Bobby Kennedy, Joe Biden, and the Fallacy of Shaw’s Serpent

The progressive U.S. Senator and presidential aspirant Robert (“Bobby”) Kennedy campaigned successfully during the 1960s on the strength of a line pinched from the playwright George Bernard Shaw (Back to Methuselah, 1921): “You see things; and you say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say ‘Why not?’” These hypnotic words were uttered by the Serpent in the socialist playwright’s Garden of Eden.

Progressive politicians who seek to “perfect” individuals and societies by governing in this cavalier manner succumb to the fallacy of Shaw’s Serpent. The proof of fallacy is revealed in the thick history of failed utopian attempts to govern as if individuals and societies were as malleable in fact as they are in political theory. Such attempts have condemned hundreds of millions of ordinary individuals to lives of abject misery and desperation.

President Joe Biden looks upon American society as it is, and glibly asserts that “this is not the kind of country we are.” By committing his administration to perfecting America and the world along progressive lines, Biden ineluctably commits the fallacy of Shaw’s Serpent.

The fallacy’s essence predates Shaw’s play by more than two millennia. Plato attempted, along the lines set forth in his Republic dialogue, to perfect societies via rule by self-perfected philosopher kings. Regrettably for Plato, his political vision was rejected outright by the citizens of ancient Athens and Syracuse. More regrettable for numerous others, nine members of Plato’s Academy progressed to become tyrants in their own lands. Later tyrants too have followed Plato’s lead.

The philosopher John Passmore documented numerous failed attempts by philosophers, theologians, and sundry other intellectuals to perfect humanity. Passmore’s book, The Perfectibility of Man (2000, 258), concludes that such attempts are doomed perforce: “Men, almost certainly, are capable of more than they have ever so far achieved. But what they [as individuals] achieve ... will be a consequence of their remaining anxious, passionate, discontented human beings. To attempt, in the quest for perfection, to raise men above that level is to court disaster; there is no level above it, there is only a level below it.”

The contrary, ongoing belief in human perfectibility is rooted in the stubbornly persistent philosophy of humanism, which nominally venerates classical ideals, forms, and values. Shakespeare poetically summarized Renaissance humanism’s exalted human qualities in his play, Hamlet (ca. 1602): “What a piece of work is man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!” Modern progressive humanists (the late moral and political philosopher John Dewey was a pioneer) believe, against all evidence, that an animal species embodying such remarkable gifts is capable of achieving ultimate perfection through elite political imagination; i.e., along the lines of Shaw’s Serpent.

The fallacy turns upon the complementary human capacity to resist social perfections that lie beyond humanity’s inherently limited behavioral compass. A book by the prominent academic psychologist and avowed Enlightenment humanist Stephen Pinker (The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, 2002) aggressively faults the conceited intellectual tendency to indulge serpentarian “why not?” fantasies and fallacies. As Pinker notes in a later work (The Better Angles of Our Nature, 2011, 591): “To hope that the human empathy gradient can be flattened so much that strangers would mean as much to us as family and friends is utopian in the worst twentieth-century sense, requiring an unattainable and dubiously desirable quashing of human nature.”

Attempting to quash human nature necessarily entails coercion. The historian Vegas Liulevicius (Utopia and Terror in the 20th Century, 2003, I:4) notes in particular the connection between twentieth-century utopian schemes (e.g., fascism, socialism, and communism), and use of coercion to bring them about: “plans for perfection encountered either passive or active resistance. ... Because of their promises of ultimate meaning and a perfect future, many ideologies constituted political religions, commanding fanaticism, commitment, and sacrifice.” Coercion ultimately fails because the supposed marginal benefits from perfectioneering—even if achievable—are worth less than the cost in blood, treasure, and foregone individual flourishing.

America’s progressive liberals nevertheless have chased social perfection for more than a century, partly by the light of Herbert Croly’s utopian treatise, The Promise of American Life (1911). A recent book by the venerable sociologist Robert Putnam (The Upswing, 2020), praises the progressive sprit that influenced the first half of the twentieth century along Croly’s lines. Yet, Putnam’s study correlatively demonstrates that, beginning in the 1960s, progressivism’s spirit and outcomes ceased to hold. The legal scholar Stephen Carter (Civility, 1998, 38) noted in this regard that “it all began to go bad around 1965. ... That was the year that America, quite suddenly, became postmodern.” Sociologist Charles Murray (Coming Apart, 2012, 243) observed the decline of America’s social capital (i.e., personal connections among individuals) that “began in the 1960s, with 1964 being the modal year.” Putnam himself acknowledges (2020, 17) that “[t]he 1960s represented an extraordinarily important hinge point in the history of the twentieth century—a moment of inflection that changed the course of the nation”; changed it for the worse, by Putnam’s lights, by reimagining indivudual freedom. The “moment of inflection” that marked the beginning of progressivism’s exhaustion and decline followed President John Kennedy’s (Bobby’s older brother) inaugural commitment to govern as if Americans should “[a]sk not what your country can do for you; ask instead what you can do for your country.”

Progressivism’s inability to produce cheerful and long-lasting outcomes is evinced by the post-1960s “downswing” phase of Putnam’s remarkable empirical effort. That inflective downswing is more significant and informative than the upswing phase that Putnam’s book emphasizes.

President Biden has articulated a fresh progressive commitment to govern by the fallacy of Shaw’s Serpent, ignoring Passmore’s warning that attempting to raise individuals above their inherent nature—e.g., by asserting that “this is not the kind of country we are,” and by committing America to worldwide utopian, egalitarian policies—is “to court disaster.” Viewers of Biden’s casually seated commentaries, delivered symbolically beside a White House fireplace, will notice the bust of Bobby Kennedy behind his left shoulder.

If the President’s progressive agenda proceeds, then history teaches that Americans will endure more years of failed policy initiatives, enhanced coercion, further social frustration, and yet more social and political incivility.

James A. Montanye is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.
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