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Resisting the Utopian Impulse

Margaret Thatcher

For conservatives engaged in practical politics, utopia is something to be suspected and resisted. Conservatives, of course, believe in social improvement and in leaving our children a better country than the one we inherited from our parents. But we know that a better Britain or a better America can only arise from the existing Britain or the existing America. It cannot be created de novo from blueprints for an ideal Britain or perfect America some philosophers have dreamed up. The perfect expression of “utopia” is the new residential housing estates that have won all the architectural awards but which not many people want to live in.

The obvious example is the Soviet Union. That was the alleged utopia: everything fixed, everything organized, everything the same. For more than eighty years, every device of oppression and lying was employed to persuade the Russian people first to build utopia, then to maintain it, and then to support it and spread it to other countries. At no point, however, did the Russian people ever believe that they were living in utopia. There were people outside Russia who regarded the Soviet Union as utopia. The radical Left and some of the liberal Left, such as John Kenneth Galbraith, believed in the Soviet utopia. But eventually the Soviet Union itself did the world one great service. For most people in the West, it became a symbol of how awful and how destructive utopian politics can be. The Soviet Union proved that utopia was inhuman. When asked how many political prisoners were in the USSR, Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky said that there were 280 million. He was right, of course; everyone in that country was a political prisoner.

The end of the Cold War and the collapse of Communism removed a permanent threat to peace, liberated the millions of people living under Communist tyranny, and demonstrated the bankruptcy of planned socialist economies and the superiority of the free market. It proved the latter beyond all doubt. We now know full well that the societies and economies that flourish are those that allow the distinctive talents of individuals to blossom. Societies that dwarf, crush, distort, or manipulate individuals cannot progress. The nations that place a high value on individual freedom experience the greatest advances. So it is that the West, because of its fundamental grounding in individual liberty, and because its beliefs are founded on a moral basis, has produced the very best results and a significantly richer life for all our people.

If we consider the economic and technological advances around the world and compare them with progress in the USSR, we see what an enormous mistake communism was. The West is partly responsible, of course. Britain took in Karl Marx and gave him use of the British library, which is where he wrote his great treatise on communism. Switzerland allowed Lenin to return to Russia near the end of World War I. Those two decisions changed the whole course of history for the worse, particularly for the nations that would become the Soviet Union.

The West is now poised to make similar mistakes. People have gradually forgotten what the Soviet Union was like. They have unlearned the lessons of “utopia,” and, as a result, the Left has regained power in many of the advanced industrial countries, notably the United States, Britain, Germany, France, and Italy. Nearly all of Europe, save Spain, has gone socialist. Socialists have achieved all this under the guise of moderation. It describes its new approach as a third way. Unfortunately, the third way leads nowhere.

Those who posit a third way between capitalism and state socialism argue that the Left deserves power because it administers the market economy more compassionately than the Right. This notion is absolute poppycock. Behind a guise of moderation, the Left is still flexing its old utopian instincts. It is implementing them through at least three new brands of utopian politics.

Regulatory State

The first new instrument of utopian politics is the regulated society: the increasing volume of regulations on private endeavors. The new utopians retain free enterprise because everyone knows that nationalization fails totally: it fails to produce the right goods and produces substantial social losses. Instead of nationalization, the new utopians achieve the equivalent of socialism by instituting countless regulations, controlling everything they can. This is obvious in the European Union, where regulations are legion.

The regulatory state does not produce a better society, however; it simply puts extra costs on business. Those costs ultimately produce unemployment. Hence, mainland Europe now endures unemployment of some 10 or 11 percent, which is appalling. In Britain, by contrast, unemployment is only 4 to 5 percent because Britain has resisted many of the EU regulationsso far. The regulatory state creates an economy so heavily burdened that it can only compete with freer economies by erecting trade barriers, and that is exactly what we do not need. We need much freer trade all over the world. Unfortunately, under its new socialist government, Britain has joined the Social Charter, and will therefore have to institute many of the regulations it has so far resisted.

The regulated economy is only half of utopia; the other half is the regulated society. The new leviathan does not merely regulate industry, it manages social life as well. This is the case in Great Britain and sometimes in the United States, and is certainly so in Europe. Consider a few examples. Speech codes at universities now minutely regulate anything that might conceivably offend any minorityracial, ethnic, religious, or sexual. Proposed tobacco regulations force individuals to modify their behavior even though they might calculate the risk quite differently from the bureaucracies that decide for them. Government increasingly interferes with how people bring up their childrenby, for instance, forbidding parents the right to institute even very mild punishment if the child deserves it. These are matters on which there is no single “correct” view, but the utopian government forces everyone to conform to its notions. Furthermore, the state that wants to regulate every home sometimes neglects the children in its direct care, as we have seen in some very tragic cases recently.

The state lays down new laws almost every minute, new regulations on how we should lead our lives. This practice creates a rather passive populace. Remember that 1984 begins with Winston Smith doing compulsory physical exercise. Ironically, in that case as in reality, the tremendous number of new regulations, which is meant to create the new utopia, in fact creates the very opposite.

Multicultural Society

The second element of utopia is the multicultural society, and it, too, undermines the achievement of the utopian vision. Britain and America are two of the most tolerant societies in history, having demonstrated that tolerance by welcoming refugees and immigrants from all parts of the world and then turning them into British and American citizens by inducting them into the national community. These immigrants learned our language and adopted our history as their own. Such cultural inclusion is, in fact, the only way to achieve a successful multiethnic society. Previous generations achieved such a society by creating a healthy, unified culture in which all people are encouraged to feel loyalty and patriotism toward their country regardless of whether they were born there or arrived by immigration.

