Utopia is Not a Preference

"Utopia is not an option" is one of the lines David Bergland says in one of his many speeches about how to communicate libertarian ideas effectively. The idea is to get across the notion that we as libertarians are not trying to create a perfect, and thus impossible. society. While this is true, it is missing a very crucial point. Libertarianism is in no way utopian.

These days people use the term to refer to anyone who has idealistic views about how the world should be. Utopian is meant both as idealized and unrealistic. However this broad usage is technically incorrect and glosses over some of the crucial differences between utopian and non-utopian ideologies.

Utopia is a book written by Thomas More in which he describesd his perfect society, and aptly named that society Utopia, which means "no place." More knew his society was impossible, though whether he knew why it was impossible, or simply glimpsed that it was incredibly improbable, I don't know. But the reason behind its impossibility is an irresolvable conflict that ultimately brings every utopian inspired system crashing down. Utopia is a vision of a static society, though ironically the actual Utopia is far more dynamic than most utopian ideologies ended up being. Nevertheless, it is a vision of a society in which all the people function in very specific ways, dress in certain ways, work in specific ways, and adhere to very specific standards of behavior and morality.

It is a society without growth that considers itself in a state of perfection and thus disallows the possibility of change in a very dynamic and changing world. Communism, for example, could only survive for any measured period of time by destroying people who did not fit into its ideology. The people who did not think correctly, who disagreed, who did not want to fit into the box the Communist Party had made for them were humiliated, denigrated, tortured, enslaved, and killed.

This is reminiscent of the very different but also very utopian ideologies of World War II, National Socialism (Nazism) and Fascism. Nazis sought to create their Utopia by forging a perfect race, Aryans. They believed, mistakenly, that a society of a solid "perfect" race would not have the sort of conflict that makes Utopia impossible. Human differences, differences in opinion, dissention, a desire to be different, a need to stand out, all these things can undermine the state of perfection. Admittedly an all-Aryan society would likely have been more easy to control, and more likely to successfully create a Utopia-like society at least for a very short period of time, than one that was comprised of many different religions, ethnicities, and hair colors.

My theory is that such commonality in a society makes it easier to create the sort of psychological atmosphere necessary to get large numbers of people to participate and "behave" in such a society. In short, it's easier to brainwash a group with a common ethnicity than a group with differing cultural heritages.

Libertarianism is not Utopian because not only does it not seek to create perfection. It does not aim in any way to create a static society. On the contrary libertarianism is the polor opposite of a utopian ideology because it seeks to create a governing system that allows for the greatest possible dynamism in human affairs that is possible. It does not require this; it only seeks to allow it.

The core principle is the idea that any human should be able to do whatever they want - be whatever they want, ingest whatever they want, etc - as long as those actions do not involve the intiation of force or fraud against another person.

Compare this to the dress code of Utopia, to the intellectual purges of Maoist China, to the gulags of Russia. Compare this to the common necessity in utopian systems of joining a specific political party in order to survive.

Libertarianism is certainly idealistic, and based on specific principles, but it has nothing to do with Utopia, and even less to do with perfection. The real idealism inherent in libertarianism is the idea that the greatest possible world, whatever it may look or sound like, will be one in which individuals have the the greatest freedom to grow and explore their own existence. How the people in that ultimate society may dress, what they believe, what they eat, and how they look are irrelevant details to the libertarian political ideology. Likewise ideas about what we may or may not become is left where it should be, not as a core part of the ideology, but in the realm of speculation, dreaming, and creative fiction.

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Rainbough, before you make

Rainbough, before you make arguments that depend on a claim that someone is using a word incorrectly, you may want to look the word up. From www.m-w.com, looking up "utopian" gives:

1 : of, relating to, or having the characteristics of a utopia; especially : having impossibly ideal conditions especially of social organization
2 : proposing or advocating impractically ideal social and political schemes
3 : impossibly ideal : VISIONARY
4 : believing in, advocating, or having the characteristics of utopian socialism

Since no one is claiming that libertarianism has the characteristics of utopian socialism, then impossible or impractical idealism must be exactly what they are talking about. I see nothing in here about static societies.

I can certainly see why

I can certainly see why you'd want to distance libertarianism from utopian ideologies, and I agree there are important differences. I just also think that there are important ways in which we are "utopian", meaning unrealistic, and that people who call us utopian often mean exactly that.

As for criticisms, we must read some very different critics! I guess I filter out the bozos, and tend to consider criticisms from smart people, often libertarians. I've seen the argument I'm thinking of here on Catallarchy made a number of times, phrased as an anarchist critique of minarchism. It works just as well as a general critique of libertarianism.

