Envisioning a Libertarian Cacatopia

[Note: A slightly modified version of this short piece can be found at: Jim Throgmorton, “One writer’s Libertarian utopia is another’s nightmare,” Iowa City Press-Citizen, (August 29, 2012), p. 13A.]

On the Aug. 17 Opinion page of the Press-Citizen, one small-“l” libertarian (Deb Thornton) praised the work of another (Beth Cody). Fair enough. But Thornton did not let her readers in on a secret that any student of utopian thought knows: one person’s utopia can be another’s horrifying world, or “cacatopia.”

Thornton praises a new novel in which Cody envisions a Libertarian world that could exist in 2162.

Like many other recent novelists, Cody imagines that our country will have fallen apart. Unlike other novelists that foretell the collapse being caused by nuclear war, a global pandemic, aliens, or catastrophic climate change, however, Cody envisions the country being brought down by “onerous debt and taxation, unsustainable social entitlement programs, overreaching government regulations, continuing wars and general corruption.” By 2162, the states between the Mississippi and Nevada will have created a “Free States of America” guided by Libertarian principles.

According to Thornton’s summary, Cody imagines that this new FSA’s Constitution would prohibit federal and state government taxation, with all government being funded by voluntary donations: “The federal government cannot raise money through debt. Government cannot print money or regulate its printing. There is no national military, only voluntary militia. Government cannot fund or provide education. Government employees cannot be paid with public money. And most importantly, the federal government cannot make new laws restricting the individual freedom of individuals, businesses or states.”

I love utopian thinking. When done well, it can help some people imagine an alternative future that responds positively to their shared hopes and fears.

But ever since I first read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead as a young man, I have grown very leery of utopians who replace thought with ideology, offer simplistic solutions for complex problems, and disdain living and working in community with people who differ from themselves.

How would utopian Libertarians like Cody enact their preferred world in the face of opposition from people who think it would take us back to a morally-indefensible Dickensian world of hard times and bleak houses?

• Because the reach of democratic governance would be dramatically curtailed, regular people would have no effective means of countering the power of transnational and multinational corporations. It would be like they were living in the late-1800s when big railroad, steel, and banking corporations ran roughshod over farmers and workers.

• Lacking any institutionalized means of influencing corporate action, all of us would be exposed to a much more dangerous array of environmental hazards and public health risks. Transnational corporations would be free, for example, to spill vast quantities of oil in ground water and oceans without fear of any constraints.

• A tiny few would flourish while the majority would become undereducated, underfed, ill-housed, ill-clothed and lacking any protections from the random hazards of daily life.

Imagine you live in Cody’s Libertarianized Iowa City. You have a job that pays a modest salary without any benefits except those that you personally are able to negotiate with your larger and more powerful employer. You have to pay the entire cost of your children’s education. Imagine further that your aging mother lives in some distant city. There is no Medicare, Social Security or Medicaid upon which she can rely. There are no federal taxes to pay for the roads, passenger rail or air traffic control that would enable you to visit her.

Who then shall care for Momma?

Cody might reply that we cannot afford Medicare or Social Security. This is nonsense. We collectively have more than enough wealth to continue them indefinitely, especially if we bring health care costs under control. The issue is not collective wealth, but how that wealth is distributed.

Thornton’s and Cody’s shared dream leaves me awakening in a cold sweat.

Which does not mean that I would oppose everything they advocate. We might agree on certain points, and I would enjoy discovering what those points might be.

This is what it means to live in a shared world.

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