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(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one or part three.)

Illustrations by Robert Crawford

The Best-and-Brightest Utopia

Public affairs are put in the hands of an intelligent and well-educated class of leaders.

THIS was Plato's vision. In the Republic and other dialogues Plato described a hierarchical society of peasants and soldiers ruled over by a eugenically bred class of "guardians," and in Critias he imagined that this was the constitution of ancient Athens, before the war with Atlantis, 9,000 years earlier. In our own times Lee Kuan Yew, the Senior Minister of Singapore, has said that only an elite, consisting of the top three to five percent of a society, can deal effectively with public issues. The rulers of the "People's Republic" of China would probably agree, except that I suppose they would think that three percent is a gross overestimate. Even democratic countries such as France and Japan recruit their powerful bureaucracies from special educational institutions -- the Grandes Ecoles and the University of Tokyo.

From the archives:

"Running Scared," by Anthony King (January, 1997)
Painfully often the legislation our politicians pass is designed less to solve problems than to protect the politicians from defeat in our neverending election campaigns. They are, in short, too frightened of us to govern.

"The Structure of Success in America," by Nicholas Lemann (August, 1995)
In America perhaps only race is a more sensitive subject than the way we sort ourselves out in the struggle for success. At the center of that struggle are higher education and ETS, the Educational Testing Service.

"The Tests and the 'Brightest': How Fair Are the College Boards?", by James Fallows (February, 1980)
The tests are the subject of a growing debate. Do they really discover the best and the brightest? Or do they chiefly identify the richest and the most expensively educated?

"Education for a Classless Society", by James Bryant Conant (March, 1940)
"In my opinion, our newly erected system of public education has potentialities of which we little dream."

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "Humane Development" (December 16, 1999)
Akash Kapur speaks with Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and author of Development as Freedom.

Interviews: "The Myth of Meritocracy" (October 7, 1999)
In his new book, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, Nicholas Lemann argues that the structure of educational opportunity in America is inherently flawed and must be rebuilt.

The claims of Lee Kuan Yew and others for the effectiveness of "Asian model" technocracies look pretty unconvincing after the East Asian economic downturn of the past few years. Even before that, Amartya Sen and other economists had argued that authoritarian governments do not generally perform better economically than democratic ones, and may in fact be more at risk of economic catastrophe. But rule by an elite has much worse drawbacks.

As Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out, even if government by an elite could be trusted to be efficient and public-spirited, it would have the effect of making its citizens into children. And surely we should have learned by now that no such government can be trusted. Behind every Marcus Aurelius is a crazy relative like Commodus, waiting to take over.

There never has been a governing elite in any age that did not eventually come to give priority to its own interests. It doesn't help to choose the elite from some special segment of society. Attacking Marxism, the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin pointed out that it would be impossible to put workers at the head of government, because then they would cease to be workers and instead become governors. In Looking Backward, Bellamy, like many other socialists, argued that labor unions would become unnecessary once the means of production were handed over to a national industrial army, because then the workers would own their own factories. This argument was not borne out by the experience of labor in the Soviet Union, to say the least. There is no reason to imagine that a ruling elite drawn from business leaders would do any better. H. G. Wells and other utopians have imagined putting public affairs in the hands of scientists, but I know my fellow scientists too well to be enthusiastic about this proposal. Most scientists would rather do their own research than govern anyone. I have known a number of academic physics departments in which faculty members actively compete for the privilege of not being department chairman. Anyway, I haven't seen any signs that scientists would be better than anyone else at running a country.

Power is not safe in the hands of any elite, but it is not safe in the hands of the people, either. To abandon all constraints on direct democracy is to submit minorities to the tyranny of the majority. If it were not for the interposition of an elite judiciary, the majority in many states might still be enforcing racial segregation, and at the very least would have introduced prayer sessions in the public schools. It is the majority that has favored state-imposed religious conformity in Algeria and Afghanistan and other Islamic countries.

So what is the solution? Whom can we trust to exercise government power? W. S. Gilbert proposed an admirably simple solution to this problem. In the Savoy opera Utopia, Limited, the King exercises all power but is in constant danger of being turned over to the Public Exploder by two Wise Men, who explain,

Our duty is to spy
Upon our King's illicities,
And keep a watchful eye
On all his eccentricities.

If ever a trick he tries
That savours of rascality,
At our decree he dies
Without the least formality.

We just have to get used to the fact that in the real world there is no solution, and we can't trust anyone. The best we can hope for is that power be widely diffused among many conflicting government and private institutions, any of which may be allies in opposing the encroachments of others -- much as in the United States today.

Illustrations by Robert Crawford

The Religious Utopia

A religious revival sweeps the earth, reversing the secularization of society that began with the Enlightenment. Many countries follow the example of Iran, and accept religious leaders as their rulers. America returns to its historical roots as a Christian country. Scientific research and teaching are permitted only where they do not corrode religious belief.

It is hard to see why anyone would think that religion is a cure for the world's problems. People have been at each other's throats over differences in religion throughout history, a sad story that continues today in Northern Ireland, the Balkans, the Middle East, Sudan, and India. But even fighting over religion is not as bad as an imposed religious uniformity. Of all the elites that can oppress us, the most dangerous are those bearing the banner of religion. Their power is greater, because they can threaten punishment in the next world as well as in this, and their influence is more intrusive, because it reaches into matters that ought to be left to private choice, such as sexual practice and family life. In our own times we have had a taste of what utopias based on religious uniformity are like, in countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan, where the freedom of women is sharply limited, and holy war is preached to children.