It is a combination of theoretical and empirical evidence. The empirical evidence consists of every country that has ever existed (or every modern country that has ever existed, or every democracy...). There is a very strong general trend towards more political and less economic freedom. Low taxes just doesn't seem to be a stable equilibrium. The theoretical evidence is the whole public choice school of economics, the ratching of government growth, the budget-maximizing bureaucracy, etc.

Obviously that was just a quick sketch of the idea, and you may or may not buy it, but its certainly a credible criticism. And one which a number of prominent libertarians buy (hence why they believe in polycentric law). My own version of it is the "governing industry" analysis in my dynamic geography paper - as long as government has a high cost of switching and a high barrier of entry, it is going to exploit its customers in a very non-libertarian way.

I think you can shortcut this with anarcho-capitalism, or with dynamic geography, and crypto-anarchy has an outside shot too. But without one of those solutions, I don't think a libertarian country would be stable. I think whatever institutions it had would slowly and steadily expand in influence.

Patri, no I haven't heard

Patri, no I haven't heard anyone argue that "libertarians want a static society." They simply group libertarian ideas in with Utopian ideologies, and do not know that their is a distinct difference between the two.

Then they use the failure of Utopian systems such as communism as proof that a libertarian society would never succeed. The problem is that Utopian ideologies failed because they sought to create a state of perfection (i.e. a static society).

Example: "You libertarians should know that pure anything fails, pure communism failed, and pure capitalism would fail just as surely."

I've encountered variations of this statement many times the only evidence they are basing their claim of the failure of capitalism on is the failure of communism. Now if someone were to explain why their was a distinct difference between the two systems that demonstrated why the weaknesses that brought down a communist system would not exist in a laissez-faire capitalist system it would tear down that argument entirely (presuming it was valid reasoning). Thus the point of my post.

I think it is important to distinguish libertarianism from Utopian ideologies precisely because it proposes an open dynamic society, and because it is much more than some random group of people's idealistic tomorrowland. I've encountered plenty of libertarians who have no clue whether or not a libetarian society would be "wonderful." In fact most of the libertarians I know don't care what society is going to be like. They just want to smoke their pot in peace (etc.).

If someone wants to present an argument about why libertarianism is unattainable I will respond to it. As of yet the so-called "critics" arguments consist of "That's unrealistic." "Utopias never work." "That's idealism." "That would result in chaos."

Show me one of these arguments that has been presented with any evidence or reasoning behind it and I'll consider it a critique worth responding to (presuming the reasoning is sound). Until then I have yet to here a critic claim libertarianism is unattainable with any reasoning beyond "that's simply not how the world works."

I am certainly not trying to gloss over some legitimate point made by critics. The critics I have heard make anything near the claim you are saying they make, do not understand libertarianism and do not want to. They certainly have not presented any logical critiques of it.

This is an excellent way to

This is an excellent way to put it---clarity abounds.

I've been in plenty of arguments with moralist/traditionalist conservatives who promptly and repeatedly refer to me and other libertarians as "moral relativists". The following sentence speaks volumes to that:

On the contrary libertarianism is the polor opposite of a Utopian ideology because it seeks to create a governing system that allows for the greatest possible dynamism in human affairs that is possible. It does not require this. Libertarianism only seeks to allow it.

This is precisely what traditionalists refuse to acknowledge regarding libertarianism: it is not a prescription for life, for how to live; it is a framework that provides for a certain social structure (based on individual rights and property rights), but does not require it. However, time and time again, traditionalist conservatives confuse "I do not believe that I or my countrymen should be forced to do, or prohibited from doing, anything that does not directly affect others" with "I believe that we should be doing these things". Thus, the "moral relativist" charge. It seems that they cannot discern between supporting something, and disagreeing with government prohibition on something. For them, all social interaction is political, and if you don't support certain government-enforced morality, then you're a moral relativist. Certainly these are gross generalizations, but it holds true for most traditionalist cons that I've debated.

I wrote about this is in

I wrote about this is in this month's Liberty magazine in response to an earlier Robert Locke article:



Many adherents of

Many adherents of libertarianism are proposing an unattainable society. They believe that if we merely defined rights in a society the correct way, we would have a wonderful society. But that ignore the enormous empirical evidence for public choice problems and the incredible power of governments to grow and consume resources.

But this isn't what most conservatives mean when they say that libertarianism is "utopian." What they mean is that even if we could establish and maintain a libertarian government (or lack thereof), it still wouldn't work, and everything would go to hell. Your criticism, as I understand it, boils down to skepticism regarding the possibility of such a society ever existing for any length of time, which is another question altogether.

I don't think its fair to

I don't think its fair to say that usage of a term is incorrect and confounded. When there is a meaning for a word that people often mean when they say it, and other people usually understand, then that is a meaning for that word. You might prefer they use a word like "unachievable", and you are welcome to suggest it to them, but I suspect it will take you awhile to reach the ?tens? ?hundreds? of millions of people who use the word utopian to mean the same thing.

