Slouching Toward Utopia

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                                     Slouching Toward Utopia



            In his Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant wrote that all our interests, practical as well as speculative, find expression in three questions: What do I know? What should I do? What may I hope? The first two have attracted the lion's share of attention, at least among philosophers. Epistemology, logic, and the philosophy of science are all concerned with what we can know. Moral philosophy and political philosophy are largely concerned with what we ought to do. The third question has not been entirely neglected, especially among religious thinkers and novelists, but it is comparatively an orphan. I would like tonight to ponder with you what we may hope, if only we can think our way past a few of the apparently commonsense moral intuitions that hobble our political and moral imagination.

I'm sorry to say that the prospects for our immediate descendants - that is, for the next two or three generations - seem to me pretty grim, although not for reasons that have anything to do with the limitations of our commonsense moral intuitions. Common sense is, or ought to be, perfectly adequate for understanding the terrifying dangers posed by nuclear weapons and by our reliance on fossil fuels. In 1947, in the shadow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists established its Doomsday Clock as a symbol of the likelihood of a human-caused global catastrophe. Its original setting in 1947 was seven minutes to midnight. Until recently, the closest to midnight that the clock has ever been set was two minutes, in 1953, when the United States and the Soviet Union began testing hydrogen bombs. In 2017 it was set at two and a half minutes to midnight, reflecting, in the editors' words, "the rise of strident nationalism worldwide, United States President Donald Trump's comments about North Korea, Russia, and nuclear weapons, and the Trump Administration's disbelief in the scientific consensus on climate change." In 2018 it was moved up again, to two minutes to midnight.

That dismal assessment seems to me entirely plausible. As long as all three branches of government in the richest and most powerful country on earth are controlled by a party openly contemptuous of both science and international law and dedicated fanatically and near-exclusively to the further enrichment of the already rich, the prospects for a decent society are dim, and indeed the prospects for human survival are far from assured. Nor, in my opinion, is this country's other major political party distinguished by any very deep commitment to economic justice, environmental protection, accountable government, or international cooperation. America in 2018 is a plutocracy, and the country's near-term future will, as a result, be severely blighted.

Nevertheless, America is so rich, so militarily powerful, and so geographically distant from the probable sites of the earliest and most dramatic effects of climate change that we will doubtless fare better than most places. I sincerely hope we can all resist taking comfort from that fact. George Bernard Shaw, addressing a gathering of mostly middle-class Fabian socialists in 1888, acknowledged that, human nature in the late nineteenth century being what it was, socialist revolution was impossible and progress toward socialism must be gradual. He nevertheless admonished them: "If we feel glad of that impossibility; if we feel relieved that the change is to be slow enough to avert personal risk to ourselves; if we feel anything less than acute disappointment and bitter humiliation at the discovery that there is yet between us and the promised land a wilderness in which many must perish miserably of want and despair: then I submit to you that our institutions have corrupted us to the most dastardly degree of selfishness." Likewise, I submit to you that if we feel relieved that Bangladesh and not America will be underwater and tens of millions of Bangladeshis and not Americans will be forced out of their homes in the near future, or that East Africa and not America will suffer climate-driven famines, causing millions of East African but not American deaths from starvation, then we really have no grounds for self-respect.

Tonight, however, assuming we will somehow survive the likely travails and avoid the all-too-possible terminal catastrophes of the near future, I invite you to think with me about some less immediate, more abstract questions of political morality. Let's begin with a backward glance. The most popular book published in the United States in the nineteenth century was Uncle Tom's Cabin. The next most popular book was Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy, which was published in 1888 and sold one million copies - an enormous number for that time, equivalent to several million copies today. More than 500 Bellamy Clubs were formed over the next decade to give political effect to the book's vision, though they were eventually absorbed into the larger Populist movement that was the high-water mark of democracy in America so far.

(Parenthetically, Looking Backward was eventually overtaken in sales by Henry George's Progress and Poverty, which had been published a few years earlier. Think about it: the three best-selling books in nineteenth-century America were works of surpassing moral vision and imaginative power. The three best-selling American books of the 20th century, as near as I can determine, were The Da Vinci Code, The Catcher in the Rye, and The Hite Report. That contrast is worth a lecture in itself.)

