Frontpage: Writing last week about the new affection for socialism on the part of Millennials, electoral maven Karl Rove warned us not to ignore or dismiss this enthusiasm. Socialism’s long record of failure “doesn’t mean new forms of socialism can’t gain a following.” Rove’s solution is for Republicans to “do the hard work of updating old arguments,” and “hone their arguments” against socialist policies in preparation for the 2020 presidential race.
Welcome to 2500 years of dubious thinking about the power of rational persuasion and coherent argument to talk people out of bad ideas. It didn’t save Socrates from the hemlock, and it’s unlikely to change the minds of the worst-educated, most self-centered, and most pampered cohort in American history.
This stubborn belief in the power of rational thought and knowledge to improve human life lies at the heart of modern political ideologies like Marxism and progressivism. Both assume that the knowledge useful for politically organizing a state or society is “scientific,” comprising principles and techniques that are beyond ideology and universally true. Hence the need for enlightened technocratic elites to control social institutions and use power in order to rationally arrange human existence more justly and efficiently.
The flaw in this thinking was first identified by contemporaries of Plato, whose Republic imagined a utopia of elite Guardians educated to exercise totalitarian control over society. And the earliest critics of Plato’s flawed assumptions about human nature were likewise Greek writers such as Thucydides and Sophocles. Both argued that a human nature universally subject to irrational passions, free will, and a tragic world would always to some degree triumph over the rational mind.
Yet despite the subsequent millennia in which history has demonstrated that the road to utopia is lined with mountains of corpses, the dream of creating heaven on earth by applying rational techniques of control and improvement over human beings has not lost its allure. In modern times, the decline of faith and the belief in a transcendent reality has made us even more vulnerable to political religions, those delusional visions of human power and will alone able to eliminate the tragic limits of earthly life, such as inequality, suffering, injustice, and violence. read more