Coercive Utopians (Social Activists)

By Doctor Mark Cooray

Note: Every now and again, I’m introduced to an article that’s so well-written and informative that it must be shared. This article describes modern-day American liberals to a tee, even though it is written about the Australian variety, which Dr. Cooray calls “coercive utopians.” There are so many excellent descriptions and phrases in this document that you’ll want to share them. The original article and its companion pieces can be found here. Read the professor’s bio as well. It’s enlightening.

The most dangerous enemies of civilization are not necessarily evil people. They are idealists (subject to qualifications stated below) who wish to use the police power of big government to impose their views and perspectives on others. They often do not enjoy majority support among the public. They reject the evolved experience of the ages. This is what distinguishes the coercive utopian from those who advocate restrictions on freedom in the liberal tradition.

The phrase "coercive utopian" is a more apt description than "reformist". It does not however apply to all reformists. It applies to those who seek to use the power of the law beyond acceptable limits. It does not apply to those who seek to remove necessary restrictions on freedom. Reformists (so-called) often do not enjoy community support for their legislatively imposed and bureaucratically or judicially enforced changes. They therefore hide their real aims and introduce coercive measures gradually and incrementally so that people do not know what is happening and the opposition is divided and diluted. Modern coercive utopians have developed to a fine art the ability to hide the reality of what they are doing under the cloak of moderation. Their efforts in this respect have been assisted by the general failure of liberal and conservative politicians (a few exceptions apart) and people who believe in liberal values, to mount an effective counter attack. Thus, the coercive utopians are idealists (subject to qualifications stated below), who wish to impose their views and perspectives on others. They want to use the authority of government to achieve their ends.

An important distinguishing mark of the coercive utopian is his preference for regulation as against education. The preference of the true liberal is for education (not indoctrination) and public debate which can bring about change. The changes of the past have come from philosophers and idealists who changed the values of people and the actions of people not so much through regulation (though regulation has a place, but through educating people to voluntarily change and move forward. The reformists of the nineteenth century and before sought to achieve reform by repealing existing legislation (such as the feudal laws which enabled employers to exploit employees) or extending narrowly conceived legislation (such as the right to vote). The reformists of the pre-twentieth century era did not wish or need to establish bureaucracies to effect reform. They did not call themselves "reformists". Later generations evaluated their work and labeled them "reformists". In the modern State, self-styled reformists are establishing bureaucracies and restricting freedom. If freedom of expression and the spirit of free inquiry (severely curtailed in the media and education systems) survive, future generations will not be able to point to much productive reform emanating from bureaucracies. They will focus on the great deal of counter-productive activity.

There is an element of arrogance in people who advocate "change" under the title of "reform". They should make the case for change and leave future generations to determine whether the change amounts to reform or is counter-productive.

The reformists are not necessarily Marxists and revolutionaries. There are probably fewer persons today who call themselves Marxists than there were ten years ago. On the other hand, the Marxist and neo-Marxist critiques of capitalism and property relations are growing in power and influence. Where is this leading? The influence of those who reject the dialectics of Marxism but are influenced by the Marxist and Marxist-influenced critiques of capitalism and property relations are, so far as the effects of their actions are concerned, substantially nihilistic. They are nihilists in the sense that they are committed to the undermining and even the destruction of existing values and institutions - but their alternatives are not viable. For some, a combination of regulation and government expenditure derived from taxation will be enough. Others have blueprints for a new society based on unreal and impractical ideas such as participatory democracy, social justice, equality, etc. They are against what "is" and their prescriptions for the "ought" are unrealistic. It is in this sense that their influence can be viewed as nihilistic. They are not revolutionaries and therefore they do not appear dangerous. But their capacity to gradually destroy without constructive alternatives is easily underestimated.

Communist regimes have been established in some countries by the forcible overthrow of the existing system. This will not happen in Australia and other representative democracies with a strong industrial and democratic infrastructure. The danger of Marxist socialist and other critiques of the tradition must be viewed in a nihilist sense. The problems of the near future for countries of the liberal democratic order lie not in a Soviet or communist style state or in a socialist state (socialism cannot ever be put into practice except in small voluntary communities). Nor is there a danger at present of a bloody revolution which would overthrow, in a short period, representative democracy, the capitalist system and its infrastructure. The threat that exists is of a gradual and slow undermining of the western democratic order and the growth of control over the majority by a partnership between big government, big bureaucracy, big unions, big business, big media and government-favored pressure groups (feminist, environmental, peace, Aboriginal, etc.).

