It’s seldom that a two-line passage from a poem can explain so much that’s wrong with the world. But Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man (1732) has just such a passage:
“Hope springs eternal in the human breast,
Man never is, but always to be, blest.”
Pope’s basic point is that we humans are wanting creatures. No matter how good our lives are, we always feel that they could be better and should be better.
We want more money. We want whatever new gadget is the shiny object of the day. We want more respect. We want to live in a nicer place. On and on. When it’s a motive for us to work hard and create good things, it’s a positive force.
But it’s more than just that. After we get what we want, the novelty wears off. Soon, we want something else. We can only want what we do not have. After we get it, our desire for it is sated. But we still desire — more, and more, and more.
It’s a basic principle of economics: Human wants are unlimited, but our resources to satisfy those wants are limited. As a result, all societies must make choices — somehow — about what to produce, how much, and who gets it.
And that’s where we come back to Pope’s insight. We always hope to be blessed — but as soon as we are, we take our blessing for granted and yearn for a new blessing. The things for which we yearn depend on our personalities and circumstances, so they’re somewhat unpredictable. It often happens that even we don’t know what we want until we see it.
Why Command Economies Don’t Work
That’s the first thing we can learn from Pope’s insight: command economies don’t work — at least if we define “work” as doing the most good for the largest number of people.
In a command economy, government officials and other people in power decide what the economy will produce, how much it will cost, who will produce it, and who can have it. Americans are getting a taste of a command economy under the Covid regime, which declares that some goods and services are “essential” and others are not.
However, even if the people in power have only good intentions — which they often don’t — it’s impossible for them to know the desires and needs of all the different people in the economy. What would it take for people to feel “blessed”? It’s different for everyone, and it changes rapidly in unpredictable ways. A bureaucrat at an agency in Washington has no way to know what it’s going to be, even if he cared.
A free market is more flexible and responsive, with millions of people who try to profit by finding ways to satisfy each other’s needs. Some ventures succeed, and others don’t. But the result is better for the vast majority of people.
In a command economy, the only people who are certain to get what they want are the people giving the commands. Americans can see that now, too. Politicians go into office as paupers and come out as multi-millionaires. “Graft” is no longer a shameful secret: it’s the main business model of American politics.
But the point is — per Alexander Pope — that politicians could be as pure as a newborn baby and as smart as Albert Einstein, but they still couldn’t make a command economy work for anyone other than themselves and their friends.
Why Some People Are Always Unhappy
Another conclusion is obvious: If we constantly obsess about what we don’t have, we must inevitably ignore what we do have.
Especially in Western countries that are still relatively prosperous, coasting on the fumes of our past achievements, we enjoy countless blessings but often take them for granted.
We do not pause to notice that we have plenty to eat, comfortable places to live, and options beyond the wildest dreams of even the richest people only a century ago; options still beyond the reach of millions even today, in despotic countries around the world.
Why A Perfect Society Is Impossible
And that leads into the third conclusion: A perfect society is impossible, if by “perfect” we mean a society in which everyone is happy and satisfied all the time.
As flawed human beings, we feel that we never are, but always are to be blessed — someday, when people are nicer and fairer to us, institutions and customs reflect our moral values, and nobody disagrees with our basic beliefs. We’re always looking for a better place that we’re sure is just over the horizon.
And compared to the “better place” that we’ve never seen, that we’ve only imagined, our real societies seem shallow, shabby, and cruel. Some of us are so transfixed by the utopia in our heads that we try to destroy the society we have, on the assumption that whatever replaces it will necessarily be better.
But it’s not necessarily so — in fact, it’s not even probably so. The same impulse for more and better that motivates some people to do good things, motivates other people to do bad and destructive things.
Desire is part of our nature as humans. If it’s moral and rational, it’s a good thing. But if it leads us to break every rule we used to think was wise, leads us to tear down institutions and ideals that sustained us for generations, then it’s likely to be a bad thing.
Alexander Pope knew it in 1732. How many people know it in 2021?
Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”