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Who Wants to Buy a Monorail?
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Who Wants to Buy a Monorail?

The soft utopianism of easy choices.

A train running on the suspension monorail line in Wuhan, central China's Hubei Province. (Photo by Xiao Yijiu/Xinhua via Getty Images)

One of the central commitments of conservatism is an opposition to utopianism.  

I love reading—and writing—about utopianism. That’s because I’m both fascinated by—and usually disgusted with—gnostic heresies, totalitarian movements, and illiberal ideologies. So please bear with me—or skip ahead—as I indulge in some rank eggheadery.

With regard to my obsessions, I’m in good company, though a very a minor, even trivial, player among the ranks of anti-utopian conservatives. Anti-utopian thought doesn’t begin with Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Jesus’ admonition to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s is a remarkably pithy and profound anti-utopian statement. Augustine’s distinction between the City of God and the City of Man is a hugely important touchstone as well. Also, there are powerful strains of anti-utopianism in Judaism. The first utopia, after all, was the Garden of Eden, and humans got kicked out of it for being dopes. (I’m paraphrasing).

(I don’t know enough about Eastern thought, but my impression is there’s a lot of anti-utopianism in Confucianism and Buddhism. I mean, how perfectible is this world if you can be reincarnated as a banana slug?) 

Heck, even Thomas More’s Utopia—from whence we get the word—is an anti-utopian work (some argue it’s not satirical, but I think they’re wrong). “Utopia” means “no place” and the chief chronicler in More’s tale is Raphael Hythloday, whose name translates from the Greek as “peddler of nonsense.” 

But Burke opened a new front in the argument against utopianism (or reopened an old front that goes back to Plato’s Republic). I’m open to correction, but in the Christian era, anti-utopianism prior to Burke was mostly a religious critique. This shouldn’t be surprising, because prior to Burke’s era pretty much all eggheady arguments were about religion because religion was the framework for pretty much all intellectual pursuits. Even the natural sciences were pretty explicitly about discovering God’s design. But Burke’s opposition to the radicalism of the French Revolution, though obviously informed by religious commitments, was not fundamentally a theological one. It was a pragmatic one, rooted in an understanding of the important roles of custom, the constraints of human nature, and the dangers of hitching society to pure abstraction and the rulers who deemed themselves the sole and irrefutable interpreters of those abstractions.

Such rulers—Bolsheviks, Maoists, Nazis, as well as all manner of false messiahs and other gnostic heretics—held that adherence to some plan, design, or secret insight into God’s plan or design, could usher in a heaven on earth in which all could live in perfect harmony, prosperity, and happiness with each other. I subscribe to the school, often associated with the philosopher Eric Voegelin, that all such utopian efforts were fundamentally religious in nature, even if they explicitly rejected traditional religion. They peddled, in Voegelin’s words, “a mode of deliverance or salvation from the prison of the world for man through a secret gnosis” known only to the select. They exploited our religious instinct to crave a perfect world, a classless society, a heaven on earth. And, given the desired reward, there was no price not worth paying to get a ticket to paradise. Eliminating those who stood in the way—Jews, kulaks, the bourgeois, wreckers, dissidents, heretics, etc.—was a negligible sacrifice given the payoff. Similarly forcing people to see the light—through reeducation camps, terror, propaganda, whatever—could be justified on the grounds that both individual and social salvation was the goal. To use Voegelin’s famous phrase, what wouldn’t be worth immanentizing the eschaton? This is why he prophesied that “Totalitarianism, defined as the existential rule of Gnostic activists, is the end form of progressive civilization.” I don’t think he was quite right there, but then again prophecies aren’t predictions, they’re warnings

Regardless, this is why, as Bertrand De Jouvenel said, “There is a tyranny in the womb of every Utopia.” But this doesn’t mean that every utopian is a tyrant or mass murderer. First of all, we’re all at least a little utopian because utopianism is inextricably bound up in things like hope, reform, progress, etc. One can pursue the ideal of a perfect society while still being committed to other ideals—the rule of law, basic decency, commitment to facts, science, evidence, etc. Such people are always seen as sell-outs, squishes, or quislings by the more radical utopians. But such condemnation is a small price to pay for not being willing to murder people. 

Richard Rorty was a decent liberal philosopher who explained, “My sense of the holy is bound up with the hope that some day my remote descendants will live in a global civilization in which love is pretty much the only law.” That’s nice. It’s also kind of silly if taken literally. I mean how would that work, exactly? Who enforces the law? What happens when people disagree on what love demands? Heck, the very idea that love can be compelled by law is a contradiction of some pretty important and serviceable definitions of love. 

Everything has a cost.

As you can probably tell, I could go on. But I think I’ve checked the box on the dangers of what you might call “strong utopianism.” What I want to get at in the space remaining is the problem of what I’ll call “soft utopianism.” At the core of strong utopianism is the belief that all contradictions can be resolved, all trade-offs eliminated, all conflicts reconciled for the betterment of all. But what do I mean by soft utopianism? Well, for want of a classy, intellectual, definition, let’s just call it political bulls–t. Strong utopianism promises total, systemic, salvation at the end of history. Soft utopianism is telling people they can have a free lunch.