The concept of multiculturalism threatens to unravel all that good work. Here is a genuinely utopian enterprise, more utopian indeed than the Tower of Babel. (The Babel builders did not intend for people to end up speaking different languages. That was a divine punishment.) In the United States, multiculturalism is an aspect of devolution. The U.S. is moving toward a system in which the government presides over a number of different social groups, some of which have their own language and type of education. This approach undermines social unity and allows construction of a multicultural society, which is the very opposite of Americas previous practice. The government aims to supervise these different groups and keep the peace by redistributing income from one to another.

Thus the utopia of multiculturalism involves a bureaucratic class presiding over a nation divided into a variety of ethnic nationalities. That, of course, looks awfully like the old Soviet Union. Such as system cannot work, and its failure is likely to inflict great damage on the people, their traditions, and their liberties.

European Superstate

The third utopian project is the European superstate. This is a horrific idea. Europe, of course, currently comprises a group of nation states, each with its own language, history, loyalties, customs, and rates of taxation, and in many cases these various characteristics differ greatly across the continent. Great Britain, moreover, is probably more different from the rest of Europe than the various continental nations are from one another.

Consider, for example, the seemingly simple matter of retirement. Upon joining the EC, Britain had two different retirement ages; one for men and another for women. The EC, however, had a directive that said that the retirement ages had to be equal. Naturally, they expected me to reduce the retirement age for men from sixty-five to sixty, which is what it was for women. Instead, we chose to raise the retirement age for women to sixty-five over the next twenty years. That, of course, will significantly reduce the cost of Social Security in Britain. In Europe, by contrast, they pile on state systems. Britain has a very low, very basic state system, and the individual is expected to provide for himself through his companys scheme and through other investments. Britains system is not in financial difficulty, because the scheme is very conservative. In Europe, the very opposite is true.

Rule of Law

As noted earlier, every country in Europe, except Spain, is socialist. All of Europe has high taxes and burdensome regulations, and Great Britain is the only outpost of liberty in the EU. Britains greatest gift to the world, however, may be the rule of law. A nation cannot have liberty without it.

The rule of law, in fact, is what saved some Asian countries from collapse last yearespecially those that were once part of the British empire, such as Singapore, Hong Kong, and Malaysiawhen many other countries in that region floundered badly. The former British nations were saved by the rule of law because the latter requires public integrity, and that integrity made their banks and contracts sound and minimized corruption. Many other Asian countries, by contrast, were plagued by corruption, and their banks were totally unsound. Hence, it was hardly surprising that their currencies collapsed. But it all arose from corruption and the absence of rule of law. The economic collapse of so many Asian countries has certainly harmed those that had the rule of law, but in the latter, their institutions are intact and their banks are sound. They are recovering fairly quickly.

Nations that do not have the rule of law, such as China and Russia, can fall apart quite rapidly. That is what brought on the Soviet Unions collapse. By granting some increased freedom, including freedom of speech, Gorbachev inadvertently undermined the regime. Freedom of speech led to freedom of action. The people pressed for more freedom, and eventually the process led quite suddenly to the collapse of both communism and then of the Soviet Union itself. A similar process has occurred in large parts of Asia.

No one has figured out how to make the transition from a totally controlled Communist state to one in which citizens are expected to exercise responsibility. When the system denies you liberty and any sense of responsibility and makes certain that you have few if any real opportunities to succeed, you do not learn how to make it on your own. And when such a system stops functioning, the vast majority of people cannot exercise self-rule. And in the absence of rule of law, organized crime takes over. This process has been quite devastating for the people of the Soviet Union.

Ill-Advised Bailouts

The collapse of a nation such as Russia quickly induces multinational relief agencies such as the International Momentary Fund (IMF) to move in and give help. The IMF has gone into Russia, Indonesia, Mexico, and many other countries. In Russia, however, as noted earlier, corruption is rampant, and much of the nation is run by the mafia. Thus the money the IMF sent to Russia quickly went out of the country into the bank accounts of former Communists and other organized-crime figures. The government utterly failed to ensure that the international aid money was spent on the purposes for which it was given.

In Indonesia, too, the aid money has been handled corruptly. Consequently, many analysts are now suggesting that the IMF should not be handing out large sums of money to corrupt nations because doing so creates a moral hazard. Governments can say, “Well, theres no point in us behaving absolutely perfectlywe can get money from the IMF if we need to.” International financial institutions must be much more careful in what they do with their money. This money was given for a specific purpose and must be used for that purpose. It must be spent on projects that will raise the well-being of the people until they can raise their standard of living themselves.

Russia, after all, has the richest stock of natural resources in the world. She has almost everything: diamonds, platinum, gold, silver, all the industrial metals, and marvelous soil. If natural resources mean anything, Russia should be the richest country in the world. Thus its poverty tells us something very significant. A nations success is not based on its natural resources, nor even on the talents and abilities of the people. It is based on whether that country has the rule of law and a tax regime that encourages individuals talents and abilities to flourish and enables people to profit from them.

Great Britain has a wonderful heritage, as does the United States. These two nations are far more similar to each other than to any other countries in the world. There is an old saying that applies very well here: “That which thy fathers bequeath thee, earn it anew if thou wouldst possess it.” In looking to the future, we should resist the temptation toward utopian schemes and depend on our venerable traditions of individual freedom and the rule of law.