I’ve read a few utopia stories recently, and it seems that most “perfect” worlds have one thing in common: the people as a whole give up some individual liberties to ensure that the basic needs of all are met. If we take Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (see below), basically everyone’s psyiological and safety needs are met. That is, everyone has a roof over their head, clothes, food, etc. Maslow claims that in order to get to the next level in the pyramid, all the levels beneath must be met. Thus, those who don’t have their needs for safety met have no chance to realize their greatest potential. Sounds pretty reasonable to me – if I’m worried about where I’m going to sleep, then I probably won’t be able to expend a lot of effort figuring out how I can best contribute something positive to the world. It isn’t a perfect theory, but I see some truth in it.
Coming back to utopias, everyone gets through that first threshold automatically, but really the point is for everyone to make it to the pinnacle. Does that mean everyone is a doctor or a lawyer? Of course not. But in one that I’ve read (Bellamy’s Looking Backward), to encourage people to take the jobs that are less desirous, those that take them work less hours. Would you clean bathrooms if you only had to do it for 2 hours a day?
Another constant in utopia is equal access to resources. This is achieved by either doing away with money all together, or giving everyone and equal amount of it. Education also factors into this, as well as Maslow’s hierarchy. If everyone is to contribute to their full potential, they need to get to the highest level possible. Without an education, the young cannot be aware of all the options available, nor will they have been exposed to the basic skills necessary to be successful in whatever calling they choose.
I don’t believe that we will ever see a perfect society formed on this planet. But I do think we should strive to create one. Does that mean we all have to be socialist? I’m not smart enough to know. But it does seem that the basic tenets of capitalism work against the idea that everyone’s basic needs can or even should be met (assuming that’s a requirement of perfection). This brings me to the question that sparked this article: Are we willing to give up the possibility of opulence to insure ourselves and our countrymen against destitution?
Bill and Melinda Gates have more money than they could ever hope to spend. They worked hard to get it, and they have done incredible things for people less fortunate than they are through the Gates Foundation. That is certainly to be applauded and encouraged. But what’s the point? Does any person or family need that much money? Should we be idealizing that as the ultimate achievement of the American Dream? Is that accumulation of wealth the result of one person’s work? Is that their “fair share” of Microsoft’s success? The highest tax bracket during WWII was 94%. For every dollar that a person made over $200,000 in a year, they got to keep 6 cents. In 2007 the highest rate was 35%, and it kicks in at just under $350,000. ($200,000 in 1944 is like $2.3 million in 2007)
Let’s get back to the question – are we willing to take a significant majority of a wealthy person’s earnings to insure that our children are well educated, our poor are not homeless, and our elderly are well cared for? If you made enough to buy a Gulfstream G5, could you be content with a BMW knowing that the difference paid for 20,000 students to get a year’s worth of quality education. The first comment of any conservative-minded person to all this would be that instituting it would discourage hard work and encourage loafing (not to mention that caring for the masses is an outrageous expense). That argument is valid, but I would point to potential savings in the long term – a better educated public that votes, works and lives smarter. In the short term, how much less crime would occur? Even if we could lift just one generation’s poor out of poverty, no matter the cost, what would the result be?
If you’re interested in reading any utopias:
Thomas More Utopia
Edward Bellamy Looking Backward
Charlotte Perkins Gilman Herland
Nathaniel Hawthorne Blithedale Romance
Know of any others that are a good read, let me know.
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