Tocqueville perceived early that democracy presented a stellar example of the saddest of all dilemmas, those in which two good things clash with little compromise or resolution possible. The two good things in democracy, of course, are equality and liberty. One would think it not too much to ask to have both full justice and complete liberty, but this is not so easily arranged. Laws are necessary for a carefully calibrated fairness; certain constraints will be required, because if everyone is cut loose to do his best, many will fall hopelessly out of the race. Historically, the two chief possibilities have been a gentle good society and a cruel great one. The middle possibility, a gentle society that is also truly great, has not yet shown up. Hoping against hope, many of us continue to wish that one day it will. Tocqueville knew it wasn’t likely to come about soon.

— Joseph Epstein, Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy’s Guide

There can never not be a situation in which people will find it essential to be a certain way, will want and need to be a certain way, and find that they cannot manage it. We are creatures who don’t get to decide what we are, whose natures are always partly hidden from our conscious understanding, who always pull several ways at once.

— Francis Spufford, Unapologetic

But the serial collapse and the sheer insubstantiality of these projects brings to mind Thomas Macaulay’s jibe that an acre of Middlesex is worth more than a principality in Utopia. The heart wants such worthy causes to succeed, looking to them hopefully for solutions to our contemporary dilemmas. The head can’t turn away from reality. At a certain point, it becomes impossible to resist asking, What is it that makes the noble ideas embodied in these communities so fragile, and so apparently unattractive?

…We can think of these two ambitions—reinvented sex and a remade economy—as the twin pillars of the utopian project.

In fact, the example of America’s nineteenth-century intentional communities suggests that there is something elemental in what John Maynard Keynes, writing during the Great Depression, called “the resilience of capitalism.” Nearly every utopia in these books begins with a determination to create a new economy, usually through some amalgam of collective ownership, central planning, and voluntary labor. Yet egoism, acquisitiveness, competitiveness, and all the other ills of human flesh bob repeatedly to the surface, like a cork that will not be submerged.

— Akash Kapur, “The Return of the Utopians

People sometimes ask whether I think there’s anything we can do to “solve” the problems of my community. I know what they’re looking for: a magical policy solution or an innovative government program. But these problems of family, faith, and culture aren’t like a Rubik’s Cube, and I don’t think that solutions (as most understand the term) really exist. A good friend, who worked for a time in the White House and cares deeply about the plight of the working class, once told me, “The best way to look at this might be to recognize that you probably can’t fix these things. They’ll always be around. But maybe you can put your thumb on the scale a little for the people at the margins.”

— J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy

We also owe to romanticism the notion that a unified answer in human affairs is likely to be ruinous, that if you really believe there is one single solution to all human ills, and that you must impose this solution at no matter what cost, you are likely to become a violent and despotic tyrant in the name of your solution, because your desire to remove all obstacles to it will end by destroying those creatures for whose benefit you offer the solution. The notion that there are many values, and that they are incompatible; the whole notion of plurality, of inexhaustibility, of the imperfection of all human answers and arrangements; the notion that no single answer which claims to be perfect and true, whether in art or in life, can in principle be perfect or true — all this we owe to the romantics.

— Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism

The apparent miracle of the division of labour became a mantra of capitalist economics that was swiftly put into practice throughout the industrial world. It also ushered in the era of monotonous work. Buried in the final pages of The Wealth of Nations, Smith admitted that the results included not only greater national income but also ‘torpor of the mind’ and a loss of ‘tender sentiment’. He said that ‘the man whose life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects, too, are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention.’

Many people today know just what Smith was talking about, for we are the inheritors of the division of labour. Whether we are employed in factories or offices, the chances are that we are charged with performing a small number of specialised tasks: copyediting reports, entering data, practising commercial law, serving at the checkout till, designing logos. Few are permitted to be craftspeople, drawing on multiple skills to take a job from start to finish. We are denied the satisfactions of a chair maker who might cut down the tree, then strip the bark, shape the rungs, steam the legs, bore the mortices, clamp the pieces, weave the seat and finally polish the wood with beeswax.

