Utopianism, Libertarianism and Socialism
Updated: Oct 28, 2020
Socialism is a utopian creed which requires an impracticably perfect New Man or New Woman to make it work.
Socialism is a utopian creed which requires an impracticably perfect New Man or New Woman to make it work. Libertarianism takes human beings as they are, flawed, different and self-interested but born co-operators. No libertarian New Man is needed.
I have been sent an email which encompasses a number of views and possibly misconceptions about Libertarianism and the nature and practicality of a free society. This post is an attempt to respond to the various points in it. Rather than paraphrase the main body of the email text, I have reprinted the body of the email text below. I have edited it to make it easier to understand and comment on:
1) Isn't your pure libertarian vision essentially utopian and therefore of limited practical relevance?
2) It requires the vast majority to buy into the Non-aggression Principle (NAP), and there is little evidence that they do.
3) Even if they did largely buy into NAP, they would also have to be better human beings than most of us are:
- Less lazy so that we invest the effort necessary effort to make reasonable choices (when often we want them made for us as long as they aren't too sub-optimal).
- More selfless so that we are more inclined to make these choices for the common good and not for narrow short-term self-interest etc.
Is pure libertarianism utopian?
Sir Thomas More wrote ‘Utopia’ in 1516. The word means ‘no place’ in Greek, and sounds like ‘good place’. in that language. In this land of Eutopia there is no private property, and therefore no money. Everyone draws their needs from communal warehouses. They eat communally and must all wear the same clothes. All are fed the same food except for the old and a privileged caste of scholar rulers selected in primary school (an 11 Plus exam perhaps?). You need a state passport for any travel inside the country. There is a welfare state with free hospitals. On the other hand, if you engage in pre-marital sex you are punished with a lifetime of celibacy. Adultery buys you enslavement for life.
What you have here is a mix of Plato’s Republic, Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, and Marxism (or socialism – they have the same origins) but without the latter’s hedonistic free love ethos. Nothing can be imagined that is further from what normal human beings would willingly accept. Not co-incidentally, it is as far away from Libertarian principles as can be.
The problematic underlying ideas are those of perfection and of perfectibility. One definition of utopian is ‘modelled on or aiming for a state in which everything is perfect; idealistic’. Marx had the wit to recognize that real people’s natures and wishes would make his utopian stateless paradise unworkable. Hence the Marxist need for the ‘New Man’ and ‘New Woman’. These beings, forged in the fires of mass murder during the dictatorship of the proletariat, would be the necessary ideal beings to work selflessly for the common good.
What have we learned? Utopianism is generally about imaginary human beings inhabiting a communal society with neither the information nor the incentive to work productively. Hundreds of experiments with communal living large and small have been tried. They have not been a success. Only private property, the basis of liberty, can provide the information and incentives needed to make prosperity possible.
Clearly the writer of the email would not mean to imply that libertarianism, like most Utopias, is socialist and illiberal. The writer might mean that libertarianism is idealist. This is an alternative meaning in the definition cited above. Idealist is a word harking back to Plato. He believed that earthly things were imperfect versions of eternal perfect ideal forms. So, there is still an element of believing that perfectibility is either possible or even meaningful. Libertarians certainly don’t think that.
Another possibility could be that utopian in the above email could merely mean ‘impracticable’. This could apply to the viability of ‘pure libertarianism’, once established. Or it could mean that such a society could not be established. The practicability of establishing purely libertarian societies is discussed below and in more detail in a post from April 22.
We do know that once established, ‘almost libertarian’ or classical liberal societies are not just viable but extraordinarily productive. The world enjoyed 5,000 years of low and stagnant incomes in agrarian states. Then in just 200 years a few classical liberal societies created the present possibility of global mass affluence. Only two state functions remained, in principle, under classical liberalism. These were monopolies of jurisdiction and enforcement (‘justice’) and of the deployment of legitimate violence (‘security’ or ‘defense’).