Barack Obama and his supporters sold soft utopianism with a lot of strong utopian rhetoric. There was a lot of talk about oceans receding, “fundamental transformation,” fixing our souls, and we’re the ones we’ve been waiting for. He even promised that we could create a Kingdom (of heaven) here on earth. I don’t need to rehash all the messiah talk about, and by, Obama—though there was a lot of it—because it was mostly that, talk.

But his policies were suffused with all manner of soft-utopianism. “There will always be people in this country who say that we’ve got to choose between clean air, clean water and growing the economy, between doing right by the environment and putting people back to work,” Obama declared in 2012. “I’m here to tell you that is a false choice.”

Now to be fair to Obama, he’s hardly the only politician to use this rhetorical framing. Bill Clinton (and Hillary) did it all the time. George W. Bush, too.  The problem with the “false choice” framing is that it’s a false … framing. It dismisses the conventional choice of “either/or” and cheerily insists a “both/and” is possible. And it’s true, both/ands are perfectly possible. And they’re often desirable. Not always, but sure. 

The utopianism comes in when you say—or think or let others think—that there are no trade-offs in such choices. There are always trade offs. Always. Not seeing them doesn’t mean they don’t exist. It means you’re not looking hard enough. 

Even with binary, both/and choices, there’s a trade-off somewhere—time, money, political capital, energy, etc. The benefits of X will come at the expense of Y. That doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t have both X and Y, but if you want to maximize X you’ll probably have to have less than the optimal amount of Y. 

I’m sure you’ve had an argument about what to do for a vacation. The missus wants the beach, you want the mountains. You only have seven days of vacation. You can compromise and do both, but that means neither of you gets the full seven days where you want to go. Ontology is a bitch, and she won’t let you be two places at once.  It may be a “false choice” to say you can’t do both X and Y, but the falsity of the choice doesn’t negate the reality of the trade-offs.  

Let’s stick with the “false choice” of the environment and the economy. For decades, Democrats have insisted that the “transition” to a “green economy” is utterly without trade-offs. We can get rid of “dirty” industries and industrial jobs and replace them with an equal number—or more!—of clean, green, jobs, that pay as much—or more!—as the old jobs. That was the real false choice. I don’t mean that rhetorically, I mean the choice has proven to be false. 

Don’t take my word for it. Here’s the New York Times explaining that those silly Democrats overpromised the costless benefits of the green transition. In “Building Solar Farms May Not Build The Middle Class,” we’re reminded of Joe Biden’s vow that his American Jobs Plan will “will put hundreds of thousands of people to work, paying the same exact rate that a union man or woman would get.” 

“But,” the Times reports, “on its current trajectory, the green economy is shaping up to look less like the industrial workplace that lifted workers into the middle class in the 20th century than something more akin to an Amazon warehouse or a fleet of Uber drivers: grueling work schedules, few unions, middling wages and limited benefits.”

The United Auto Workers are on strike because it’s become clear to them that the electric vehicle revolution—which would not exist but for lavish subsidies—is screwing them. 

By the way, it’s a myth that electric vehicles require fewer workers. What they require is fewer American workers

Looking for solutions where the light is good.

Soft utopianism depends on the “seen” with no consideration of the “unseen.” This is a reference to Frédéric Bastiat’s parable of the broken window. In his story, someone breaks a shop window and someone sagaciously spins this as a good thing because it will create work for the windowmaker. Bastiat’s point is that this is true. But it misses the fact that the shop owner will have to spend money to fix the window that he could have spent on something else. 

This is the central difference between productive capital and unproductive capital. When you get a flat tire, as I recently did, you create work for the tiremaker and the mechanic. But all you get for your spent money is a restoration of the status quo ante. If flat tires made everybody richer, we’d all be in our driveway slashing our own tires. 

Vast swaths of the green transition amounts to the broken window fallacy on a massive scale. Like the drunk who looks for his lost car keys under the street light because the light’s better there, we look for solutions that can be seen, even when they don’t exist there.

Electric cars have benefits, but they also have massive unseen costs. You might feel virtuous skipping the gas station, but the juice has to come from somewhere. If you live somewhere where electricity comes from coal, your Tesla is a coal-powered car, once removed. You may think that oil production is an ugly crime against nature. Fine. But lithium isn’t fairy dust. Mining it is an ugly, nature-wrecking, carbon-intensive process. Conventional cars are mostly made from plentiful materials with large, economically efficient supply chains. Electric vehicles, not so much. Mark Mills (emphasis mine):

The minerals picture is more complex with EVs. About one ton of rarer, more labor-intensive, and expensive minerals are used to produce each EV. An EV’s half-ton battery needs a suite of minerals ranging from copper and aluminum to graphite and magnesium (to name just a few), as well as lithium. Each EV also uses, relative to a gas-powered car, about a quarter ton more copper to build electric motors and for power transmission and about a quarter ton more aluminum (instead of steel) to make the body and frame lighter to offset the battery’s weight penalty. Obtaining that total of about one ton of refined minerals involves labor to dig up, move, process, and refine about 500 tons of the Earth per car. (Yes, digging is also required for iron and steel, but less than one-tenth as much, because iron is so common.)

