November 17, 2005

Utopia Is Not An Option

Hi, my name is Peter, and I'm a libertarian. Well, a recovering libertarian, anyway, but "once a libertarian always a libertarian" and all that. Economist Tyler Cowen recently wondered what the future holds for those of a libertarian persuasion, and Lexington Green has offered not-dissimilar reflections on this very blog of late. Realism dictates that we recognize a simple fact: a libertarian world is not in the offing. Indeed, neither is a libertarian country or even a libertarian state. As history powerfully (and sometimes painfully) demonstrates, utopia is not an option. Unfortunately, there is a strong utopian stream among libertarians. Part of the reason is that most prominent libertarian thinkers have been philosophers, economists, and other cerebral types, few of whom have made a close study of history. For better or for worse, libertarianism -- the vision of a purely voluntary society -- is an ideology. Ideologists want to change the world and will not be satisfied until the world matches their vision (joke: "A libertarian is someone who lies awake at night worrying that somehow, somewhere, there are still a few miles of publicly owned sewer pipe").

While the ideology of libertarianism was a product of the deeply ideological twentieth century, that doesn't mean that the need for freedom is an artifact of ideology. Yet, although all human beings need liberty, the practice of liberty is a cultural phenomenon that has flourished only in certain times and places. Those who value freedom would do well to study its history. In particular, the modern concept and practice of a primarily (if not fully) voluntary society emerged in northwestern Europe, most sustainably in England and the places settled by the English (Canada, America, Australia, New Zealand, etc.). In other words, the Anglosphere.

It's important to have gadflies in any society, and libertarian ideologists can and do fulfill that role in the Anglosphere. Yet I think they undercut their effectiveness by not recognizing historical realities. A voluntary society is not some unnatural, pie-in-the-sky utopia -- if it ever emerges, it will be an organic extension of existing Anglospheric traditions of individualism, common law, volunteerism, strong civic ties, high trust, pluralism, entrepreneurship, scientific investigation, technological innovation, private property, and intellectual freedom. The key to working for a voluntary society is to actively evolve those traditions rather than attempting to foment some kind of utopian revolution. One aspect of evolving those traditions is strengthening ties between those areas of the world that have built on these predominantly English foundations. Another aspect (well articulated in The Anglosphere Challenge) is clearly understanding that this inheritance is not genetic but mimetic, not a matter of blood relations among people of English descent but a matter of ideas, laws, institutions, principles, and practices. Another aspect is leading by example -- founding schools, starting companies, creating new products, defining new technologies, defending privacy and property, and otherwise strengthening civil society -- rather than attempting always to stand outside of society from a position of criticism rather than a practice of engagement. That does not mean "selling out", compromising one's principles, or giving up on the dream of a fully voluntary society. But it does mean doing the intellectual and practical work necessary to make a difference in this world (not sitting around and complaining from the comfort of one's armchair) while knowing that the progress that can be achieved in one's lifetime is necessarily limited.

(Previously posted in part at one small voice.)

Posted by Peter Saint-Andre at November 17, 2005 08:22 PM
Comments

Peter, this is very good. Now, you need to send this to all the libertarians in cyberspace so they get the message.

Posted by: Lex at November 18, 2005 10:00 AM

This is why I am the sort of libertarian who supports vouchers as a weakening of the government school monopoly rather than the sort who rejects them because they fall short of the seperation of school and state.

Posted by: triticale at November 18, 2005 02:22 PM

Well, my preferred approach to education is simply to turn each school over to its teachers and have them run it as a non-profit. No more school boards, no more superintendents, no more political meddling, just let the teachers teach!

Posted by: Peter Saint-Andre at November 18, 2005 08:49 PM

one small voice,

errr... you might want to re-read "Albion's Seed", as your post's use of "English" and "England" in relation to "libertarian" philosophies and institutional bias isn't as strong as you seem to believe. American readers in particular will have difficulty because... well... you know, the revolution and such.

It might be worth considering if the "anglosphere" isn't as much "anti-English" as it is "English", in an institutional and genetic sense.

Posted by: A Scott Crawford at November 18, 2005 11:22 PM

No, Utopia is not an option.

However, What follows in Peter's posting is something capable of question.

Unlike Peter, I don't claim to be a libertarian, recovering or otherwise. (I think of myself as a work in progress.)

But I do have qualms about his blanket condemnation that libertarians are utopians advocating a revolution.

It's useful to remember that the term "libertarian" came into existence because the use, by FDR and his New Dealers, of "liberal" to describe their position--actually that of socialists or social democrats--tainted that term, at least in the United States, for all time.

