How to Spot a Revolutionary‏: A Revolutionary by Any Other Name Would Smell As Foul

We can define a revolutionary as someone who wants, and actively seeks, to make radical changes to the society in which one lives or to the state of humanity in general. Revolutionaries believe that they can remake or reorder something as complex and interconnected as a human society according to their often simplistic beliefs. Most revolutionaries are idealistic and sincere in their desire to improve the lot of humanity. A prominent example of a revolutionary doctrine is communism, which advocated the use of violence to overthrow the existing order as a necessary prelude to creating their utopia of an egalitarian society of production and distribution, just like, in order to create a radically new kind of building, the old building that stands in its place must first be demolished and its ruins cleared away. However, not all revolutionaries advocate the use of force in order to achieve their goals.

Some common traits shared by revolutionaries are a fervent belief in the justness of their cause, a sense of indignation for actual or perceived wrongs or injustices, zeal in wanting to effect changes, the determination to overcome any obstacles that stand in the way of achieving their idealistic goals, and an indifference, if not a disdainful contempt, towards all those who disagree with their views.

Of course, not all the beliefs held by revolutionaries are correct, meaning that their efforts, far from bringing about the salutary changes which they believe will surely follow from their hallowed theory or beliefs, instead bring about something very different from, or even the opposite of, their expectations. Prominent examples of this are communism and the French Revolution, both of which began with high hopes and lofty rhetoric, but which hopes were disappointed by the horrors of the new reality which their fervent advocates had created – but were not able to control – by their rash actions. For by their impulsive and violent actions, these revolutionaries unleashed a Pandora’s box of troubles whose contents could not be easily controlled, and therefore caused a great deal of harm to a large number of people – to many hundreds of millions, in the case of communism.

The obvious lesson to be learned from these and other tragic historical examples of revolutions gone awry is that it is not sufficient merely to have noble aims and lofty goals, an unswerving determination to accomplish them, and a moral sense of righteousness in the justice of one’s cause. By themselves, these factors are not enough to bring about the envisioned ends of one’s efforts. For if the idea or theory on which one’s entire revolutionary program is based is false, then this noble enterprise will come to grief and ruin, just as a crew of sailors who, aboard a vessel that sails on the great ocean of life, embark with great expectations, but because they are guided by a faulty map, they do not arrive at their intended destination, and instead find themselves adrift on the vast and stormy ocean, until they are shipwrecked on an unfamiliar and desolate island – far, far away from their longed-for destination. But, alas, given the excitable, irrational, and self-delusional nature of human beings, each generation, failing to draw the obvious lessons from history, is prone to repeating the mistakes made by the ghosts of revolutionaries past. And in so doing, they merely contribute another chapter, passage, or footnote to the Great Book of Human Folly and Misadventures.

The British parliamentarian and political writer Edmund Burke was castigated by the ardent supporters of the French Revolution, both in Britain and elsewhere, for his unequivocal condemnation of what they regarded as a principled and enlightened attempt to improve the welfare of the French people. But the bloody and chaotic course of ensuing events in France demonstrated the soundness of Burke’s warnings about destroying or overthrowing the existing institutions in a society, in the naive belief that they could then be replaced with others of the revolutionaries’ fashioning. Societies are much more complex than buildings, and those who go about trying to effect radical changes to the fabric of the society in which they live are like arrogant but ignorant architects who do not understand the laws of physics or engineering which determine whether an edifice shall stand or fall, and for how long it shall stand.

The proponents of the economic doctrine of laissez-faire capitalism, which advocates minimal government intervention in the economy, believe that the uncontrolled, unregulated, and self-guided actions of all the participants in the economy, whether they are individuals or companies, will produce the greatest amount of material products at the lowest prices, freedom, and general prosperity. In the United States at the present time, these proponents of laissez-faire exhibit in their behaviour all the characteristic signs of revolutionaries. For these zealous free-market revolutionaries want to overthrow many of the democratically decided government policies and programs that exist in many democratic countries in the belief that the ideas of their revolutionary program will produce a significantly better world than the one in which we presently live.

