The Chief’s Thoughts: The Myth of the Libertarian ‘Utopia’

It is important for libertarians to consciously and with purpose reject the notion of a ‘libertarian utopia,’ as it detracts from the substantive practicality of the libertarian political philosophy.

I had an extended debate on Facebook recently about open and closed borders (surprise!). But despite the discussion having been particularly about borders, the meme of the apparent ‘utopia’ libertarians believe in, came up. As it often does, it was used in the sense of a hypothetical scenario where a libertarian society (‘utopia’) exists, to guide the conversation about borders. This meme, unfortunately, makes an appearance in far too many discussions.

Libertarianism has never been utopian, although one might be forgiven for thinking that it is after a long discussion with free marketeers about how ‘the market’ will solve society’s problems. Libertarianism, for the most part, is simply a recognition of human nature.

And as far as practicality goes, there is no political philosophy more implementable than libertarianism, as it only requires government to do less – something it is very adept at when the circumstances suit it. Despite our deep disagreements, most libertarians would agree that progress would follow as a direct result of bureaucrats and politicians putting their pens down and going on an extended vacation.

But even where this happens, and a substantial chunk of the ‘political’ problem is removed, there should be no doubt in our minds that ‘libertarian societies’ will be marked by many imperfections. The market will let us down on many occasions. After all, the market does not do what we, the conscious libertarians, always want it to do. The market is a force without a political and ideological worldview. It simply goes where the bulk of people are willing to put their resources. And sometimes people will not consciously want to put their resources in something, which might be to the net detriment of society. But that’s okay.

We are not libertarians because we desire easy living and utopia. We are libertarians because we believe there is an imperative in scaling back – or abolishing – the most manifest instance of institutionalized violence ever known to our species. As I wrote for Students For Liberty in June 2015:

‘The State moving out of the way’ obviously has its own consequences, many of which are unknown, but which we believe in any case will be preferable than having a supermassive institution extorting us on a continual basis in every facet of our existence.

We believe that whatever imperfections or problems a market-driven society will throw at us will be significantly less of a problem than the constant and unending ‘permission’-based existence we currently live, where nothing we do or want to do happens without some or other kind of government involvement. Indeed, if ever something like a ‘microaggression’ existed, it is when we need permission from low-level bureaucrats to do things as basic as cut someone else’s hair or sell liquor at a restaurant.

As libertarians we should avoid legitimizing the ‘libertarian utopia’ myth by acting as if ‘the market’ will ‘solve’ every imaginable problem we face. It simply won’t, and even today, does not do so where it is allowed to. In our debates off and online we should embrace the unpredictability of the market, and admit that even though we think things will generally be great – informed by sound economic principles – we can never say for certain. And if the unfortunate comes to pass, we’ll find a way to deal with it (or we won’t; value is subjective, after all).

Establishing a ‘libertarian society’ will create new problems, but those are problems we are completely willing to face, knowing that they will be dealt with on the basis of voluntary cooperation and tolerance for nonviolent differences. That should be our selling point.

This post was written by Martin van Staden.

The views expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect our views and opinions.

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Martin van Staden is the Editor in Chief of Being Libertarian and RationalStandard.com. He has a law degree from the University of Pretoria. His articles represent his own views and beliefs, and not that of any of the organizations he is involved with.
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  • jmillsintacoma

    This grossly misstates libertarianism. It is not “the market will solve everything.” That’s really anarchism.

    Libertarians believe that it is the proper role of the state to defend the meek and powerless from those who are hitting others or stealing things. This is a core feature of the philosophy, derived from a partial delegation to the state of individual self-defense rights. Libertarians call on the state to defend those unable or unwilling to defend themselves and in that respect, it’s an endorsement of the state as a controlled lynch mob – controlled by the process due an accused before sentence is imposed.

    It’s simply not true that Libertarians envision a utopia where all government officials just “do less.” It’s a philosophy where certainly government officials do not engage in all the things they currently control, but it’s a utopia designed around the state efficiently and effectively maintaining order in the sense that bad guys are not allowed to abuse others with impunity.

    Some of how Libertarians envision the state acting is easy – the state throws people into the pit who are sexual predators or murders, or bank robbers; no Libertarian would seriously debate this. Some, is more nuanced and complex, as in whether copyright violation is “stealing” or whether abortion is “murder,” or whether someone like Rosa Parks was subjected to a form of violence or “hitting,” recognizing that not all abuse involves physical assault. Is Internet bullying “hitting others”? Is “predatory lending” a form of theft? These are complex questions that occupy the minds of cutting-edge libertarian thinkers. But, the idea that Libertarian “utopia” envisions no role at all for the state in these matters is just a misunderstanding of the philosophy.

    As libertarians we should avoid legitimizing the ‘libertarian utopia’ myth by acting as if ‘the market’ will ‘solve’ every imaginable problem we face. It simply won’t. That’s true, but the idea that it ever would is inconsistent with the basic tenants of libertarian thinking.

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