In his June 22 article “In Search of a Radical Libertarian Utopia,” Tony Hennen eloquently made a case for the most idealistic of libertarian ends: The utility of an entire movement or philosophy, he argues, is “questionable” when it “settles on earth and forgets heaven.” To fight the sense of creeping skepticism in the liberty movement, he suggests that we mentally develop our ideal society to “inspire action and thought.” His socialist peers evince “endearing” and even “enviable” characteristics in their uncompromising idealism, which, in Tony’s words, ultimately allowed socialism to accomplish a great deal in the world. To attain a free society, he challenges us to be fearless in our pursuit of an imaginable end-state: a radical utopia.
Because he offers a compelling and intellectually courageous argument, I will attempt to examine it more closely and respectfully disagree with Tony. After the enticing pull of radical idealism has settled, advancing utopia for an individualistic philosophy is neither possible, nor desirable to contemplate. The only way libertarianism can be vigorous and successful is by remaining on earth with its humans and, alas, its human problems!
Perhaps we might begin by asking ourselves what it means to advocate utopia on behalf of a liberty “movement.” To lend credence to our ideal end-state, it must be definable: it must possess qualities that are different from a non-ideal end-state. We must be able to exclude those who don’t want to live in it, and include those who do. For if we do not banish from our utopia non-wishers whose ideals clash directly with ours, the utopia cannot stand. And then, certain issues must be resolved: are people paying taxes? Is there a private protection service? Are there foreign invaders? Do all the roads have tolls? What do we do about dissenters who decide they don’t like our idea of life? Kick them out of the utopia? I challenge Tony to define his utopia and the means of its attainment; for if one such great end-goal exists, surely we must all learn about it and seek to convince others to accept its tenets. Or, otherwise, we should stand at the doorstep of freedom forevermore.
But such logic inevitably reveals its own fatal conceit: no matter how we define the end goal, the incompatibility of millions of simultaneous imagined utopias will wreak havoc on our pure heaven, and for better or worse, keep us on the chaotic earth. My hunch is: it’s for the better. Many passionate liberty advocates – especially young people – believe that the liberty “movement” is heading towards an ideal destination and thus seek libertarianism as an end goal rather than as a means of achieving a generally prosperous and peaceful society. If we use this “ends” driven logic, we end up undermining liberalism altogether. What is freedom, after all, but a negative value? It’s not an end “state,” it’s not a “thing,” and it’s not a society where people happily reside in private communities with neighborhood common law courts. It is nothing at all but a lack of constraint in the process of learning to live and be happy. Libertarianism as a philosophy is means driven: through both moral and economic arguments, libertarians advocate certain institutions and processes that allow people to discover and pursue their own ends to happiness with as little unjustified constraint as possible. No one shares identical goals in life. If we did, we could take it easy and get a central planner to construct a utopia for us.
Not only is an end goal therefore impossible to construct, but the very thought of utopia should never be enviable, mainly because it tends to result in a theoretically and empirically sound conclusion: repression. Let’s take the thought exercise of defining utopia one step further. Assuming we’re surveying a roomful of twenty people, fifteen of whom come up with different ideal end-goals for society to take (some of whom don’t believe in property rights), how do we know which is correct? Indeed, to have a heaven on earth, it must be defined in one way, and that requires authority. Such an authority can come about only arbitrarily, and to succeed in its realization, the arbitrary utopia will have to be arbitrarily imposed on others by force. If we cringe in horror at such a suggestion, we must compromise our utopia, for we can’t possibly share fifteen different utopias at the same time. After all, it’s heaven, the ultimate (i.e. only) end-destination! And if we don’t like the idea of force, exactly how might fifteen people employ logical and rhetorical techniques to convince everyone in the room of the goodness of their particular heaven? Logic may help us justify our means and reasons when it deals with falsifiable claims. It does nothing, however, for blueprints of perfection and imagined holy lands.
Theory aside, we must also confront the dangerous emulation of socialist idealism for its supposed successes. Tony writes that socialism “accomplished (and continues to accomplish) much because of the brave new world it purports to establish.” But what accomplishments are we emulating? After seven-plus decades of repression spawned by someone’s utopia, entire generations grew up understanding the world via “double think,” learning quickly that the only means of surviving and retaining their humanity was by evading the abusive tentacles of the Party and mentally severing their ties to the state’s mission. The architects of Soviet socialism decoupled human nature from the agenda: while they were supposedly living on clouds, millions spent their lives festering in camps – and the lucky ones in milk lines. Socialism lasted so long not because of the benefits of utopia, but because of utopia’s inevitably repressive consequences. An effort to guarantee one’s free pursuit of happiness differs in essence from an effort to guarantee happiness generally by enslaving oneself and his peers to heaven on earth. — (but of course, one never intended it to end that way!).
Tony believes that a move towards ideal utopia helps enliven a movement’s intellectual spirit. I argue otherwise: we begin to demand heaven not when we are reasoned and confident, but when we are hopeless, disoriented, and confused. Heaven comes to those who cannot otherwise find explanations of their surrounding phenomena. From that hopelessness arises the temptation to separate man from the chaotic historical body of mankind and human nature itself. Indeed, as libertarians, we can, we must, and we do live in the real world and work incredibly hard to remove barriers to a happy human life. Not only are we not more skeptical or lethargic because of our lack of utopia, but we are in fact the most energetic and ardent about promoting liberty when we choose to grapple with real-life issues on earth. How are we losing out in our pursuit of freedom by not knowing where freedom will take us? Indeed, it’s unsettling not to know where we’re going. But I will take that uncertainty any day over the certainty of one man’s utopia.
Tony and I will most likely agree on many things, including the means of attaining a free society. He himself seems to define utopia quite loosely, as a system of organization defined by certain moral and philosophical principles. This does not amount to a utopian vision of heaven. It is a valid confrontation with reality and should be treated as such. Attempting to escape reality and advocate for a vision of the radical alteration of society has highly illiberal and often unintended consequences that cannot and ought not to be part of a libertarian’s agenda. We must be free of the chains of utopia in the first place to properly offer our moral and philosophical arguments for liberalism, wherever it may take us. Just as we seek to eliminate the barriers to human freedom on an everyday basis, we must seek to eliminate intellectual barriers in our conversations of what that freedom really means and how to secure it.
To end, I revisit F. M. Dostoevsky’s chilling novel about the consequences of utopia, Demons. Shigalyov, the leading theoretician in the intellectual company of the novel’s nihilist heroes (of the utopian sort Tony may find admirable), discovers the path to an earthly heaven: To find liberty, one tenth of humankind will be granted unlimited rights over the remaining nine tenths. Calmly, he states,
“…my conclusion directly contradicts the original idea I start from. Starting from unlimited freedom, I conclude with unlimited despotism. I will add, however, that apart from my solution to the social formula, there is no other.”
At least he’s honest.