The Fantasy Worlds of Politics

On the false Utopias of leftists and libertarians

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Having lived and worked in Washington, D.C. for most of the last generation, I have been impressed with the growing gap between the political and economic realities that confront policymakers and the fantasy worlds that are home to many political activists, ideologues, and pundits.

In domestic policy and foreign policy alike, things change slowly and it is often very hard to enact even minor changes of policy. Even in foreign policy, dramatic events like the implosion of the Soviet Union and 9/11 and the Arab Spring tend to punctuate less visible, longer-term shifts in relative wealth and power, like the gradual rise of China. In domestic politics, incumbent interests are almost always stronger than insurgents, making even minor changes, of course, difficult to achieve, even in societies with fewer constitutional veto points than the U.S.

But most political activists do not know this. If they knew how hard it was to change anything, they would probably be lobbyists, not activists, content to be paid whether their minor, incremental campaigns succeed or not. Or they might not be involved in politics and government at all.

Consider the fantasy world of the libertarian movement. According to libertarian ideology, practically everything the modern state does, from Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid to most defense spending and regulation, is morally illegitimate. In a truly free society, according to libertarians, the government would be a nightwatchman state, limited to enforcing contracts and providing minimal security (a task which private police forces and military mercenaries might do).

You might think that individuals who are so radically alienated from modern government would withdraw from the world into monastic enclaves. Instead, significant numbers of libertarians for half a century, backed by donations from rich people who don’t like paying taxes, have filled think tanks and cranked out policy papers prescribing radically privatized versions of Social Security and other programs. Most of these elaborate libertarian schemes have no chance of passage by the U.S. Congress, now or ever.

Delusion on a similar scale can be found across the political spectrum. On the radical left, there are unworldly souls who denounce “the corporations” or “corporate capitalism.” I have less respect for them than for the libertarians. At least libertarians go to the trouble of drawing up detailed policies for their imaginary society. But even though we are in the third century of the industrial era, nobody on the left to my knowledge other than Marxist-Leninists has ever produced a detailed blueprint for a society based on principles other than the modern mixed economy, in which large private enterprises play a part. And the communist alternative produced stagnation, famines, and tyranny.

Some on the soft left gesture toward the Mondragon corporation, a federation of worker-owned cooperatives in Spain, as a model for a cooperative alternative to capitalism. I have been reading about the damned Mondragon cooperatives since the 1980s. Enough with Mondragon! Surely in four decades some academics or some activists somewhere could have gone beyond vague rhetoric and devised plans for how a cooperative economy would function at the national and global levels. Instead, the Mondragon model appears to be a mirage, perpetually receding as you approach it.

The same is true for other equally utopian ideas of the left. One of my favorites is transnational labor unionism. Organized labor in the private sector in the U.S. has been crushed and is in decline in most of the rest of the developed world. Somehow the same leftists who cannot organize the United States, against the opposition of local capitalists, are going to organize workers in dozens or hundreds of countries across borders in North America or the world.

The latest fad on the left is cosmopolitanism. Open borders — a crackpot idea once associated with the libertarian right — is now being embraced by the lunatic left. The nation-state, we are supposed to believe, is a kind of inherently racist gated community, illegitimate because it distinguishes between citizens and foreigners and limits welfare benefits and voting rights to the former. Limiting welfare programs to citizen-taxpayers is “welfare chauvinism.” All laws regulating immigration, all border controls, are the moral equivalents of Jim Crow in the segregated South.

The open-borders left is perhaps the most deranged of today’s crackpot political sects. At least the libertarian champions of open borders have been consistent, welcoming the collapse in First World labor wages, and the simultaneous collapse in taxpayer support for social-democratic welfare states, which the unlimited immigration of poor people from less developed countries would trigger (and which even high but not unlimited immigration has already triggered).

But the open-borders left wants to have mass immigration and a higher minimum wage and a generous welfare state, all at the same time. Never mind that the combination of a higher minimum wage, and refusal to enforce immigration laws, would simply create a huge gray market in labor and incentivize employers to pay workers off the books, causing a collapse in tax revenues among other things. Never mind that the taxpayers of any given nation-state will rebel if told that their country is to be converted into a global charity. Merely to raise such practical considerations is to mark oneself as a “deplorable,” an “ethnonationalist” bigot, in the eyes of the cosmopolitan wing of the loony left.

While allowing unlimited numbers of poor people from other countries to take up residence in developed countries and benefit from developed-nation welfare states, the contemporary left would also cripple modern industry by rapidly eliminating its major sources of energy — hydrocarbons like coal, oil, and natural gas and nuclear energy. If leftists were serious about reducing CO2 emissions without inflicting energy poverty on the developed and developing world alike, they would favor temporarily switching from coal to lower-carbon natural gas, while rapidly building zero-carbon-emission nuclear power plants, whose limited risks would surely be tolerable if the alternative is catastrophic global warming.

But no, natural gas is evil and nuclear energy is evil. Solar power and wind power are good, even though realistically they cannot be scaled up to meet present and future global energy demands. Most environmentalists are not open to debate on energy. They are crusaders who view hydrocarbons and nuclear power the way the old Prohibitionists viewed alcohol. There can be no compromise with sin.

The upshot? If you want to know what is going to happen in the future in America and the world, you should simply ignore most libertarians, leftists, and environmentalists and pay attention only to those slightly to the left or right of center who promise incremental reform.

Sorry, libertarians. The New Deal and Great Society are not going to be repealed. The voters like Social Security and Medicare. These programs may be tweaked a bit, but they are not going to be scrapped and replaced by hare-brained “market-oriented” schemes dreamed up by unworldly academics or think tank ideologues. Not going to happen.

Sorry, leftists. Corporate law can always be changed, but large private industrial and commercial enterprises will continue to play a central role in the mixed economies of all developed nations. The public sector portion of the mixed economy can be increased. But there will be no democratic socialism.

Nor is the nation-state about to be abolished. On the contrary, most nation-states, to prevent terrorism and deter unwanted economic migration, are moving to tighten up immigration law enforcement and border controls. Cope with it, one-worlders.

And the environmentalist utopia, in which by 2030 or 2050 or 2100 all or most energy comes from solar power and wind power? That’s not going to happen, either. Absent truly radical technological advances, nobody reading these words will live in a world in which the majority of energy comes from sunlight or wind.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, there are real problems in need of real solutions. Those solutions will not be found in fantasyland. •

Images courtesy of Hans Splinter via Flickr (Creative Commons).

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.
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