Criticism Economics Political Philosophy

Dreaming can be dangerous

Gavin Kennedy responded to my post of several weeks ago, written in response to the spectacular success of Goldman Sachs, which I saw as a repudiation of the free market in which I offered the “modest proposal” of tearing down our capitalist system and replacing it with a free market. Kennedy responded:

Much of Joe’s thinking is well motivated but he is confused because he advocates root and branch transformation in a long-established socio-economic system, and that isn’t going to happen.

The sheer impracticality of it is breathtaking.

I can understand why Kennedy responded as he did to this post. The tone was radical – deliberately so. I tried to suggest in the opening that I was writing “looser” than normally and called my radical suggestion a “modest proposal” – realizing it was not. I intended to suggest Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal,” though I did not intend the piece to be satire – but rather a rant unmoored from my usual pragmatic hedgings.

Barack Obama said a few times with regards to health care that “if he were starting from scratch” he would suggest a single-payer system – but then acknowledge that we were not starting from scratch. This post was my attempt to “start from scratch” without attempting to triangulate what position was and was not practical – to explain what was fundamentally wrong, and to suggest what we should be moving towards. Rather than sudden, centralized changes though, I advocate tinkering, reforming processes at the outsides, carefully modulating incentives, experimenting with changes at more local levels before trying them nationally or internationally. I subscribe to Friedrich Hayek’s idea that we shouldn’t willy-nilly “disturb complicated systems that have been around for a very long time [as w]e don’t understand their logic.”

But there are time to be bold – there are times when the faults of the current order are revealed. Sometimes these call for revolution – but I am no revolutionary. Which is why I believe now is the time to try to try to change the philosophical underpinning of our economic system from focusing on capital to one focusing on opportunity. This doesn’t require a revolution as much as a (and I hate this phrase) paradigm shift.

On one point though, I have to disagree almost wholly with Kennedy. He says that “Dreaming can be dangerous,” seemingly because it is impractical. But what’s dangerous is when you confuse dreams with reality. T. E. Lawrence wrote:

All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did.

Dreaming with open eyes can be dangerous – just as any risk can. But this doesn’t mean it is bad. The danger lies in the fact that one cannot know in advance whether the decision you are about to make will end well or badly. Living is what happens when you take that risk.

[Image by me.]

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