Friday, August 31, 2012

The Myth of a (Classical) Liberal or Libertarian Utopia

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In reading online articles and blogs it is common to find references to a "libertarian utopia."  These references are both supportive and derisive, distorting what I will claim is the idea of true liberalism.  Hayek is even referenced in this Freeman article bemoaning the fact that "we lack a liberal Utopia."  The problem with this phrase first became clear to me when I read the following words:
Contemporary socialists  "light" totalitarians in mindset and vocabulary  go wrong when they imagine that liberals are busily planning the perfect society, the best that is possible in the world, but of opposite sign to their own. [emphasis in original]1
The reality is that there is no liberal Utopia.  Liberalism and its modern-day progeny, libertarianism, are processes rather than destinations.  In the same sense that the scientific process leads to the discovery of laws of nature, liberalism leads to the discovery of that society that best conforms to human values.  Such a society defies planning, as planning implements the values of a small elite.  It also stifles the wide-ranging experimentation  through trial and error  that is necessary to discover the institutions and businesses that are necessary in building a society that supports human values.

Of course, one may wonder, "What are human values?"  I tend to think, as did Ludwig von Mises, that most people prefer prosperity over poverty, freedom over slavery, and life over death.  There are, and always will be, predators who prey on those who live peacefully and productively.  The latter will use freedom to create the cost-effective defenses that maximize the cost of predatory behavior, eventually discarding the unwieldy blunt instrument of the state.

What is needed then is a total commitment to the free market and its concomitant competition as discovery procedure by which society progresses.  There can be no fear of unacceptable outcomes, as outcomes will reflect human values.  Yes, in some areas of the world those outcomes might be repulsive to modern westerners, but eventual progress in those regions is not going to be accelerated by murdering, threatening, or lecturing the population.

What is most important is to embrace the idea that liberalism  the free (or freed) market  is the platform upon which progress depends.  The end state defies prior description, but we can have confidence that it will conform to human values.

*In the body of the post an unmodified reference to "liberal" is a reference to "classical liberal."
1Revel, Jean-François, Last Exit to Utopia, (2009 New York, Encounter Books), 54.
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Alvin Lowi said...

Well said and well worked out. Human life is bound to be an adventure where the destination may not even be recognizable in the terms of art used at the outset. Live and learn, as they say.

Robert Klassen said...

Linking the orginal meanings of liberal and utopia is provocative, however what people are shopping for today is a safe place to live that is neither. I suggest that Spencer Heath and his grandson located it.

Tiago Águia de Moura said...

It's very cool to find someone who shares some views with me. I'm very pleased to meet you Mr. Gladish. I have even started my own blog on radical liberal thought.
Best wishes,

Dave Scotese said...

"What is needed then is a total commitment to the free market and its concomitant competition as discovery procedure by which society progresses."

Does this work for an individual who uses it while those around him do not?

I think it does, to a miniscule but still appreciable degree immediately, and over time, to a greater and greater degree. I think it's happening all the time and has been for millenia. Recent technological developments have accelerated it, while also accelerating the increase of skill in the the predatory class.

I think most of the moves toward this (better, classical liberal) process of helping society progress are invisible. Someone who feels that leviathan is necessary will overhear a claim of the opposite and think nothing of it except for the use of a peculiar word, maybe the name of a book or author, or a phrase like "central bank counterfeiting". Curiosity makes them explore it which in turn leads them to feel less like leviathan is necessary. So I find myself speaking loudly when explaining things to my kids in public ;-). They can also feel more like leviathan is necessary, but this is usually, I think, because they are dishonest with themselves.