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May 09, 2007

Rules for Radical Thinking

At Crooked Timber, ideas for the rules for "Guidelines for Envisioning Real Utopias":

1. Evaluate alternatives in terms of three criteria: desirability, viability, achievability.
2. Do not let the problem of achievability dictate the discussion of viability.

OK, whatever, but isn't achievability actually the most important factor? For example, I can think of all  sorts of ways of making the world a better place (although Utopia would be rather over-egging it) if all politicians and bureaucrats were in fact publically minded, not self-interested, possessed of total knowledge and facing the right incentives.

What I can't imagine is a system that made them so, all of my plans based upon such a situation thus failing the achievability test.

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This isn't really news from this lefty magazine. Socialists have realised this for ages. Their utopia never seems to be reached so they can go on lecturing us about how to achieve it and why we haven't achieved it so far for ever more. The likes of Polly will never be out of a job.

Posted by: pete | May 9, 2007 10:52:28 AM

I dunno, it's sociology waffle, innit? (though their book on redesigning distribution is quite good, and fairly light on the jargon)

That said, if one construes "viability" to mean "the chance of staying in the utopian situation", and "achievability" to mean "the chance of attaining that situation", then it's trivial to say that the discussion of "getting there" shouldn't overrule the discussion of "how to stay there once you've got there". They are two different questions, surely.

So I interpret it to mean not "let's dream of an unattainable future" but "we need to consider not only how to attain a utopian future but how to stay in that utopian future once we've got there".

Posted by: sanbikinoraion | May 9, 2007 12:21:25 PM

"They are two different questions, surely."

Well, not quite. If the mechanisms by which one achieves and subsequently maintains one's utopia are different or even - as in the case of communism - polar opposites, then one ought to question whether our utopia is indeed achievable or viable as the required revolution as you move from your "achieving" state to the "viable" state might actually call into question whether our utopia is actually desirable in the first place...

Posted by: Cleanthes | May 9, 2007 1:05:37 PM

Good point sanbi about viability, but desirability is critical too. That is it is not so easy to think of social systems that would make the world a better place -- that actually *would* make the world a better place if implemented. As it turned out, communism was both achievable and viable (over multiple generations) but failed the desirability test miserably.

Posted by: Slocum | May 9, 2007 1:10:56 PM

The point about not letting achievability dictate the discussion of viability has two motivations (speaking for myself now). One is that what is achievable is not fixed but changes over time and is different in different contexts, so even if unachievable here and now a "real utopia" may be achievable there or then. But more importantly our judgments about achievability are highly fallible. In the late 70s through the mid 80s a colleague of mine used chapter 6 of Capitalism and Freedom in his "School and Society" course (for trainee teachers). They all thought it was ludicrous because, of course, school vouchers were unachievable. I remember in the early 80's being in a debate at a Young Conservative club (I was speaking for the Liberals, though I wasn't one) and musing about what would happen when the Soviet Union collapsed (which I believed was inevitable) and how this would change the Britain's defence needs -- I was laughed at by everyone in the room because everyone believed that (desirable) outcome was unachievable. Whether you're a left-winger (like me) or a right-winger, if achievabitiy dictates your thinking, you're going to be unable to act well when it turns out you are wrong.

Posted by: harry b | May 9, 2007 1:25:44 PM

"I can think of all sorts of ways of making the world a better place". That is a good place to start.

Your biggest stumbling block (apart from you're not a senior member of a large political party) is the mass brainwashing of the voters that has gone on since time immemorial.

They believe that the EU is good for us; that National Insurance is not a tax; that there's no room for any new developments because the UK is nearly concreted over; that Universal Benefits would be unaffordable; that Land Value Tax would increase housing costs; that cracking down on drug dealers reduces crime; that homosexuality is learned behaviour rather than being inborn; that sending $ billions to Africa every year will sort out poverty there; blah blah blah. Oh God, it's so depressing.

The key to any sort of change must be EDUCATING and DE-BRAINWASHING people. How many people's minds do you think you've ever changed with the more thoughtful posts here? Ten? Twenty? However many, I reckon you've still got about forty million to go, then things will happen.

Posted by: Mark Wadsworth | May 9, 2007 1:57:26 PM