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Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Towards a Liberal Utopia?

Continuum International Publishing • 2006 • 312 pages • $29.95

Towards a liberal utopia? You mean, like Sweden?

No, decidedly not. This wonderful volume comes to us from the venerable British free-market think tank, The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). In Britain the term “liberal” has not been subjected to quite the degree of corruption that it has in the United States, and the liberal utopia about which the authors write means a nation where the state has been reduced to its essential order-keeping functions. In a country that has waded so far into the swamp of socialism as Britain, that is an extremely radical vision.

Published to honor the 50th anniversary of the founding of the IEA, the book’s essayists playfully imagine that they are looking back at the present from 50 years in the future and speculate as to what has transpired to bring about the liberal utopia. (The full book may be downloaded from the IEA website: www. The result is at once entertaining and thought provoking as the IEA’s crack theoreticians explain how Britain might have metamorphosed from a statist caterpillar to a liberal butterfly in the next half century.

The 21 essays cover a wide range of topics, only a small sampling of which can be noted in a short review. Here are some of my favorites.

Tim and Helen Evans lead off with a piece on the infamous National Health Service, the socialist innovation that has set such a bad example for other nations. “The root of the problem,” they explain, “is that British medicine, all British medicine (be it state or independent), is ultimately a government sponsored monopoly.” They envision a future where the free market has been restored in medical services. What brings that about is the growing revulsion of people against the inefficiency of socialized medicine (long waits for treatment) and the loss of privacy as the state begins to collect information on patients without their consent.

James Tooley writes about the reclamation of education from the grasp of the state. He imagines conducting focus-group sessions in the future in which “people looked back on our obsession with schooling with a mixture of horror and bewilderment.” The British 50 years hence have given up on government-run education in favor of a system built around family, freedom, and philanthropy. The state does not run the educational system; in fact there isn’t really a system at all, but rather individuals and families doing whatever they think best to learn. Released from government control, the market liberates learners and teachers to explore for the ideal arrangements.

J. R. Shackleton tackles the issue of labor-market regulation. Capitalizing on naïve voter beliefs that government action can and should improve the lot of the worker, nearly all governments have enacted a host of measures that supposedly do so by interfering with freedom of contract. Shackleton points out that “The true cost of introducing mandated benefits—longer holidays, shorter working hours, paternal leave—does not ultimately reduce the profits of private business: it is instead passed on to workers in the form of cuts in wages and employment.” He views all such interventions as inflicting unseen economic damage and proposes the radical change of reinstituting freedom of contract between worker and employer.

Other excellent essays in the book include liberal approaches to policing, the environment, trade, land-use regulation, limiting taxation, pensions, and constitutionalism.

The second part of the book consists of five chapters written by the late Lord (Ralph) Harris. Harris was one of the founders of the IEA—an act that took great fortitude in the Britain of 1955. In the postwar years Britain had fallen under the spell of Keynesian economic theory and egalitarianism, and Harris writes that the role of the IEA was like that of “a missionary in a pagan land.”

With limited resources, Harris and his colleagues had to decide how to maximize their impact. The brilliant economist Arthur Seldon was instrumental in the decision to establish “a niche market specializing in short, scholarly texts aimed principally at teachers and students of economics, but accessible to interested laymen, journalists, and the minority of politicians with a taste for serious reading.” Perhaps the most famous of those publications was F. A. Hayek’s 1976 monograph advocating the denationalization of money.

Friends of liberty around the globe should be grateful for the efforts of the IEA over the last half century. Towards a Liberal Utopia is a most commendable volume, and readers are encouraged to look into the steady stream of IEA books and papers.

  • George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.