A firm believer in Realpolitik

    The line No folly is more costly than the folly of intolerant idealism is a quote from Winston Churchill, a masterful speaker and writer and the originator of many powerful quotes (“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”, “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”, et al)

    Churchill’s quote about “intolerant idealism” may seem to express a self-evident idea. But the ubiquitous problem addressed by this quote from Churchill –- himself a firm believer in Realpolitik –- continues to pop up. It may deserve a brief analysis.

Benefits of idealism

    Let us not forget that idealism per se, without the epithet “intolerant”, is often beneficial and sometimes absolutely necessary. Without idealism we would have no compass, no idea in which direction our efforts should be applied. Most of natural science is a special form of idealism –- theoretical constructs, “ideas”, that help us see what needs to be substantiated by observation and experiment. The “idealism” of science is rigidly regulated, attempting to minimise the risk of intolerance. Other scientists are invited to subject every scientific theory to a ritual of unbridled scrutiny. Changes and refutations are not merely tolerated; they are expected.

    In the soft fields of politics and social ethics there are no corresponding safeguards. Here idealism expresses itself by well-meaning, “nice” theories, purporting to give highly benevolent guidelines for a “good” society or “good” individual behaviour. Their inherent lack of precision and detail would pose no problem, if they could be subjected to similar scrutiny as the theories of science. In that case they could be modified or augmented or even rejected, depending on factual circumstances. But generally speaking, this is not the case.

The spectre of Absolute Truth –- Communism and Monotheism

    Idealistic theories in the social field frequently claim that they don’t just represent “happiness and good”, but “absolute truth” as well. Absolute truth is undisputable, so alternatives or modifications cannot be tolerated.

    Prime examples of intolerant idealism are communism and religion, particularly monotheism. Atheistic religion (Buddhism) and polytheistic religion (Hinduism, et al) can be intolerant as well. But here we have a little more theoretical leeway for tolerance than in monotheism, where intolerance is a built-in integral part of the theoretical structure.


      The communist ideas are idealistic in the sense of being “kind” and “nice”, offering freedom, equality an justice for all. At the same time communism claims to represent absolute truth, by virtue of being “scientifically founded” and hence irrefutable. The “scientific” foundation of communism is the “historical materialism” of Karl Marx, an interesting analysis of how societies pass from one stage to the next in a supposedly predetermined way.

      Historical materialism may indeed be most interesting and inspiring, but it is not the absolute truth. We now know how costly a folly the intolerant idealism of communism turned out to be –- an estimated 60 million lives.


      Monotheism, particularly in its Christian and Islamic versions, is an equally well-meaning social theory, promising love, peace, and happiness to all. Many historians maintain that Marx was inspired by Christian ideas when he formulated communism.

      What again makes this well-meaning theory intolerant is its claim of being the “absolute truth” and hence irrefutable. Here the claims are based on an even stronger foundation than mere “science” –- here the foundation is divine command.

      If such a theory remained exclusively in the private sphere, then it would pose no threat to anybody. Unfortunately, the claim of representing the absolute truth makes it difficult to keep religion in the place where it rightly belongs –- in men’s private minds, as an inspiration for the soul. This is the reason why religion’s cost in human lives has been –- and continues to be –- higher that that of natural catastrophes, roughly on par with the cost of communism.

Defence mechanisms

    Are there any ways of defending ourselves against the folly of intolerant idealism? I believe there is at least one obvious defence mechanism –- the democratic process. It is by no means foolproof. Subjecting social theories to democratic scrutiny will not eliminate the folly of intolerant idealism in every instance. Popular opinion is fickle and can sometimes support highly unwise measures, particularly when such measures have an idealistic and well-meaning ring.

    But in the long run, averaged out over longer periods of time, the democratic process has proven itself to be capable of neutralising the worst cases of idealistic intolerance. We can safely assume that this is what Winston Churchill had in mind when he coined his quote “No folly is more costly that the folly of intolerant idealism", even if he originally wrote it in a more specific context.



(A modest nodeshell rescue operation)

No folly is more costly than the folly of intolerant idealism.… When standards of conduct or morals which are beyond the normal public sentiment of a great community are professed and enforced, the results are invariably evasion, subterfuge, and hypocrisy.

Thus asserted Winston Churchill in a newspaper opinion piece about Prohibition in the United States. The essay, which consists of several arguments against Prohibition and other similarly idealistic lawmaking, was published in the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph on December 2, 1929. Churchill expressed his opposition to Prohibition in primarily political terms, but the law also affected him personally, or would have if he hadn’t travelled the United States with several bottles of “medicine.”

Churchill’s most practical argument against Prohibition was simply that it didn’t work: people still drank, but hid it from the authorities. In contrast, Churchill explained, his own Great Britain was actually reducing drunkenness through the taxation of liquor; while the United States government was spending money to fight bootlegging, the government of Britain was making money in tax revenue.

Churchill made two more broad and interesting arguments against Prohibition, though. The first was that Prohibition was an instance of the tyranny of the majority, misuse of democracy by a majority to legislate against a minority. Churchill argued that a government, particularly one that emphasized liberty in its founding documents, ought never to cross certain lines in the regulation of the lives of individuals. He found Prohibition even more distasteful than other moralistic legislation, however, because it was maintained by an unusual sort of majority, a hypocritical majority that voted “dry” but drank in private anyway. “To indulge oneself while compelling others to abstain is contemptible,” wrote Churchill, and his writing dripped with his contempt.

It is because of Churchill’s statement about “intolerant idealism,” one of my favorite sentences ever written, that I like this essay. He follows it with an even broader argument, however, by arguing against not only the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which wrote Prohibition into law, but the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave nonwhite American males the right to vote. This law, Churchill argued, led to a great deal of violence in the South and, though Southern black males legally had the right to vote, “for two generations it has been well understood that they are not to use [it] in any State or District where they would make any difference.”

It is here that Churchill’s “realistic” arguments regarding idealism become uncompelling to me, largely because they lack the optimism that Southern blacks might eventually vote safely. Had Congress never passed the Fifteenth Amendment the right to vote would still be limited to whites. Instead it was passed by optimists and idealists and, after much extralegal struggle, nonwhite Americans finally gained the actual right to vote.

Churchill argues against intolerant idealism with devastating success, but against other forms of idealism only feebly. His essay exhibits the hybridization of libertarianism and anti-idealistic “realism” that defines modern conservatism.

Works Cited

  • Winston Churchill, editor, Winston S. Churchill, The Great Republic: A History of America, pp. 270–273.

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