©1998-2015 Phil Hyde, The Timesizing Wire, Box 117, Harvard Sq. P.O., Cambridge MA 02238 USA (617) 623-8080 - HOMEPAGE
G. K. Chesterton’s Pan-Utopian Flaw  (STEAMPUNK WISDOM!)

“The weakness of all Utopias is this, that they take the greatest difficulty of man and assume it to be overcome, and then give an elaborate account of the overcoming of the smaller ones. They first assume that no man will want more than his share, and then are very ingenious in explaining whether his share will be delivered by motor-car or balloon.” [our italics]
G.K.Chesterton's 1905 Heretics, chap.5, p.79  (traced for Timesizing.com by *Robert Solmer of San Diego)

Chesterton has come up with one of the best articulations of The Big Question, alias The Economic Puzzle.  In it, he refers to what might be called  the great leak upward,  namely the problem, not that many people have far too little, but that a very few have farfarfar too much and are getting still more with no apparent limit, to the point of changing the healthy convection current of the money supply into a all-suffocating black hole with nothing but empty rhetoric about freedom&democracy + ownership of Congress and the media. This has created what might be called a 'black hole economy,' an acute over-concentration of the money supply, where trickle-down is negligible because although billions may spray out of the financial sector, they are overwhelmed by the trillions funneling into it.

This monetary coagulation acts like a huge hemotoma in the body economic. It seems to depend on the assumption that no matter how much is crushed into the hands of how few, no harm will come to the whole system because the whole system, for example in terms of consumer spending or market-demanded employment, is far too big to be affected.

We can see the erosion of a similar assumption in a number of aspects of our human relationship with the environment, such as ocean pollutability, sustainability of fisheries, groundwater equilibrium, or the persistence of the ozone layer in the atmosphere. "Little ol' us couldn't possibly harm the mighty oceans, or fisheries, or groundwater, or ozone layer!" And so, the assumption goes that we couldn't possibly harm the mighty circulation of the money supply - so there can be no such thing as monetary over-concentration.

So the real Problem Of Economics is not "scarcity" but unlimited concentration amounting to coagulation - which causes "scarcity" for everyone outside the concentration and a reduction in the critical variable of all time, variability itself, and its byproducts, adaptibility and survivability and sustainability. Note that this is another way of expressing Chesterton's Pan-Utopian Flaw. This is the economists' theory of marginalism applied to accumulation of wealth. Ever since the theory was invented and reinvented in the 1870s, economists have applied marginalism to the supply of resources, products and services, but never to the money supply or the supply of rich people dba 'investors.' So our series of sporadic depressions, which should have been stopped by the insights of marginalism, have continued.

Note that every long-sustainable culture has "share" more closely defined than we do, and some redistributive or reset institution to restore more even sharing which may get skewed over time. The Hebrews had their Jubilees, the Haida their potlatches, the Hopis their katchina dances. More obviously and closer to home and despite the frequent use of sports metaphor by the financial sector, every sports league at the start of every season resets every team to zero-games-won. Only in economies like ours that have destroyed graduated income and estate taxes do games-won or game-pieces mount and cumulate year after year after year, until the notion of a game with any suspense as to winner(s), or any fairness, or any equality of opportunity, is a joke.

And unlimited concentration of what?  value, power, variability, utility, usefulness (for what? the more all-purpose, the better), survivability, immortality; the six dimensions: distance, breadth, space, material goods, time (viz. immortality and free time), money (= general access to other people's time - products & services = very, but not completely, all-purpose)...

The problem in the Depression wasn't lack of money - there was plenty of that, but it was stashed under mattresses etc. because there was nothing sustainable to invest it in. The problem, then, was the lack of circulation of the money, caused by its high level of concentration in few hands. Unlimited concentration gives us an economy of skimming and charity, skimming and charity.

And a more actionable articulation of unlimited concentration? A lack of automatic diffusion, dissemination, spreading, centrifugation, deconcentration, (mixing?)... of value etc. Timesizing accomplishes this automatic centrifugation of the national income and wealth by engineering a perceived tightness in the labor market, so that money gets spread around in wages and thence in consumer spending, instead of spiralling into tighter and tighter rolls in the pockets of the top 0.001% (cited by Paul Krugman, 2/27/06 NYTimes A23).

