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Hayek and Harper on Liberal Utopia

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This essay first appeared as an editorial in the journal Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought, Winter 1981, vol. IV, no. 4, published by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio. Although the editorials were unsigned, they were probably written by the Editor Leonard P. Liggio or the Managing Editor John V. Cody. It is republished with thanks to the original copyright holders.

...we must be able to offer a new liberal programme which appeals to the imagination. We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage. What we lack is a liberal Utopia...a truly liberal radicalism...the main lesson which the true liberal must learn from the success of the socialists is that it was their courage to be Utopian which gained them the support of the intellectuals.... (F.A. Hayek, “The Intellectuals and Socialism,” 1949)

“MY UTOPIAN DESIGN FOR HUMAN SOCIETY.” The only assumed starting point will be to try to attain a maximum of liberty as a desirable human condition on an enduring rather than a temporary basis. How to do this is the question. (Term paper topic proposed by F.A. Harper for the Seminar on “Liberty in Human Society,” 1962–63)

Our quotations, taken from F.A. Harper (founder of the Institute for Humane Studies), underline the esteem in which utopian thinking was held by two of the most persuasive advocates of liberty in the twentieth century. Hayek's opening address at the founding of the “wild experiment” to be known as the Mont Pelerin Society (April 1, 1947) reflects this visionary element in neo-liberal thought. Present at the creation of that “experimental meeting,” the American Harper, in particular, was temperamentally optimistic about the prospects for realizing the utopian ideals of a free, prosperous, and humane society, although he well appreciated the difficulties in persuading others (see his essay, “On Teaching Principles of Liberty,” 1966). In a sense, the Institute for Humane Studies (with its interdisciplinary publications, seminars, research, and assistance to scholars of freedom) stands as a monument to the realism of “Baldy” Harper's idealistic “utopianizing” concerning liberty.

On the eve of inaugurating IHS and while still on the staff of the William Volker Fund, F.A. Harper expressed this balanced judgment on the utopian approach to liberty:

In order for any person to perceive the libertarian concept as definitely useful in guiding us in our daily affairs, he must first accept in the abstract a purely idealistic concept of liberty (The Golden Rule, the Decalogue, etc.; a strictly liberal society in accord with these guides, involving complete freedom of each person, property owned entirely privately, unrestricted freedom of exchange and movement of persons, and the like with equal rights for every other person). Then one must compromise his expectations as to the full attainment of this ideal in our time, without compromising the ideal itself in its design. (“In Retrospect—and in Prospect,” August 24, 1960).

Baldy Harper realized how visionary his ideal of a voluntary society of free individuals might seem. In one of his jottings he once noted “The ethic for freedom (utopianism),” and he would often recommend Andrew Hacker's “In Defense of Utopia” (Ethics, January 1955).

No finer compliment could be paid to F.A. Harper, F.A. Hayek, or our essayist than for each reader to give some serious thought to formulating his or her own ideal society, even if that may run “counter” to accepted styles in utopianizing. To utopianize is, as the Rev. Edward Surtz, S.J. observed in his Yale edition of St. Thomas More's Utopia, to practice the uplifting virtue of hope:

The hope for far better things, sustained by the view (so typically Renaissance) that man may shape and mold himself in any chosen form, is embodied in an apocalyptic vision of the best earthly state possible—Utopia.

To utopianize is also to have the courage to build anew in imagination—then in the sometimes more recalcitrant material of reality—our ideal. Our utopian designs serve to transcend the self-imposed limits of our beliefs and models of reality and human nature. For what limits, if any, should we choose to impose on our unfulfilled human potential? Perhaps we can offer no better exemplar of the utopian impulse than our cover subject, St. Thomas More, humanist, parliamentarian, lord chancellor, and martyr to the principle that the individual is superior to the state.

As students of human liberty, we could wish for no more circumspect a cicerone than Professor Widmer to guide us through the byways of euphoric dreams and bizarre nightmares that form the imaginative landscapes of Utopia. Author of Paul Goodman (1980), Edges of Extremity: Some Problems of Literary Modernism (1980), The Literary Rebel (1965), and numerous other cultural analyses, Professor Widmer has long studied the role of “rebellious culture,” utopian speculations, and the perplexities of moving toward a freer society and self (see especially his “Toward a Politics for Homo Negans: Libertarian Reflections on Human Aggression,” cited in the Bibliography). Thus, in the free spirit of Diogenes and the Skeptics, he summons scholars to scrutinize and counterargue with the facile stereotypes that lie in wait for partisan dogmatists who approach the ambiguous connections between utopia and liberty. Practicing what he preaches, Professor Widmer begins (see his first footnote) and ends his essay (see his last paragraph) reminding both himself and the reader of the need to remain open-minded, self-critical, dialectical, and permanently rebellious in countering and challenging one's own orthodoxies. His fascinating tour through the utopian will give the reader the opportunity not only to reexamine the grand themes of human individuality, community, and freedom but also to speculate on the identity and possible destiny of human nature.

Last modified April 10, 2014