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Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward

Editor's Note: Looking Backward an excellent example of statist predestination: The doctrine of predestination is, of course, the doctrine of total planning and control. To hold to the eternal decree of God is to say simply that God from the beginning planned, predicted, and totally controls everything that comes to pass.

  • Walter Block,
  • Michele Cushing,
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Editor's Note: Looking Backward an excellent example of statist predestination: The doctrine of predestination is, of course, the doctrine of total planning and control. To hold to the eternal decree of God is to say simply that God from the beginning planned, predicted, and totally controls everything that comes to pass. The modern state, as the new god, seeks total control over man in order to speak an infallible word, in order to experiment with man and control him from cradle to grave. Planning is thus increasingly a necessary aspect of the modern state, because the modern state wants to predict, to prophesy, to control. The goal is total planning in order to prophesy, total control for total power (Is: 6). (R. J. Rushdoony, "Infallibility: An Inescapable Concept," Systematic Theology. Vallecito, CA: Ross House, 1994).

Although Edward Bellamy's twentieth century society in Looking Backward appears to be the perfect utopia, it could never exist. The very factors that Bellamy claimed contributed to the society's establishment and success are, in reality, what would lead to its failure. The twentieth century society lacked the possibility for advancements in technology while at the same time lacking competition and appropriate incentives. Even if we ignore these faults, we observe that when Bellamy created his society for Looking Backward, he made several false assumptions about human behavior and failed to realize that the only way his society could be imposed would be involuntarily.

Technology definitely has played a role in shaping the utopian society of Looking Backward: "The purposeful, positive use of technology—from improved factories and offices to new highways and electric lighting systems to innovative pneumatic tubes, electronic broadcasts, credit cards—is, in fact, critical to the predicted transformation of the United States from a living hell into a heaven on earth" (Segal 91). Even though technology made "hell into a heaven on earth," Bellamy does not seem to leave much room for further advancements in technology. The regimentation of the twentieth century society does not allow for it. In Bellamy's society, a strict path is laid out for the citizen to follow at a very early age. In fact, this path is the law: "We require, indeed by law, that every man shall serve the nation for a fixed period. . ." (Bellamy 100). From age six to twenty-one, the young child attends school. School, among other things, teaches about specific trades and their histories and about the national industrial system. At age twenty-one, the man enters his twenty-four year long involvement in the industrial army. The first three years of service include common labor during which time a person may choose an occupation. After three years, the person enters an apprenticeship and will finally become a full workman. Until age forty-five, when service is over, the person has an opportunity to move up in the ranks of the industrial army. Under this system, it appears to be quite impossible for young men to come up with new inventions and innovations since they must follow this course in their lives. It is often those who are in their early years who become entrepreneurs, but in Bellamy's society, youthful years are spent in service to the industrial army. One critic stated that ". . . Looking Backward nevertheless recognizes the need for economic and especially ethical constraints on otherwise unadulterated technological advance and unbounded materialism" (Segal 104). Contrary to this belief, if it was not for the supposedly "unadulterated" technological advance, Edward Bellamy's society, with its large warehouses and credit cards, would not have appealed to the public as much as it indeed did. Without advancements in technology, an economy's production possibilities curve may not shift outward, and the economy basically will be going nowhere fast.

A lack of competition is another fault of the twentieth century society in Looking Backward. Bellamy's society is controlled solely by the government. The government is the only producer, the only distributor, and the only employer in the nation. This reflects the philosophy of the time: "Competition, which is the instinct of selfishness, is another word for dissipation of energy, while combination is the secret of efficient production" (Bellamy 178). In actuality, competition is essential to an economy. Competition ensures that businesses are running efficiently. If a business failed to do so, it would eventually be forced out of the market by competitors. Competition gives the consumer a choice. If the consumer is not happy with the quality of a product, he or she can turn to another store which produces a similar product. In the case of the twentieth century society, if a person does not approve of the choices offered at the warehouse or if they are not satisfied with the quality of the product, he or she has nowhere else to turn. Competition also keeps companies searching for more efficient ways to use their resources and improve their product. If they do not partake in this activity, they will be forced out of the market.