…Some people are searching for work that expands their personal horizons by providing new challenges, opportunities for learning, and ways to use their talents and creativity. There are those who want their jobs to express their values and politics. Others see work as a way of gaining deeper self-knowledge, or understanding of other people and cultures. Many desire careers that are a source of friendship or offer a sense of belonging or adventure. And some are intent on finding their personal calling: a career that provides a meaningful guide to the whole course of their lives.

I believe we should strive to transform work into part of our personal art of living. We need not accept Mark Twain’s opinion that ‘work is a necessary evil to be avoided.’ We must be more demanding of our work and of ourselves, and not sink into the resigned admission that work has to be ‘just a job’ with few rewards beyond the wage. Life is so excruciatingly short, and earning a living is such a large chunk of our limited time on the earth, that we cannot permit work to be a toad.

— Roman Krznaric, How Should We Live?

As Adam Smith pointed out in The Wealth of Nations, specialization is both the cause and the effect of prosperity, and it creates the modern economic life that allows us to move beyond subsistence. Small groups of people — no matter how talented, no matter how skilled or strong or smart — cannot be wealthy by modern standards over any sustained period of time…Without that specialization, and innovation — if we had to depend on, say, just our family and friends, regardless of their talents — we would be close to subsistence, the economic reality for most of human history. The poorest people in the world today still struggle, no matter their talents, because they are connected economically only to those who are nearby.

…Some people view this lack of interpersonal interaction as a great loss. Perhaps it is. But it is the unavoidable price of modernity and wealth. Trading only with people we care about or are able to see and interact with would leave us with a very limited number of people to trade with. And that would mean we would be very poor. The “buy local” movement has been successful with a very limited number of products — food and some handcrafted items. The ability to broaden the scope of the movement is very limited. We tried buying local once; it was called the Middle Ages. But one reason people were poor in the Middle Ages is that when you trade mostly with people who live nearby, you are bound to be very poor. There just isn’t enough specialization possible with a limited number of trading partners. Self-sufficiency is the road to poverty.

…Unfortunately, Smith’s insights in The Wealth of Nations are not fully understood. We don’t teach our children or even our economics students much about what sustains our modern standard of living…I suspect that if we appreciated the role of specialization and exchange in creating the wonders of modern life, we would be more tolerant of its imperfections and more eager to preserve what gives it its power.

— Russ Roberts, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life

Pessimism rested on a love of life and a willingness to part with it. It expressed an awareness of the ‘grandeur and beauty of the world’, including man’s own powers of invention, together with a recognition of the limits of those powers. What Sorel called pessimism was close to what Carlyle, Emerson and James called wonder — an affirmation of life in the teeth of its limits. Sorel understood that the modern mood is one of revolt, born of the impatience with limits that stubbornly persist in spite of all the celebrated advances in science, technology, and organized benevolence.

— Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics

Sometimes we want things that are incompatible. We want to eat cream cakes but also to remain slim and fit. We want to give up smoking but we also want another cigarette. We want a secure retirement but we do not want to save. Our expressions of preference often seem contradictory.

Perhaps the preferences we assert — to be fit, to give up smoking, to have a secure old age — are our true preferences. When we eat the cream cake, light a cigarette or spend more when we are younger than our financial advisers think we should, we are doing things we don’t — really — want to do. Or perhaps what we do reveals our true preferences. The junkie has calculated that the pleasures of successive fixes outweigh the long-run damage to health. People are heroin addicts, or not, because that is what they want.

But these claims about our assertions and our actions are absurd. Many people who want to be slim also want to eat cream cakes, and many smokers really do want to give up. There is nothing irrational about wanting incompatible things. People want to be rich but not to have to work; they want to go to New York but not to have to stand in a security line at the airport. We might think it was irrational not to hold these preferences.

— John Kay, Obliquity

 

At the heart of the social vision prevalent among contemporary intellectuals is the belief that there are “problems” created by existing institutions and that “solutions” to these problems can be excogitated by intellectuals. This vision is both a vision of society and a vision of the role of intellectuals within society. In short, intellectuals have seen themselves not simply as an elite — in the passive sense in which large landowners, rentiers, or holders of various sinecures might qualify as elites — but as an anointed elite, people with a mission to lead others in one way or another to better lives.

