Political Perpetual Motion

Suppose a group approaches your city government with a proposal for clean energy in your city. You go to the town hall meeting, and the proposal sounds good to start with. They’ve identified some real problems in your city, and they’ve been able to present the problems clearly. As they start to lay out their solution, they’re clear and compelling, and you’re really exited about it…until you realize that the core of the whole approach is a perpetual motion machine.

You can’t believe they would seriously propose that, so you ask outright: “So…am I hearing that the foundation of your new power plant is a perpetual motion machine?”

“Well, yeah,” they say, “but you have to understand that the other perpetual motion machines you’ve heard about didn’t implement the theory properly. This one’s gonna be different.”

How likely are you to keep listening?

Suppose they complain that you’re no longer listening; why won’t you hear them out? Well, for the same reason that the U.S. Patent Office stopped accepting patents on perpetual motion machines — because all of them contradict known realities about the way the world works. It’s a waste of time.


For those of us who pay attention to the real-world results of experiments in political philosophy, this is what it’s like when someone highlights real problems in our society, but then moves into analysis and policy prescriptions based in a Marxist view of the world.

Marx was wrong, period. He didn’t understand human motivation or the value of risk — major mistakes for an economist. He overestimated the ability of human planning to account for the complexities of the real world (to be fair to him, this was the intellectual fashion of his time, but we should certainly know better now). Every place his ideas have been put into practice at scale, the result has been bureaucratic nightmare and economic disaster. Safely sheltered from real-world consequences in the hothouse environment of the university, our academics have been cultivating new and virulent strains of Marxist theory. However good they may sound in a graduate seminar, they fail dramatically in the real world. They are (to borrow a phrase from Peter Hitchens) “a beautiful idea, and a terrible reality.”

The real-world failures of Marxist theories in turn cause a fundamental problem in the conversations we’re having about how to address the injustices found in our culture. We have real and outstanding injustices that must be addressed, but often the most popular proposals for addressing them rely on utterly false assumptions about how the world works, and this creates a serious problem in the conversation.

On the one hand, I love the people I’m talking to, and I owe it to them to hear them out. It won’t do to take real injustices lightly — which is what I’ll be doing if I dismiss the entire conversation out of hand. On the other hand, the policy prescriptions on the table are wicked, and too much damage has already been done by foolish people who take them seriously.

We can’t do more of that nonsense. It’s failed everywhere it’s been tried. Let’s do something that might work.

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