The Problem with “Impossible Dreams”
by Bruce Frohnen
Motivational speakers, from what little exposure I have been forced to have with them, seem fond of telling people that they should “do the impossible.” This may well be simply part of the meaningless verbiage intended to get employees to pay attention to the context of the facts they face. To “think outside the box” makes some limited sense if taken in this way, though it generally means nothing. But impossible dreams have been the stuff of daily life in politics for far too long and have caused a great deal of damage along the way.
In business “the box” may mean simple inertia, or bad assumptions that have ossified into conventional wisdom. Then again, it may mean customers’ expectations or the requirements of a firm’s expensive, long-established infrastructure. Some boxes needlessly confine, others provide the stability necessary to give shape to a line of business. Workers may do what they thought was impossible for them, if by “impossible” we mean outside their mistaken conception of their own capacities. Workers, and especially bosses accustomed to being told they can do no wrong, may attempt the impossible and fall to the ground, hard.
None of this is to say that people should not “dream big.” It is only to say that we cannot dismiss the context in which we live as irrelevant. Sadly, too many people try to do just that. In business there are natural limits to this kind of activity. Markets and creditors have a way of putting an end to flights of fancy that lack grounding in fact. In politics, unfortunately, it has proven much easier, and costlier, for impossible things to seem possible, and to lead entire societies to disaster.
The classic and seminal example of doing “the impossible” in politics is the French Revolution. The French Revolution attempted the impossible in more ways than one. The much-lauded “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” was (and continues to be) at the heart of a fantasy of political power. In that document the National Assembly—a group of representatives of various sections of the nation that decided to appoint itself a sovereign body with unlimited power to legislate for France—sought to waive a rhetorical magic wand and change the world.
Much in that Declaration sounds good. For example, “Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law.” And “Law can only prohibit such actions as are hurtful to society. Nothing may be prevented which is not forbidden by law, and no one may be forced to do anything not provided for by law.”
In these two provisions we see general statements supporting liberty and the rule of law—two very good things. But can such things be established through mere declaration? The drafters of that document certainly thought so, for in their preamble they stated that “the ignorance, neglect, or contempt of the rights of man are the sole cause of public calamities and of the corruption of governments.” That is, the French Revolutionaries, from the very start, acted on the belief that simple statements, including the declaratory statements of law, can change the world in and of themselves. The most egregious example of this thinking came in a separate act, with the legislative statement, “The National Assembly abolishes the feudal system entirely.”
Now, this declaration was followed up by various specific actions, eliminating various rights of the nobility, the tithe system which taxed people for the support of the Church, and, later, replacing the old judicial system. The nobles’ rights affected, here, included payments from peasants, which were to be made up through rents but were taxed away. Also taxed away was any benefit from the ending of tithes, which after all were for support of a national church establishment. Nevertheless, the nobility and Church remained problems for the French Revolutionary regime until they were, in essence, exterminated. The guillotine and the sword, by which the nobility was slaughtered by the thousands and the Church was made into an impoverished department of the central government, were necessary to make the impossible goal of wiping away centuries of history “possible.”
None of this is to say that there were not very real abuses in the feudal system—or rather the decayed and corrupted leftovers of a formerly mixed system that included feudal elements among many others. Moreover, as that great analyst of the rise of democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville argued, it would be wrong to claim that the French political system had not already seen an astonishing concentration of power in the hands of a small number of central government administrators answerable to a single sovereign. But Tocqueville’s point was that the French Revolution, for all its violence, did little to change the manner in which France was governed; it simply substituted the tyranny of a few ideologues for the arbitrary power of King and Court, in both instances carried out through administrative fiat.