Imagine

The left needs utopia, says John Quiggin; "a transformative vision to offer hope of a better life". Last year he wrote:

After decades of defensive struggle, we on the left no longer know how to talk about anything bigger than the local fights in which we may hope to defend the gains of the past and occasionally make a little progress. But the time is now ripe to look ahead.

It’s an odd reversal. In 1949 Friedrich Hayek lamented: "Utopian thought is … a source of strength to the socialists which traditional liberalism sadly lacks." But now with the socialist vision fading from view, it’s libertarians who are the utopians. They read books like Anarchy, State and Utopia, dream of floating cities and look forward to a world where people can move freely between governments, choosing the one whose policies suit them best.

These libertarian visions are a lot more concrete than some of the ‘underpants gnomes‘ schemes of the old left (Phase 1: Destroy capitalism … Phase 3: Live happily ever after), but none have made the leap into reality.

Libertarian seasteaders dream of forcing governments to compete with each other to attract and hold valuable citizens. Seasteading enthusiasts like Patri Friedman imagine oceans filled with floating micro-states. "It’s almost like there’s a cartel of governments," he told Details magazine, "and this is a way to force governments to compete in a free-market way."

Quiggin also imagines a future where people move more freely across national borders. But where the seasteaders imagine a world with lower taxes and fewer regulations, Quiggin imagines welfare state institutions that extend beyond individual nation states:

The ultimate goal ought to be one in which, everyone, no matter where they happen to be born has access to the basic requirements for a decent life. That doesn’t entail a world government (at least in the sense in which we typically understand the word “government” today) but it does entail a break with ideas based on nation-states as the ultimate focus of sovereignty. One relatively minor, but important step towards this would come with a “contract and converge” approach to CO2 emissions, which would ultimately imply equal entitlements to emissions per person in all countries.

Last year Mark Bahnisch at Larvatus Prodeo seconded Quiggin’s call for a social democratic movement that has moved beyond the politics of national solidarity and embraced social diversity. But he argues that it "needs arguing in a much stronger form than the sort of liberal cosmopolitanism which often has affinities with neo-liberalism: the articulation of the conscience of the progressive wing of the globally integrated classes."

It’s unlikely that libertarian utopianism will ever be embraced by the mainstream right. But will mainstream social democrats embrace Quiggin’s cosmopolitan vision?

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conrad
conrad
10 years ago

“But will mainstream social democrats embrace Quiggin’s cosmopolitan vision?”

I think they already are — that’s why the Greens’ vote has increased, and it’s also why you are seeing much greater flows of people between countries than before (both into and, as is very rarely mentioned, permanently out of Australia).

Pedro
Pedro
10 years ago

JQ is a beam-moter!
“The left needs to offer a transformational vision of a better society if it is to motivate the kind of enthusiasm needed to overcome a rightwing politics of tribalism and (often misperceived) self-interest. The 19th/20th century vision of socialism and class solidarity provides a model and a starting point”

Class solidarity is a form of tribalism! The socialist assault on tribalism is to try and define a bigger tribe. The liberatarian approach is to ignore tribes as personal choice items and set policy at the level of the individual.

The version of the right that JQ conflates with tribalism has a policy menu that is quite a bit closer to social democrat than libertarian. It is not difficult to see why that is so, tribalism is just a form of pie-cutting in which the segments are defined by tribal status. The key connection to social democracy is the focus on the existence of the pie.

I notice that JQ does not shy away from giving AGW policy opponents a free kick at the “it’s all a communist plot” claim.

murph the surf.
murph the surf.
10 years ago

Would love to be able to extend support for the ideas about everone having some access to opportunity but I have to consider some parts of the analysis a little too based on a dreamy outcome after Phase 2 just pops up and does it’s thing.
I mean – an international progressive elite ? The members of this group I met around the world weren’t anything other than believers in the market and simultaneously cronyism or as some see it an acceptance that this group of connected and well educated/born people somehow are naturally entitled.
Mark Banisch is right when he sees the right regrouping after tthe GFC and asserting even more control over the agenda.
While the GFC was occurring LP was a good forum to read and think about these issues.
At this time the constant question was ” What is th left doing to show that this disaster is a chance for change?” and ” how will this convert to change?”
Nothing eventuated and as far as I can see the same shenanigans are being played out in the EU now to try and bolster “confidence” so they can flog some more bonds and hope that Phase 2 kicks in off we go again.
It is also hard to understand what getting beyond national or nation states means. There are more ethnic divisions and ethnic realities in place than nation states I think and their existence while often not having control of the government apparatus has as much influnce through economic activity and physical location.
If the idea also means educating everyone to be tolerant of others then that is obviously a good thing but it shouldn’t be necessary to compell it’s acceptance.
We will all be getting along well enough without that being needed.

rog
rog
10 years ago

Deregulation has led to crises that threaten sovereignty – and now they want to do away with the sovereign and let the markets rule.