In Britain and on the Continent, the word "liberal" retains its original meaning. So, a liberal Englishman like Hilaire Belloc could watch Herbert Asquith and David Lloyd George move away from traditional liberalism, and wrote "The Servile State" to point out where following them would lead.

Similarly, a liberal Austrian like Friedrich August von Hayek observed the same phenomena a few decades later and wrote "The Road to Serfdom," likewise warning where this road was leading.

It's also useful to remember that, like any other school of political philosophy, libertarianism is hardly a monolithic movement.

Find Murray Rothbard's call for an anarcho-capitalist society a little hard to take? So do I. But, given that Rothbard, a little boy at the time of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first inauguration in March 1933, lived long enough to see the government in Washington D.C. stick its nose in everybody's business and its finger in everybody's pie, one can well understand why he thought this radical usurpation of power on government's behalf required a radical swing in the opposite direction to effect a cure.

And I don't think Rothbard would be alone in that diagnosis. With the possible exception of Alexander Hamilton, I doubt many among the signers of the Declaration of Independence or the United States Constitution would enthusiastically applaud what the generations since 1776 and 1787 have done with the heritage they entrusted to us.

To continue, wasn't the idea of separating the North American periphery of the Kingdom of Great Britain from its European core also a utopian ideology? Did those men and women advocating such a separation "undercut their effectiveness by not recognizing historical realities?" After all, in the longer run, the problems that beset our country, in its larger sense, between 1765 and 1776 would have worked themselves out, wouldn't they?

I do accept the analysis of one Californian libertarian who said that, these days, the Republicans think the state is supposed to be the citizen's father while the Democrats think the state is supposed to be the citizen's mother.

In other words, what we have are two big government parties which are, at base, hostile to the idea of freedom.

And Ronald Reagan, who wasn't a libertarian, who worked within the system, and who thought government was part of the problem? Never heard of the man.

All we seem to have left is those "gadflies," as Peter calls them. Like the little boy in Hans Christian Anderson's classic story, they alert us to the reality that the Emperor, whether Democrat or Republican, isn't wearing any clothes. Or, in our case, that America's heritage of liberty is more honored by our elected officials in its breach than in its observance.

I don't claim to have read each and every work by each and every writer labelled as "libertarian." But I have yet to read a "libertarian" tract that professed hostility to what Peter rightly calls "existing Anglospheric traditions of individualism, common law, volunteerism, strong civic ties, high trust, pluralism, entrepreneurship, scientific investigation, technological innovation, private property, and intellectual freedom." What they do point out is the hostility of those in government to those traditions.

As far as Peter's observation that it takes a lot of hard work to get where we want, no argument there.

Posted by: Daniel MacGregor at November 21, 2005 11:38 AM

"...wasn't the idea of separating the North American periphery of the Kingdom of Great Britain from its European core also a utopian ideology?"

No. They were convinced they had the legal and moral right on their side, and I think they did. Many people in England didn't support the war because they thought so, too. The American Founders were the farthest thing from utopian. They figured, rightly, that if they conceded their legal rights and priviliges, even a little, out of expediencey, it was only a matter of time, and not much time, before they lost the rest. Looking at how Ireland and India fared under British rule in the 19th C gives you an idea what the Americans would have had in store -- political and economic life truncated and chanelled to serve the interests of the occupying power. The Founders were hard-nosed realists.

Posted by: Lex at November 21, 2005 04:35 PM

"Looking at how Ireland and India fared under British rule in the 19th C gives you an idea what the Americans would have had in store -- political and economic life truncated and chanelled to serve the interests of the occupying power."

That would be Englishmen ruling over alien societies.

You might want to look a little closer to home: the Reconstruction era in the American South.

As to the 1776-1783 period itself, weren't comissioners sent out from London who were extremely anxious to settle the problem as quickly as possible?

Posted by: Daniel MacGregor at November 22, 2005 10:58 AM

"Looking at how Ireland and India fared under British rule in the 19th C gives you an idea what the Americans would have had in store -- political and economic life truncated and chanelled to serve the interests of the occupying power."

That would be Englishmen ruling over alien societies."

Some traveler along the St. Lawrence River in the 19th century pointed out the difference in general vigor and the levels of development between the US and Canada. Same climate, same underlying English culture, different governance.


The founders seemmto always be referring to "our ancient liberties" rather than to some futuristic, utopian order, in other words, to an order that had existed once and had been proven by experience.

Posted by: Jim at November 22, 2005 05:02 PM