Bellamy's lack of incentives and inaccurate assumptions about human behavior are two interrelated faults in his society. Edward Bellamy overestimated the good qualities of human behavior and, therefore, underestimated the importance of incentives. Incentives play a key role in the functioning of a society. Incentives are even considered to be "the basic postulate of all economics" (Gwartney 8). A person's actions are guided by incentives. A person will choose to do an act if the benefits to himself as a result of the act are greater than the cost of doing the act. Utility also plays a role in incentives. People generally want to maximize utility, and minimize losses.

The industrial army of the twentieth century required that each individual "shall make the same effort" that is, "we demand of him the best service it is in his power to give" (Bellamy 87). The incentive in this case is that the harder you work, the higher up in rank you can move in the industrial army: "high places in the nation are open only to the highest-class men" and "rank in the army constitutes the only mode of social distinction for the vast majority. . ." (Bellamy 106). Here is where Bellamy overestimated the goodness in human behavior. Bellamy believed that "Accordingly, the most rational men would recognize the importance of the principle of mutuality and consequently require no extrinsic motivation to render worthy service" (Gutek 258-259). Bellamy did feel that lower class men would need some incentive though. His solution was that the higher class men could serve as role models for the others. "Emulation of these models would provide a constant spur to increased incentives" (Gutek 259). Unfortunately for Bellamy, human nature and behavior is not this way. In a society where everyone receives the same salary, regardless of ability, more honor, prestige or a higher rank is not enough of an incentive to motivate a person to put one hundred percent effort into his work. If one can make the same amount regardless of his output, he will do the least amount of work possible. Also, in a higher position one is taking on more responsibility and, therefore, more stress because his evaluation is now based on his workers' productivity. He now becomes responsible for other people and not just himself. The only true incentive to work that Bellamy seems to offer his workers of the industrial army is more of a threat: "A man able to duty, and persistently refusing, is sentenced to solitary imprisonment on bread and water till he consents" (Bellamy 107).

Incentives are also lacking in the area of education. If a person believes that he has the ability to better contribute to the intellectual work force rather than the manual work force, he may try schooling in such areas as medicine, technology, music, and art. However, the schooling is quite vigorous and requires a great deal of work. After all the schooling, one is given the same set salary as everyone else. While not completely eliminating the applicant pool, the lack of incentives surely lowers the number of people interested in trying this route. If one were faced with either working or going through vigorous schooling only to receive the same pay as a common worker, the option may not seem so appealing.

As one critic stated: "The shareability and mutual cooperation of the new social order required a commonly-shared rationality. Bellamy's writings revealed a great faith in the ability of men to achieve this rationality, to harmonize wills and efforts, and to direct the course of human destiny" (Gutek 254). Although Bellamy's faith in human beings is impressive and admirable, it is not reality.

The final fault in Edward Bellamy's utopian society is that it is not voluntary. There is no possible way that a society of this nature could ever be voluntarily incorporated into our lives. There will always be someone who does not want the same salary as everyone else. There will always be someone who disagrees with the idea of an industrial army in which you must serve for twenty four years. The problem with socialism comes when it is not voluntary. Voluntary socialism such as a biosphere, where participants willingly take part in living in the biosphere for a specified period of time, is fine. Involuntary socialism such as that which existed in the USSR is not so fine. Unfortunately, Edward Bellamy's society must fall in the category of involuntary.

Edward Bellamy wrote a novel that presented a society that was seemingly perfect. In his society, there were no jails, no taxes, no crime, no money, and everyone appeared content. However, the only way in which this fictional society could become reality is if it were forced upon everyone involuntarily. Even then, the lack of future technology, competition, and incentives would prevent it from being successful. Even after reading this novel, it still is quite clear that the capitalist system is a far better method for running a nation's economy.


1. Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward. Editor Cecelia Tichi. New York: Penquin Books USA Inc., 1986.

2. Gerald Gutek, "Analysis of Formal Education In Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward." In History of Education Quarterly. Volume IV. Number 1. March 1964.

3. James D. Gwartney, and Richard L. Stroup ed. Economics: Private and Public Choice. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1995.

4. Howard P. Segal, "Bellamy and Technology: Reconciling Centralization and Decentralization." In Looking Backward 1988-1888: Essays on Edward Bellamy. Edited by Daphne Patai. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1988.