And thus the productivity gains are not shared proportionally to the productivity, because labor productivity rose 18% between 2000 and 2006 in the non-farm sector, but inflation-adjusted weekly wages of employees rose only 1% (cited by Bob Herbert, 1/08/07 NYTimes A23). Thus wages do not vary with productivity. And since real labor hours have been getting longer over the past 37 years while real wages have been shrinking, wages do not vary with hours either. What do they vary with? Just like other prices, wages vary with supply and demand. And since automation and robotization are sporadically but generally replacing human jobs, the labor supply is sporadically but generally rising and demand for labor is sporadically but generally weakening. And wages are sporadically but generally falling. And where is the money "saved" going? Into the Great Leak Upward to the topmost income brackets.

This has always been, and is now, the biggest problem in advancing human evolution: how do you prevent the monopolization and over-concentration of value, in whatever dimension is under consideration.  And underlying that question, how do you define "over"-concentration in the first place = a concern that requires us to define "fair share."  Conventional economists accuse worksharing shorter-hours advocates of a "lump of labor fallacy", though economists themselves have swallowed the more destructive fallacy that human employment is infinite, even in the Age of Automation and even in the short term, though they carefully avoid supplying any specific time frame.  By contrast, sports leagues that survive decade after decade carefully reset every team in the league to "zero games won" at the start of every season. But today's compromised economists, ignoring their own marginal utility theory to toady to their wealthy patrons, never reset anything, ever, for the top income brackets, and people with already unimaginable abundance just keep heaping up more and more and more and more... till death by boredom or a whole-system breakdown, since the payload of such concentration is insulation and isolation of the decision-makers and therefore a more and more interrupted system-feedback function.

The Chesterton flaw introduces the most central, critical, strategic and yet neglected or even demeaned theme in social evolution, the repeated discovery of better and better technologies of sharing. Such technologies offer people greater and greater accessibility to one another and their activities, via greater and greater communicative and cooperative skills. And as Arigorn says near the end of Peter Jackson's monumental treatment of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, "Let us together rebuild this world, that we may share in the day of peace."

Usually, thanks to primitive levels of contemporary economic thinking, the only condition that incentivates the affluent to share systemically and on the necessary megascale is war. "War puts strains on a society, which traditionally copes by sharing the burden." (2/14/04 The Economist, p.26.) Thus, ironically, the income-centrifuging effect of war boosts us into prosperity if we're not the direct battleground, but the income funneling that goes on during peacetime sinks us into depression. Significantly, there are exceptions to wartime prosperity. Despite the "war" on terrorism, and non-world-wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine, "there has been precious little burden-sharing in America after September 2001" (ibid.), so there has been precious little centrifugation of the national income - and precious little economic recovery for the majority of Americans. And despite tens of thousands of Iraqi deaths, there have been less than eleven hundred American deaths. And war only translates into prosperity for America when there are hundreds of thousands of American deaths, as in World Wars I and II - enough to create a labor shortage that market forces reward with higher wages and a general deconcentration of the national income, spreading it out to the people who spend it immediately.

The only program we know of that breaks "the curse of peace" and accomplishes wartime prosperity without the war is Timesizing. Despite peace in America 1938-41 and in France 1997-2001, both nations surged into prosperity by cutting the workweek (US, 44 to 40 hrs; France, 39 to 35) and sharing the shrinking, still-not-automated, market-(not government-)demanded work. Unemployment fell in the U.S. from 19 to 9.9% and in France from 12.6 to 8.6. Sharing and spreading the immediately available employment produced fuller employment regardless of the workweek at the start; fuller employment centrifuged the national income; income centrifuge accelerated monetary circulation, and circulation produced economic dynamism and prosperity.

Why don't mainstream economists 'get it'? You have to ask who they work for. Wall Street economists work for brokerages who work for the wealthy; academic economists work for colleges that are supported by the wealthy. Could these economists possibly be locked into the short-term interests of affluent investors and alumni donors, however near- and short-sighted and self-destructive? Economists maintain the uncapped concentration of income by sneering about worksharing's 'lump of labor fallacy' regardless of the irrelevant indefinite timeframe, and by Protean repetition of the exception "technology creates more jobs than it destroys" rather than the rule, they indefinitely postpone any "reset" or jubilee.

