Commentary Magazine


Utopians and Economists

To the Editor:

An economic analysis by Oscar Gass is always instructive, and delightful to read. But let me urge him to restrain his continual impulse to take (unnecessary) passing shots at Utopians and anarchists, whom he does not understand. In his recent essay on “Soviet Economic Developments” [February], Mr. Gass is concerned to show that, despite vastly increased productivity, poverty (but not scarcity) can be eliminated, and therefore un-pleasurable work will always be required because of “the desire for goods and services.” He goes on to say: “Here Buddhism is wiser than the materialistic Utopian anarchisms; it pursues the overcoming of scarcity not by increasing supply but by transforming the personality which demands. And Buddhism identifies the adequate transformation with Nirvana . . . the extinction of the individual human center of consciousness.”

The only conceivable alternatives, he is saying, are an infinite appetite for economic goods or an ascetic transcendence of the world. I think this is strongly against common sense and rational political economy. Is it not the case that, as we run our economy and abuse our technology, the demand for goods and services is very largely an artifact of ballyhoo, wasteful planning, miseducation, and competition for status? Suppose that many people really did pursue the activities that in fact gave them most satisfaction and long hours of absorption—playing ball, gambling, making love and looking for love, active politics, art and inquiry, craftsmanship, cooking and eating, religion, and reading prose like Oscar Gass’s—would not the Gross National Product already be much curtailed? It is a necessity of our present system to prevent people from deeply and absorbingly satisfying themselves. It is possible that the appetite for experience, novelty, and growth is infinite, but surely not the appetite for economic goods that can be bought at a market. I submit that this is what the “materialistic Utopian anarchists”—e.g., William Morris—were saying. We certainly need a transformation of personality, but even more we need institutions that let people breathe and become self-aware. Such hopes are Utopian, but they are not foolish.

In another sentence he misunderstands the Utopian position in another way. He says: “For libertarian Communisms . . . electrification would be only another piece of machinery.” But as Patrick Geddes pointed out, contrasted with giant steam prime-movers that had to be kept fired, electrification could allow plant-decentralization, flexible scheduling of operations, and, because of widespread easy transmission, power for every family and even cottage industry. These are highly useful for libertarian purposes. Bersodi’s homesteading, for instance, is grounded in multiplying electrical tools. Potentially, to a Utopian, different machines have different moral attributes, just as do different methods of work (e.g. individual, gang, collective). In actuality, of course, electrification has so far made little difference, except in diminishing nuisance-factories; it is not a social cause. Misused, it is just another piece of machinery.

I am entirely convinced by Gass’s caustic criticism of the “free appropriation” that will be provided by a centralized Welfare State. It does not follow, however, that over a broad range of naturally monopolistic or indispensable functions, it might not be simpler, more efficient, and cheaper in the long run to give free service, e.g. in subways, mail, telephone, gas and electric power, water supply, museums, literacy, minimum subsistence.

Libertarian thought is characteristically a blend of moral choices, technical opportunities, institutional arrangements, and human-animal dispositions. Oscar Gass’s rather naive economism does not do it justice.

Paul Goodman
University of Wisconsin
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

_____________

 

Mr. Gass writes:

(1) I am pleased that Paul Goodman finds my economic analysis “always instructive, and delightful to read.” It is also an amiable experience to find “reading prose like Oscar Gass’s” listed in a company—along with playing ball and making love—of the activities that “in fact” give people most satisfaction.

(2) Mr. Goodman says twice that I misunderstand materialistic Utopian anarchisms, once that I do these anarchisms injustice, and once (implicitly) that I consider them foolish. I do not accept the charges of misunderstanding and injustice. But it is correct that I consider materialistic Utopian anarchism to be a foolish doctrine. Indeed, I judge it to be a silly doctrine—and not in secondary observations but in what is distinctive and fundamental. In this judgment, there are no personal evaluations: I do not think Peter Kropotkin, Elisée Reclus, Karl Marx, and Michael Bakunin were only silly people. Men of considerable ability and attainments have silly doctrines.

