What happens to the state when the reasons for its existence no longer look quite so compelling?

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Jason Kuznicki is the editor of Cato Books and of Cato Unbound, the Cato Institute’s online journal of debate. His first book, Technology and the End of Authority: What Is Government For? (Palgrave, 2017) surveys western political theory from a libertarian perspective. Kuznicki was an assistant editor of the Encyclopedia of Libertarianism. He also contributed a chapter to libertarianism.org’s Visions of Liberty. He earned a PhD in history from Johns Hopkins University in 2005, where his work was offered both a Fulbright Fellowship and a Chateaubriand Prize.

One sometimes gets the impression that libertarians’ reach exceeds their grasp. We share little with utopian socialists, but we often share their utopianism. This utopian streak has helped ensure that both groups remain marginal, but both remain committed to their respective radicalisms for reasons that aren’t likely to disappear. Radicalism and utopianism seem to co‐​occur.

Appreciate the irony, however: libertarian social thought has offered the clearest warning about the danger of an unconstrained vision. To the extent that the American mainstream has appreciated any insight of ours, it has appreciated this one. Utopia is dangerous. Utopian social planning is a delusion, a delusion that humans are peculiarly prone to. When we embrace it, terrible things happen. Utopias are not to be trusted, nor are their peddlers.

Americans seem to understand all this, more or less, as do libertarians … more or less. Yet both have all too often crept back to comprehensive social planning. Politicians of most other stripes like to imagine that they are in charge—and so things will be as they determine. Libertarians, meanwhile, like to imagine that in their own idealized society, impersonal market forces are in charge—and so things will be as market forces determine.

In its own way the latter claim is as ambitious as the former: not even libertarians could know the precise outcomes of the market process at some future time, not when their whole ideology declares that no one can ever have such knowledge. Being more than usually appreciative of markets does not give any greater‐​than‐​usual insight into how markets will behave. By the same token, being more than usually aware that the future is hard to predict does not endow anyone with the ability to predict the future.

But what, then, is the use of vision? If envisioning a utopia is dangerous—and if we bear firmly in mind that tens of millions have died in vain for this or that vision of a perfected society—then what on earth are we doing here? How dare we offer our visions at all?

* * * * *

As I have observed elsewhere, one strong and potentially motivating reason to imagine social arrangements radically other than our own is simply that it is entertaining to imagine the disappearance of various severe social problems and to imagine them replaced by intellectually satisfying solutions. We read about utopias, libertarian and otherwise, because we enjoy them, and not, crucially, because utopian visions track a reasonable future course of events. There remains an appeal to seeing all the loose ends tied up, even if it can never be so in the realm of everyday life. Perhaps we can retreat to books for inspiration and solace.

Yet philosophers since the time of Plato have warned that entertaining falsehoods are to be avoided, whereas ugly truths should be confronted and even shouted from the rooftops when the occasion demands. The task of philosophy is in part to sort the entertaining falsehoods from the hard truths, and to deal with each as its nature requires. Confusing the two would be bad form, and at some point, confusing them would be an assent to a lie.

One approach to this philosopher’s task—although admittedly an imperfect one—is simply to make certain that whenever we consider a view, it isn’t dressed up in such a way that it unduly entertains. Let truth and falsehood both be boring, and virtue may just settle the contest. This, though, requires that the knowing purveyors of falsehoods likewise constrain themselves, although they will probably not comply. Even in our solitary contemplation, we may still dress up the side that we favor, and we may even do so without realizing what we have done. Bias runs deep.

Another approach is to think about the future in ways that are consciously less than utopian. The contributors to this volume are notably less than starry‐​eyed about the prospects for comprehensive or radical social change. One seldom gets the impression, on completing the essays of this volume, that one has glimpsed the world transfigured. Rather, in one area after another, our authors simply imagine things running on a more voluntary basis than they currently are. As our contributors are all libertarian, they generally find that this more voluntary basis has better consequences than, and is preferable to, the status quo.

That modesty is probably for the best, and there are some clear reasons for it. Most of us are policy wonks of one kind or another, and we have mostly stuck to our respective areas of expertise. Experts generally struggle like the rest of us when they stray beyond their specialization. Away from their home territory, they struggle not only to predict the future accurately—which is generally the case within their home territory—but also simply to predict the future plausibly, that is, to predict in such a way that experts from other fields find their predictions worthy of sustained consideration.

Faced with this plausibility deficit, utopian thinkers generally reach for beauty. After all, it’s entertaining. And one might add that beautiful stories inspire more popular action than do plausible expert predictions. In its capacity as an inspiring story, and not as an expert prediction, Marxism conquered half of Europe. Long before Marxism was making the world tremble, the experts in Marx’s own field, economics, had generally rejected his theoretical framework and knew it to be unsound. The masses—and more important, the specific members of the Russian intelligentsia who formed the core of the first successful Marxist revolution—were unfazed. Their story was beautiful; the good guys would win in the end, and the bad guys would be defeated forever. Then, all would be peace and plenty forever.

This volume has taken a less lovely approach. Untrue to libertarian form, it has assembled a planning committee. In the real world, the indictment against such committees is both long and grim. But our committee can do no more than suggest. It cannot command. Although I know and trust many of the people who wrote for this volume, depriving them of the power to command is still probably for the best.

