Published on Tuesday, July 3, 2001 in the Los Angeles Times
Why Go Chasing the Next Utopia?
by Zachary Karabell
It's frequently said that the United States is a young country, but
with 150 years of colonial history plus 225 years since the Declaration
of Independence, we are starting to accumulate some serious history.
Though we still tend to look forward rather than back, we have a lot to learn from our past, especially in light of the New Economy giddiness of the past few years.
The New Economy was a utopian vision that promised us unfettered growth. Now, with a sluggish economy and the dot.com collapse, this notion seems naive and quaint. But the tendency of ours--to announce that utopia is just around the corner and then despair when it isn't--has been repeated for centuries.
In fact, the New Economy is simply the latest of a series of utopian dreams that have defined American society since the beginning.
The Puritans of 17th-century Massachusetts believed that they were destined, in the words of Gov. John Winthrop, to establish a brave new society.
"For we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us," he wrote during the colony's first months.
The Puritans succeeded in creating a viable community, but their more grandiose dreams of a City on a Hill went unfulfilled.
Disillusioned, the colonists of the 18th century rejected the Puritan vision and invented a new one.
The leaders of the American Revolution believed that if the colonies were free from England, energy would be released in an explosion of individualism and freedom, and that the new "United States" would be more dynamic and prosperous than any country had ever been.
But in the 1780s, leading Americans turned against that vision of the American Revolution. Individualism and freedom, which had been embraced as panaceas in 1776, were viewed as misguided ideas by many of the founding fathers who assembled to draft the Constitution in 1787.
Instead, they articulated a new vision, of a union that would bind Americans together in a republic and lead to individual happiness and collective prosperity.
This pattern of visions rising and falling continued in the 20th century. The New Economy was the successor to an expansive vision of government that crested with the Great Society. In the 1960s, government was going to lead us to the promised land of universal affluence and community.
When that didn't happen, government came under attack, and people became bitter and disillusioned. Finally, the faith in government was supplanted in the 1990s by faith in the New Economy.
Now, it appears that the same cycle has undermined the vision du jour . The New Economy did generate immense wealth, but only for a few. Yes, it also transformed communications and led to an explosion of information and access that is still changing the way we conduct our lives daily.
But it had its limits.
Critics of the New Economy are in the process of formulating a new paradigm: A vision for a world that values community and connectedness more than megabytes and stock prices. You can see this everywhere, from the protesters against globalization to evangelical Christians and fans of Oprah Winfrey.
We now have an opportunity to stop perpetuating this cycle.
Time and again, we lurch from one vision to the next rather than taking the best elements from each. Rather than jettisoning the New Economy in a will-o'-the-wisp search for another magic formula, we ought to treasure what it does well.
Instead of giving up on the promise, we ought to temper it with other strategies, other visions.
Religion, individualism, national unity, the New Economy, all add to the richness of American culture. Rather than denigrating what doesn't work, we have an opportunity to shift our attitudes and focus on what does.
We may never be fully satisfied, but if we make this adjustment, we might come closer to fulfilling our dreams.
Zachary Karabell is the author of "A Visionary Nation: Four Centuries of American Dreams and What Lies Ahead" (Harpercollins, 2001)
Copyright © 2001 Los Angeles Times