Their Unintended consequences

A Reflection


Jay B Gaskill


I’m an “ideas have consequences guy”. And over the years, I’ve also learned that there are no “perfect” ideas. The Judeo-Christian notion of mankind living in a “fallen” state captures an essential corrective. Call it the Murphy’s Law of social engineering, to wit: Perversely, people (in general, not necessarily as particular individuals) will always game any form of social organization in the search of dominance and spoils. This is why the search for Utopian perfection is doomed, and why the founders of this great country built a system of checks against power concentrations.

The result is that the wise people of good will choose to pursue the optimum, not perfection, and why they patiently leave room for correction and even reversal of course. This is also why elites always tend to form up within organizations, and why – periodically – they need to be fired.

The liberal project is to make the world a better place by overcoming boundaries, while the conservative project is to keep the world from becoming a worse place by protecting boundaries. In the optimum relationship between these two natural forces, the liberal and conservative projects become more cautious. Both seek to overcome the arbitrary boundaries to progress, while protecting the essential ones on which the vital social order depends. This is the Great Dialogic wherein for the liberal side a boundary is provisionally arbitrary and from the conservative perspective it is provisionally necessary. Neither side is so hypnotized by a Great Idea that actual, real world experience is ignored.

We now are entering an era when the excesses of the liberal project reach a tipping point. This is not the end of liberalism. The recent Trifecta in American politics (POTUS, House and Senate in the hands of liberal elites) was not the end of conservatism. Every movement reaches its apex just before its sharp decline.

As I say, ideas do have consequences. And liberalism has reached the precipice of decline because of its infatuation with two particularly Bad Ideas. I must acknowledge one other issue, looming in the background, an overarching concern that has obsessed liberalism’s left wing for the last 80 years: The differences between the material conditions of those who occupy the various roles within the economic order. Society’s tolerance for such inequalities is a huge issue, but I’m setting that aside to describe two toxic ideas.

Idea One

The Seduction of Power-coercion

This is the all to attractive notion that the power of the state is a proper tool for well-meaning persons to make the world into a better place. Employing the engines of coercive power for “good ends” is seductive.[1]

But there are real costs – as Dr. Faustus could attest.

The seduction of power-coercion always comes bundled with a set of arrogant attitudes:

(1) Why bother with persuasion when you have access to coercion?

(2) Why bother with dialogue when you live in a bubble?

(3) Why reconsider any position when “all decent people” agree on the policy prescriptions that will lead us to Utopia?

These attitudes are diagnostic clues – meaning that when we are confronted by “bubble people-in-charge”, we are being herded towards somebody’s idea of Utopia.

Elites, almost by definition, live in self-supporting bubbles. Their natural arrogance is the inevitable result of the confluence of three modern tendencies:

(1) the temptation of comfortable elites and their trusting followers to believe that one’s good intentions trump incompetence and excuses even brutal means;

(2) the fatal attraction of power-sublimation for social engineers for whom the human condition is a plastic medium to be shaped, as opposed to an inheritance to be safeguarded;

(3) the substitution of ideology for ultimate moral authority (the kind that flows from deep tradition and/or universal deity)

When these attitudes prevail, ordinary dialogue degrades into irreconcilable hectoring, and disagreements become apostasy.

These conditions are the seedbed for the emergence of the Dystopian Prison.

Idea Two

The Pursuit of Materialistic Heaven

We are living in an era wherein the heavenly state has become a sought-after secular achievement, the modern utopia. This is a “paradise” characterized by the substitution of creature comforts for the worthy life.

The ultimate hollowness of material comfort is exposed by the pervasive human hunger for the missing spiritual dimension once some basic comfort is achieved. When we achieve the conditions for baseline survival, we tend to become consumed by one of two things: the authentic pursuit of meaning and purpose, or the meaningless pursuit of distraction.[2]

Somehow the empty secular paradise has been credibly marketed as a replacement for moral integrity. It has even been offered as sufficient stand-in for the Ultimate human connection. That connection, whether or not it is understood in traditional religious terms, is essential to the authentic human life. [Many of the religious among us experience it as a demanding but fulfilling relationship with the Creator Being[3].]

The pursuit of the hollow, secular paradise has given birth to the modern entitlement howl:

It is right because we want it.

We deserve it.

What real harm would it do, anyway?

That entitlement howl has given birth to the ideologies of collective envy. And those ideologies have given birth to a new model of human society, the enforced utopia. And that naïvely brutal construct has, in turn, given birth to a new form of authoritarian tyranny – one simultaneously occupying the moral high ground and utilizing the very basest of methods.

It is the supreme irony of the last 120 years that the pursuit of a materialist paradise has led us into at least two versions of Existential Hell (the Nazi concentration camps and the Soviet gulags).

The power coercion fantasy and the materialist utopian ideal have combined in a malign alchemy that transmuted Secular Utopia into the Dystopian Prison. Our social engineers have transmutes fools gold into fecal matter via a simple spell.

And we thought the era of magic was over!


Jay B Gaskill is a California lawyer. Having served as the Alameda County Public Defender, he has given up his life of crime.

Read Jay B Gaskill’s Lost Souls Coffee Shop, an allegory for the human condition.

And The Stranded Ones, a near-future novel about a potential Armageddon-scale “immigration” problem.

Hint: They’re not from around here.

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[1] Ironically, the left has issues with using state power to preserve the existing peace and order. Why there should be such liberal ambivalence about law and order puzzled Eric Hoffer in the 1960’s and remains a contradiction to this day.

[2] The dropout of the underlying moral order, particularly in sophisticated urban settings and the high crime areas of the country is no accident. It origins can be traced to the secularization of ethics and the concomitant confusion about moral boundaries and consequences.

[3] This is not intended to be a brief for any particular religion, but it is a cautionary note: morality is not self-executing. When the underlying religious support systems are stripped away, the moral order is weakened unless and until an equivalent belief system is substituted. The materialist ideologies of Marxism and Nazism were offered as substitutes for religion, and you see where that got us!

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