Soft’s utopianism’s emphasis on the “seen” translates into policymaking by aesthetics. I’d love to get into the weeds of the socialist calculation debate, in which various flavors of economic planners and free market opponents argued over whether planners could figure out what stuff actually cost without the benefit of the information that comes from prices set by the market . But I’ve done enough eggheady stuff. Instead, let’s recount the tale of how FDR determined the price of gold. (He lacked Bob Menendez’s Google skills.) From Amity Schlaes’ The Forgotten Man:

One morning, FDR told his group [of advisers] he was thinking of raising the gold price by twenty-one cents. Why that figure? his entourage asked. “It’s a lucky number,” Roosevelt said, “because it’s three times seven.” As [Treasury Secretary] Morgenthau later wrote, “If anybody knew how we really set the gold price through a combination of lucky numbers, etc. I think they would be frightened.”

That’s an extreme example of policymaking by aesthetics, but not that great an example of the utopian element (except in FDR’s conviction that he had the wisdom and authority to outthink the market). But soft-utopian, aesthetic, policymaking is everywhere. 

Diversity mongers focus on the visible, end-results, of a process without heed to the costs and trade-offs required upstream or the unintended consequences further downstream. “This company only has X percent of black people on the board, that school only has Y percent of Hispanics. Let’s force them to change that!” But they don’t think—or care—about the trade-offs of remedying that discrepancy at the point of visibility. 

Ethanol is often sold as a substitute for gasoline because it has a lower carbon footprint. Maybe so, when it makes it to your car. But the whole process of getting it in your car is worse for climate change. 

The whole warp and woof of entitlement spending is shot through with soft utopianism by which, again, I mean bulls–t. 

Advocates of a “living wage” spend exactly zero seconds thinking about what those higher wages will mean for the prices other poor people will have to pay or the jobs employers will get rid of in order to afford the salaries of the staff they keep. 

Men and women should be paid the same thing! Of course, they should, if you hold everything else equal. But, it turns out that the real world is complicated, full of unseen complications. Men disproportionately take dangerous and dirty jobs women disproportionately don’t want (men account for over nine out of 10 on-the-job fatalities). Should we force women to want those jobs? Should we pay the men less for doing them? The soft utopian says yes, because he wants the stuff he sees to look right. 

Speaking of men, biological men and biological women are different by virtue of their different, uh, biology. Pshaw—trans activists say biological men who identify as women are superficially indistinguishable from biological women, and therefore the aesthetic, soft-utopian imperative of “inclusiveness” says they should be allowed to compete in women’s sports. So, yeah, it may be a “false choice” to say you can’t have inclusiveness and fair competition. But it’s false framing to say that inclusiveness won’t come with a cost for biologically female competitors.   

The connection between soft utopianism and hard utopianism isn’t just some difference of degree. They’re fundamentally different things with some important commonalities—chiefly their shared reality-denying dishonesty or self-delusion. But hard utopianism is the stuff of messianic, salvific, radicalism. Soft utopian is better understood as a grift. It rests on the assumption that if you tell people what they want to hear—“you can have your cake and eat it too”—they will believe it. It’s the ideology of the monorail salesman

Donald Trump is a master peddler of this stuff, telling people whatever it is he thinks they want to hear and that every policy problem would be easy to fix—with him in charge. But just because his conman schtick is so cartoonish doesn’t mean he’s alone. Politicians and partisans of every party peddle this stuff to one extent or another. 

There’s a school of thought that argues it’s a slippery slope from soft utopianism to strong utopianism. I don’t think that’s true, at least not in the way such arguments are often made. I think the way you get from the former to the latter is by running the country into the ground with false promises of easy choices. As Margaret Thatcher said, the problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money. And when that happens, people have a tendency to look for secular saviors all too eager to make even grander false promises about fixing everything that’s wrong with the world, including the messes we made ourselves. 

Various & Sundry

Canine update: The girls are immensely happy to be home. There was some drama yesterday, however, when Kirsten added some new small dogs to the midday posse. Zoë was pretty growly and demanded to see their papers. There was no violence, but threats were made. The good news is that, after checking their references, Zoë is now fine with them. She’s even adopted a new, relaxed pose in Kirsten’s car. Though when it comes to relaxed poses, Pippa remains the champion. Zoë’s stormy relationship with Gracie picked up exactly where they left off before our adventures. Zoë remains convinced that the cat wants to eat her kibble, despite the fact Gracie has zero interest in it. What she does like to do is troll Zoë by walking by her food bowl, forcing her to get up and shoo Gracie away. Neither of them like it when the other gets affection from me. Pippa also picked up where she left off and resumed her important work holding up the wall at the bottom of the stairs. I think she was honestly surprised the house hadn’t collapsed in her absence. She was also very happy to learn that the tennis ball resupply arrived while we were gone. She literally licked her lips in anticipation


And now, the weird stuff

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.