Utopianism, Libertarianism and Other Political Theories

In Chapter 9 of Volume 1 of The Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper argues against utopianism. I have heard many people say that libertarianism is utopian. For example, in this series of videos the speaker often states or implies that libertarians, including Hayek, are utopian. I think this is based on a misunderstanding of what Popper wrote. I shall use libertarianism as an example to help illustrate what Popper’s argument implies and what it doesn’t imply.

Popper condemns an approach that he calls utopian social engineering: we may only take rational political action by coming up with a blueprint for an ideal society and then come up with policy by inventing ways to realise that ideal society. Popper then explains his proposed alternative piecemeal social engineering:

The politician who adopts this method may or may not have a blueprint of society before his mind, he may or may not hope that mankind will one day realize an ideal state, and achieve happiness and perfection on Earth. But he will be aware that perfection, if at all attainable, is far distant, and that every generation of men, and therefore also the living, have a claim; perhaps not so much a claim to be made happy, for there are no institutional means of making a man happy, but a claim not be made unhappy, where it can be avoided. … The piecemeal engineer will, accordingly, adopt the method of searching for, and fighting against, the greatest and most urgent evils of society, rather than searching for, and fighting for, its ultimate good.

So what use is libertarianism, or any other set of political ideas in this context? First, it restricts the choice of policies to at least some extent – no libertarian would want to imprison somebody solely for using heroin. Second, it provides a set of ideas to critically discuss and without such discussion progress is impossible.

Unfortunately, libertarians often say things that sound utopian. Murray Rothbard, in For a New Liberty, chapter 15 makes an argument that sounds utopian:

In short, to really pursue the goal of liberty, the libertarian must desire it attained by the most effective and speediest means available. It was in this spirit that the classical liberal Leonard E. Read, advocating immediate and total abolition of price and wage controls after World War II, declared in a speech, “If there were a button on this rostrum, the pressing of which would release all wage and price controls instantaneously, I would put my finger on it and push!”

The libertarian, then, should be a person who would push the button, if it existed, for the instantaneous abolition of all invasions of liberty. Of course, he knows, too, that such a magic button does not exist, but his fundamental preference colors and shapes his entire strategic perspective.

Rothbard then goes on to argue that a libertarian should not accept any policy that would lead to any increase in the power of the state. For example, if a piece of legislation cuts one tax but increases another libertarians should reject it even if the second tax increase is not as large as the cut. He also argues that libertarians should oppose a schedule for cutting taxes because the schedule would imply that it would be bad to cut taxes ahead of the schedule. As a way of narrowing down options this might be acceptable. However, it leaves undecided many issues Rothbard neglects the problem that it is not entirely obvious what constitutes a step toward liberty in every case. To take but one example some libertarians say that fractional reserve banking is fraudulent and should be banned while others disagree, so libertarians won’t always agree on what reforms would move us in the direction of more liberty.

But libertarianism need not be utopian. A non-utopian libertarian would look at any particular problem and think about coming up with a libertarian policy that would help to ameliorate the problem. There are currently many anti-liberal policies whose repeal could relieve suffering on which libertarians all agree, such as drug prohibition. What about the cases where libertarians disagree? Reform in those areas can be put off until they can agree a way to resolve the issue – possibly by different groups trying different policies.

Similar comments can be made for any political group who allow changes of government without force – however badly executed those changes may be. For example, most political parties in liberal democracies need not be utopian. Many of these parties have the weakness of having no identifiable political principles or ideas at all and so can’t be accused of having a plan. However, this makes them less easily criticisable and so it is a weakness from an epistemological point of view. (It may make them more electable, but that is not a good feature of liberal democracy.) All of them could do a much better job of being non-utopian by putting more checks in place to allow the repeal of proposed legislation, having new legislation lapse unless it is renewed and so on.

Utopianism isn’t just about having ideas about how the world ought to change, it’s about having what you think of as a blueprint and working towards it. Political ideologies, libertarian or otherwise can be viewed as providing criteria that reforms should meet rather than a blueprint.

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2 Responses to Utopianism, Libertarianism and Other Political Theories

  1. Rafe says:

    Some good points there, I like the one about not always being sure whether we are going in the right direction in every case. Because so many people will jump on top of any supposed “deregulation” that does not work, it is important that the steps which we take in the (supposed) right direction do actually work, or if they do not (due to other adverse circumstances) we can give a cogent explanation. The classic case is the financial collapse and the GFC.

    For example the struggle for tariff reductions in Australia was set back when suddenly, out of the blue, the short-lived socialist PM Whitlam reduced tariffs by 25% “across the board”. He did this because advisors told him that this would reduce inflation which in 1973 was becoming a worry due to his wage and spending policies.

    However the more sensible approach was to reduce the highest tariffs and get the benefits of cheaper clothing, shoes and cars (the most protected industries) without causing problems for industries that were less protected and more vulnerable to the immediate effects of tariff-reduction.

    In the event, the impact of the tariff reduction was dwarfed by two other factors – major wage increases and revaluation of the currency – but the surge of unemployment was almost universally blamed on the tariff reduction. However this point was not explained by any commentator who was widely read at the time.

  2. Alan Forrester says:

    “Some good points there, I like the one about not always being sure whether we are going in the right direction in every case. Because so many people will jump on top of any supposed “deregulation” that does not work, it is important that the steps which we take in the (supposed) right direction do actually work, or if they do not (due to other adverse circumstances) we can give a cogent explanation.”

    Another example of something that sort of looked like a step in the right direction but wasn’t was the so-called privatisation of British Rail. The British government sold it off but slapped on so many ridiculous regulations that it didn’t work and then people blamed the free market.

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