Looking Backward is a utopian novel in which Julian West, a young upper-class Bostonian, falls asleep in a hypnotically induced trance in the secret, sealed-off, subterranean bedchamber of his townhouse, which is destroyed the next day in a fire. He is assumed dead, but through a very implausible chain of circumstances he survives in a kind of suspended animation and is discovered only when the site of his house is excavated by a subsequent occupant in the year 2000. His discoverer, the kindly Doctor ­­Leete, nurses the young man back to health and introduces him to the 21st century.

In form, the book is an extended conversation in which each man explains his society to the other. "How do you manage that?" Julian asks incredulously about the new society's absence of poverty and inequality, its extremely short work week, its freedom of manners, and so on. Dr. Leete explains; Julian observes that such rational and humane arrangements would have seemed to his contemporaries utterly impossible and contrary to human nature; and then it is Dr. Leete's turn to ask incredulously "But why did you believe that?"

This seems like the right way to go about imagining a conversation between the present and the future. Unless we have reached the end point of humankind's moral development, it is pretty certain that the average educated human of the 23rd century will look back at the average educated human of the 21st century and ask incredulously about a considerable number of our most cherished moral and political axioms, "How could they have believed that?"  We do it every time a movie like Twelve Days a Slave or a novel like The Handmaid's Tale or a play like Angels in America or a work of history like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee or of journalism like Michael Harrington's The Other America prompts us to ask, "How could decent, intelligent people have believed they were entitled to treat other human beings like that?"

Of course it is possible - increasingly possible - that the dominant culture of the 23rd century will not be human at all. Artificial intelligence in some form is, if not inevitable, at least very likely. It may be a narrow and circumscribed intelligence, strictly subordinate to human purposes, or it may be a self-improving and eventually self-directing intelligence - a new form of life, quite possibly superior to our own. In addition, we have recently crossed the threshold of genetic manipulation. It is no longer merely conceivable that genetic enhancement will someday be available to those who can afford it. If an unregulated market for such enhancements is allowed to develop, two centuries may be enough time to produce, if not a strict biological division within Homo sapiens, at any rate a nearly unbridgeable sociocultural one.

But let us bracket these possibilities. I'm interested just now in moral progress. It's true that moral progress is often intimately bound up with technological change. Slavery might have died out sooner in the United States if the cotton gin had not made cotton production so profitable. Without labor-saving domestic technology, the automation of manufacturing, and the digital economy - not to mention the Pill - the emancipation of women might still be a pipedream. And without the printing press, no mass literacy, and hence no democracy. In the long run, technology will change our lives, for better or worse, out of all recognition - that's a truism. But leaving technology aside, what features of our present moral consensus might we need to alter in order to make a rational and humane future?

Two four-letter words lie at the heart of contemporary America's public morality: "free" and "fair." "It's a free country" is every American's boast; "I only want a fair shake" is every American's plea. Now, to be reminded of the more flagrant forms of unfairness in our national life - that one American child in five lives below or near the poverty line; that somewhere between eighty and ninety percent of our economy's productivity gains since 1980 have gone to the top ten percent of the income distribution; that the top 25 hedge-fund managers earn more than all the nation's kindergarten teachers combined; that 100,000 Americans will die for lack of health care over the next ten years in order to give a large tax cut to Americans with incomes above a half-million dollars; and so on and on, down the long and shameful catalogue - to hear about all that is not really why you're here tonight. You all read the newspapers. Our descendants may ask - they will ask - how we could have tolerated such unfairness; but they won't ask how we could have believed such inequalities to be fair, because we don't, most of us, believe them to be fair. Let's instead consider a different question: whether our present-day ideals of fairness and freedom, even if we lived up to them, would satisfy our descendants.