Religious readers may object that the harm in all these cases is done by perversions of religion, not by religion itself. But religious wars and persecutions have been at the center of religious life throughout history. What has changed, that these now seem to some people in some parts of the world to be only perversions of true religious belief? Has there been a new supernatural revelation, or a discovery of lost sacred writings that put religious teachings in a new light? No -- since the Enlightenment there has been instead a spread of rationality and humanitarianism that has in turn affected religious belief, leading to a wider spread of religious toleration. It is not that religion has improved our moral sense but that a purely secular improvement in our moral values has improved the way religion is practiced here and there. People ought to be religious or not religious according to whether they believe in the teachings of religion, not because of any illusion that religion raises the moral level of society.

From the archives:

"Can We Be Good Without God?", by Glenn Tinder (December, 1989)
An essay on the political meaning of Christianity.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "America the Irrational" (November 3, 1999)
Wendy Kaminer, the author of Sleeping With Extra-Terrestrials, sees a disturbing decline of reason in our public life.

Illustrations by Robert Crawford

The Green Utopia

The world turns away from industrialism and returns to a simpler style of life. Small communities grow their own food, build houses and furniture with their own hands, and use electricity only to the extent that they can generate it from sun, wind, or water.

THIS is the sort of utopia that appears most often in modern literature -- for instance, in the science fiction of Ursula Le Guin. But modern writers tend to locate their utopias on other planets. No one has described a rural utopia here on earth better than William Morris did in 1890, in News From Nowhere. (His title, by the way, is an echo of More's Utopia, which might come from either the Greek eu- + topos, meaning "good place," or ou- + topos, meaning "no place." The second meaning was also picked up by Samuel Butler, in Erewhon (1872), which of course is "nowhere" spelled backwards -- except that it isn't, which shows how hard it is to be perfect.) In Morris's future England, Hammersmith and Kensington are again small villages; the national government has become unnecessary; and the Houses of Parliament are used to store manure. Morris gives a lovely description of the unpolluted countryside seen by his hero in a long rowing voyage from London to the upper reaches of the Thames. It is all very pretty, but some of us would miss urban London.

It is common for those who don't have to work hard to romanticize hard labor, especially agricultural labor. Shakespeare's Henry V imagines that no king can sleep as soundly as a peasant,

Who with a body fill'd and vacant mind Gets him to rest, cramm'd with distressful bread; Never sees horrid night, the child of hell, But, like a lackey, from the rise to set Sweats in the eye of Phoebus and all night Sleeps in Elysium; next day after dawn, Doth rise and help Hyperion to his horse, And follows so the ever-running year, With profitable labour, to his grave.
I doubt that any real peasant would see farm work this way. In the words of Mel Brooks, "It's good to be the king."
From the archives:

"Eden: A Gated Community," by William Langewiesche (June, 1999)
After making a fortune as founder of North Face and Esprit, Douglas Tompkins embraced the principles of deep ecology. Then, forsaking civilization, he bought a Yosemite-sized piece of wilderness in Chile, where only he and a like-minded few would live.

"The NEXT Industrial Revolution," by William McDonough and Michael Braungart (October, 1998)
"There is an alternative -- one that will allow both business and nature to be fecund and productive."

Some utopians -- like Wells, in The World Set Free -- would like to restore the natural environment of the past while keeping the benefits of technology, by radically reducing the earth's population. This seems hard on all those who would be unable to enjoy utopia because they had not been born. Others, like Morris, imagine that a nontechnological utopia could support the same population as at present. I don't believe it, but even if I did, I would object to abandoning the technology that gives us heart defibrillators and elementary-particle accelerators. In fact, Morris cheats. He refers to some sort of "force" that helps with necessary work that can't be done by hand; but how could something like this exist without an industrial establishment?

Hostility to technology also promotes hostility to science, which gets additional fuel from the discomfort produced by what science reveals about the world. In a speech at Independence Hall, in Philadelphia, on the Fourth of July in 1994, the Czech poet and statesman Václav Havel protested that "we are not at all just an accidental anomaly ... we are mysteriously connected to the entire universe." He called for "a science that is new ... postmodern." One of the items that Havel would like to include in this new science is the Gaia hypothesis, according to which the earth and the living things it supports form a single organism. If the Gaia hypothesis is any more than a poetic way of expressing the obvious fact that life and its environment act on each other, then it is mystical mumbo jumbo, but it has a nice Green tinge that Havel obviously likes. This business of picking out the comforting parts of science and condemning the rest is an old story. The people of future England in News From Nowhere engage in some sort of science, about which Morris says only that it is different from the "commercial" science of the nineteenth century. This is an amazing comment on the science of Charles Darwin and James Clerk Maxwell. One gets the impression that the work of science in Morris's utopia consists of collecting pretty rocks and butterflies.


(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one or part three.)

Steven Weinberg teaches at the University of Texas at Austin. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1979 and the National Medal of Science in 1991. Weinberg is the author of The First Three Minutes (1977) and Dreams of a Final Theory (1992).

Illustrations by Robert Crawford.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January 2000; Five and a Half Utopias - 00.01 (Part Two); Volume 285, No. 1; page 107-114.