Against Utopia

Earlier this week, Dave Weigel wrote “Do libertarians promise utopia? Sure. So do the socialists who came up with the ideas that motivate Democratic politicians.” Today he followed up on his meaning, arguing “it’s a dead end to accuse ideologues of promising rainbows if their ideas are adopted.”

It is and it isn’t. I have a utopian bent, personally, and have been known to muse to my girlfriend about how at Taiwan’s level of population density we could fit 500 million people into 10 percent of the land area of the United States and turn the rest into yawning wilderness. But I think it’s really a pretty serious mistake to think about politics in these terms. It’s not that people should be “politically realistic” in their aspirations, it’s that it’s really important to think about concrete, specific policy changes and the specific consequences likely to in fact flow from them. Absent that kind of practicality you get things like loosening regulations on the banking sector followed by a financial crisis followed by complaints that “the real problem is Fannie and Freddie and bailouts,” followed by deciding it’s actually best to leave Fannie and Freddie in place after all then when someone does propose reforming Fannie and Freddie someone else shouts back that the real problem is deregulation.

The underlying issue is that if you’re committed to any form of reasonably liberal politics, which almost everyone in America is, then you’re committed to a world of endless ideological disagreement and interest-group pluralism. Too often, people think about politics by starting from the assumption that there will be post-political utopia in which everything is frozen into place, then reasoning backwards from how that utopia looks.