One Vision to Rule Them All
What can equality teach us about the hidden potential of Utopian thinking?
“We are very much like birds that have lived too long in a cage to which we return even when we get the chance to fly away.” (Matthieu, 2006, p. 35)
My thesis is that a detailed, collectively constructed, and internally coherent vision is a necessary (although in itself not sufficient) condition for optimal societal progress.
But that’s not where this story starts. It starts with a new beginning.
1. The New Land
The prow of the ship hurls a fresh wash of tiny droplets at you, but you don’t mind. The sun on your skin, the wind in your hair, and the birds in the sky all tune up to the same jubilant song they deliver in wondrous unison. The trials of your arduous journey leap on the wind’s wings and fly away into oblivion as the New Land, the first true uncharted territory mankind has seen in over a century, draws nearer by the minute.
You know it’s a hash and unforgiving environment where any mistake could be fatal. It will be almost unbelievably challenging to make it livable, let alone hospitable.
And yet, you can’t help yourself. In your mind’s eye you see it for what it could be. What it will be. A warm and welcoming place where gentles slopes and pure lakes reflect the crystalline blue sky and the lush green forests nearby… until your wandering imagination is suddenly interrupted by the seemingly instantaneous assembly of a rainbow that hits the sky with full force.
Born from fire and water, sun and rain, and home to so many colors… despite your disbelief in omens you can’t suppress a smile. Even though your real journey is only about to begin, part of you feels that you’ve already arrived.
*Let’s fast forward a few years, say, about three decades.*
Many others have joined and you’re now a mass society. Following a great deal of initial hardship, your generation’s hard labor has paid off and the sun continues to shine down favorably on the New Land.
Citizens are united in their desire to be happy. Every child and adult has the power to define and achieve their dreams by making their own choices as freely as possible.
This goal is reflected in the content and process of education. Learning occurs via a variety of interactions tailored to everyone’s needs as described by Ilich (1971), whose ideas were finally implemented on a mass scale, bolstered by the few lingering remnants of ‘traditional’ education you found worth keeping.
There’s disease in the New Land, but life expectancy at birth has hit a century (and growing), throughout the majority of which nearly everybody enjoys good health and high life quality. Addiction rates are very low, and the vast majority of drug use is recreational.
Nobody is homeless by necessity and no citizen of the New Land lives in destitution. Your society provides everyone with all basic amenities.
Beyond that, however, the distribution of wealth and income is not equal in the New Land. It is just unequal enough to provide an incentive to strive for more, while taxation and laws assure that transgenerational accumulation of wealth can’t interfere with most citizens’ chances to acquire as much money as they desire and are able.
Crime continues to exist, but it is infrequent and heavily skewed toward infractions and misdemeanors. Most conflict is resolved through mediation and never reaches the courts. Organized crime virtually vanished, mostly because the underlying conditions that made its high risk-high reward existence possible have been wiped out.
Despite these and numerous other improvements compared to the Old World, you harbor no delusions. The New Land is not the Heaven you’ve dreamed of. There is vast potential for improvement in many areas of your society. In fact, the newer generation is already tugging at the very fabric of your civilization and will no doubt rebel against it soon.
Nevertheless, when you look back on your struggle, you can’t help but feel an immense sense of fulfillment and pride. While imperfect, the New World is a great place and it was worth fighting for.
And what a fight it was! The mere thought of it makes you shiver. No words can capture the heroic effort; the blood, the sweat, the tears; the sacrifices made and the challenges overcame… nah. Not really. As much as you’d love to bask in the epicness of your struggle, if you’re being honest you have to admit that building this society was hard, but not that complicated.
First, you needed a vision. Next, you had to optimize the way you make decisions to grant your community the ability to follow that vision. You had to fix politics.
2. The ‘right ideal’
It’s about time I came clean at the risk of stating the obvious: the New Land is a sketch of my own ideal world. I’m a political scientist (Ph.D.) and social psychologist (MA) by training, and my education has undoubtedly skewed my views.
While I do believe that a society akin to like the New Land would be a good place to live, that in itself is not my intended contribution to the vast literature on Utopian thinking.
