How do Libertarians respond to the idea that a libertarian society is far too Utopian?*

There are a few standard responses that are neither tendentious nor special pleading. Off the top of my head, I can think of a handful:

  1. The complaint about utopianism is contextual to a specific time and place. Abolitionism was considered radical, and a completely free labor workforce impossible, in the American states of 1850, by most people. Twenty years later abolition of slavery had been achieved, if messily and at great cost. There were a few libertarians of that time who noted that a more peaceful end to slavery may have seemed utopian, but it was that seeming and that charge that allowed Southerners to stick to the slavery position and the Northerners to their bloody union position that led to the impasse and mass death. Had both unionists and secessionist slavers taken the “utopian” position more seriously, they would have avoided devastation. But they couldn’t, because the utopian charge itself prevented sane reason. Sometimes, the “far too utopian” charge is itself the problem. And everyone today recognizes this truth — but only about past impasses.
  2. In Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974), philosopher Robert Nozick explained what liberty — which is what libertarians offer — does for utopia. It provides a framework for utopian experimentation. It is not itself utopian. Most utopias fail. So what? So do most businesses. That does not mean we should not provide the framework that allows multiform cooperation, including of market trade, innovation in firms, families and communities, and in the more subtler forms of utopianism that Nozick discusses in his book. Libertarianism isn’t utopian. It merely allows for the greatest diversity of utopian projects.
  3. If I remember correctly, Chris Sciabarra argues in his several books that the key distinction to maintain is between radicalism and utopianism, and that libertarians tend to be radicals and not utopians. 
  4. Following hints by Hayek and more explicit argumentation by Thomas Sowell, perhaps the key to utopian thinking can be in the vision of human nature and social causation of two distinct approaches to political thought. In Sowell’s schema, the “unconstrained vision,” where human nature is regarded as extremely malleable — perfectible — under the direction of “rational” moralizing and the overwhelming onslaught of institutional design, is the central element of utopianism, whereas in the “constrained vision” man’s characteristic limitations suggest not merely humility but also (perhaps) explicit limits from which liberty itself is defined and derived. So while some libertarians may in fact be utopians because of their Godwinian attitudes about the place of reason in progress, others are more Hayekian in regarding reason as just one tool in the social uplift toolkit, and failure an ineradicable part of sociality. Libertarian figures such as Herbert Spencer dialectically united both perspectives offering a whiff of utopia in their generally hard-nosed and somewhat pessimistic progressivism — Spencer explicitly incorporating decay (dissolution) into his grand schema of organization (which featured growth, that is, evolution, leading to equilibrium and then ineluctably to de-systemizing).
  5. Libertarians often sound their most utopian when they give specific conjectures about how a freer society would work. Why do they do this? To aid people to think through how free people can form orderly solutions to problems of scarcity and conflict. Marx wouldn’t do this for his “scientific socialism,” and thereby hid from the world the impossibility of his designs. Alas, when libertarians attempt to comply with a seemingly commonsense demand for specifics, their offered thought experiements sound more contrived in a utopian manner than libertarians’ main position actually is. The future is unknowable; libertarians usually acknowledge this, insisting that the ways in which humans freely cooperate to adapt to changing incentives and disincentives, opportunities and menaces, are manifold almost beyond comprehension. And innovation cannot be dreamt up before the opportunity for implementation is more fiction than factual, thus smacking of utopian. Libertarians’ faith in freedom is not utopian so much as warranted by past experience. And this faith is more of a bet on good odds than the faith of the cult of the omnipotent state. Libertarians’ trust in freedom is more categorical than magical in form, and does not take the distinctly utopian forms upon which statism actually depends: the belief that a few exceptionally smart people appointed by political means can figure out and implement optimal solutions without devastating failures that wind up getting written into the warp and woof of standard state practice. That is a utopian faith — in that it defies all experience. Here, libertarians get to play realpolitik scoffers at fools’ outrageous dreams.


* This answer has been submitted to the Quora page “The Screaming Libertarian.”