The average CEO now earns around 300 times as much as his or her average employee. Many people are dismayed at the contrast with the good old days of the Eisenhower administration, when CEOs earned only 30 times as much as their average employees and paid a far higher tax rate, and yet the country didn't exactly seem to be going to the dogs. But let's put aside our reaction to this striking change and ask more generally whether and why some people ought to earn more than others.

The usual answer, I suppose, is that people deserve whatever they get through the operation of supply and demand. The competitive marketplace quantifies the value that one's efforts have for others. Some people (like doctors) employ vital skills; some people (like baseball players) give exceptional enjoyment; some people (like corporate executives) assume extra responsibilities; some people (like investors) forego luxury consumption. All such people are rewarded in proportion to the satisfaction they furnish others, as measured by others' willingness to pay, directly or indirectly, for those satisfactions. No payment, no service. As Adam Smith wrote: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest."

Of course it's not that simple. Consider those doctors, baseball players, and executives I used as examples of economic agents who exchange services for money. In fact, they - like you, like me - live with only one foot in a market economy and the other in a gift economy. I'll tell you a secret: I'm being paid very generously to speak here tonight, but I would have gladly done it for much less, perhaps even for free. Trying to persuade people like you to share my ideals, to feel as I do about our common life and fate, to shape a future of beauty and joy rather than ugliness and pain - this is my vocation, and I would pay quite a stiff price, if necessary, to be allowed to practice it. Likewise, any doctor or scientist or athlete or nurse or teacher or carpenter - or, yes, even corporate executive - worth her salt feels at least occasionally that she is making a gift of her best efforts; and as with all such gifts, the chief reward is internal: the pleasures of giving and of exercising one's faculties at their highest pitch.

Julian West and Doctor Leete have an exchange on the subject of desert and incentives:

"Do you mean that all share equally in the national wealth?" Julian asked incredulously.


"Certainly," replied the doctor. "And in return, we require precisely the same measure of service from all: namely, the best service it is in his power to give."


And supposing all do they best they can," said Julian, "[and] the amount of the product resulting is twice as much from one man as from another?"


"That has nothing to do with the question of desert," the doctor answered. "All who do their best, do the same. A man's endowments, however godlike, merely fix the measure of his duty. [And although we reward excellence and diligence with public praise and increased responsibility,] you must not imagine that we consider such things a motive likely to appeal to noble natures. Such persons find their motives within, not without, and measure their duty by their own endowments, not by those of others."



Nowadays, the gift economy leads a precarious existence, appearing mostly in commencement-day addresses in which graduates are exhorted to follow their dreams, while most of the poor dears are worrying frantically about how to pay their debts. The family is a gift economy, and so is culture, including both the arts and the sciences, as well as the shrinking public and non-profit spheres. Much of 19th-century America, where individual households produced their own subsistence, supplemented by mostly face-to-face exchange with other small economic units, was a hybrid - some control over the purpose and conditions of one's work was still possible. But ever since that most fateful of innovations, industrial mass production, has become virtually universal, the market economy has progressively squeezed out the gift economy. In a mature capitalist society, competition grows in both extent and intensity, that is, both between and within economic units. Creativity and generosity are not forbidden but they are no longer self-justifying; they are, on the contrary, subordinated, like all activity in the non-public sphere, to the goal of increasing shareholder value. In the private economy, you can do whatever you like - create beauty, pursue truth, help others - as long as what you like to do makes someone a profit.

The pros and cons of the market economy is a vast subject, too large to take the full measure of tonight. One perennial criticism alleges that this subordination of the nobler possibilities of work to the imperatives of profit is unnecessary and impoverishing - that we have long been rich enough, if only we decided as a society, to produce the necessities of life for all with plenty of time left over for creative pursuits. I believe this; indeed, I don't understand how anyone with a modicum of economic knowledge and moral imagination could fail to believe it. Our 23rd-century descendants will certainly wonder how we, who think ourselves so sensible and pragmatic, could have thrown away the colossal productivity gains that a self-directed and cooperative workforce would be expected to achieve compared with the insecure, deskilled, ceaselessly tracked and monitored workforce we have opted for instead. It will seem to them staggeringly, incomprehensibly inefficient.

