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Khayyam and Revolutions

Summary:
There’s one stanza in “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” by Edward Fitzgerald that resonates politically. It is this one:“Ah Love! could thou and I with Fate conspireTo grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,Would not we shatter it to bits -- and thenRe-mould it nearer to the Heart's Desire!”Similar thoughts have occupied the minds of many revolutionaries from Robespierre onwards, and maybe even before. The drive for a better society starts with the destruction of the current one. Some people look at society with all its perceived imperfections and injustices, and want to do away with it, and replace it with a better society, one they can conceive of, that will lack those drawbacks and blemishes, and in which people will be able to lead fuller and more rewarding lives.Hayek criticized this

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There’s one stanza in “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” by Edward Fitzgerald that resonates politically. It is this one:

“Ah Love! could thou and I with Fate conspire

To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,

Would not we shatter it to bits -- and then

Re-mould it nearer to the Heart's Desire!”

Similar thoughts have occupied the minds of many revolutionaries from Robespierre onwards, and maybe even before. The drive for a better society starts with the destruction of the current one. Some people look at society with all its perceived imperfections and injustices, and want to do away with it, and replace it with a better society, one they can conceive of, that will lack those drawbacks and blemishes, and in which people will be able to lead fuller and more rewarding lives.

Hayek criticized this approach, and regarded human societies as too complex to be just thought up from the imagination. His account of the Three Sources of Human Values took the ones that people think up as trivial, compared to the ones that have emerged as societies have developed in practice. Although the values of the hunting tribe had millions of more years to embed themselves into our psyche, Hayek thought the values transmitted culturally since humans first domesticated grains and farm animals were more important. 

They have enabled a society that sustains a complex web of relationships, one that allows us to interact to mutual advantage with people we shall never meet. When intellectuals suppose they can conjure up in their minds a better society than those that have had the inputs of billions of people over long periods of time, Hayek called it “The Fatal Conceit.”

Of course society can be improved. This is what we do. We look at its shortcomings and propose innovations to overcome them. We test them in practice, and retain the ones that work. But we don’t smash up existing societies and put dreamed-up ones in their place. We improve them instead. Popper called this “Piecemeal social engineering,” noting its record of success over time. Things are better in the modern age because we have done this, eliminating in the process many of the unnecessary causes of human suffering. Free market capitalism has done more to lift the human condition from squalor and deprivation than all of the vaunted claims of socialism.

It stands in striking contrast to the attempts to achieve instant utopia. Lenin and Trotsky thought they could do this, as indeed did Stalin, Hitler, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot and lesser pocket dictators who’ve sought to usher in Heaven on Earth in short order. They all led to bloodshed, tyranny, oppression, intimidation and mass murder, along with the shortages and the corruption that degraded both the physical and the moral quality of life. All of them set out to smash the societies that had evolved, and to replace them by ones that seemed alluring and full of promise in theory, but which proved disastrous when tested in the real world.

For those who would improve the condition of humankind, the lesson is that instead of smashing it to bits, we should build on what has been achieved, and has endured, and try to make it better than it was. It won’t be perfect, but it will be better, which is more than has been achieved by the fanciful rivals that sought utopia.

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