Patrick
Patrick
10 years ago

I think the problem is not that hard to spot. Utopias serve two roles in politics I think. One is to inspire allegiance to an ideal (and hopefully inspire overlooking some of the murkier means). The other is to generate crumbs that are relevant to the immediate situation – to inform incremental change. The incremental change helps generate enthusiasm and motivation and thus feeds the first part.

On the left side they have probably pretty much exhausted the incremental change which can be inspired by their old utopias. So that doesn’t help. As for the over-arching inspiration piece, it probably doesn’t help that they have tried their utopias and realised that they are actually totalitarian nightmares.

Libertarian utopianism benefits from much much more low-hanging fruit on the incremental change side (thanks in no small part to the left’s success in this area), and a lack of totalitarian nightmares (well probably a surfeit of nightmares about totalitarianism, but you get my point).

conrad
conrad
10 years ago

“Libertarian utopianism benefits from much much more low-hanging fruit on the incremental change side (thanks in no small part to the left’s success in this area), and a lack of totalitarian nightmares”

The libertarian “low hanging fruit” is delusional in the same way that left-wing utopianism is. It basically ignores reality, like what to do with all the people who are essentially non-functioning in society (apparently they’ll all just get jobs with no minimum wage), and that the type of infrastructure that highly populated countries need will just happen by magic if only the markets were left alone.

Patrick
Patrick
10 years ago

I am not sure what low-hanging fruit haunts your nightmares conrad. Pretty much by definition abolition of the minimum wage would not appear to be low-hanging fruit in the real world, unless the libertarian supremacy has come significantly closer while I last slept.

I was thinking of things like increased school choice, or increased labor-market flexibility or removing barriers to entry, etc. Speaking of infrastructure abolishing the NBN might be another.

Improved FOI and other means of increasing lay oversight of government might be others. A strong limited bill of rights is perhaps a not-so-high-hanging fruit in current times, opposing social and cultural and ‘positive’ rights is probably one.

conrad
conrad
10 years ago

“I was thinking of things like increased school choice, or increased labor-market flexibility or removing barriers to entry, etc. Speaking of infrastructure abolishing the NBN might be another.”

Patrick, all of those just qualify as liberal in my books, not libertarian (perhaps I have a more extreme definition than you). As it happens, I don’t think increased school choice would make much difference (there is already a lot of choice in Australia), and, by the same token, given that we already have a fairly flexible labor-market (e.g., no pattern bargaining, being able to fire people etc.), I imagine most of the low-hanging fruit is gone there also excluding a few sectors (e.g., medicine). When I was thinking of infrastructure, I was thinking of airports, public transport etc.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
10 years ago

I find it fascinating to see the continued appeal of the ‘isms’ to insiders of political debates, whereas the actual changes in our societies have very limited overlap with the content of these isms. Which ism is associated with increased regulation? Is there an isms that laments the improved wealth and happiness in this world? Was there an ism on the side of those that lamented wikileaks? Where is the isms that wants to reduce literacy rates and increase fertility rates? What is the ism I can blame for the changes in media quality? Is there actually an ism advocating global environmental disasters?

I would venture all the isms above have pretty much the same view on these things, which begs the question what the forces in the directions none of them advocate are.

Plantagenet
Plantagenet
10 years ago

What is wrong with PATIENT, small-government, UTOPIANISM.

Can anyone find fault with the above?

John Quiggin
John Quiggin
10 years ago

I had some mildly snarky fun with Libertarian utopia here

http://crookedtimber.org/2010/08/12/not-going-galt/

Bottom line

All things considered, it seems pretty clear that Libertopia would yield its residents a greatly reduced standard of living, compared to what they could get from a government. Of course, the ideal would be a nearby government jurisdiction that would provide the large-scale industry needed for a ready source of consumer goods, a home for contracted-in service providers, support for losers and so on, but would not be able to tax the Libertopians.

But once you think that you realise that a partial approach to this outcome already exists, and has millions of inhabitants across the US. They’re called suburban Republicans. The suburbs benefit from urban centers, but resist paying for them, mostly successfully. It’s not exactly Libertopia, but it’s obviously close enough to be more appealing than going Galt.

Patrick
Patrick
10 years ago

I dunno Paul, it would seem to me that ~isms get through a lot of work: islamism, for example, would seem to have been a force in directions none of the above advocate, and communism before it, nazism before that, viz totalitarianism in all its guises…

And those questions were surely poorly thought through:

Which ism is associated with increased regulation?

Is this a joke on a thread about libertarianism v socialism??

Is there an isms that laments the improved wealth and happiness in this world?

Deep environmentalism and anti-colonialism spring to mind, amongst those socially acceptable around here.

Was there an ism on the side of those that lamented wikileaks?