Now that offshore outsourcing has added to the job loss, hidden unemployment and stifling concentration of income is bringing mainstream economists under more and more pressure to loosen their grip on the geocentric idea that everything revolves around investors. But barely up over the horizon is the heliocentric idea that everything revolves around consumers and consumers are activated by high-wage jobs, regardless of short-hour workweeks.

The Chesterton flaw afflicts socialism and capitalism alike. The great Civil War general (and closet utopian) Ulysses S. Grant became a poster boy for the Chesterton Flaw during his two-term presidency when again and again, he just could not believe that men were as unpatriotically and unlimitedly acquisitive as the big businessmen he wanted so much to look up to (e.g., Jay Gould, Ferdinand Ward, Babcock, Belknap, et al. - see Part II of Deane & Bosch's "American Experience: Ulysses S. Grant" video featured by PBS/Boston in May 2002).

The Chesterton Flaw also answers the question of why our computer technology is so far ahead of our "moral" or social (including political and economic) technology.  It also answers Stephen Leacock's "Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice" (title of his 1920 book), which may be paraphrased, "In the midst of the overwhelming plenty produced by miraculous technology, why do we have still have so much poverty and misery?"  Chesterton's answer: "Because we keep developing technology to produce more while ignoring the problem of some people wanting more than their share, much much muuuch more, and tending to get it."  It's like a sports league where every team's "games won" are not reset to zero at the start of each season but mount up till the league splits apart, or a planet where two or more populations drift ever further apart until they are Eloi and Morlocks (or tasty bonobos and manlike warlocks) - compare apartheid and slavery.  But this long-term argument is merely esthetic, as are the shorter-term lifestyle and environmentalist arguments.  There is a mid-term argument that focuses on how the uncapped concentration of spending power can cross a threshold beyond which it increasingly undermines...itself.

But never mind how to deliver a fair share per person. What about how to define it in the first place?!  In other words, as long as there is no general agreement on the definition of an appropriate share per person, and no effective limits on one person's concentration of skills and work and income and wealth let alone any of the more general value-variables that people might want a share of (eg: credit, credibility, celebrity...), then the rich will keep getting richer and the poor poorer until an infinitely small percentage of the population accumulates an infinitely large percentage of the wealth of the nation (and with globalization, of the world) and the unspendable concentration of spending power will suction the markets away from the productivity itself is invested in, like a tiny but massive Black Hole, creating permanent recession and social turmoil where security is out of the question for anyone. This is the compelling, mid-term argument.

At some point Chesterton's 'trap' is not just a utopian's nightmare, rendering secondary and meaningless all idealistic schemes. It is, albeit temporary, a stand-patter's dream. Any person with much more than his/her share has a short-sighted interest in the "fog machine" against progress, reform and idealism that G.K. Chesterton identified. Not that all the affluent are stand-patters, but so far everyone in the minority who aren't stand-patters are also caught in the trap, from Prince Charles (distracted onto architecture) through Bill Gates (distracted onto traditional charity targets like universities and pretty wealthy universities at that) and George Soros (distracted onto advocating for "open societies" while his adopted America closes down right under his nose) and on back to Andrew Carnegie (distracted onto endowing libraries etc.) and beyond. The watershed was 1933 when we basically had the standpatters represented by Hoover (despite his own large charitable instincts demonstrated during the Great War), the utopians represented by FDR (who fell right into the Chesterton Trap and dragged everyone else into it as well), and the real progressives represented by Sen. Hugo Black and his 30-hour workweek bill. Even Keynes spoke of the "problem" being to "spread the bread thin on the butter - to make what work there is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible." (Quoted in David Warsh, Economic Principals, 389.)

If the income-and-wealth gap is not reversed, that population will eventually subspeciate like a science-fiction nightmare of Eloi and Morlocks. With the Emancipation Proclamation in the USA, the defeat of the master race concept of the Third Reich and the end of Apartheid in South Africa, the human race recently seems to be rejecting the cruder realms of subspeciation, but it's still brushing aside the subtler realms (skills, employment, income, wealth...).