What is most silly in materialistic Utopian anarchism, in my view, is its failure to recognize that elements of conflict, law, and coercion are permanent aspects of man’s life in society. Materialistic Utopian anarchism is not therefore, in my judgment, mere harmless illusion. It is destructive of consequent political thought. The state is not (as both Marx and Bakunin held) a mere accompaniment of soon-to-be-obsolete social arrangements. The fundamentals of the state—norms, a social order, and coercion—are inherent in the human situation. They will endure as long as man.

Let us be clear. Norms: rules, regulations, laws. A social order: parent and child, student and school, worker and enterprise, passenger and carrier, elector and elected—an order or system of social relationships, framing rights and obligations, which belong to classes of cases, prior to the choices and determinations of the individual parties. Coercive: involving penalties (including denial of benefits) for non-performance. How could man live otherwise? The limited supply of material means, the limitless character of desires, the need for organization in every division of labor, partiality in self-judgment, impulses toward domination and exploitation, the clash of self-assertions and vanities—all these make the state, with its regulation, its prescribed order, and its coercion a permanent aspect of the life of man in society.

They have indeed a poverty-stricken and miserable perspective on the varieties of human association who believe that the relationships of consent and coercion are the same in all states, and will continue to manifest no genuine novelty in all the reaches of time. Nor is their grasp on reality the firmer who exclude from the root-soil of states all that is not comprehended in such smart-aleck formulas as “the state is a monopoly of violence” or even “the executioner is the foundation of the social order.” But men cannot live in society without laws and penalties. The state we shall have always with us.

(3) Mr. Goodman becomes badly entangled in the problem of what he calls “an infinite appetite for economic goods.” What is “an infinite appetite”? Is it only an appetite which—like those for play or learning or struggle or love—one might indulge without limit if it did not conflict with other appetites or purposes? Then there is some constraining and curtailing of the “infinite” involved already in every formed character—every personal structuring of multitudinous appetites. But economic goods are always merely instrumental: they are means to our appetites or purposes. The demand for means is as “infinite” as the appetites these means serve. And the work effort needed to earn means is always—at every level of income—in tension with claims for the employment of human effort on other purposes.

Under any circumstances we can reasonably foresee, people generally will prefer larger incomes (more economic goods and services) to smaller incomes: total demand will have no upper limit. Moreover, at all levels of income, people generally have to forego buying one thing to be able to buy another: scarcity is universal. Neither the general desire to have more income nor the universality of scarcity are novel observations. But it is neglect of such fundamentals which produces comprehensively silly doctrines.

At a lesser level, it disappoints me to find Mr. Goodman writing: “Is it not the case that, as we run our economy and abuse our technology, the demand for goods and services is very largely an artifact of ballyhoo, wasteful planning, miseducation, and competition for status?” No! There is no serious evidence that the demand for goods and services is very largely of such origin. All over the world, in our time, the gains of greater prosperity are taken largely—by such children of light as we have, as well as by the children of darkness—in things that cost money: better houses, more travel, more education, more health care, personal services, etc. It ill becomes one who calls himself a libertarian to insist that other styles of life—in conflict with his own—prevail only because of deception and vanity.

(4) Mr. Goodman is quite wrong in what he writes about the libertarian bias of electrification. Mule power might perhaps be taken (myopically) to have such a bias. The steam engine comes between the mule and the modern electric power system. Electric power (hydro, conventional thermal, or nuclear) gives the most centralized control. With power tools and central dispatching, the whole electric supply of a large country can be controlled from a few rooms—if desired, even from one room.

The moral? Put not your faith in mechanisms! The foundations of liberties are moral and political—not technological.

(5 In his last sentence, Mr. Goodman charges me with “naive economism.” It is a grave accusation. To be guilty of “economism”—let alone “naive economism”—is, I suppose, to give economic considerations undue weight, where other considerations are also relevant. (The other considerations might relate to beauty, knowledge, politics, or morals.) But Mr. Goodman is acquainted with the requirements of rational discourse. Where one says “undue weight,” one is obligated to try to say how much would be due and why that much. Mr. Goodman does not even begin any such rational discourse. I conclude therefore that, at this point, he was merely calling me names. But I do not believe any purpose I choose to serve would be advanced by my calling Mr. Goodman names in turn.

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