Laughing at Schemes of Political Improvement

“Why, Sir, most schemes of political improvement are very laughable things.”—Johnson (quoted in Boswell’s Life)

The realist acknowledges the limits of government. He neither expects too much or too little. In this respect he emulates the prudence of St. Augustine. The Bishop of Hippo was a relentless critic of the vices of Rome, yet neither did he urge political escapism. There are two reasons for this. First, certain flaws are more or less intrinsic to all human endeavors (e.g., incompetence, corruption, favoritism, arrogance, etc.). Second, putting aside outright totalitarianism, no government working within the Western tradition is all bad—or all good, for that matter. Ultimately, we may strive to alleviate our condition while urging common sense in so doing.

Unfortunately, utopianism is not confined to the traditional left. While we all indulge in false hopes at one time or another, for some it becomes a persistent pattern. This is the case with the more impatient critics of mainstream liberalism. Idealists on the right have simply transferred their perfectionism to a different locus than that of the socialists. They have not answered the problem of post-Christian political dogma so much as they have created another counter-ideology which indulges in an impractical fundamentalism of its own.

T.S. Eliot warned against trying “to escape the darkness without and within” by “dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good” (Choruses From the Rock). No matter how one reformulates it, the raw material of politics does not change. That is why arguments for the ideal social scheme, either individually (anarchist) or collectively (socialist), dodge the issue.

To conclude, there is a mistaken tendency to see any hypothetical social situation as superior to the one that actually exists. Or, as Samuel Johnson said, “It is a strange narrowness of mind… to think the things we have not known are better than the things we have known.”

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