Utopia is Not an Option

The ease at which many people dismiss radical libertarianism as pie-in-the-sky utopianism is depressing. On the other hand, at least people are willing to discuss these ideas, even if they immediately reject them as self-evidently laughable. Perhaps some people will actually read the Reason debate in question, find the arguments interesting, and seek out the writings of Randy Barnett and David Friedman, if for no other reason than to prove to themselves that radical libertarianism is incoherent.

The funny thing is, David Friedman and Randy Barnett are the probably the worst representatives of libertarian utopianism. Yes, both are radical libertarians--although Barnett doesn't publicize his radicalism as openly as Friedman does--but neither of them exhibits the glossy-eyed lack of self-skepticism shared by less sophisticated libertarians. Neither are doctrinaire. Take, for example, the following two short excerpts of Barnett's and Friedman's arguments respectively from the Reason debate mentioned above:

This is not to deny that consequences matter, a point on which Epstein and I agree. Indeed, I think there are very few libertarians today for whom consequences are not ultimately the reason why they believe in liberty. The issue is always how best to achieve good consequences. As Epstein notes, making no exception to a general prohibition on the use of force is not an option. Self-defense is an exception, as is forcible compensation, and anyone who studies the common law of torts, contracts, and property knows that other exceptions are built right in to the doctrines that define the liberal conception of several property and freedom of contract.


[F]ew libertarians, however hard-core in theory, would choose a perfectly free society of desperate poverty over one slightly less free and very much wealthier. Almost everyone, in my experience, values most of the same things, although not with identical weights. It is easy for both libertarians and socialists to claim to support their principles whatever the consequences -- when each group believes the consequences would be, on very nearly all dimensions, the most attractive society the world has ever seen.

Neither Barnett nor Friedman exhibits the kind of wishful thinking that Belle Waring lampoons in her much cited blog post. If anything, they argue for just the opposite. It requires a certain level of optimism for people like Richard Epstein to believe that with only the proper constitutional constraints, government abuse of power could be held in check. It is the pessimism of people like Barnett and Friedman, their unbridled skepticism, that leads them to reject the utopian belief that government can ever be adequately restrained.

Warring does make a point worth remembering, although she certainly isn't the first person to make it: she recognizes the similarities between radical libertarianism and radical socialism. Of course, this observation is a function of any radical political ideology. That doesn't necessarily mean that radical political positions should be rejected; after all, liberal democracy and abolition of slavery were both considered radical utopian daydreams at one point in history, as were many other progressive political visions which we now accept as commonplace and desirable.

Think about how crazy democracy must have seemed to people living under a monarchy, or how outlandish abolition was to those living with such a "peculiar" (and, I must add, absolutely disgusting) institution as slavery. If blogs had existed back then, I'm sure a majority of bloggers would have ridiculed those who advocated such radical proposals. This should give pause to those who believe that our current society is not in need of radical change, gradually achieved.

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Waring is arguing from utter

Waring is arguing from utter ignorance. There are certainly foolishly utopian ancapists of the pony variety, but David Friedman is not one of them. He argues only that ancap seems moderately likely to provide a more attractive society. He would be the first to insist that Utopia is not an option, and that ancapistan will have plenty of warts.

The interesting question is: from whence does Waring get the idea that he must be a pony-fancier? Has she simply projected her lack of understanding onto the lack of full explanation necessitated by the space limitations? Or has she argued with too many stupidly utopian anarchists, and began assuming that all anarchists are like that?

Patri, Waring is arguing


Waring is arguing from ignorance, but that is understandable since sophisticated anarchism is not a view shared by many. She agreed to look into Barnett's work.

I'm glad that Reason invited Barnett and Friedman to contribute to the Reason debate, even if the space limitations prevented them from sufficiently defending their positions. At least people are now aware that anarcho-capitalism exists as an intellectually defensible position, and hopefully some people will go as far as tracking down Barnett's and Friedman's other work.

By the way, I'm Spallenzani on the Anti-State forums.

While it may well be argued

While it may well be argued that Waring is biased, I do not think it can be argued that she is arguing from ignorance. The arguments for Libertarianism or Anarcho-Capitalism are strong, if you are prepared to accept the initial assumptions. I, and many others, are simply not prepared to do this. We remain as skeptical of this political alchemy as we were of those who sought to turn lead into gold back in the dark ages.

To decry government as "evil," even if one is willing to grudgingly concede it is a "necessary" one, is to miss the point. One might as well renounce gravity. Be the form tribal leaders, clan lords, mafias or democratic republics, "government" will emerge in any society like mould growing on old bread. It is in and of itself neither necessary or unnecessary, moral or immoral, just as the gravitational attraction of the ground beneath our feet cannot be usefully described in these terms either. Gravity makes no distinction between keeping us fastened to the planet so that we may go about our daily business and flinging us unmercifully to our doom should we fall off the edge of a cliff. Government, because it is something constructed by societies, is rather more flexible, but it can be similarly blind in enforcing its strictures on society. The Libertarian concentration on the evils of government seems to induce a blind spot where its many benefits lie.

The Libertarian blind spot is where we find ouselves engaged in a game of "My a priori assumption trumps your a priori assumption!" The basic premise of you folks on the other side, as much as I can gather, is to assume that the developments and benefits we have produced in human society would have been brought about without Government, first in the clans, then the tribes, then the monarchies and empires, then through the invention and propogation of the Nation State. It would not. Just as we could not have become homo sapiens without first developing heart, lungs and nervous system deep in our evolutionary history, so all these things were necessary for our development as a society. True, society must constantly develop and grow, and some things which we have done in the past deserve to wither and die like the appendix, but to seek to undo every advance because of an unproved theoretical stance is nonsense. I am with you on the abolition of the Nation State, the closed border and the machinery of war, but not before a reasonable alternative can be implemented.

Our choice as a collection of human beings is not, never has been and never will be "shall we have a government or not?" Rather, our choice has always been "what type of government shall we have." One may decry the various mechanisms put in place by the government, but if you seek to dismantle the thing from the inside you should be prepared to put something better in its place.

If your plan of action is to expect that reason, rationality and enlightened self interest will spring fully formed from the heads of newly emancipated people, then I see no reason why expecting a pink pony called Mary-Sue is out of the question either - you are as likely to get one as the other.

McDuff writes: "To decry

McDuff writes:

"To decry government as "evil," even if one is willing to grudgingly concede it is a "necessary" one, is to miss the point. One might as well renounce gravity. Be the form tribal leaders, clan lords, mafias or democratic republics, "government" will emerge in any society like mould growing on old bread."

Since you are discussing Waring's article, which was directed at comments that Randy Barnett and I made in response to Richard Epstein's essay, this suggests that you think we base our arguments on the claim that government is evil. I doubt Randy does and I am confident I don't. If you read the Reason exchange, I think it's obvious that all three of us are arguing on consequentialist grounds.

So far as your historical claim, unless you are using a very broad definition of government it's simply false. There have been lots of stateless societies. What we don't have any examples of, unfortunately, are modern high population stateless societies--which is an argument against the anarcho-capitalist position but not, I think, a conclusive one.