My issue here is that I think the people calling libertarians utopians have a good point. I think many libertarians are utopians myself, in the sense I specified. You gave a different definition of the term than people actually use, and then defended against a charge which no one makes (that libertarians want a static society). That ignores the much more relevant and interesting issue, which we're getting into a little here, about whether or not libertarian visions are practical.

It was the fact that by defining the term in a way different than people actually mean, you shifted to an argument that no one is making that I felt was "glossing over" the real point that critics are trying to make. I'm sure that wasn't your intention, and I should not have said "gloss over" because that implies intent. But hopefully you can see why your argument bothers me.

Patri you are using

Patri you are using "Utopian" to mean unachievable. I have a suggestion. Why not simply use "unachievable?" My goal in part was to use a more precise definition of the term "utopia" in order to cut to the core of the matter. People like to lump in libertarianism with socialist ideologies not based on its attainability but based instead on the idealism of its adherents.

Idealism does not mean unattainable, neither does it mean impractical. Likewise I disagree with your assesment that there is no evidence to suggest a libertarian society is attainable. Exactly what kind of evidence do you seek for this?

You say you disagree but the point of my post was not that libertarianism is any more attainable than utopianism or any other philosophy (I happen to think it is but thats beside the point).

Besides how can you "gloss over" the incorrect and confounded usage of a term by using the more precise definition. "Gloss over" implies that I did not make it clear what the term means or how it is used. Yet I did. I was not trying to hide the fact that some people think libertarianism is unattainable. It is simply not relevant to my post.

Great post. Whenever someone

Great post.

Whenever someone calls libertarianims "utopian" I like to distance it by saying that utopia is like perpetual motion, where libertarianism is more like trying to achieve minimum heat loss.

I don't agree. By focusing

I don't agree. By focusing on the original meaning of utopia, you gloss over the meaning that many people see in the word. That meaning is "A wonderful but unattainable society". And when you use that meaning, you have a criticism of libertarianism that is not only common, but, at least in my opinion, somewhat accurate.

Many adherents of libertarianism are proposing an unattainable society. They believe that if we merely defined rights in a society the correct way, we would have a wonderful society. But that ignore the enormous empirical evidence for public choice problems and the incredible power of governments to grow and consume resources. I'm not saying there are no solutions to this, but its a huge problem that many libertarians seem to just ignore.

The evidence that a libertarian society is possible in the modern age is literally non-existent. I mean, I'm still optimistic - I've seen at least 3 ideas which I think have a decent chance of changing things. But to believe that a libertarian society is not merely desirable, but that it is possible, without one of these radical ideas... I think that is pretty utopian.

I'm inclined to agree with

I'm inclined to agree with Nozick's anarchy state and utopia (1974),
that libertarianism is a framework in which people can build their own utopias.

Patri, I want to clarify

Patri, I want to clarify something. I used the term "ideology" because I wanted to refer to the broad set of libertarian ideas including all of the manifested systems, theories, etc. that would be consistent with the non-coercion principle.

The problem I see is us talking about libertarianism in general being unfeasible/unattainable/impossible. Likewise what you said about governments tending to increase in size, and public choice problems does not appear to me to be a critique at all (credible or otherwise). Libertarianism as we are using it is at best a philosphy, in simplest form it is a principle, neither of which can really be judged as feasible or infeasible. It is the practical application of a philosphy or principle into (in this case) some sort of governing or political system that must be judged for feasibility.

Yes I have seen good critiques of minarchism (I've made a few). I have at least one of my own very good critiques of anarcho-capitalism, of which I am an adhererant. As for libertarianism in the broad general sense, the only critiques I've seen of it are effectively worthless because they claim unattainability without any reference to any applicable libertarian system.

In other words, how meaningful is it to discuss the feasibility of some principle without discussing its application in the real world? Those who I have encountered who dismis libertarianism offhand as impractical usually simply cannot imagine a world without coercion. But as has been mentioned here (at catallarchy) before the limits of one's imagination has no bearing on the actual limits of reality.

The issue of increasing government power is a credible critique of any system that requires some form of coercive monopoly. The core principle of libertarianism contradicts the idea of having a coercive monopoly and thus, this is not in my opinion a credible critique of libertarianism in general. As for the public choice stuff I'm not sure if I'm familiar with the precise arguments/critiques you are referring too so I cannot speak to them.

I see. When you say that

I see. When you say that "this broad usage is technically incorrect", what you mean is that you want to redefine the term. Well, arguments in which people say "I want to redefine a commonly used term so that it means what *I* say it should mean" generally don't get anywhere. How, for instance, am I supposed to bring up counterexamples of utopias that are not static when I have no idea of what you mean by "utopia"?
You appear to have chosen four examples: Thomas Moore's _Utopia_, Fascism, Naziism, and Communism (as exemplified by Mao and Stalin). I would say that the common thread in these is totalitarianism. Of course totalitarianism tries to be static. There are examples of things that are generally called utopias that are not static: for instance, there have been anarchist utopias attempted both in fiction and in real life in which continual change was assumed.

