It is my firm conviction, brought about by the observation of history, that the dreams of Utopians are far more likely to drag us to hell than to build a better world. From Hitler’s Reich to the terrorism of Bin Laden, many of histories greatest evils have come from the pursuit of the perfect world. Really, Utopianism is a kind of hate. It identifies what I see as the perfect state for human kind, it becomes intoxicated with that vision, and then it cannot help but make that the end of all action, and in so doing come to see any who stand in its way as monsters and sinners. We all hope for a better world, that is our nature, and it is a fine thing to strive for that world, to work at it with sweat and tears, and most of all with love. But, when we try and make that world, to forge it by power, to force it on others for their own good, then we become Utopians and we soon become monsters.
The temptation for the Utopian is the temptation to think that the best way to achieve the ideal human circumstances is through exercising the influence of some strong centralized power, most notably that of government. In general, this view seems to arise from the appeal of efficiency. Where a thousand local agencies might work at cross purposes, sabotaging the formation of Utopia, a single central organization can organize these efforts and thereby seemingly better achieve the goal. However, it is precisely this efficiency that makes the temptation to centralization a liability.
At its heart the problem is the limits of our own knowledge, which in turn leads to a deep moral concern. As is frequently mentioned by moral philosophers, there is a great diversity of moral codes present in the world, ranging, for example, from cultures which practice female circumcism to keep women in their “proper” place to those which view women as equal to men. This doesn’t actually, as some claim, lead to the conclusion that the moral ideal is relative, but it does seem to show that it is very easy to go astray. Mistakes in this area are bad on a local and individual level, leading to ruined lives, but they are devastating when made by a centralized power. It is here that the moral problem comes into to the picture, as in the historical case of Soviet Russia, whose attempt to create a Utopia based on their view of flourishing human life led to the deaths of millions, and to economic damage from which the country is still suffering.
Thus, precisely the inefficiency of local attempts to make the world ideal seem to actually make these the ideal case. It is important here to make a distinction between inefficiency and incompetency. Local efforts to build a better world will still ideally make a difference, only doing so more slowly. Those communities which properly understand the good will see their members flourish more, while those which don’t will ultimately run into far more problems. As other communities see the success of the flourishing locality over the others, this will encourage them to adopt similar practices. This is more piecemeal, but it avoids the devastating consequences possible when a mistake is made by centralized power.
This, I argue, is one of many justifications for the distributionist and communitarian state. We cannot afford to build a legal and economic system on the basis of a centralized power that will too easily be co-opted by the machinations of Utopians seeking to make the world a better place… at any cost. In the human world of limited perspective and moral failure, inefficiency is a boon, not a detriment.
Note: Much of what was written here was originally explored by me in a paper for my Metaethics class in the Fall of 2009 (and, hey, I got an A on it, so I must have done something right)