Nevertheless, it is with desert rather than incentives or efficiency that I'm chiefly concerned tonight. I said earlier that people in a market economy are rewarded in proportion to others' willingness to pay. That willingness to pay is the measure of value in a market economy; and so, to say that a person deserves what she earns is to say that there is at least a rough correspondence between the value of what she produces and the value of what she receives. As Milton Friedman, the high priest of American capitalism, put it: "The ethical principle [underlying] the distribution of income in a free market society is, 'To each according to what he and the instruments he owns produces.'"

This notion of desert rests on the assumption that two distinctions can be made rigorously: first, that one person's input - to any output or outcome at all - can be sharply distinguished from all other inputs; and second, that merit can be distinguished from luck: that is, that diligence, good judgment, and other productive qualities and character traits, as well as talent, are not fully attributable to biological endowment, early environment, education, and other contingent and therefore morally arbitrary sources. I don't believe those distinctions hold up.

Let's take that CEO, and let's assume we know somehow that she produces thirty or 300 times as much as her average employee. Causation is a transitive relation, and production is a kind of causation. If A is a cause of B, and B is a cause of C, then A is a cause of C. If A contributes to the production of B, and B contributes to the production of C, then A has contributed to the production of C. Now, who has contributed to the production of our CEO, and therefore to the production of whatever she produces? Clearly, her parents, spouse, teachers, fellow students, predecessors, colleagues, rivals, and friends, along with all their parents, spouses, teachers, fellow students, predecessors, colleagues, rivals, and friends, along with all those who created the physical, organizational, and cultural resources employed in the production of whatever our CEO produces, along with all their parents, spouses, teachers, fellow students, predecessors, colleagues, rivals, and friends, and, it goes without saying, all their parents, spouses, teachers, and so on through what is, if one wants to insist on the point, an infinite chain of causes.

I do want to insist on the point. Einstein famously wrote: "I have all along been standing on the shoulders of giants." So has our CEO. Exceptional contributions, whether to art, science, or the Gross National Product, are prepared for by the whole previous development of the field. People who make brilliant, courageous, and illuminating mistakes, which may be indispensable to the ultimate success of a rich and famous artist, scientist, or entrepreneur, are not, in a competitive market system, retrospectively and proportionately rewarded for their contributions, even though Friedman's definition of justice would seem to require it.

My point is that all production is social production. The productive assets of every age are the joint product of all preceding ages, and all those born into the present are legitimately joint heirs of those assets. And the same arguments for joint rather than individual inheritance of wealth created in the past apply to the distribution of income in the present. As Doctor Leete tells Julian: "From the moment that men begin to live together and constitute even the rudest sort of society, self-support becomes impossible. As men grow more civilized and the subdivision of occupations and services is carried out, a complex mutual dependence becomes the universal rule. Every man, however solitary may seem his occupation, is a member of a vast industrial partnership, as large as the nation, as large as humanity. How could you not see that this necessity of mutual dependence implies the duty and guarantee of mutual support?" Perhaps we don't see it because there persists a deep and ancient distinction between luck and merit, according to which we deserve praise and reward for our good actions, though not for our good fortune. But what if our good actions are the results of our good fortune?

Philosophy assimilates scientific discoveries slowly. As a result, it is always riddled with archaic concepts and images, survivals from an earlier scientific epoch. One such survival, it seems to me, is the concept of merit. It has always been partly recognized (it is, indeed, implicit in the word "gifted") that talents and aptitudes come under the heading of luck rather than merit. But the inescapable implication of modern genetics, neurobiology, and psychiatry is that character, no less than talent, is inherited or else formed by very early experiences. Diligence, decisiveness, initiative, coolness under pressure - all these entrepreneurial virtues are, no less than intellectual or manual abilities, part of one's natural endowment. And from a strictly moral point of view, no one deserves a reward for being born luckier than someone else. I imagine the 23rd century will ask: "Why did you make talent and character the measure of an individual's desert rather than of her obligations? How could you have overlooked what is to us the obvious and elementary principle of fairness: from each according to her abilities, to each according to her need? And in the many areas where need is not the right criterion for distribution - like political office, research funding, medical training, executive responsibility - surely money isn't the right criterion either, but rather aptitudes specific to those practices themselves?"

