Behind every political position or economic idea, there lies a deep philosophical assumption. Societies where people disagree on politics and economic policies can survive quite peaceably so long as these disparate ideas are predicated on the same moral and philosophical foundations, but where these differ, trouble ensues. The fact that the United States has of late largely avoided the violence and civil strife of less-developed nations, even as our society splinters along religious, lifestyle, and philosophical lines, reflects more the inertia of our heritage’s traditional mores of tolerance and liberty than a rejection of the proposition that peoples who disagree on basic philosophy will, eventually, be unable to live in the same State.
In theory, of course, this need not be the case. Different opinions on philosophical questions can theoretically persist indefinitely in a single nation. But practically, this requires a degree of patience and societal toleration incompatible with how most people view the world, and even incompatible with human nature itself. To admit that this utopia is possible is to all at once admit of the efficacy of a single world government, all squabbles over the difficulty of preserving true liberty in such a system aside, and to defenestrate al notion of practicality in assessing human nature. Frederick Hayek observed in his essay, “Why I’m Not a Conservative,” (conservative in the European sense of the word), that political conservatives, at root, are unable to live in civil society with those who think differently than themselves, and that socialists, on the other side of the spectrum, have the same distaste for dissent (see Stalin, Joseph). But Hayek, in contrast to my argument here, observed that among those who adhere to the European form of conservatism, not only is living forever with those who have different basic philosophies and moral ideals impossible, but living with those who merely have different policy opinions and habits but the same moral roots is ultimately untenable. The larger differences of philosophical basis, such as faith vs. atheism, individual responsibility vs. group identity and guilt, and life as a utility-seeking operation vs. life as a meaningful endeavor, are irreconcilable even for the classical liberal in the long-haul. How long would libertarians tolerate living in a Muslim-majority nation, with the concomitant set of laws and social mores that arise from that religion’s cultural development and basic premises? Not long.
Our Founding Fathers, broad-minded as they were, understood this well. John Jay noted in Federalist no. 2 that one of America’s principal advantages lay in its unity of purpose, language, and religion across such a broad swath of fertile and contiguous land. Not similarity of blood, or of genetic stock, which at the time and still today is among the most diverse on Earth, but of ideas, of basic philosophical foundations in the Enlightenment and Judeo-Christian traditions, of life outlook. Indeed, as opposed to the bloodline monarchies of Old Europe and the tiny republics, such as that in the Netherlands, the United States had a common national creed that could be imparted to newcomers, because its basis did not lie in being an Englishman, Belgian, Franc, or German by birth. Interestingly, as the United States has developed along with the world around it, utopians of all stripes increasingly reject the fundamental philosophical foundations of both the Enlightenment (in the English tradition) and the Judeo-Christian tradition. This change in ideals and philosophical roots can be clearly observed in several economic ideas.
The other day, I read an article about how America’s top technology executives and innovators do not foresee the benefits of the technological revolution flowing to most Americans, but envisage a future world in which so many processes, from legal services and manufacturing to food service and hospitality, are mechanized, that the gains from these technologies only flow to an ever-narrowing class of tech innovators, while everyone else works menial data-manipulation jobs that, while they enable a higher standard of living via the new technology and cheap production, bring very little chance of advancement, of prosperity, or of economic independence. In their world, this must presumably be an ideal—universal human prosperity with near-zero human toil and very little unpredictability in life. Diseases conquered, body chemistry manageable, sex and risk of children divorced by perfect birth control, and so forth. But there’s a problem with this utopia: most people don’t want it. In fact, the US has some very basic philosophical problems with this world.
First of all, this dystopian future assumes that human beings reach their highest end, in Jeremy Bentham-esque fashion, when their power to consume is maximized, even to the exclusion of all other goals for a human life. Secondly, it wrongly assumes that work is valuable only for the buying power that it bestows. Certainly this is one highly useful function of work, but work also forms character, keeps us from idleness, forms community bonds, and so forth. To imagine a future largely without work is to imagine a future without meaning or purpose, a world set adrift from all that anchors us. Third, this version of the economy, by virtue of its employment structure and the prevailing wisdom of the gurus who reign supreme in this new epoch, encourages splurging one’s desires and impulses without time for reflection or reason, for it drives a wedge between us and the natural world (which is but another way of saying it drives a wedge between us and God, from whom natural law emanates). Without reflection on our own labors and the realities of the natural world, human beings become arrogant. We believe we can design utopias for themselves, whether they be of the Ayn Randian, Bernie Sanders, or Joseph Stalin types. And without a credible reason not to overthrow a tiny capitalist cabal atop a world where pleasure reigns supreme for the plebes (many of whom, by the way, will be exceptionally intelligent, but simply not needed in a world of machine learning where only a few top programmers “make it”), what stops the socialist and communist utopians from pursuing their anti-reality dreams just as vigorously as the tech gurus? I see no limiting principle here.
It may be said that our current technological innovators are capitalists, and are therefore not utopians or dangerous to society. I disagree. They are capitalists who see the future as being molded entirely by their algorithms, not in the fashion that Carnegie fashioned the future with steel or Rockefeller wit oil, but in a way that gives the economic elite direct access to the private lives and thought patterns of all, that stifles free thought too far removed from what they deem mainstream, and in which an entirely new ecosystem of practical government, the discipline of the mob and the fear of negative emotions, develops. This world is not a utopia for all of us who believe that human life has nonmaterial meaning, that work is part of our purpose, and that commitments to others like marriage, parenthood, and familial ties are some of the most fulfilling parts of human existence, who believe that the true rights of property, the bedrock of capitalism, are rooted in the rights of free thought, free expression, and democratized defense, and that economic independence of the common people is the surest guardian of a government’s republican character and respect for natural rights.
In short, the tech gurus’ basic philosophy, while kind of free market, is at odds with the basic philosophy of America’s founders, and of most Americans. It assumes no God exists, that because no God exists, life is merely the consumption of the pleasurable, and that to the extent that consumption can be maximized, any collateral damage to the social and moral fabric of the human species, even detrimental changes to basic human mating instincts and social capacity, built over the past hundred thousand years, are inconsequential. But in this grand experiment, the American people will resist, requiring stealth on behalf of the tech companies until we are lulled into addiction ad unable to break the spell even when we know what’s happening to us (are we already there?), and if we cannot stop this progression to the post-post-post modern, then this philosophy will be proven incalculably wrong when humanity falls back into the state of nature from which it arose. The first victims of that state of nature, of that primal cry that emanates from the soul when the pleasures of the body no longer amuse us as much as the prospect of destroying the empty existence we’ve come to hate, will be the tech titans of whatever year the calendar says, if we still keep time then.