For some reason, I have been into thought experiments lately. Typically they have been a bit on the goofy side. But with all of the serious and tragic problems facing us these days, I have also been thinking a great deal about human society and how we interact with each other. Into this bubbling cauldron steps a book I just finished reading and my mind cannot stop running. If only I had a place where I could write down, organize and publish my thoughts about whatever topics I wanted…
For the past few years, I have been trying to go back and read some literature classics that I have somehow missed up until this point. When I was in high school, my literature classes as an upperclassman were free-form and allowed me to select books of my own choosing from a large list. As such, I feel like there are a great many books that I should have read by now, but I just haven’t. Having all of my reading time for the past 10 years taken up by medical education probably didn’t help either.
I just finished reading The Time Machine by HG Wells. It is widely regarded as one of the first works of science fiction and a true classic. And while I can understand while it is seen as science fiction (since it focuses on time travel and is set in the distant future), to me it is one extended thought experiment. What would happen if humanity really formed the perfect society?
By virtue of its name, the assumption would be that such a utopia would be the pinnacle of human accomplishment. Disease eradicated, hunger destroyed, poverty eliminated, war and destruction silly ideas of a distant past. Superior beings to us that have finally figured out how to live in harmony with one another. Perfect right? Well, maybe not.
Wells uses the story to contrast two diametrically opposed views of the world taken to their extreme, Socialism and Capitalism. Given the political tenor in this country lately, culminating in the “Fiscal Cliff” negotiations as well as the political machinations surrounding the role of guns in our society that are roiling under the surface in the aftermath of last Friday’s unfathomable tragedy, I found the story to be particularly poignant. And while no one is suggesting that we become an entirely Socialist country, there are thoughts in some sectors of the country that our version of Capitalism is too fettered. If only we would unleash the economy, it would roar back to life. Capitalism works and is the perfect system.
While it feels rather unpatriotic and downright un-American to say, Capitalism is not a perfect system. (I can just feel myself being put on some kind of watch list just for writing that!) In fact, it is rather flawed. And its main flaw is the same thing that makes it so effective. Capitalism works because it is essentially natural selection applied to economics. If you do it better, you will succeed. If not, you will fail. This selection pressure then continues to push society forward as individuals continually strive to improve so as to succeed. Traits which predispose one to succeed are selected and those that predispose to failure will eventually be weeded out. However, Capitalism is not a zero-sum game. To go along with all of the winners, there must also be losers.
So then what to do with the losers? Should they be just cast aside, left to rot as the imperfect beings that they are? In the story, the society which forms as the extreme version of a Capitalism resorts to cannibalism to sustain itself. Which in some sense is true. Unfettered Capitalism grinds up and discards the weak and inferior. Human beings essentially become commodities, points on a ledger. Are you providing a value or are you a loss? Thanks to our collective better judgement, we really haven’t seen anything like this. We realize that human beings have an inherent value, no matter how they stack up on the balance sheet.
We have also been witness to the fact that unfettered Socialism doesn’t really work either. Treating one another as exactly equal, no matter how unequal individuals actually are is demotivating and leads to complacency which eventually leads to atrophy. This is what happens to the extreme Socialist society in Wells’ novel. Despite the fact that leading up until that point in time, humanity reached its pinnacle in thought and accomplishment, it eventually led to atrophy, such that The Time-Traveller was actually disappointed to discover what humans of the distant future had become. After crafting utopia and eliminating all selection pressure, humans had devolved into vapid, oblivious, child-like creatures with a very minimal language and barely the ability to understand or even experience the wide range of emotions.
So if neither system is perfect, where does that leave those of us who live in the real here and now in the real world? These are the root issues that we face most every day in our society. How do we utilize the good of both systems while minimizing the ugly side of each? This is what are lawmakers and politicians are fighting over every day. This is what we have always been fighting over. And while each side likes to demonize the other (Republicans are greedy and heartless! Democrats want everything to be given to them!), the fact is that we need both. We need to both strive and support. Reach a hand forward to push ahead, but also reach back to pull someone else up with you. And if you get the chance, read a good book.