My scope is narrower: I merely intend to show we need a certain kind of vision. One that is
1. detailed and specific enough ← if it’s too vague we’ll be able to justify any action and its opposite;
2. collectively constructed ← it should be the work of all individuals belonging to a community;
3. internally coherent ← all elements in our Utopia should make theoretical sense and they must not be mutually exclusive.
These three criteria are so closely related that I’ll tackle their explanation in one go relying the example of equality.
In one of the most cited recent works on ideology, Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, & Sulloway (2003) identified attitudes toward inequality as one of the two “core dimensions that seem to capture the most meaningful and enduring differences between liberal and conservative ideologies”.
A rich array of empirical findings (Feldman, 1988; McClosky & Zaller, 1984; Smith, Oxley, Hibbing, Alford, & Hibbing, 2011) supports the conclusion that equality has a rightful place in the pantheon of core ideological values.
But what exactly do Conservatives and Liberals want? What is their ideal?
The most extreme Conservative view is to tolerate as much inequality as ‘naturally occurs’. Proponents argue that wealth is strongly correlated with a form of merit (e.g. hard work or natural talent). This ideal, however, fails our first criterion right off the bat: it is not specific enough.
The problem is that we can look at any amount of inequality and classify it as ‘natural’. Does the top 1% own 2% of the nation’s wealth? Do they own 80% or more? Which scenario is our ideal? It’s impossible to tell.
In contrast, the extreme form of the Liberal view is complete equality where every member of society owns the exact same amount. This ideal is very specific and we can use it to judge any situation with ease. (Although it’s beside my point, I feel compelled to point out that specificity does not make complete equality a good ideal.)
When we take the two opposing views together, they fail the other two criteria as well. We’ve never come together to define our ideal equality as one community, having delegated that responsibility to the ideologues on each side of the aisle. Thus, our ideal is not collectively constructed.
We also can’t have an undefined but certainly existing amount of inequality and complete equality at the same time. Therefore, our vision is internally incoherent.
As a result, both Liberals and Conservatives have the liberty to argue for more or less equality in virtually any situation. It seems that our quest for a good ideal regarding equality is impossible. We’ve failed.
Except that’s not the case at all!
Americans, it turns out, have a pretty clear idea about what an ideal level of wealth equality looks like as shown in the bottom bar of Norton and Ariely’s (2011) graph, where the top 20% owns about three times as much as the bottom 10%. The result was robust across gender and preferred candidate in the 2004. Moreover, in the authors’ own words: “even the wealthiest respondents desired a more equal distribution (…) and all groups desired some inequality — even the poorest respondents”.
Thus, it would appear that there already IS an ideal out there regarding equality. It is very specific, internally coherent, and although not literally collectively constructed, it boasts virtually unanimous support.
If we have a good ideal that meets all three criteria regarding such a seemingly contentious issue as equality, in how many more areas could we come to an agreement? Or find out that we already have an agreement?
So where should we do start?
By continuing the conversation about ideals.
Do you disagree with the New World as I presented it? Tell me and everyone else why. Show us how it’s unoriginal, how it can’t work. Comment, challenge, and destroy.
And next time a politician talks about a policy, your priest or pastor tells you about Heaven, or your CEO addresses your company’s common folk, push them to explain their ideals. You have the right to know what lies at the end of the road they want to steer you along!
For my part, I realize that my New World doesn’t live up to the very criteria I’m proposing. I’ll attempt to correct that by coming up with a better ideal in the only area I’m really qualified to write about: politics.
But that’s just me. In our global community, there are millions of minds better suited than mine to the massive but necessary task of constructing good ideals. So if you possess one of them, please put it to work for the greater good of all of us.
We’re in a unique position as a species. While still driven by the ultimate goals of the processes that created us (survive and replicate), we have at least some power to define our own goals and ideals.
The trick to leaving the cage is not learning how to fly, nor opening its door. It’s imaging a better life outside our cage and convincing ourselves that we will be able to live that life once we’re out. Let us take this step together.
In the immortal words of Rage Against the Machine:
“It has to start somewhere
It has to start sometime
What better place than here?
What better time than now?”