The best I can do with your description of what "utopia" mean to you is that its original and more precise meaning was "No place". In which case, of course libertarianism is utopian. There is no place in which libertarianism is a governmental form.

Rich, I didn't make


I didn't make arguments in my post that claim that someone is using a word incorrectly. I said the broad usage of the term is TECHNICALLY incorrect. That means that on a practical level the broad usage of the term is inconsistent with the meaning as intended by the person who coined the term. In my post I said that the original and thus more precise meaning of utopia was "No place." I did not present "static societies" as a definiton of Utopia, but as a common characteristic of utopias.

Likewise if I intended on using some random dictionary as the ultimate authority of all meaning for any given word, their really wouldn't be much point in discussing the original meaning of a term, since the writer of said dictionary would be the ultimate arbiter of what was and was not a "legitimate" meaning or usage of that term.


It amazes me how often people think they are saying something authoritative by copying and pasting from a random dictionary. Any dictionary worth its salt will contain at least the popular usage of a given term. Thats the point of a dictionary, its there to tell us how most people use a term, and typically how most people spell a term.

It is not there to tell us the best way, only way, or even most precise way to use a given term. It is up to us as individuals to determine whether or not we think the popular usage of a word is actually the most accurate definition for the term, or even if it is actually what the term really means.

I mentioned in my post that most people use the term "utopia" to mean an idealized and unrealistic vision of society. You confirmed this by quoting a dictionary. Thank you. If you have an argument to present regarding why you think "No place" is not an accurate defintion of the term, or an argument that disputes my presentation that a common characteristic of Utopian societies is that they are static, I'd be happy to hear it.

When you say that “this

When you say that “this broad usage is technically incorrect", what you mean is that you want to redefine the term.

What is your evidence of Rainbough's intentions? Because, as I read her, she's not trying to redefine anything.

A world without coercion is

A world without coercion is entirely different from a world without the use of force. A world with no laws, and/or no means to enforce laws would certainly not be a nice place to live. This is one of the reasons that the core principle of libertarinism, the non-coercion principle, specificies "intiation of force" and not simply "force."

The original Utopia has a quasi-dress code but not all Utopian systems do. As far as I know communism did not have a dress code, though in some cases what you wore could get you killed. As for being distopian, 1984 was, from what I've heard, meant to be an illustration of the ultimate path Marxism would lead us to.

I don't think its inaccurate to call utopias "distopian" because most utopian systems, when actually implemented, result in exactly that -a terrible place that no one would want to live in.

Rainbough, _Those who I have


_Those who I have encountered who dismis libertarianism offhand as impractical usually simply cannot imagine a world without coercion. But as has been mentioned here (at catallarchy) before the limits of one’s imagination has no bearing on the actual limits of reality._

I would think that many who dismiss libertarianism offhand do so not because they cannot imagine a world without coercion, but because they can imagine very well a world without _state_ coercion. I don't have the best imagination, I'll admit, but fortunately, lots of others have better imaginations, and I can poach from them. I'm picturing a world that's something of a cross between _The Postman_, _Mad Max_, and _Lucifer's Hammer_ with a bit of _Leviathan_ thrown in for good measure.

The utopianism lies in imagining that, if we could just abolish the evil, coercive state, suddenly people will behave rationally rather than like the short-sighted egoists that we usually are. I'm *not* accusing anyone here of arguing in that way; I've seen a lot of thoughtful and careful arguments made in the few weeks that I've been here. Rather, it's the sort of pie-in-the-sky _The Moon is a Harsh Mistress_ / _Atlas Shrugged_ type of libertarianism that people dismiss as utopian. You know, the type where all and only the capitalists are virtuous, while all and only the socialists/statists are horrible bastards.

_Nevertheless, it is a vision of a society in which all the people function in very specific ways, dress in certain ways, work in specific ways, and adhere to very specific standards of behavior and morality...It is a society without growth that considers itself in a state of perfection and thus disallows the possibility of change in a very dynamic and changing world._

This actually sounds much more like a characterization of *distopian* works, stuff like _Brave New World_ or _1984_ or the pre-Neo _Matrix_. But there are plenty of progressive sorts of utopias out there. Think _Star Trek_ (especially evident in _TNG_.)

Rich on what basis do you

Rich on what basis do you claim that Thomas More's Utopia was totalitarian?

Actually the book Utopia is my only source for the meaning of the term, and given that the term originated from that book, and that its current usage evolved from the meaning as exemplified by the book, I really can't see what your problem is with how I am using the term.