect world, you can’t be sure of that – some people aren’t going to understand the plan, some people aren’t going to do what you want them to do, and some people are going to try to game the system you’ve set up for their benefit.  The planners can’t see all and know all, and the people who they’re planning for might not share the planner’s interests.  As a result, pretty much any Utopian scheme is destined to fail because Utopian schemes ignore the inescapable fact of human corruption.

“In the course of social events there prevails a regularity of phenomena to which man must adjust his actions
if he wishes to succeed.”
This is why markets work – markets organize themselves and provide natural checks and balances on people’s behavior.  Markets automatically adjust themselves to accommodate the quirks of millions upon millions of individual humans, each with their good and bad points, each with their own agendas, and somehow – without planning – manage to provide the most for the most people… as long as they are free.

===

You can see that I’m just starting to work my way through actually integrating these ideas.  This feels like sort of a mishmash.  But hey, I’m nothing if not ambitious.

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Hi all, and welcome to yet another blog.  Not that I really need another new blog, or that I even have anything particularly interesting to say.  As with all of my blogging and tweeting endeavours, this is more for my benefit than anyone elses.

For lack of a better explanation, Ex Libris is going to be my attempt to glean something from my reading.  Over the last year or so, I’ve been digging into a lot of books, often many at once.  And while I’ve enjoyed the process of doing so, I’ve developed a tendency to bite off a bit more than I can chew – in that I have multiple books going at once.  I’m almost positive that I have at least 20 books started, many of which cycle in and out of my range of interest over a period of many months.  The result of this, of course, is that my concentration is divided and I tend to forget where I was when I pick up the book again next time.

I generally catch on pretty quickly once I get back into the flow of a book that I’ve put aside for a while, but I have to admit that reading multiple books at once doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a careful and deep treatment of each text.  So part of what I hope to accomplish here is to note, for myself, passages that catch my interest and perhaps peel back the layers a bit and explore why they grab my imagination.

We’ll see how this goes.  There’s a lot of books covering a pretty wide range of subjects.  For instance, tonight I read a chapter from Roland Hill’s biography of Lord Acton, and then picked up Human Acton by Ludwig von Mises and plowed through a portion.  I’ve also been moving through Lester DeKoster’s Liberation Theology: The Church’s Future Shock and (of course) U2 by U2, among others.  Like I said, a pretty wide range of subjects.  It remains to be seen exactly how well I’ll do at reflecting and writing about all of the books I’m reading, or if I’ll do it at all.  But I suppose it might just be worth the effort.  Again, we’ll see.

So – here goes.  Wish me luck.

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