The world’s land area is now entirely covered in states. Many are ‘failed states’. But all states are formal monopolies of jurisdiction by definition. It is a tautology that one cannot therefore point to modern examples of formally independent and competing jurisdictions. However, history shows that societies naturally develop competing judgement entities in the same territory. (The May 1st post ‘Justice without the State’ has been rewritten to discuss the way in which English Common Law operated substantially independently of the state in so called Anglo-Saxon Classical Liberal states.)
Some states have different legal jurisdictions within their borders. Progress towards libertarian forms of self-organization will see the creation of many more examples. In the US and elsewhere there are more privately employed than state employed security personnel. In many areas of law competing arbitration firms are predominant. In practice a lot of ad-hoc arbitration goes on between and within law firms and insurance companies. In a free society such practices would develop further. Libertarianism can be seen as the default setting once you let societies operate as the self-ordering systems that they really are. That reality is simply hiding underneath layers of increasingly un-affordable state intervention.
By the way, the other Classical Liberal state function, the deployment of aggressive violence (‘defense’) will be covered in another post. Suffice it to say that the practicality of a wholly libertarian state defending itself may depend on accidents of geography and military technique – or not. Certainly, previously invincible big state militaries are finding that ‘projecting power’ (i.e. killing and bullying members of other societies) is increasingly expensive and difficult.
Would pure libertarianism be of limited relevance if it were impracticable?
The idea of this blog is that Democratic Socialism is coming down anyway. The model is the fall of the Soviet Union. At the beginning of 1989 it looked as if it were here to stay. By the end of 1991 it was gone. State dependants still got their cheques. But the ruble lost basically all its value so government cheques didn’t buy a whole lot.
At the point of breakdown people will ask: 'What comes next?' Many may want to put the Democratic Socialism Humpy Dumpty back together. But it will just fall again. Doing again what didn’t work last time is Einstein’s famous definition of insanity. Some may veer back towards Totalitarian Socialism. The current medically useless and economically harmful lockdown is obviously power grabbers flexing their muscles around the world. Perhaps they sense the impending failure. The impoverishment the lockdown will cause is of course typical of the beast. But Totalitarian Socialism too has failed already. Why try it again?
After the fall, someone must be there to explain that moving away from coercion and towards voluntary cooperation is the answer. It is the only untried option. It is also the only possible way back to peace and prosperity. Now let’s pretend for the sake of argument that pure libertarianism – a stateless society - is impracticable. It’s still worth promoting movement towards it. What is the alternative? Every step away from socialism heals a little bit more of society and lessens the drag of all its unintended consequences. Even sectors left in the formal remit of a much-reduced state might benefit from being re-thought along non-statist lines.
It may be that holding on to the idea of legally privileged associations of predators (collectively known as ‘the state’) is itself impracticable. Libertarianism answers the conundrum ‘quis custodiet ipsos custodies’ (who will guard the guards?). Nobody knows how to prevent legally privileged predatory power grabbers from expanding the government tumour all over again.
Does Libertarianism require the majority to buy into the Non-aggression Principle (NAP)?
I agree that a libertarian society would depend on most people at least going along with the NAP. It is said that a determined minority of a third of the population is all that is needed to drive change in societies. Progressives and socialists have been driving the expansion of the state for a century or more. So a plausible future libertarian and social conservative alliance of the same size could drive things slowly in the direction of liberty.
But another model for the emergence of libertarian jurisdictions is through geographical concentration of libertarians, and socialists, in different places in many more, smaller jurisdictions. In Libertarian jurisdictions compliance with the NAP would be part of the package. Most of the world’s population might remain resolutely collectivist. The libertarian societies would prosper and the collectivist ones would not.