John Stuart Mill, who epitomized the intellectual in many ways, expressed this view explicitly, when he said that the “present wretched education” and “wretched social arrangements” were “the only real hindrance” to attaining general happiness among human beings. Moreover, Mill saw the intelligentsia — “the most cultivated intellects in the country,” the “thinking minds,” “the best and wisest” — as guides to a better world in their role of “those who have been in advance of society in thought and feeling.” This has been the role of the intelligentsia, as seen by the intelligentsia, both before and after Mill’s time — that of intellectual leaders whose deeper insights can liberate people from the needless restrictions of society.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s famous declaration — “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains” — summarizes the heart of the vision of the anointed, that social contrivances are the root cause of human unhappiness and explain the fact that the world we see around us differs so greatly from the world that we would like to see. In this vision, oppression, poverty, injustice and war are all products of existing institutions — problems whose solutions require changing those institutions, which in turn require changing the ideas behind those institutions. In short, the ills of society are seen as ultimately  an intellectual and moral problem, for which intellectuals are especially equipped to provide answers, by virtue of their greater knowledge and insight, as well as their not having vested economic interests to bias them in favor of the existing order and still the voice of conscience.

…This vision of society, in which there are many “problems” to be “solved” by applying the ideas of morally anointed intellectual elites is by no means the only vision, however much that vision may be prevalent among today’s intellectuals. A conflicting vision has co-existed for centuries — a vision in which the inherent flaws of human beings are the fundamental problem and social contrivances are simply imperfect means of trying to cope with that problem — these imperfections themselves being products of the inherent shortcomings of human beings. A classical scholar has contrasted modern visions of the anointed with “the darker picture” painted by Thucydides of “a human race that escaped chaos and barbarism by preserving with difficulty and thin layer of civilization,” based on “moderation and prudence” growing out of experience. This is a tragic vision of the human condition that is very different from the vision of the anointed.

“Solutions” are not expected by those who see many of the frustrations, ills, and anomalies of life — the tragedy of the human condition — as being due to constraints inherent in human beings, singly and collectively, and in the physical world in which they live. In contrast to the vision of today’s anointed, where existing society is discussed largely in terms of its inadequacies and the improvements the anointed have to offer, the tragic vision regards civilization itself as something that requires great and constant efforts merely to be preserved — with these efforts to be based on experience, not on “exciting” new theories.

In the tragic vision, barbarism is always waiting in the wings, and civilization is simply ” a thin crust over a volcano.” This vision has few solutions to offer and many painful trade-offs to ponder. Commenting on Felix Frankfurter’s references to the success of various reforms, Oliver Wendell Holmes wanted to know what the costs — the trade-offs — were. Otherwise, while lifting up society in one respect, “how the devil can I tell whether I am not pulling it down more in some other place,” he asked. This constrained vision is thus a tragic vision — not in the sense of believing that life must always be sad and gloomy, but tragic in limitations that cannot be overcome merely by compassion, commitment, or other virtues which those with the vision of the anointed advocate or attribute to themselves.

In the tragic vision, social contrivances seek to restrict behavior that leads to unhappiness, even though those restrictions themselves cause a certain amount of unhappiness. It is a vision of trade-offs, rather than solutions, and a vision of wisdom distilled from the experiences of the many, rather than the brilliance of a few. The conflict between these two visions goes back for centuries.

…These opposing visions differ not only in what they believe exists and in what they think is possible, but also in what they think needs explaining. To those with the vision of the anointed, it is such evils as poverty, crime, war, and injustice which require explanation. To those with the tragic vision, it is prosperity, law, peace, and such justice as we have achieved, which require not only explanation but constant efforts, trade-offs, and sacrifices, just to maintain them at their existing levels, much less promote their enhancement over time.

…A tragic vision is a sort of zero-based vision of the world and of human beings, taking none of the benefits of civilization for granted. It does not assume that we can begin with what we already have and simply tack on improvements, without being concerned at every step with whether these innovations jeopardize the very processes and principles on which our existing level of well-being rests.

— Thomas Sowell, “Intellectuals and Social Visions”, Intellectuals and Society