Cato Institute Executive Vice President David Boaz discusses how libertarianism handles utopian thinking and why we strive for a better future without knowing for sure what it might look like.
Libertarians are often criticized for their “ivory tower” mindset, spinning out abstract theories that don’t account for real‐world problems. It is a charge familiar to visionary thinkers from across the political spectrum.
But sometimes libertarian policy experts display the opposite tendency. They can become so immersed in the details of policy, or so focused on short‐term improvements, that the inspiring vision is lost. From school choice to health savings accounts to needle exchanges, libertarian policy proposals are designed to lessen the negative effects of existing government policies. That is a valuable goal, to be sure, but it is insufficiently inspiring to people looking for a fundamental alternative to the status quo.
One of the great modern thinkers in the classical liberal/libertarian community, F. A. Hayek, warned us not to be timid about proposing sweeping change:
Socialist thought owes its appeal to the young largely to its visionary character; the very courage to indulge in Utopian thought is in this respect a source of strength to the socialists which traditional liberalism sadly lacks.…
We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage. What we lack is a liberal Utopia, a program which seems neither a mere defense of things as they are nor a diluted kind of socialism, but a truly liberal radicalism which does not spare the susceptibilities of the mighty … which is not too severely practical, and which does not confine itself to what appears today as politically possible. 1
In this book, Cato Institute policy analysts take a step back from current debates and ask instead what a full libertarian transformation of their field would accomplish. What would education, health care, or money and banking look like in a libertarian utopia?
Unlike some utopias—remember, etymologically the word means “no place”—this libertarian utopia is intended to be possible and achievable, fully in accord with the laws of physics and economics and the reality of human nature. Peace, freedom, and abundance, brought about by the rule of law, the protection of individual rights, property rights, and free markets—that utopian vision is attainable.
If I were to choose one word to underlie the following prescriptions for a libertarian utopia, it might be “separation.” We’ve already recognized the benefits of the separation of church and state. How about the separation of education and state, family and state, money and state, art and state? Some ideologies promise to take control of state power and wield it in different ways. Libertarians propose to radically reduce, limit, and constrain state power so as to allow society to develop spontaneously.
One intellectual problem in describing a libertarian utopia is our ignorance of the future. We don’t know what will happen when people are free to create, invent, innovate, and trade. What will the schools look like in your libertarian world? What will happen to the poor? And, always, who will build the roads? Since I’m not assigned here to describe a future policy outcome, I can just say that I don’t know. I don’t know what the schools will look like or if there will even be schools. No one really knows how society will evolve. Predictions about the future have often been wildly off. Bill Gates published a book in 1995 that was dismissive of this new thing called the internet. A year later, he had to publish a new edition that devoted much more attention to the web. And Google.com was registered a year after that.
It’s hard to predict inventions because it’s hard to predict the ways people will find to achieve their goals. One of my favorite stories about this comes from a Cato paper published in 1987 by logistics expert Robert V. Delaney. He pointed out that by 1977, a number of economists had concluded that regulation had raised trucking rates by 40 percent or more; the Congressional Budget Office estimated that deregulation would lead to annual savings of $5 billion to $8 billion. But in 1987, after about seven years of deregulation, Delaney estimated that the annual savings had been $56 billion to $90 billion. Why the huge discrepancy? Delaney found that improved trucking practices had allowed companies to make massive reductions in their logistics and inventory costs. Economists had not anticipated the efficiencies that businesses would find once reliable and inexpensive trucking existed.
This intellectual humility—libertarians’ willingness to admit that they don’t know exactly what will happen if their advice is implemented—has obvious political problems. People aren’t keen on voting for candidates who won’t promise specific results. Members of Congress hesitate to deregulate or privatize without a guarantee that no one will be unhappy. All I can say is that, when we get beyond immediate incremental reforms, my study of economics, sociology, and history convinces me that freedom works better than coercion, markets work better than monopoly, and competition works better than control. When countries stop trying to enforce a single religion, they become more peaceful and harmonious. When barriers to the legal equality of women, racial minorities, gay people, or other marginalized people are eliminated, those individuals are free to flourish in ways that benefit not only themselves but also others. When markets were liberated in northwestern Europe around 1800, we got a 30‐fold increase in living standards. When Maoist communism was replaced by a partially open, market economy in China, a billion people rose out of poverty. The more freedom countries have, as measured by the Economic Freedom of the World survey and the Human Freedom Index, the more prosperous their citizens are.
The authors in this book draw on those understandings to present their visions of how a libertarian society would work in various areas. Let it open our minds to the possibilities of freedom, even as we remember that the future is unknowable and that we have many past examples of freed people creating vastly more interesting products, services, and institutions than were dreamed of before the controls were lifted.