On Utopia and Skepticism

The word 'utopian' has been used in the blogosphere quite a bit recently. Like Randy Barnett, I am surprised at the intensity of the reaction to the original Reason piece in most parts. From what I can tell, "utopian" has come to mean something akin to "that which lies outside the norm" or "an opinion that most people do not hold" or simply "that which I disagree with". The last meaning is pure intellectual laziness, a failure to explore and critically analyze ideas which appear strange.

I wrote the following in the comments section, with some minor modifications, on another blog.

I see the charge of 'utopian' thrown around a lot without it ever being defined. Does "utopian" mean a condition that has been rare in the world? Or does "utopian" mean something incompatible with human nature?

If it means the former, I suggest that "utopian" is not a good criteria for evaluating any particular philosophy. After all, in the 17th century, the classical liberals were also utopians - "What do you mean you want to get rid of the king? What do you mean by 'rights'? How can you have law without a monarch? Surely individuals cannot be trusted to decide for themselves their own ways of living!"

In the 18th century, the early abolitionists were also utopians, as slavery had existed for thousands of years, and that's how it was always going to be. "But slavery is necessary for the well-being of society. Slavery may be evil; I grant that. But it is a necessary evil. No society has ever existed without slavery."

In the 19th century, the womens' suffrage movements were also utopian - "We can't have women voting! Women don't have the capacity to vote."

If "utopia" simply means a condition that has not existed before, or has existed only rarely, then anyone who proposes progress is a "utopian"; yet that label is a compliment not an insult. Without the utopian, there can be no progress in civilization.

If on the other hand, "utopian" means a condition incompatible with human nature, then I agree - the utopian serves no purpose. But I submit that if you are agreeable to minarchist libertarian views, i.e., you believe that for most things free markets and individual rights are superior to central planning and rights violations, any exploration of using the free-market to provide law enforcement, adjudication, and personal security is not "utopian" but rather a fidelity to principles.

(If you don't find free-markets and individual rights agreeable, you would also likely find the latter disagreeable. But that's a different topic for a different day.)

But it is simply inconsistent to say that minarchist libertarians can be taken seriously but that anarcholibertarians are "fruitcakes" and "utopians". The latter simply try to extend the same principles to their natural conclusions.

Many, but not all, contributors on Catallarchy have radical beliefs, and our views of "utopia" are often the opposite of what most people believe. For example, to me it is "utopian" to believe that any 'selfish' incentives found in the free market disappear under central control, and thus it is "utopian" to believe that using coercion can 'internalize' these incentives. Or if you believe people are 'too greedy' to give to charity, that if we empower a select few to take from the rest of us without our consent to provide charity, the empowered will not themselves be greedy individuals, or even more greedy than the rest of us.

What most people see as "utopian" beliefs in us is actually profound skepticism.

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To me, a utopian philosophy

To me, a utopian philosophy is one with an irrational optimism about the results of its implementation. Because utopianism is a matter of expectations, not recommendations, people in the same movement suggesting the same things can be utopian or non-utopian. The ancaps who think that if only we abolished the state, everything would be perfect and wonderful, are utopian. The ancaps who admit that there would be many problems, but think there is a good chance that on net the system would work a bit better than alternatives are not utopian.

I think people get into the habit of labeling a view utopian just because many of its members are. This is true of libertarians and ancaps, both philosophies with many believers who fall prey to foolish utopianism. The result is that the non-utopian ancaps (say, David Friedman) get labeled as utopians by people like Belle Waring who don't bother to actually investigate the specifics.

For this reason I think its important that we try to convince utopian ancaps to be more realistic and not give us a bad name. As well as make it clear that we are not utopian when describing our views.

I've encountered a similar problem myself in the world of nation-founding movements, most of which are idiotically utopian. Hence in my book about how to realistically go about it, I have to constantly make it clear that we are *not* utopians.

Ha, good post on the utopian

Ha, good post on the utopian response. Your examples are very nice, and highlights the silly nature of saying, "You're a utopian!"

My stock answer will be, "Yes, just like those who wanted to do away with monarchy as a form of government, end slavery, and who supported the whacky notion of letting women vote."

"A map of the world that

"A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at."
(Oscar Wilde - The Soul of Man Under Socialism)

The word "utopia" is deliberately ambigious. On one level it is a reference to the "eutopia" (good place) and outopia (no place).

As you've made quite clear - and in affirmation with Wilde's quotation above - proposing counter-factual, idealized possibilities - i.e., utopias - is the basis for social development in the first instance.