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The cherubim could speak volumes in describing all the misguided efforts to sneak by them and enter the Garden. In America we need look no further than the public policies, often promulgated most zealously by paternalistic liberals, that seek to create a utopia…

cherubimAfter viewing and enjoying Blade Runner 2049 in October 2017, I asked myself why I tend to like well-crafted films featuring a dystopian future, such as the original Blade Runner, Escape from New York, The Matrix, Book of Eli, Mad Max: Fury Road, and the first two movies from the Mad Max franchise… to name just a few. One reason, I had to acknowledge, was that I hoped the film, in some small way, would temper the utopian and quasi-utopian tendencies I kept noticing in the human species, especially in the public square.

Some really bad ideas, like the monster in the horror film genre, refuse to die. Take the utopianism that undergirded and infused much of atheistic Communism in the twentieth century and that lives on today in places like Cuba (an island prison), North Korea (a large concentration camp), and the unmitigated disaster called Venezuela.

In the vision of a Worker’s Paradise, the property of the bourgeoisie is collectivized and distributed equally for the benefit of everyone: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” However, the Dream became a Nightmare with, according to The Black Book of Communism, approximately 100 million people being killed through starvation, the gulags, and the killing fields.

The Spanish Inquisition, which is often cited to disparage the Catholic Church and make the point that most evil comes from religion, put to death approximately 3,000-5,000 people over a 350-year span. One death is too many, but the Inquisition is like a BB rolling around in the railroad boxcar of atheistic Communism.

With his usual erudition, C.S. Lewis helps us understand the origin of utopianism:

The Christian says, ‘Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.’

We cannot adequately understand the world within us and without us without consulting a biblical anthropology. We were created in Eden; we were created for heaven (Phil. 3:20); the Preacher (Qoheleth) in Ecclesiastes says that God has “set eternity in their hearts” (emphasis mine; Eccles. 3:11b). Our deepest yearnings draw us heavenward.

But now we live east of Eden in a fallen world, and, in our quiet, honest moments, we have a “something’s missing” feeling and a longing for heaven or something like the perfection of Eden. The cherubim stand guard at the entrance of Eden and won’t let us back in.

Life can feel like living in a motel room, and, despite the cable TV, free Continental breakfast, and comfortable queen-sized bed, it’s not home. How we respond to this yearning will greatly influence not only the health of our relationships but also the vitality of our society.

When misguided longings for heaven or Eden enter the public square, there is a utopian overreach that results in deleterious consequences in the political, economic, and social spheres of life. Utopian overreach results in dystopian outcomes.

The cherubim could speak volumes in describing all the misguided efforts to sneak by them and enter the Garden. In America we need look no further than the public policies, often promulgated most zealously by paternalistic, white liberals, that have affected black America over the last five-plus decades.

Black Americans have often been the recipients of such “compassion,” resulting in a myriad of negative, unintended consequences. In his commencement address in 1965, Lyndon Johnson stated that the true measure of success on the civil rights revolution was not only establishing an equality of opportunity for all peoples but also an equality of result.

The War on Poverty was supposed to pursue this lofty goal between black and white but actually significantly slowed the process of a declining poverty rate in the black community. Jeffery Reynolds writes:

The poverty rate among black families fell from 87 percent in 1940 to 47 percent in 1960, during an era of virtually no major civil rights legislation or anti-poverty programs. It dropped another 17 percentage points during the decade of the 1960s and one percentage point during the 1970s, but this continuation of the previous trend was neither unprecedented nor something to be arbitrarily attributed to the programs like the War on Poverty. [1]

Every major political leader on the Right in America, no matter how rock-ribbed, believes in a safety net—a safety net, not a hammock—but the American taxpayer hasn’t really gotten the bang for his buck in seeing his money diminish poverty. In 1967, shortly after the programs took effect, the poverty rate was around twenty-seven percent. In 2012 it was approximately twenty-nine percent after an expenditure of 21.5 trillion dollars.

In the War on Poverty, as single women received more government largesse as a result of illegitimate children, the government became these women’s “husband,” resulting in more catastrophic outcomes for children growing up in fatherless homes: higher rates of poverty, crime, drug and alcohol abuse, lower educational achievement, poorer physical and emotional health, earlier pre-marital sexual activity, and alarming rates of illegitimacy.

Both major American political parties have tried to sneak by the cherubim and re-enter the Garden. As someone whose politics are right-of-center, I have to admit that people on my side of the aisle sometimes demonstrate utopian overreach, though this defect seems to be more written into the DNA of the Left.

Sometimes the Right acts like the Left and needs to be taken to task for its missteps in the public square. A little internecine conflict can be helpful in clarifying issues.