There are several parts to the core problem -

George Orwell supported Chesterton in satirizing the spoilt Soviet Utopia under the guise of an Animal Farm - "The turning point of the story was supposed to be when the pigs kept the milk and apples for themselves" while the other animals "thought they were going to be shared out equally" (Penguin: London, (org.1945) 1989, pp. vii-viii). So socialist utopians, so beguiling with their sales hook ("from each according to his ability, to each according to his need"), completely bypass the crucial task of defining fair share, either of "ability" or of "need" (and note the whole incentive design question folded into that word "fair" - which Marx completely missed).

Chesterton's genius is that he sees The Problem is not at the bottom, but at the top of society. Oh, there's skill training to be done at the bottom, to be sure, but all the Poor Laws, almshouses, welfare, workfare, charity, enterprize zones, block grants, grants in aid, CETA, AFDC, minimum wage laws, "living wage" laws, safety nets, what have you - more particularly, all the money in the world thrown at the bottom - won't do a spot of good if there is no generally accepted upper limit "at the top" on how much one person should have. Some of Phil's friends say, "I just want my share" but what they mean is, "I want all I can get." And an even more toxic form of this is just "I want it all." These are people who can never get enough, no matter what happens to anyone else. "You can't stifle incentive!" they cry. How the heck much incentive does Bill Gates need now that he's got more than most entire countries in this miserable world?!

No, the real trick, the real challenge for economic designers, is designing the top, not the bottom. And if they evade this challenge, they have done nothing - except tied a pretty academic bow on flaunting robbery. Our minimally stifling "design at the top" is based on '32 Nobel chemistry laureate Irving Langmuir's 3/33 plan to tax overtime, originally designed as a way around some people's constitutional objections to direct hours legislation (Hunnicutt, 160; objections overruled in 4/33) - and we have embodied it in Phase 2 and Phase 3 of our second (public-sector) Timesizing program.

Chesterton raises a lot of good questions for the economic designer -

Mainstream economists (albeit near the edge of the mainstream) tend to deal with the vital issue of share per person obliquely by talking about runaway individualism. A recent example from the synchronic viewpoint of comparative European economies is Michel Albert's Capitalism vs. Capitalism - How America's obsession with individual achievement and short-term profit has led it to the brink of collapse (Four Wall Eight Windows: New York, 1993). An earlier example with a 400-year diachronic perspective is H. M. Robertson's Aspects of the Rise of Economic Individualism - A criticism of Max Weber and his school (Cambridge: 1935).

The Chesterton Pan-Utopian Trap is only the first of three traps for economic designers. The second may be called the Not-Like-A-Sports-League trap - the fact that sports leagues keep the game competitive, interesting and creative by resetting Games Won to zero at the start of each season. In economics, something like this happens only in economies where there is a 100% taxrate above a certain high income level. In many economies, including the big U.S. economy, such high taxrates are the stuff of world-war financing and haven't been seen for decades. Thus the economic competition ("keeping up with the Jones's") becomes more and more stratified and partitioned into separate drawn-out income islands, instead of one big horizontally oblong continent. The situation is worsened by absent or weak estate taxes, so that individual families just accrue more and more, generation after generation - a situation that would fractionate and destroy any sports league.

The third trap for economic designers may be called the Hauser Pan-Utopian Trap after population scientist Philip Hauser of the University of Chicago in the 1960s and 70s.... Hauser was forever reminding his classes of "rising expectations." Indeed, rising expectations are among the few near-constants in social evolution. The trap may be expressed thus: Assumption of permanence of design; in extreme form, one step to permanent perfection; in other words, failure of the design to accommodate rising expectations in the sense that once you've solved the big problem in front, human perception adjusts and the smaller problem behind, previously partially or wholly hidden, now looms just as large. A dramatic example of a victim of this Hauser Trap was Henry George, the single-tax-on-land advocate. As Robert Heilbroner in his "Worldly Philosophers" records (p. 184 in the 6th edition), "...With his remedy, a whole new world stood ready to unfold: 'Words fail the thought! It is the Golden Age of which poets have sung and high-raised seers have told in metaphor!... It is the culmination of Christianity - the city of God with its walls of jasper and its gates of pearl!'" - probably quoted from Henry George's "Progress and Poverty."

By the way, we've noticed an extensive index to utopian websites at *Jon Will's website.

For more details, see our laypersons' guide, Timesizing, Not Downsizing, on Amazon.com.

Questions, comments, feedback? Phone 617-623-8080 (Boston, Mass., USA) or email us.

Return to Top | Return to Home Page