Tuesday, February 15, 2005
Killed The Czar And His Ministers...
The real lesson Hitchens ought to be taking away from this isn't about the death
penalty, it's about the danger of utopian dreaming and overestimation of
threats. If you make your hypothetical omelette tasty enough (democracy
everywhere! freedom and equality for all!) or the dangers of failure
sufficiently grave (terrorists blowing up cities!) then you wind up eliminating
all constraints on the quantity of eggs you're willing to break. This is, I
think, something's that's fairly widely understood. Most people involved in
politics are not wild-eyed utopians sure that if you just take these three
drastic steps all problems will be solved. But one common thread between
Hitchens' former Trotskyism and his current neoconservatism (and, of course,
he's not the only one to have made that particular journey) is a failure to
appreciate the point.
As I stated, I don't know if there's sufficient appreciation of the Law of Unintended Consequences on the behalf of the author, although his appreciation for the best rock song of all time is noteworthy enough for me to craft an entry around his post. So, what is this that I speak of? Well, it's the title of a politically-uncorrect novel on the topic of creeping fascism, but it's also a basic characteristic of human behavior that we all observe and follow, but rarely appreciate:
The law of unintended consequences, often cited but rarely defined, is that
actions of people—and especially of government—always have effects that are
unanticipated or "unintended." Economists and other social scientists have
heeded its power for centuries; for just as long, politicians and popular
opinion have largely ignored it.
The real danger in utopian thinking might not be the lengths one will go to see it through - it might just be in the unintended consequences that tend to pop up any time a large project is pushed through with an aggressive timeline and little or no back-up planning. In the case of the Bolshevik revolution, they certainly didn't intend to create one of the most evil fascist government in history - but that's exactly what happened as a direct result of their actions. So much for the Communist ideal of a stateless economy and total freedom. In the case of the US in the Middle East, well - we reap what we sow, even if it's something other than what we thought we planned. Propping up the Shah backfired. Supporting Saddam in his struggle against Iran backfired. Even our support for the Afghan rebels, as well-intended and as effective as it was in the short-term, ended up coming right back in our face. And now? Now that we've managed to get Iran's allies elected to the Iraqi parliment, the real fun can begin.