Utopian overreach happened with the policy of “nation-building” in Afghanistan under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The former wrote:

Afghanistan was the ultimate nation building mission. We had liberated the country from a primitive dictatorship, and we had a moral obligation to leave behind something better. We also had a strategic interest in helping the Afghan people build a free society,” because “a democratic Afghanistan would be a hopeful alternative to the vision of the extremists.

A democratic Afghanistan? Really? After centuries of decidedly undemocratic regimes?

A former Navy SEAL, Leif Babin, sums up what actually happened after a decade of fighting:

What do we have to show for our efforts? A government, under President Hamid Karzai, that is corrupt, largely incompetent, and of questionable loyalty; inept Afghan security forces that regularly turn their weapons on their American and NATO advisers; and a resurgent Taliban poised to regain control of the country after U.S. forces withdraw.[2]

If the cherubim could speak, what wisdom would they offer in helping us inoculate ourselves from the catastrophic consequences of naivete in the public square? This is by no means an exhaustive list but more like a conversation-starter: five smooth stones gathered from the wadi to slay the Goliath of utopianism.

Smooth Stone #1: Exchange utopian overreach for the Hope of Heaven.

If utopian overreach is caused by erroneously projecting our longing for heaven onto public policy, then projecting this yearning instead toward heaven will go a long way in rectifying the problem.

By doing this we trod the path of Jesus (Matt. 6:33), the Old and New Testament saints (Col. 3:1,2; Heb. 11:14-16), and all the spiritual luminaries throughout more than two thousand years of church history. They were walking on a Bridge called the Hope of Heaven that stands between this present Vale of Tears and the future Beatific Vision.

I’ve rubbed shoulders with some on the Religious Left and know of their concern to not to be so heavenly-minded that they are no earthly good: “You pie-in-the-sky types are insulated from all the injustices that are going on out there; you believe in the redemption of the individual but what about the redemption of society?”, some of them ask.

C.S. Lewis debunks this kind of thinking in Mere Christianity with an observation that will sound counter-intuitive to many:

If you read history you will find that the Christians who did the most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on earth precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven.

One could add to this list all the heavenly-minded Catholics who have led the way in building orphanages and hospitals all over the world; many devout Christians who marched for civil rights in America in the 1950s and ’60s; and, thirdly, many believers today who are out ahead in the arenas of charitable giving and volunteerism whose generosity has been chronicled in the seminal book by Arthur Brooks, Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism.

Smooth Stone #2: Embrace a Tragic-Constrained view of history rather than a Utopian-Therapeutic view.

We find the former in Greek and Roman antiquity and in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Classics scholar Donald Kagan summed up the Tragic view among the ancient Greeks and Romans by quoting Thucydides who talked about “a human race that escaped chaos and barbarism by preserving with difficulty a thin layer of civilization” based on “moderation and prudence” growing out of experience.

One reason the Constitution of the United States has been so durable is that the framers based it on a Tragic-Constrained view of humanity. America has had one Constitution in its history; France has had several.

Public policy is not so much about finding “solutions” to “problems,” because solutions, Thomas Sowell correctly notes, “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 constraints in the physical world in which we live.”

No, public policy isn’t about “solutions” to “problems;” it’s about tradeoffs. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, David Mamet, had an epiphany while reading Friedrich Hayek’s book, The Road to Serfdom, in seeing that “there is a cost to everything… there are no solutions, only tradeoffs—money spent on crossing guards cannot be spent on books. Both are necessary but a choice must be made, and this is the Tragic view of life.”

A major premise of the Utopian-Therapeutic view of life is that human beings are basically good and that human nature is malleable. If people are basically good, then you can take money from taxpayer A and give it to Citizen B without Citizen B becoming dependent on this wealth transfer: they will only use the money for a brief time before they get back on their feet. But this happens with some but not with others.

The Tragic-Constrained view understands that people are fallen and that there must be incentives for many on government assistance in order for them to jettison their dependency and become productive members of society. This is why welfare reform during the Clinton administration was able to dramatically reduce the number of those receiving assistance.

Smooth Stone #3: Practice subsidiarity, a hallmark of Catholic social doctrine.

David A. Bosnich is on-target in saying that “this tenet holds that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization. In other words, any activity that can be performed by a more decentralized entity should be. This principle is a bulwark of limited government and personal freedom.” [3] And a safeguard to utopian overreach.

The Utopian-Therapeutic view of life often prefers a large centralized government where elites—who John Stuart Mill called “the most cultivated intellects in the country”—pull the levers of power for the public good. Unfortunately, this top-down model has utopian overreach in its DNA.

Mr. Bosnich notes that Alexis de Tocqueville predicted that modern democratic government would degenerate into a huge, paternalistic state which would guide the individual in all of his affairs and ensure that all of his needs were met. Sound familiar?

