All Commentary
Friday, February 1, 2013

What Would a Free Society Look Like?

From time to time someone asks me what I think a genuinely free society would look like. How would it be organized, and who, exactly, would build the roads? I know I’m not alone. My answer is always: I don’t know, and neither does anyone else.

In a sense, I’m a libertarian precisely because I understand why it’s impossible to answer that question any other way. I cannot accurately foretell what specific institutions, mores, and governance structure—let alone art and architecture—a free society would have. Will it be dominated by traditional nuclear families or same-sex marriages? Will its cities be monuments to mammon, or green and sustainable, or plain and ascetic? Will communities be small and gated or open and diverse?
Of course it’s fun to envision possible libertarian utopias, whether Ayn Rand’s Galt’s Gulch or a modular floating city (at sea or in outer space). In fact, I think F. A. Hayek said somewhere that such utopian thinking is important as a means to inspire the next generation of classical liberals, much as Marx’s workers’ paradise inspired communism’s fellow travelers. But unlike the workers’ paradise, the ideal future we imagine should be, well, possible.
We do know that a libertarian society, like any society in the real world, has to respect the principles of economics. These include the existence of tradeoffs in a world of scarce resources and the role of property rights and individual autonomy in reducing or even eliminating those scarcities. As Dave Prychitko has said, “Economics is the art of putting parameters on our utopias.” 
Such is why the economically illiterate, such as those Hayek calls “Cartesian rationalists” or “rationalist constructivists,” have a kind of public-relations advantage over most libertarians: they can offer with all sincerity a clear picture of what their ideal society will look like. The hallmark of constructivism is confidence that human reason, or at least some person’s or group’s human reason, is powerful enough to accurately predict how specific actions today will produce particular outcomes in the future.
It seems to me then that the hallmark of libertarianism is humility in the face of the limits of our reason and thus a deep skepticism about the effectiveness of large-scale planning. The world changes moment by moment in ways that we cannot fully predict. Other things equal, the further into the future we try to plan—and the larger the number of people we try to plan for—the less likely that we will succeed.
Put another way, if you could reliably know that a particular action today will actually produce an outcome beneficial to all, I think it would be very hard (though not impossible) for anyone, libertarian or not, to argue cogently against it. If we knew that the government could implement a policy that would permanently improve the well-being of a large segment of society without harming the rest, it would be very hard to argue persuasively against it. You might persuade some on the basis of the non-aggression axiom alone (i.e., thou shalt not initiate violence against another), but, again, that would be a very hard thing to do in such a case. The reality is that this kind of certain knowledge is denied to human reason. There are always unintended consequences.
I don’t want to overstate our ignorance. Naturally, each of us has to use reason and whatever knowledge we have to plan our daily lives. We do the best we can at each relatively small step of the way. We plan for ourselves and sometimes for others, too—family, company, neighborhood. But that’s the most we can really do in an ever-changing world, that is, within our cognitive limits. It’s when we try to take “great leaps” ahead or plan for large social groups—e.g., cities, countries, classes—that we run into serious, often catastrophic, problems caused by our unavoidable ignorance.
To make matters worse, appreciating the limits of reason often places libertarians in an easily caricatured predicament: “Oh, so you’re saying that somehow the free market is magically going to take care of it!”
Rather than saying what we would see in a free society, I think we’re on safer ground predicting what we wouldn’t see. You wouldn’t see slavery or legal privilege or power elites. I doubt you would see mass starvation or large-scale war. I’m pretty confident that the legal structure would emerge from the foundations of some form of private property, free association, and non-aggression. But if the question is about the specific legal and social institutions that would emerge in the free society, then almost anyone else’s guess is as good or bad as mine.
So, just who will build the roads?  Truthfully, I don’t know if roads would even need to be built. Back in 1990 someone might have asked, “Who would build the iPhone?” Of course, in 1990 no one, not even Steve Jobs, would have known the answer to that question. Indeed—and here’s the point—no one could have known back then even to ask the question. That is the creative power of people unleashed by the market process.
Losing sleep pondering over “who will build the roads” or the shape of the libertarian free society indicates at best, I think, a lack of imagination and at worst, a misunderstanding of the significance of liberty.

  • Sanford Ikeda is a Professor and the Coordinator of the Economics Program at Purchase College of the State University of New York and a Visiting Scholar and Research Associate at New York University. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.