I suggested earlier that causation is an infinite regress. If that's true, does anyone deserve anything? Actually, infinite regressions are perfectly commonplace and don't normally defeat us. We call a halt to them wherever seems appropriate. Every parent has to decide when a child is genuinely curious and when it keeps asking "Why?" just to put off going to sleep. Every conscientious judge has to decide when to stop applying the maxim "To understand all is to forgive all," even though it's undoubtedly true. The point about these decisions is that they are arbitrary and fallible - in making them we rely on prudence rather than principle. So that when we decide to ignore the infinite chain of causes that produced the output of the CEO and pay her the whole putative value of it, our decision is not a matter of justice, as Milton Friedman claimed.

I said "our decision," but except via the tax system, which Jimmy Carter correctly described as "a disgrace to the human race" and which has only gotten worse - that is, less progressive - since then, you and I don't have anything to say about the just distribution of income and wealth. Indeed, the purpose of definitions like Milton Friedman's is precisely to prevent such distributions from becoming a matter of public decision. In the 1940s, an influential senator, trying to stifle criticism of Harry Truman's Cold War policies, demanded that "politics should stop at the water's edge." It worked. The proponents of the economic class war have had a similar success in preaching that democracy should stop at the economy's edge. In principle, the state is governed according to the rule of one person, one vote. Economic enterprises such as corporations are not even democratic in principle: there the rule is, one dollar (of shareholder value, that is), one vote. In both areas, it hardly needs pointing out, principles count for very little. None but the largest investors have any influence with corporate management; while in politics, some persons in effect have many votes, others none.

The case of politics is particularly egregious. Two political scientists, Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern, recently summarized years of detailed statistical research into the relation between what voters want and what we get: "In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule--at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagree with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover ... even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it. ... For Americans below the top of the income distribution, any association between preferences and policy outcomes is likely to reflect the extent to which their preferences [happen to] coincide with those of the affluent. Although responsiveness to the preferences of the affluent is [not] perfect, responsiveness to less-well-off Americans is virtually nonexistent."

I imagine that our 23rd-century descendants will be too tactful to ask us why we allowed American democracy to be made a mockery of in this fashion, since most of us are already ashamed of that. But I think they'll press us about our definition of democracy, and in particular about why we applied it in some circumstances and not in others. If democracy means one-person-one-vote, in what situations is it morally requisite? Here is an answer from Robert Dahl, probably the most eminent academic political theorist of the twentieth century, except for John Rawls. According to Dahl, members of any association are entitled to insist that it be governed democratically when the following conditions hold: the group must reach some decisions that are binding on all members; discussion and collective decision-making are feasible; membership is stable, i.e., those who make the decisions will be subject to the consequences; and there is a rough equality of competence, i.e., members are capable of judging their own interests and also of judging which decisions they must delegate to experts.

Now, why don't these conditions hold for corporations as well as for political communities? One possible objection might be that, unlike laws, management decisions are not binding - employees can quit. The answer to this objection is that in the real world, unlike the world of perfect competitive equilibrium, smoothly clearing labor markets, and other fantasies of neoclassical economics, the costs of renouncing employment are frequently as great as the costs of renouncing citizenship. Another possible objection is that management requires special skills, which workers may not possess. But surely workers are no less capable of hiring and supervising managers than shareholders are, and probably more so. Still another objection is based on the notorious "iron law of oligarchy," according to which any sizable association tends to be dominated by those with the most aptitude and ambition. But the same holds of political democracy, which no one proposes abandoning on that account. Finally, there is the moral objection: aren't shareholders entitled to control the firms they invest in? For the same reasons that entitlement theories fail to justify large inequalities in income - namely, that wealth is a social product and that differences in ability and character are morally arbitrary - they fail to justify large differences in the power to control our common economic destiny. And there is an additional reason: one of the requirements for fair political competition is that all group members have equal access to relevant information about group decisions and equal opportunity to place items on the agenda for decision. It follows that in a society where economic resources translate into political resources, economic inequality must result in political inequality, a conclusion that is obvious to everyone except the conservative majority on the US Supreme Court. Political democracy requires economic democracy; indeed, the distinction between the political and the economic is altogether artificial. How, our 23rd-century interlocutors will ask us politely, but perhaps with a tinge of exasperation, did you manage to overlook that?