Leviathan cometh and much of this is rooted in secularism: When people lose their faith in big “G” God, they often transfer their trust to little “g” government. Government must get bigger and bigger to keep up with all the utopian fantasies.

Smooth Stone #4: Evidence and taking an inductive approach to issues is more important than party loyalty.

This modus operandi defines one more as a “classical liberal” and not as a party hack or someone who is captive to a particular ideology. Facts are stubborn things (John Adams); we are entitled to our own opinions but not our own facts (Daniel Patrick Moynihan).

For example, it’s easy to accept uncritically the conventional wisdom that much poverty is rooted in racism, but, when you follow the evidence, according to William Galston, a domestic policy adviser in the Clinton administration, only eight percent of the people who (1) earn a high school diploma, (2) wait until age twenty to get married, and, (3) wait until they are married to have children, live in poverty.

Smooth Stone #5: Look at public policy through a moral prism.

One thing I’ve observed about the immigration issue is that there are those on the economic Right who like open borders because the influx of cheap labor means a better bottom line. Then there are those on the political Left who like open borders because they see millions of people who need their assistance and will become members of the Democratic Party.

The first is motivated by greed; the second by power. The former is seeing the issue exclusively through an economic prism; the latter through a political one. Neither is looking at it through a moral prism. Searching moral questions need to be asked: Can a country practice such a cavalier attitude towards the rule of law without disastrous consequences?

Scores of people from other countries have followed all the rules and waited years to immigrate here from say someplace like Senegal or the Ukraine. Is it uncompassionate to tell the undocumented that they need to go the back of the line?

Is open borders a fair policy when legal citizens are losing their jobs and seeing their wages driven down because of the presence of the illegals? Is this fair especially to the black community who are losing unskilled and entry-level jobs to the undocumented?

Low-skilled illegal aliens have high rates of welfare dependency. Is it fair for those who are here legally to pick up the tab?

If we reject the wisdom of the cherubim, we are destined to experience the frustration of Sisyphus: Because of our hubris, we keep pushing the utopian boulder up the public policy hill only to have it roll back down on top of us ad infinitum. Ancient Hebrew wisdom offers a better outcome for the humble: “When pride comes, then comes disgrace; but with the humble is wisdom” (Proverbs 11:2).

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

[1] Jeff Reynolds, “The Failure of the War on Poverty.”

[2] Leif Babin, “Waiting to Lose in Afghanistan.”

[3] David A. Bosnich, “The Principle of Subsidiarity.”

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4 replies to this post
  1. The final “smooth stone” sums up the anti-thesis of popular thought. To actually examine decisions affecting people through a moral lens would require denial of the self, along with submission to a superior unseen authority. This is contrary to a Luciferian spirit, hitting too close to acknowledging the supremacy of God. Now, one can claim it is not too difficult to make moral decisions, yet this is a reflection of pride to perceive oneself (mortal at that) as an arbiter of truth. Hence, double down, double down.

  2. Excellent essay!

    The missing ingredient is… (wait for it)… Pride.

    Humanity suffers from hubris, the conviction we can do anything we want. “What the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve,” says the Motivational Speaker. As a society, we Moderns have the Stuart Smalley Syndrome. We are convinced we can do anything because, “We’re Good Enough, We’re Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Us!”

    Before we can even see those smooth stones to grasp them, we must, as Christian Fulmer points out above, indulge in *humility* (ego-wrecking though it might be.)

  3. I’m not so sure how accurate it is to say that public policy today is amoral; it’s rather a question of what morality. This article, though right-minded, seems to have a perspective based on government policies of two generations ago (scientific management, the Great Society). The new therapeutic state practices a morality of sensitizing Europeans to racial guilt (a perversion of Christian teaching) in the service of creating a multicultural society, which is the new Utopia.

  4. [“You pie-in-the-sky types are insulated from all the injustices that are going on out there; you believe in the redemption of the individual but what about the redemption of society?”, some of them ask.]
    When you redeem the individual you redeem a part of society. Since you cannot redeem everyone all at once, unless of course you are Jesus, you then have to redeem society one individual at a time. You also need the willful cooperation of each individual to accomplish that redemption, as without it all you do is spin your wheels.
    No instant gratification in this regard.

    The Utopians have caused the deaths, depending on the source(s) you use, of anywhere from 100 to 300 million in the 20th century. Not much of a Utopia is it.
    Now we have the zero population growth folks to deal with, the Earth!First, and the billionaire cabal that believes the earth can only sustain 500,000,000 people and the rest need to be eliminated. Hmmm.
    Guess it depends on your definition of utopia.

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