Two examples may be provided of the modus operandi of the reformists and coercive utopians. Labor when it controlled States in Australia, and the present Commonwealth government, has enacted draconian industrial safety laws which impose very heavy and unfair penalties on employers. An employer will be liable even if a trespasser or thief enters his property, slips and hurts himself. It is not possible to quarrel with attempts to provide for safety. But the regulations provide for punishment and fines upon an employer who may be guilty of no negligence. The implementation of the New South Wales Act involved the employment of one hundred inspectors to police the Act and only two persons to educate the public about safety. Safety could be emphasized through an educational campaign. Business, bearing the burden of spiraling workers' compensation costs, would readily accept an argument that more regard for safety will lead to a reduction in the insurance premiums. The emphasis is on regulation, not education.

There is a more serious implication in penalizing employers who have not been negligent. The provision seeks to apportion loss not on the basis of fault but on the basis of what is (spuriously) considered "equitable". The favored interpretation of "equitable" is that the person who is more able to afford the loss is required to bear it, irrespective of fault or innocence. The concept of fault lies at the foundation of justice in that it is essential to a system of individual responsibility and individual rewards.

The Australian Parliament established a Human Rights Commission. The early emphasis was on education - a research institute promoting thought and informed and balanced debate about voluntary respect for, and the importance of human rights. The papers which have emanated from the Human Rights Commission and allied agencies, at considerable cost to the public, have been papers stating the case for more regulation. The Human Rights Commission is not concerned about the totality of human rights. Such an analysis must take account of the importance of freedom and the need for duties and responsibilities. A right cannot exist without a corresponding duty. Human needs do not create human rights. But the Human Rights Commission is encouraging and inciting some sections of the community to demand rights without any regard for the philosophical and historical perspectives which should be paramount. It is also unconcerned about the notions of duty and responsibility. It selects or manufactures rights and exalts these "rights" over and above the important and basic rights of the liberal tradition which include freedom of property, freedom of expression, the right to a fair trial, due process and equality of opportunity. These basic rights, that have collectively been responsible for a great deal of development and progress, are being undermined by a series of new social engineering "rights" created out of the air, as it were, and contrary to evolutionary development and western philosophy.

Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot are the twentieth century examples which illustrate the difference between idealism and reality, the theory and the practice of coercive utopianism. The internal threat that faces the democratic capitalist tradition is not of a Hitler or a Lenin but of numerous little Lenins and Hitlers, not committing mass murder, but springing up all over the place, becoming increasingly influential and trampling on the rights of individuals, imposing their biases and limited ideas upon the mass of the population, with invariably counterproductive effects. The real enemies of society today are not necessarily evil men - not the murderers, not the rapists, not the unscrupulous businessmen and not the aggressive trade unionists. The most dangerous enemies of society are men and women with impractical ideals who have the arrogance to believe that they have the solution to complicated human problems and who wish to use the police power of the state to impose their ideas on the public.

The reformists have been referred to above as idealists. This is somewhat misleading. Idealism is present to a lesser or greater extent but it is not all idealism. They occupy the moral high ground on public issues. However, there are other motivating factors which are glossed over and which are not adequately emphasized. A significant motivating factor, especially among the affluent reformists (many reformists tend to be affluent) and especially in politics, the bureaucracy, academia and the media, is what may be termed "false guilt". They feel guilty about the advantaged economic and social position which they enjoy and they take an easy way out. They retain their comfortable lifestyles. They support a cause or causes and ask the government to act to coerce other people to make the sacrifices. It is very easy for urban folk to be concerned about Aboriginal land rights whilst requiring the farmers or the mining companies to make the sacrifices. These sacrifices will in the long run affect everyone but they do not have the foresight to understand this dimension. It is easy to ask the farmers and mining companies to make the sacrifices.

This easy concern is a twentieth century phenomenon. The reformists of earlier times made sacrifices of blood, tears, toil and sweat. But the so-called reformists of the twentieth century take the easy way out. They make no sacrifices. They retain comfortable lifestyles and ask the government to act. They are generous with other people's wealth. Perhaps when the government acts and the bureaucracy is set up they can obtain a position with a comfortable salary, a lucrative consultancy or a research grant.

Perhaps the most powerful factor motivating some reformists is envy of wealth and achievement. Envy of those who are achieving and doing better. This envy operates even with a person on a $100,000 a year income or even a $200,000 a year income. They are envious of the Murdochs, the Packers, the Bonds and the Holmes a'Courts. This is an important factor in the makeup of many coercive utopians. The envy of wealth and achievement is a very important factor, though many of them will immediately deny it if confronted with the issue.

They are very seldom confronted with the issue. The characteristic of the reformists is their unrealistic analysis of human problems. They ignore the experience of history and human nature. Academic analyses of human problems are becoming more and more abstract and divorced from the realities of history and human nature. The dimension which the coercive utopians miss is that a better world requires better human beings. It is not possible to make people better or law abiding or richer by laws and regulations. They focus on structures. Their emphasis on regulation is an emphasis always on changing the structures. Their belief is that if the structures and institutions are changed human beings will change. Capitalism and business are made the scapegoats for every problem. The fact, that in pre-capitalist and primitive societies human beings have not been much different, is ignored.