Is Social Engineering the Salient Evil of Our Time?

The term “social engineering” originated in the late 19th century and was used by early sociologists to define the attempt by governments to influence human attitudes toward certain ideas or behaviors. It is primarily associated with authoritarian governments like Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and Chairman Mao’s China. Using manipulative laws, re-education, and propaganda, they sought to reshape their societies according to their repective ideologies. All governments, however, practice social engineering to some extent, with the intention of producing a desirable outcome that is in the best interest of the public. Regulation of industry and financial markets, laws, and tax incentives are a few examples. But social engineering, even in free societies can have a sinister side.

jpiiPope St. John Paul II tried to warn the West about this in his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor. Written just after the fall of the Soviet Union, something he had helped accomplish, he cautioned the West about the dangers of freedom in a society that was losing its moral foundations:

“Today, when many countries have seen the fall of ideologies which bound politics to a totalitarian conception of the world — Marxism being the foremost of these — there is no less grave a danger that the fundamental rights of the human person will be denied and that the religious yearnings which arise in the heart of every human being will be absorbed once again into politics. …Indeed, if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.”

It may not be correct to assert that social engineering itself is an evil; that would depend on whether the desired outcome is evil in nature. We get a clue about the intentions of today’s social reformers from a recent article in the New York Post. Citing Gallup Polls, the writer points out some of the dramatic changes that have affected American culture in the last decade or so. They reflect a complete shift in attitudes toward moral issues over very brief periods of time. Some examples:

  • In 2003 34% of people polled said they were in favor of legalizing marijuana; in 2013 it was over 50%. (Interestingly, only 7% said they used it).
  • In 2006, support for homosexual marriage stood at 39%, today it is 60%.
  • In 2001, only 40% of those surveyed considered homosexuality morally acceptable; today it is 63%.
  • In 2003 only 34% of people polled thought that having a child out of wedlock was morally acceptable. Today that number is 61%.

He compares the scale of these massive changes to the cultural revolutions of the 1960s and notes perceptively: “We’ve hardly taken notice of it, because it happened in people’s minds instead of in the streets.” He cannot explain how this came to be, but suspects it has to do with the degrading nature of pop culture. In my view, however, what is ultimately responsible for this is social engineering by government institutions: schools, legislatures, presidents, judges, as well as lobbyists and special-interest groups, and those that fund them. The journalist rightly poses a troubling question that should give Roman Catholics a cause for concern, “…what comes along with this mass departure of moral judgment from public life?” social10In his encyclical, St. John Paul II answers that question: “…if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power.” (note the word “easily”) Continue reading “Is Social Engineering the Salient Evil of Our Time?”