One might end up recreating the situation in the 18th and 19th centuries in North America. British North Americans originally held essentially libertarian viewpoints. Their common law tradition was largely compatible with the NAP. They made up an insignificant part of the world’s population. But they prospered so much that people from backward places flocked there to share in the legendary American prosperity. However the migrants often brought collectivist ideas. These are incompatible with the philosophical basis of that prosperity. The existence of state institutions meant that the vote mechanism enabled the spread of anti-libertarian values. Now America is no longer the exceptional nation. It is just another Democratic Socialist state in the West.
Future libertarian societies will need to be intolerant of people with non-libertarian ideas, especially advocates of creating a state.
There is little evidence that many people are supporters of the NAP?
Yes, this may be true. I would say that the view that one has the right to live one’s own life as one sees fit is a default view in the western tradition. That is broadly the NAP. I am agnostic about whether it is so in other world civilisations. The more years of education people have, the more likely they are to favour predation rather than the NAP. But then most graduates go on to work for the state. They are thus removed from productive activity and aligned with state predators. The MSM is staffed by more graduates averring that thieving from productive people is respectable. Is this the whole picture? Who knows? Public respect for many public institutions and for politicians and journalists is at rock bottom.
It may not matter. There is a well-known passage in Hemingway’s ‘The Sun Also Rises’ where a character called Mike is asked how his bankruptcy came about. ‘Gradually, then suddenly’ he says. Those who go along with the state because it pays them may well suddenly find themselves in a similar position. At which point the support for it may fall quickly. It would fall enough to promote a lot more secession (see ‘How might Free Societies come into Being in the Near Future’, April 22nd) and to swell the ranks of libertarian migrants.
Even if they bought into NAP, people would have to be better human beings than most of us are?
I find this question quite as incongruous as the idea that less competent individuals would not be able to benefit from membership of a free society (see the May 11th post ‘Comparative Advantage and the Common Man’). We recognize that human beings are adept at making voluntary mutually beneficial arrangements to cooperate. They are never acting altruistically, in the Austro-libertarian view. Even when the deal is about supporting a charity it is still meant to increase the donor’s ‘Psychic Income’ or sense of well being.
We start from the premise that people are good but not that good, and not always or all the time. Some people are bad – mad, psychopathic or sociopathic. Bad people in positions of power in the state inflict great harm with legal impunity. That’s why such people seek government posts, and a reason why there should be no state. However, even good people are necessarily self-interested and economical with their attention and resources.
So why would a free society depend on people being better than they are now? We have agreed that members of such a society would have to support a Common Law style legal system based on competing providers. Such a system would be quicker, simpler and more effective than the current arrangements. One does not need to be a better human being to prefer it. Yet it is claimed that the inhabitants of a free society would need to be:
- Less lazy so that [we] invest the effort necessary to make reasonable choices (when often we want them made for us as long as they aren't too sub-optimal).
- More selfless so that we are more inclined to make these choices for the common good and not for narrow short-term self-interest.
I don’t see the difference between making personal decisions in this society – at least when one is still free to choose - and making personal decisions in a free society. The bigger the stakes the more attention one might bestow on making the right choice. But one could still buy a car, save via an insurance policy, join a friendly society, or buy a can of beans on the basis of the supplier’s reputation and price. At least in a free society no taxes, state restrictions or uncertainty about the future value of money would cloud the issue. In competitive markets very few competent customers are needed to ensure value for money for all participants.
It may be a concern that people would have to provide for their futures by saving in a free society. But with higher incomes, no taxes and no inflation, saving would just be a lot easier than it is now. One could say that the state has trained people not to save by making it as hard as possible (see April 30th ‘Why did Keynes want the State to destroy Savers’).
In fact, the two comments above sound like a wish list for voters in a Democratic Socialist system. One might hope voters would take time over their voting decision even though it cannot matter. One might hope they will not be swayed by a short-term interest in voting themselves more goodies at the expense of long-term prosperity. Evidently, one rather tends to hope in vain.
Surely the point is this. In a free society there is no electorate, idealised or not. There can be no government to vote for. There is no ‘Politics’. There are no mechanisms for looting one’s neighbour to line one’s own nest.