Conservatism? Nationalism?

Conrad, I don’t think there is any stretch by which labor market flexibility or school choice are left-wing ideas of nearly any ism. If they were I’d be left wing and I’m reliably informed that this is not the case. Left-wingers might accept them but that doesn’t make them left-wing ideas.

JQ, that is mildly entertaining, mostly for the idea that you might actually imagine that it is vaguely true (in fact, you probably think it is a piercing analysis of their mavauis foi) that suburban republicans are particularly libertarian.

They are pretty conservative and as you will appreciate in the US that entails a certain degree of libertarianism but that does not make them libertarian any more than you would call yourself a communist, really.

observa
observa
10 years ago

Quiggin gets up in the morning and worries that the butcher the baker and the electricity maker aren’t on the job while the rest of us worry that his culturally diverse, omniscient Green Gummint are-
http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/bush-garden-into-a-wasteland/story-e6frea6u-1226134347519
Just one more public servant on $80k minimum a year and it’ll all be apples or quandongs or some such.
Just like his favourite culturally diverse contract and converge approach to CO2 emissions-
http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/south-australia/apy-solar-generator-lying-idle/story-e6frea83-1225999762268

Socialism, the great idea until you run out of other peoples’ hard-earned, a wee problem the Keensians reckoned they had licked by printing more or borrowing until here we all are.

observa
observa
10 years ago

Woohooo! Blow the trumpets and ring all the bells-
http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/commonwealth-takes-control/story-e6frea6u-1226135211314
Sweet Jesus, out of the frying pan and into the fire you poor bastards.

observa
observa
10 years ago

Just when the observa thinks leftists can’t disgust him any more eh John?

Tel
Tel
10 years ago

… look forward to a world where people can move freely between governments …

Well last I checked, people could already move freely between states (admittedly state powers are systematically being phased out) but also significant numbers of people do move between nations. Yeah, I know we make a big deal about a tiny minority of highly visible boat people, but look at the actual numbers.

… forcing governments to compete with each other to attract and hold valuable citizens.

Governments compete between each other right now, just like they always have done. They compete for:

* resource availability;

* skilled labour (including entrepreneurial and management skills);

* investment capital to build infrastructure.

None of these things can easily be tied down, although some impediments to trade are regularly attempted, our high technology transport and communications systems are beating government blockades, and will only continue to do so. For the most part, modern governments recognise this and just roll with it (even socialist governments understand that making yourself a basket case is not a winning move).

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
10 years ago

Patrick,

I beg to differ. Let’s take a few of the examples you disagree with;

Which ism is associated with increased regulation? You say socialism is in favour of increased regulation and libertarianism in against this. Neither I say: is socialism in favour of the doubling of the health bureaucracy because of the commonwealth-state divide? I socialism in favour of the Kafka-esk increase in paper laundring that has increased so much in education in the last 20 years in this country? Of course not: give me an ardent socialist and an ardent libertarian and I bet you they would agree on what is desirable in these cases and many others. What socialists approve of in terms of regulation is but a small part of the actual increase.

Is there an isms that laments the improved wealth and happiness in this world? You say deep environmentalism and anti-colonialism. Really? Where are the deep environment manifestos adhered to by millions that advocate we all become poor and unhappy? Or the anti-colonialists advocating misery and poverty? You might find the odd one, but none with any real traction.

Similar things can be said about the other examples; if you look at the changes we have in Australia and elsewhere, you are talking about small changes to a mixed economy system that on the whole is providing a lot of good things that no-one really wants to lose. The real policy debates are on the margins of this system, not about it basic design. Perhaps the shadow boxing between ‘isms’ that occurs within a political elite is out of boredom: it is hard to get excited about marginal discussions.

Patrick
Patrick
10 years ago

Paul, that’s nice, but I think it would be more helpful to focus on the actual effects of pursuit of certain ~isms rather than a pure utopia of each ~ism.

Sure, socialism in theory would have no regulations, since there would be no wealth or gains to regulate the allocation of and all would give freely to their capacity, or some such drivel.

In practice, it is necessary to stipulate in minute detail who gives what when and where and to whom, as you well know.

Sure deep greens believe in nirvana, but practically, if we didn’t have coal stations we would be more miserable.

I do largely agree with your last paragraph though.

conrad
conrad
10 years ago

“Conrad, I don’t think there is any stretch by which labor market flexibility or school choice are left-wing ideas of nearly any ism.”

My point is that they really arn’t low hanging fruit anymore. In addition, in terms of workforce participation, I would think that free or very cheap child-care is also very important, so there’s some low-hanging fruit from a left/centre perspective.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
10 years ago

Patrick,

of course, the actual effects of chasing a particular ‘ism’ can indeed lead to many of the phenomena not seen as desirable by the ideal scenario of that same ism. I was indeed juxtaposing the ideal with the reality and noting that few of the main changes we see in reality concords with the ideals of any of the major isms doing the round. If the ideals of most isms agree on the desirability or otherwise of most major changes though, then the point in having long debates about the mainly irrelevant differences in those ideals surely is surely minimal?

