The Coercive Utopians, by Rael Jean Isaac and Erich Isaac, Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 325 pp. $18.95
How do you suppose it came about that a CIA manual advocating assassination as one acceptable means of pursuing the guerrilla war in Nicaragua happened to surface just a few days in advance of the second presidential debate between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale—the very debate that was focused on foreign policy? Early news reports disclosed that the manual was made public by a Washington organization called the Center for National Security Studies (CNSS). That sounds innocuous to the average reader. However, those familiar with Rael Jean and Erich Isaac's book, The Coercive Utopians, would know that this organization has close ties with Counterspy, the journal that publishes the names of CIA personnel and that directly led to the murder of Richard Welch, the CIA station chief in Athens. Publication of The Coercive Utopians predated the episode of the CIA manual about Nicaragua, so the Isaacs do not discuss it. But they do reveal much about CNSS that sheds interesting light on the perspective of the group that disclosed the manual to the public. The organization, for example, has been active in defending Philip Agee, a gentleman who bluntly confesses that, with the practical evidence before his eyes of what the diverse social systems on this earth can achieve in terms of bettering the lives of their citizens, he adores communism and the KGB and abominates capitalism.
However much we may deplore the CIA's tactics and advocate nonintervention in the affairs of other nations and the noninitiation of force, it is clear that the release of this manual—so as to embarrass an important political opponent of a full-scale communist takeover in Central America and to help Walter Mondale at a crucial juncture—was not meant to foster individualist values but to oppose them. It is eye-popping revelations of this sort that make The Coercive Utopians an astonishingly important book. For it unifies a wide array of diverse political movements that all share the feature of justifying expansions of government coercion in the name of high ideals. Environmentalism, the nuclear freeze, consumerism, government regulation, the cancer scares, and many more are to greater or lesser degree riddled with this "coercive utopianism."
There are, to be sure, valid reasons for concern about each of these issues. But these issues have also been used as a springboard for attacking not merely the professed ills but also the wider structure of the society, in particular, its capitalist, individualist core. This potential provides an irresistible attraction upon those who actively oppose philosopher Karl Popper's "open society" (or Friedrich Hayek's "spontaneous order"), with the result that multitudes of such coercive utopians occupy positions of prominence within each of these movements. They do not, of course, openly proclaim their deeper purposes, and the bulk of their followers never apprehend the hidden agenda pursued by their leaders.
Certain tell-tale features are common to utopian thinking. First, alternatives to the particular ill being criticized are never spelled out in a serious and detailed manner (thus, solar power is frivolously trotted out as a comprehensive alternative to nuclear and fossil fuels, despite the fact that solar energy still costs 10 times as much per unit of energy). Second, the existing ways of doing things are not merely criticized in a helpful way but are morally discredited. And third, only those solutions are advocated that expand the scope of governmental coercion and make possible a major restructuring of society. Solutions that offer an effective way of solving the problem—of pollution, or the arms race, or unsafe products, etc.—without bringing about fundamental social change are discouraged. In this way, whole agendas for redistributing power get hung from tiny hooks of valid concern.
The Isaacs document an amazingly varied taxonomy of coercive utopians. Many important sources of opinion in society have fallen under the sway of such utopians—the churches, the mass media, the universities, the major environmental organizations, certain think tanks, many foundations, and many agencies of the federal government (especially under President Jimmy Carter). Some examples:
• The mainline Protestant churches, both individually and in their collective bodies (such as the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches), have been funneling substantial funds to Third World "revolutionary" movements. Which ones? Not, you can bet, those that are fighting against communist governments (such as the Nicaraguan contras, the Afghan mujaheddin, the Eritrean Liberation Front, Jonas Savimbi's forces in Angola, or the anti-Vietnamese insurgents in Cambodia), but principally those fighting against governments allied with the West. The World Council of Churches has even given funds to Vietnam in support of "new economic zones"—relocation areas that are used to sequester political opponents. In the same vein, the Episcopal church was lately discovered to have been supplying funds to Puerto Rican terrorists right here at home through its Hispanic Affairs Commission!
Nor is the Roman Catholic church immune. Its Maryknoll order, Jesuits, and other advocates of "liberation" theology, in their ignorance of how a proper capitalist order operates to elevate the masses of the poor, have given support to antidemocratic, anticapitalist forces for change in Latin America.
• The environmental movement has richly nurtured the opponents of spontaneous order, since so many environmental problems entail externalities, and hence supply rationales for intervening in and overriding the network of individual market actions. It is precisely the possibility of establishing key precedents—such as chipping away at the property rights of individuals in the name of saving the coastlines, the wilderness, endangered species, etc.—that has proven so utterly seductive to coercive utopians. Solutions that would conserve property rights while solving the nominal problem—such as pricing scarce water resources by means of the market—have held little appeal for the major environmentalist organizations. Other solutions rooted in expanding property rights to handle the problem of the "commons"—such as allowing private ownership of outdoor recreation, wilderness, and scenic areas—get similarly short shrift. Enhanced government control and regulation is instead what almost every environmentalist group calls for.
Indeed, so strong is the ideological urge that there need not even exist any solid evidence of an environmental problem before massive regulatory remedies are advocated. The 1980 evacuation of families from Love Canal, the emergency ban on the herbicide 2,4,5-T, and the recent ban on the preservative EDB have all been based on claims about health hazards that were totally unsubstantiated by scientific evidence.
• The annual budgets of the utopian organizations summed together amount to hundreds of millions of dollars. Where does this money come from? A substantial fraction makes its way from the taxpayers via various programs of the federal government. Some comes from the churches. The rest comes largely from tax-exempt foundations. For example, the Field Foundation, the Samuel Rubin Foundation, the Stern Fund, the Rockefeller Family Fund, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and the Ford Foundation have been among the major contributors to such utopian groups as the Institute for Policy Studies, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the publishers of Counterspy, the Center for National Security Studies, various nuclear-freeze and peace groups, several of Ralph Nader's organizations, San Francisco's Public Advocates, and more.
The foregoing gives only a smattering of the massive documentation contained in this book. It is stunning in its scope, for it shows what free-market individualists are up against. It also warns libertarians to think very carefully about joining "common front" coalitions with such organizations on issues that libertarians ordinarily support, such as peace or a noninterventionist foreign policy. For the ultimate goals of these utopian groups are anathematic to the pursuit of individual liberty. In joining these groups, one runs the risk that, while helping to advance some goals a little bit in the short run, one willy-nilly helps coercive utopians achieve their goals a lot in the long run.
William Havender is a free-lance writer with a background in science.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Ideological Urge to Control".