Wednesday, September 30, 2009

On the idea of utopia...

I presented TF with a challenge that he has responded to both promptly and with some considerable thought. I do not propose to present my alternative as a criticism of what he has written. What must be appreciated is that we do, obviously, come from very different backgrounds; similar cultures with a partially shared history; but like the finches in the Galapagos we are the products of habitats which have evolved in very different ways to fit very different “ecological niches”.

So perhaps I can start by echoing his entrance; it is the universal desire of every parent that their family should live in happiness and security. That echo draws the very first contrast. Not only do I wish that for my family and for TF’s, I wish it too for every family on this earth irrespective of breed, and belief. Therein lies the first major challenge as well, for it is true that not every person is born equal on this planet. Not at present that is. Bear witness here that I am taking “equality” here in its broadest and most general sense; I have just eaten lunch. I have just eaten food valued by our system at NZD0.75, USD0.55. In many places on this earth that value would comprise a week’s food for one person, not because their food is cheaper you understand but because that is as much as they are able to buy. At that point I meet the first of the “impossibilities”; I can not increase the “happiness index” (for want of a better term) of those people without decreasing that of others. The ability of this planet to support the increasing demands of our societies is limited. That limitation is distorted to a great degree by the fact that a small fraction (of which I am a member as much as is TF) of our global population are able to obtain, control and consume the greatest part of those resources.

The second truth that TF included with that first was his right “to make a living without governmental bureaucrats mucking up the works or worrying about world affairs and political upheaval.” Again, I must – can only – agree. So too does every other person on this earth have that right. There is a subsidiary thread that starts at this point and which I will return to pick up toward the end. For the moment, there is any number of books that can and have been written on the topic. Which brand of solution you want to select will depend from the type of political outlook you have. It has to be accepted that “government bureaucrats” is one of those simplistic generic terms that are floated by people who really mean to include all who are involved in the process of government from elected representatives to the desk clerk and receptionist and refuse collector. Again that sentiment has to be included as a universal. My response to the line of argument which usually follows is that every society ends up with the government it deserves. The challenge here is to accept that fact and also to have the tolerance to accept those differences. That challenge is also as universal as the sentiment.

I am also in agreement with TF’s quotation from The Federalist. Again, I can not escape “the shades of difference” between us. Where TF sees Federalist as “…if everyone acted to the best of their ability…” I can not dispute that. I must however lay alongside that the thought “…all must be allowed to act to the best of their ability…”. In that subtle distinction lies all manner of challenges for those of us who live in advanced and rich communities. Again, I come to the subsidiary thread I referred to in the earlier para. Now is not yet the time to pick up that thread. Note too that I do not make “money” the problem here any more than does TF.

At this point in his piece TF and I really do part company. I have said many times that I respect his beliefs. That I do in the same way as I respect the beliefs of the Sikh lady in the desk behind me, the Presbyterian boss, the Catholic lady my wife plays tennis with or the Buddhist Chinese family over the road from us. Therein lies a very major difference in point of view, of world view, in the nature of our respective utopias.

Whatever a utopia might be, however a utopia might “work”, its very first fundamental must be of tolerance and acceptance of difference. To do otherwise must create the tensions and the distinctions that TF has striven to avoid. It is not just differences of religion. It is as basic as differences in personality, in ambition, and in capability. All of these barriers to utopia have been well discussed at many levels; from learned papers in universities to science fiction novels.

What those differences do however is to stir the contentious pot of supremacy. TF avoids this potential through the simple mechanisms of exclusion and close focus. His utopia depends (including "hangs from") on the thread of "one-ness" of culture and religion. There are no alternatives. Again we find that thread.

It is easy to argue that my utopia has the defect of the opposite; that variety and inclusion introduces the seeds of destruction. I have to agree. There would need to be agreed means of imposing rules; ensuring common justice; guaranteeing equitable and universal rights. Conflicts between cultures and ideas have always been at the heart of the development of our species. But the greatest barrier to my utopia is that of conversion and change. To reach my dream, I need to face that my standard of living will be lower; that others will benefit in far greater measure than I. Of even greater measure, I have to persuade the richest 20% of the world's population to join me in giving up what they have.

The differences between TF and I might be expressed as –

TF sees his utopia as existing only through the culture and society in which he lives. He excludes difference. I don’t imagine for a moment that it was intentional. I believe though that (in my family at least) the spoken word that reveals underlying and hidden truth is often referred to as a “Freudian slip”. For someone like TF to speak his present reality as the foundation of his utopia is no grounds for criticism. It must be accepted as his expression of his truth.

My reference at the beginning to “evolution” was intentional. It is one of the very many differences that TF and I have. He has certainly not tried to persuade me that his paradigm is “correct”, and I have respected that by not challenging his viewpoint when expressed (perhaps other than an occasional mild poke in the ribs).

The point I have reached is this. My comment, the one picked up by TF, was born from the feeling that the existence of any person’s utopia is very dependent upon the evolution of that person’s society, even their family. The other extreme from TF might be the utopia of a member of Taliban, or Ibo, or Inuit. The fundamentals might even be similar; peace, wealth, rights. It is the means of expressing, attaining and measuring those goals that will differ far more fundamentally.

This is where I must end before I write a book. It is also where I must pick up that secondary thread I have had trailing through this whole piece. It is not a right or wrong distinction; it is a fundamental difference in our personalities, our up-bringing, our societies, our environment.

For better or worse, I have been blessed by living in a society that is based on difference and acceptance of those differences. I have been blessed by the fact that I have grown to accept differences, perhaps to an even greater degree than my own brother. I do not believe I could live in TF’s utopia. It sounds to me as though it would be too homogeneous, too narrow, for the ol’ probligo to fit. I do not believe for a moment that TF will accept my version for similar reasons; too liberal by half, and it excludes God, specifically his God.

I am not able to codify or to even develop the fundamentals of my personal utopia beyond what I have written here. I have developed these ideas over many years without ever having thought to formally express them prior to this conversation.

I have not cried the support of learned people and religion. This is all my own work.

I stand by it.


T. F. Stern said...

Probligo, Thanks for taking up the challenge, one of your own design.

I would like to add a comment to your line, "To reach my dream, I need to face that my standard of living will be lower; that others will benefit in far greater measure than I. Of even greater measure, I have to persuade the richest 20% of the world's population to join me in giving up what they have."

I’d have to disagree on this point. Your belief system is based on the premise that there is only so much to go around, by extension, there can be no increase; but such limits are burst by innovation and productivity incentives which would make the natural resources more useful and go farther. The false warning which I continue to hear is that the earth is too populated, that its natural resources cannot sustain the quality of life which we would all desire or prefer; that simply isn’t true. I refuse to buy into the idea that in order for me to improve my life’s quality that somebody else must reduce their quality of life.

The probligo said...

So the availability of such resources as arable land, potable water, and quality air are infinite TF?

Not in my book.

You often speak of "God-given rights". Is the right for a person living in Somalia to have sufficient food to sustain life "God-given"? If so, why are so many people living there on the verge of starvation? Do you have a "God-given right" to consume (and don't worry, I am no different) far more food than you actually need?

T. F. Stern said...

Probligo, I didn't say these resources were infinite, only that there was sufficient to go around. I continue to believe that there is enough so that my increase does not mean someone else must decrease.

The idea of God given rights is not the same as consumption of natural resources being spread evenly, I would have thought you understood that concept after the many times we've gone head to head.