Patrick
Patrick
10 years ago

If the ideals of most isms agree on the desirability or otherwise of most major changes though

But isn’t this a fair stretch? Hard libertarianism for example surely does not agree with socialism on the desirability of a whole host of changes we see such as every new government body created or workplace law passed? I for one think there is a worthwhile debate on workplace regulation.

Environmentalism surely disagrees with a whole host of other isms on carbon restrictions for example? And socialism must disagree with liberalism on mandated curriculums? But it seems worth having that debate?

Defence spending?

I don’t want to put words in your mouth but I hope that by paraphrasing what I take from your comments I can understand them!

Maybe you mean that politicians tend to advocate pragmatism in order to be electable and reconcile their preferred ideals with things that seem to work?

Or perhaps you mean that no-one expressly advocates ideals anymore, they only advocate the most likely and possible incremental changes, and that we agree on many of these incremental changes? So that whilst the ideals of the isms might be very different, this does not actually result in very different immediate objectives?

After all no-one is suggesting abolishing democracy.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
10 years ago

Hi Patrick,

lets take workplace regulation and let’s look for the boundaries to flesh out my argument that it is not really clear where the ideologies disagree.

In the old socialist ideal, the community owned every workplace and workplace relations were ‘unregulated’ in the sense that everyone was supposed to be so idealistic that they themselves did their very best for the community without needing to be told or forced. In the socialist utopia of a world governed by idealism, there was no real need for regulation. Similarly, the liberal view was one whereby free contracting individuals should be able to do whatever they wanted. So in their utopias, both had little role for regulation. Both utopias also agreed that slavery was bad, that one wouldnt want deliberate harm done, etc.

Now, actual workplace relations are regulated quite strongly, but not because there is both a private and a public sector, but because the same issues appear in each sector. There is health regulation, safety regulation, regulation arising from a surplus of administrators, regulation about lengths of overtime and night shifts, maternity leave, etc. My point is that I fail to see where the ideals of liberalism or socialism have really come into these regulations: in both utopias much of the regulation would not exist.

And regulation in practice is exceptionally tricky: not so easy to assign at all. Take for instance regulation on workplace ventilation, which is ostensibly there to prevent workers from catching diseases they then spread in the rest of the population (an externality). Even the most ardent libertarian will probably recognise that it is not a workable solution to have the whole population negotiate ventilation systems with each and every employer, whilst even the most idealistic socialist cant fail to recognise that those who pay for the ventilation might not have the population’s interest as much at heart as they should.

If you can show me how the general principles of the ‘isms’ lead to clearly different positions on actual changes and policy proposals, then I would change my mind. I find such cases few and far between though.

Now, one can redefine these isms as representing particular interest groups, in which case one has some kind of implicit understanding that it is not really an ‘ism’ but a club. One ism for the workers, one for the bureaucrats\regulators, and one for the bosses, and one can then appeal to all kinds of returns-to-scale arguments on either side to argue for more or less regulation in order to further the interests of one of the groups. But which big modern isms denounces the other groups as someone they innately do not care about? Are modern liberals or libertarians openly distancing themselves from workers? Are modern socialists openly distancing themselves from regulators? No; all the big isms are inclusive, which leads me to the original point that neither the utopias nor the self-avowed modern-day adherents truly have a clear view of workplace regulation. The policy views seems to come more from implicit clubs than from the utopias themselves.

Patrick
Patrick
10 years ago

Paul, I think there would be rather a lot of libertarians who would think that workers could indeed negotiate and regulate their own ventilation systems standards. Even a few not-so-ardent ones.

Tel
Tel
10 years ago

Why don’t we go through a quick exercise and name three things that workers can be trusted to negotiate?

observa
observa
10 years ago

Well that’s it then.

.
.
10 years ago

Imagine there are no economic rationalists
It’s easy when you’re high
No rednecks below us
Above us only dole cheques
Imagine all the barking moonbats
Preparing for gaia’s doomsday

Imagine there’s no country
It isn’t hard to starve
We can’t hunt or eat meat
No authentic religions too
Imagine all the macrame moonbeams
Weaving baskets in peace…

You may say I’m the chief cat herder
But I’m not the only one
Hopefully some day you will join us
Knitting yogurt around the communal bucket bong

Imagine we’re at year zero
You’ll be reprogrammed if you can’t
Forget about greed or hunger
Our brother chairman will outlaw it
Imagine all the people
Sharing a few cans of beans

You may say I’m the chief equality officer
But I’m not the only one
Hopefully some day you will join us
Where we can all claim victimhood as one