The Causes of Poverty (67): Lack of Hope

Esther Duflo tells us about a program in West Bengal. People were given a “small productive asset” such as a farm animal for instance, and some money so as to prevent people from eating or selling the animal.

Well after the financial help and hand-holding had stopped, the families of those who had been randomly chosen for the … programme were eating 15% more, earning 20% more each month and skipping fewer meals than people in a comparison group. They were also saving a lot. The effects were so large and persistent that they could not be attributed to the direct effects of the grants: people could not have sold enough milk, eggs or meat to explain the income gains. Nor were they simply selling the assets (although some did). (source)

The most likely reason for this is hope. The handouts broke the cycle of pessimism and lack of hope. People were finally offered some mental space to think about something else than just mere survival. The tiny bit of security that came with a farm animal and a financial buffer opened up the possibility of planning, of looking into alternative livelihoods etc. For example, recipients worked 28% more hours, mostly on activities not directly related to the assets they were given. The rate of depression among participants also plummeted.

Some older and related posts:

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (22): Utopia

Die wirkliche Genesis ist nicht am Anfang, sondern am Ende. Ernst Bloch

You could view the struggle for human rights as a “utopian” one. We’ll never live in a world that respects human rights completely and universally. The only thing we can hope for is an incremental improvement. And there are many reasons for this limitation: people always come up with new ways to violate human rights (“ah, the Internet! let’s make a Great Firewall!”), and people always come up with new human rights as a way to redress newly discovered wrongs. And even if we hope for incremental improvement, we can’t be sure that things are going as we hope, given the lousy measurement systems.

And yet, if you scratch the surface a bit and look at the deeper meaning of the word “utopian”, you’ll discover that utopian thought is fundamentally inimical to human rights. In fact, there’s perhaps no better way to violate human rights than to be utopian. Both the struggle for utopia and life within utopia are necessarily detrimental to human rights. That may seem paradoxical, but it’s easy to see how the struggle for an ideal can lead to disaster. The road to hell is, after all, paved with good intentions. We’ve seen many examples of this in recent history. But not only the struggle for utopia leads to rights violations; utopia itself does the same. Strange perhaps, since utopia is the ideal world. How can there be rights violations in an ideal world? And yet, no matter how it is envisaged, utopia violates human rights.

Utopia, where there is no war, strife, exploitation or scarcity, does not allow contestation, change or diversity. What’s there to contest if society has reached perfection? Why change when you can’t improve? Why have diversity, since diversity means different points of view about goals. If there are different points of view, some of them must be wrong. When people advocate wrong views, you have hardly reached perfection, and you’re likely to have conflict, violence etc. You can already see why people would believe that human rights are useless in such a world. Why would you need free speech if there is unanimity? Now, if there really is unanimity, human rights are indeed superfluous. No reason to express your views and to have rules to protect that expression if everyone has the same views. However, unanimity will probably always be something that has to be enforced because even in utopia some people will not freely understand their own wrongness or give up their own vision of perfection. Only a radically new but also radically improbable type of human being would populate a unanimous society. This enforcement of unanimity is necessarily a violation of human rights, which is why such violations would have to occur in utopian societies.

If you look at historical utopian thought, you’ll see that utopia is typically a highly centralized and planned world. It’s one big organization, a megamachine. Streets are geometrically designed. People’s movements are directed and controlled in order to avoid clashes and inefficiencies. Every detail is planned beforehand. Everything is rational. One hospital per square kilometer, one school, and one church. The organic growth of real cities is suboptimal because it hasn’t been planned beforehand. Real cities aren’t rational, orderly or efficient because no one has designed them. Hence, what is required is a tabula rasa. That means kicking people out of their houses and demolishing their houses. It means centrally allocating jobs so that the people don’t start a career that wouldn’t be the best one for them and for the whole of society. The structure of utopia is designed to enforce a certain behavior that promotes efficiency. Movement, habitation, work and all other aspects of life are planned and organized. The consequences of this aren’t limited to evils such as boredom, repetition, the absence of creativity and of the unexpected, or the feeling of being stuck in the present (the past is gone because that’s just the history of imperfection, and there is no future either because the future is here). The evils will be a lot worse than that: massive violations of rights, limitations of freedom and invasions of privacy are inevitable in utopia. Utopia is necessarily dystopia.

Of course, utopia can be a useful theoretical construct. I don’t want to trash every type of utopian thinking. A utopian vision is typically the current world put upside down. It is a tool that makes criticism of the current world possible, and it may provide a driving force for incremental change. It can motivate people to work for a slightly better world. It’s like you only know how troubling poverty is when you know what it would mean to be rich. But this realization shouldn’t make you desire a world of only rich people; a world without poverty suffices. Utopia, in this sense, is not a blueprint for the future, but merely a kick in the gut. That is also why many utopian fantasies were not located in the country the writer lived in, but in a far away place, an island or a mountain top. And that’s where they should remain. They are a means, not a goal. And true Genesis is neither at the beginning nor at the end; it’s ongoing. We daily remake our world and we’ll most likely never finish.