It is curious how the advocates of laissez-faire have whipped themselves into a state of frenzied moral indignation against their country’s democratically elected government, whether past or present, for daring to take some of their hard-earned money and use it to help those who are less well-off, and provide programs and services that most sensible people would agree are both useful and necessary. They have persuaded themselves by arguments, many of which are specious, that theirs is the only right, sensible, just, and morally good course of action in this matter.

Like communism and the ideals espoused by the French Revolutionaries, the naive belief that government regulations are not needed, that, left to itself, the free market will provide the best of all possible solutions to many of the perennial problems of human existence, that government programs like health care, education, old-age pensions, unemployment benefits, family allowances, and others, are not necessary because the unrestricted and unregulated free market will provide them in a better and more efficient manner than the government can – and, what is more, at a lower cost – are mistaken ideas that would do a great deal of harm if they were ever to prevail, for these ideas come directly from Cloud Cuckoo Land.

The proponents of laissez-faire often point out that their philosophy of society has never been fully implemented in any place or at any time in the past. But these impetuous zealots fail to ask the obvious question, for if they were sensible creatures, what they should ask themselves is, “If, as we believe, laissez-faire capitalism is such a perfect system, then why has it never been adopted by any group of people at any time during the long history of humanity?”

The gist of their answer is that the great benefits of this system are not obvious, that, like the advantages of free trade, they can only be understood by enlightened and intelligent individuals like themselves, who have seen the light at the end of the very long and dark tunnel of human ignorance and barbarity. In other words, the majority of people are too stupid to see the unparalleled good that would result from the adoption of their vaunted system of society. The naiveté of the free-market revolutionaries is matched only by their overweening arrogance in wanting to impose on all people a system whose purported merits, by their own admission, have never actually been demonstrated before in the real world.

Like Edmund Burke when he defended the status quo and condemned the French Revolution for wanting to do away with it, I too am defending the status quo – which is the result of centuries of mostly gradual and pragmatic attempts by different governments to implement various policies to resolve the pressing problems of the day, in order to determine which ones are beneficial or effective and which ones are harmful or ineffective – against the free-market fanatics of radical change who advocate, in the name of individual freedom, a partial or complete dismantlement of government intrusion, as they are pleased to call it, in people’s lives.

And it is not because I believe the status quo is perfect or it cannot be improved, or because I do not believe that some common practices or government policies and programs, or the ideas behind them, are mistaken; it is because, like Burke, I recognize the dangers of advocating and trying to bring about radical and precipitate changes in large societies: because this is a course that, in many ways, would prove to be much worse than the problems it is meant to remedy and correct.

In this regard, I am repeating the wise dictum of former Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, who once declared that, in addition to making positive decisions, one of the principal duties of a leader is to prevent the harm that would result from bad ideas and decisions.[1] In other words, to know and recognize what is good and do or implement it, and, at the same time, to know and recognize what is bad and avoid doing it or prevent it from gaining influence. For wisdom consists both in knowing and being able to follow the right path, while having the strength and sound judgment to avoid following the wrong path that is littered with mistaken ideas, irrational enthusiasms, false expectations, erroneous theories, intolerant dogmas, and dangerous temptations to want to improve society by making radical changes to it, no matter how many and how loudly are those who clamour for this course.

Imperfect as it is, the status quo – at least in the mature and wealthier democratic countries – is not that bad, and it is certainly better than any medicines proposed by those quack doctors of humanity who go by various names, but who can easily be recognized by the grandeur of their schemes, the loftiness of their rhetoric, the comprehensiveness of their vision, the intolerance of their beliefs, the ruthlessness of their determination to get their way, their proselytizing fervour, their imperviousness to criticism and argument, their moral tone of superiority, the viciousness of their denunciations of their critics, opponents, and all those who do not agree with them, and, most important of all, the absolute conviction that their ideas and beliefs cannot possibly be wrong.

[1] “Far more has been accomplished for the welfare and progress of mankind by preventing bad actions than by doing good ones.”