A committee may and probably should improve on the knowledge that one person can bring to a task; but against this advantage, a committee always acquires the disadvantage of incoherence. This disadvantage means that implementing simultaneously all policy proposals offered herein would likely not be such a great idea. Conflicts would arise, the likes of which individual authors could not have foreseen even if they had tried.

As F. A. Hayek observed, the utility gain that utilitarians claim might be had from a particular policy change or a particular economic intervention always presumes a great deal about the rest of the economy. Specifically, Hayek argued persuasively that an accurate prediction in any one area of the economy requires, in effect, countless accurate predictions about other areas of the economy as well. “The effects of any rule,” he wrote, “will depend not only on its being always observed but also on the other rules observed by the acting persons and on the rules being followed by all the other members of the society. To judge the utility of any one rule would therefore always presuppose that some other rules were taken as given and generally observed … so that among the determinants of the utility of any one rule there would always be other rules which could not be justified by their utility.” 1

In simpler terms, it can be hard to assess the usefulness of changes to the rules by which individuals conduct themselves. The reason for this difficulty is that rules exist in an ecosystem full of other rules, only some of which we are capable of knowing or articulating. It is plausible to think that too many changes to the rules, pursued too quickly, will result in a situation in which no rules are felt to be binding by individuals; they may see no purpose in any particular rule, in light of the general disorder all around them. Rules owe much of their persuasive force, and their intelligibility, to the existence of other rules.

This limitation has consequences for social planning. Any intervention depends for its success on at least two background conditions: (a) the planners who conceived of the change must have accurately assessed the economic conditions surrounding their intervention and (b) these conditions must not change in unforeseen ways once the intervention has been attempted. If conditions change outside the scope of the proposed course of action, those changes could make the action harmful or even nonsensical.

In a sense, each essay in this volume takes for granted, implicitly, that a stable social ordering will remain in the background, and that the changes to this ordering will be few. Yet collectively, this volume also proposes some fairly sweeping change. So what gives?

* * * * *

We live in a world where nearly everyone takes the state wholly for granted, and where many are convinced that, were it not for the state, modern life would be utterly impossible. Modern people have tasked the state with so much, and the state actually does so much for us, that it is hard to imagine a life without it, libertarian qualms about inefficiency and coercion notwithstanding. Maybe we just have to put up with the state’s negative qualities? Bad as coercion may be, some things are still worse than coercion, one might be tempted to answer, and the state protects us from exactly those things. Or so the argument goes.

If one were to assert that the state does essential work for us, such that we must brave the state’s admitted ethical drawbacks, the person making this claim ought to back it up with a demonstration of the necessity of the state. This argument would be one for statists to make—and for libertarians to falsify.

The statists’ view may be completely correct, and if so, then libertarianism is busted. How, though, could we be sure of it? The obvious answer is that we should test the hypothesis. Testing a hypothesis requires that it be stated clearly and that a clear agreement exist on what the hypothesis implies observationally. It also requires that we fairly undertake experiments in doing without the state, to see what happens in a variety of stateless conditions, not merely those stateless conditions prompted (for example) by wars, rioting, or natural disasters.

We should bear in mind that the failure of any particular experiment does not mean that the state itself is necessarily justified. Many modes of life exist without a state, and some are doubtless preferable to others. Statelessness is not a unitary condition, and the failure of a given instance of statelessness does not mean that no form of statelessness can ever succeed.

Yet should a stateless state of affairs prevail—in just one issue area, or in many—the defenders of the state would have a lot of explaining to do. Were they not the ones who assured us that all this coercion was absolutely necessary? And if we can do without the coercion while retaining the advantages of modernity under a more voluntary set of institutions, why not go that way instead? If the necessity of the state is falsified in one issue area, how sure are we about the others?

Here, one possible hypothesis that we might want to test would look as follows:

X is a problem that is best (or only) solved in a manner that requires a state.

Does education require a state? Does welfare require a state? Does money? If it does, then the question is simple: Is education or welfare or money worth the coercion inherent in having a state? But if sufficiently attaining those goals doesn’t require a state, then presumably the state should shrink. We have thus far only been accepting its existence as a necessary evil, as a stopgap that gets us to a place that we want to be, albeit while incurring a serious drawback.

I must stress that describing the state in this way—as a doubtfully necessary evil to be chipped away at—does not imply that the state is justified. Being unable to envision a satisfactory nonstate solution to a given social problem does not mean that no nonstate solution exists. It could just mean that we’ve experienced a failure of the imagination.

This volume is best understood, then, as a piecemeal attempt to imagine a more voluntary social order. Just as it is unsatisfactory to say, in the face of natural phenomena whose explanations we cannot imagine, that “God did it,” so too it is unsatisfactory to say, when we can think of no nonstate solution to a social problem, that the state must exist in order to solve it.

Perhaps we do need a state for this type of problem, but let’s make the advocates of statism prove their case. Where is the necessity of the state? Have we really eliminated all possible challengers? If the best that advocates of a state solution can say is, “Well, I can’t imagine anything better,” then let them consider the inadequacy of this argument. After all, it is only an argument from ignorance.

1. F. A. Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty, vol. 2: The Mirage of Social Justice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), p. 20.