The closest Julian West comes to rousing the imperturbable Doctor Leete to exasperation is with his casual remark that 19th-century capitalism, whatever its other drawbacks, was at any rate conducive to personal freedom. Allow me to quote from their exchange on this subject at some length:


"Undoubtedly," said Julian, "the poor as a class were in the economic service of the rich, or, as we used to say, labor was dependent on capital for employment. But this employment had become in the nineteenth century entirely voluntary. The rich had no power to compel the poor to be their servants. They only took such as came voluntarily to ask, and even begged, to be taken into service. Surely a service so sought after could scarcely be called compulsory."


"Tell me, Julian," said the doctor, "did the rich go to one another and ask for the privilege of being one another's servants or employees?"


"Why, of course not."


"But why not?"


"Because, naturally, no one could wish to be another's servant or subject to his orders who could get along without it."


"I should think so, but why, then, did the poor so eagerly seek to serve the rich when the rich refused with scorn to serve one another? Was it because the poor so loved the rich?"


"Hardly," said Julian.


"Why then?"


"It was, of course, because that was the only way the poor could get a living. It was the pressure of want that drove the poor to become servants of the rich"


"But," the doctor protested, "would you call that voluntary service? The distinction between forced service and such service as that seems quite imperceptible to us. If a man may be said to do voluntarily that which only the pressure of bitter necessity compels him to choose to do, then there has never been any such thing as slavery, for all the acts of a slave are [nothing but] the acceptance of a less evil for fear of a worse. Suppose, Julian, that a few of you owned the main water supply, food supply, clothing supply, land supply, and industrial plant in a community, would not that fact alone make the rest of the people your slaves, without any direct compulsion on your part whatever? ... If you own the things men must have, you own the men who must have them."



Doctor Leete presses the analogy between wage slavery and chattel slavery very hard, and we may feel that the unique malignity of African-American slavery is occasionally lost sight of. But we should also keep in mind that only a generation before Bellamy wrote, Southern pro-slavery advocates argued passionately, and with some justice, that the condition of the working classes in the more advanced industrial regions (recently documented in England, for example, by the great Victorian factory inspectors) was hellish indeed. Even in the previous century, the conservative philosopher David Hume acknowledged that "the fear of punishment will never draw so much labor from a slave as the fear of being discharged and not getting another place will from a free workman." But leaving all such comparisons aside, how do our contemporary notions of freedom stand up to Doctor Leete's maxim: "If you own the things men must have, you own the men who must have them"?

If you have the misfortune to be a left-wing social critic, the most galling part of each day is encountering the ubiquitous self-designation of apologists for capitalism as champions of freedom. One day a Tea Party Congressman introduces the Economic Freedom Act, which would free the 4000 or so people who pay it from the estate tax and liberate the rest of us from Social Security and the minimum wage. The next day some foundation with "freedom" in its name gives an award to Charles Koch for his stalwart defense of Koch Industries' freedom to render sizable areas of West Virginia, Arkansas, and Louisiana uninhabitable. And every day the Congressional Freedom Caucus warns sternly that it will not rest until the tens of millions of Americans who cannot afford proper health care without assistance from the rest of us are finally free to go without it.

Still, where there is ideological smoke there is sometimes philosophical fire. The elementary intuitions about freedom to which defenders of laissez-faire capitalism appeal are widespread and at least superficially plausible. No one makes you shop at Wal-Mart, after all, or work there either. If you don't like it where you live, you're free to move. If you don't like what you're hearing, change the channel. If you don't like Fords, buy a Chevy. This model of life as a series of discrete purchases and of citizens as sovereign consumers seems to lie in the background of many Americans' conviction that, whatever its other virtues or defects, capitalism relies exclusively or primarily on free choice and that regulations or taxes or public provision, even if sometimes justified, necessarily diminish freedom.

There's an enormous philosophical literature on metaphysical, moral, and political freedom, to which I couldn't do justice in many lectures, if at all. I'll be content if I can just sow a doubt in your mind that this everyday, rough-and-ready understanding of freedom is adequate any longer. I say "any longer" because it once was more or less adequate, back when America was, uniquely in its time, neither a feudal nor a capitalist society. For a couple of centuries, because the land was so rich and was empty of any inhabitants whose rights a white man was obliged to respect, economic autonomy - the ability to make a living without selling one's labor - was very widely, almost universally possible. Those two centuries formed the American imagination, which has not yet adjusted to the traumatic fact that the possibility of individual self-reliance, and therefore of economic autonomy in the sense presupposed by laissez-faire ideology, is gone forever. When the means of making a living were largely unowned and available to all, economic agents could confront one another as equals, capable of entering into genuinely voluntary agreements and morally binding contracts. Today, by contrast, employment contracts typically involve members of two groups that are radically unequal, since one group has control over something the other must have access to in order to survive, but not vice versa. That is another way of saying that we live in a class society. Our individualistic political rhetoric, appropriate to the frontier period but now a century and a half out of date, serves only to conceal the one-sided class warfare that its victims stubbornly refuse to acknowledge.

Those victims have some excuse; they are daily bombarded by laissez-faire ideology. We intellectuals, on the other hand, really ought to know better. The structural unfreedom inherent in class relations was authoritatively described by an early critic of capitalism and champion of labor unions. I'm referring to Adam Smith, who wrote in Book 1 of The Wealth of Nations:


[In disputes between masters and workmen,] it is not difficult to foresee which of the two parties must [ordinarily] have the advantage ... and force the other into compliance. The employers, being fewer in number, can combine much more easily; and the law, besides, authorizes or at least does not prohibit their combinations, while it prohibits [or strictly regulates] those of the workmen. ...

We rarely hear ... about employers combining, though frequently about workmen. But whoever imagines, on this account, that employers rarely combine is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Employers are always and everywhere in a tacit but constant and uniform combination [to keep down wages]. 


Smith, a true friend of the working-man, added this:


[Moreover,] in [general,] the employers can hold out much longer. [A master], even if he did not employ a single workman, could generally live a year or two on [his accumulated capital]. Many workmen could not subsist a week, few could subsist a month, and scarcely any a year without wages. In the long run the workman may be as necessary to his employer as his employer is to him; but the necessity is not so [pressing].


In other words, if you own the things men must have, you own the men who must have them.



If, as I've suggested, moral progress can be imagined as a conversation across the ages, we of the twenty-first century would probably ask our nineteenth-century counterparts questions like: Why did you believe it legitimate for one person to own another? Why did women seem to you incapable of self-determination? Why did you consider that political authority could be inherited, for example by monarchs? Why did so many of your contemporaries believe, as Thomas Jefferson observed sarcastically about the prevailing belief in aristocracy, that "the mass of men are born with saddles on their backs, and a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately by the grace of God"? If our imaginary interlocutors defended the 19th century against the 21st, we might learn a good deal by trying to rebut them and vindicate our own moral intuitions.

And in turn, it is only sporting to put ourselves in the hot seat by trying to imagine which of our current beliefs might seem benighted to our 23rd-century descendants, as at least some of the beliefs of ancestors always do seem benighted to their descendants. As I've suggested, my guess is that they will want to ask us questions like: Why did you base desert on performance, which can't be measured and is in any case a function of one's endowments, rather than on need or other non-arbitrary qualifications? After all, no one deserves her endowments. Why did you make that strangely artificial distinction between the political and the economic? It looks as though your only purpose was to prevent economic democracy. And why did you define freedom so narrowly, as the absence of some constraints but not others, usually constraints on one person's right to employ her capital but not on another person's right to realize her capacities? Why did you assume that contracts between parties with radically unequal resources could be free? Why did you think that freedom is something natural and unproblematic, when freedom is so clearly relative to rights, which are a matter of convention and consensus?

Coming, finally, a little closer to home, I imagine some of you may well be wanting to ask me: why this assumption of moral progress? There is no reason, after all, to think that intelligence guarantees species survival. If a nuclear weapon goes off or the Antarctic ice sheet melts - and neither of these occurrences is extremely far-fetched - things will get very ugly for a very long time. Even now, the United States is a more insecure and less generous place than at any time since the Great Depression. So, utopia? Really?

I have no convincing answer. Circumstances placed you all at my mercy for an hour, and I have taken advantage of the occasion to try to think my way through some of our conflicting moral intuitions toward a possible future, hoping that the effort might interest some of you, at least a little. In any case, the signs are not all bad. We remain signatories of the UN Charter and Declaration of Human Rights, even though, like every other great power, we have violated them continually and unhesitatingly. In the developed world, for the time being at least, women are firmly in control of their destiny, and homosexuals and ethnic minorities can hold their heads up. The first African-American president recently left office. If not for the absurd anachronism of the Electoral College, the first woman president would now be in office. And if a few primaries had gone the other way, the first democratic socialist president might well be in office.

But the roots of my faith in progress - perhaps I should simply say my hopes - go deeper than that. Sigmund Freud was a profoundly unsentimental judge of human nature. Late in life he wrote to a close friend: "In the depths of my heart, I can't help being convinced that my dear fellow-men, with a few exceptions, are worthless." And yet, around the same time, the old curmudgeon ended his noble little book, The Future of an Illusion, with this observation: "The voice of the intellect is a soft one, but it does not rest until it has gained a hearing. Ultimately, after endlessly repeated rebuffs, it succeeds. This is one of the few points on which one may be optimistic about the future of humanity, but in itself it signifies not a little." That modest but stirring affirmation is a bridge to the Enlightenment of the 18th century, and also - I believe, even if Freud didn't - to the utopia - or at any rate, the somewhat more enlightened society - of the 23rd.

And in truth, my hopes have an even deeper wellspring - deeper as love is deeper than wisdom and solidarity is deeper than intelligence. Perhaps the finest passage in Looking Backward follows Dr. Leete's revelation, astonishing to Julian West, that in the new world the helpless, the disabled, and the mentally ill receive exactly the same income as everyone else.


"The idea of charity on such a scale," said Julian, "would have made our most enthusiastic philanthropists gasp."


"If you had a sick brother at home," replied Dr. Leete, "unable to work, would you feed him on less wholesome food, and lodge and clothe him more poorly, than yourself? On the contrary, you would give him the best of everything; nor would you dream of calling it charity. The very word, in that connection, would fill you with indignation."


"Of course," Julian answered, "but the cases are not parallel. There is a sense, no doubt, in which all men are brothers; but this general sort of brotherhood is not to be compared, except for rhetorical purposes, to the brotherhood of blood."


"There speaks the nineteenth century," exclaimed Dr. Leete. "Mr. West, if I were to give you, in one sentence, the key to what may seem the mysteries of our civilization as compared with that of your age, I should say that it is the fact that the solidarity of [humankind] and the brotherhood of man, which to you were but fine phrases, are, to our thinking and feeling, ties as real and as vital as physical fraternity."


This passage too is a bridge, to a sensibility apparently very distant from our own. Yet something about it is very familiar, like an echo from the inmost heart of our own moral heritage. I am thinking of the Sermon on the Mount, with its promise that "blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied," and a little later in the same gospel, the parable of the sheep and the goats, where Jesus almost seems to have been admonishing Julian West and his Republican descendants: "Whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters" - that is, to the poorest of the poor - "you do to me." Those who hunger and thirst for justice won't be satisfied for a great while yet, except in imagination. But even that, as Freud said, signifies not a little.



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