Classical Liberal Visions of the Future I

[Note: This post is part of a series on the History of the Classical Liberal Tradition]

Part 1: Introduction

We have noted elsewhere Hayek’s nearly despairing plea in 1949 for CLs to rediscover their “utopian vision” of what a free society might look like in order to inspire a new generation of young CLs to carry on the struggle for liberty. The socialists and Marxists have had their utopian visions of what a socialist society would look like (all of them terribly naive and many of them absurd in my view) and this I think has been a contributing factor in furthering the socialist cause ever since the 1820s and 1830s when “utopian socialists” like Charles Fourier and Saint-Simon first appeared in France. And when Hayek was writing this essay the proof that socialist, communist, and fascist ideologies could and had inspired a couple of generations of fanatical followers to put their lives at risk in order to build a “New Germany” or a “Workers Paradise on Earth”, was still very fresh in his mind.

It is clear that CLs once had such a utopian vision but seemed to have lost it somewhere along way in the transition from “radical liberalism” to the “new liberalism” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The radical liberals who “fought on the barricades” for liberty in 1647 in England (the Levellers), in 1775-76 in the North American colonies, in the streets of Paris in the first phase of the French Revolution in 1789-93 and again in 1848 (Bastiat, Molinari), had such a vision which inspired them to risk their lives for the cause they deeply believed in. It is hard to imagine any “moderate liberal” taking to the streets for a 5% cut in the size of the budget and of course they never have.

The American philosopher Robert Nozick (1938-2002) asked this very question in his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974) in the concluding chapter 10 “A Framework for Utopia” where he states:

No state more extensive than the minimal state can be justified. But doesn’t the idea, or ideal, of the minimal state lack luster? Can it thrill the heart or inspire people to struggle or sacrifice? Would anyone man barricades under its banner? It seems pale and feeble in comparison with, to pick the polar extreme, the hopes and dreams of utopian theorists. Whatever its virtues, it appears clear that the minimal state is no utopia. [p. 297.]

In this passage Nozick quotes the mocking words of J. R. Lucas’s The Principles of Politics (1966) about how no one would want to die in order to create something as boring as a “limited government” and if it did exist, no one would bother lifting a finger to defend it:

A state which was really morally neutral, which was indifferent to all values, other than that of maintaining law and order, would not command enough allegiance to survive at all. A soldier may sacrifice his life for Queen and Country, but hardly for the Minimum State. A policeman, believing in Natural Law and immutable right and wrong, may tackle an armed desperado but not if he regards himself as an employee of a Mutual Protection and Assurance Society, constructed from the cautious contracts of prudent individuals. Some ideals are necessary to inspire those without whose free co-operation that State would not survive.

Nozick’s solution to this problem is to admit that limited government in itself is boring as an ideal and not likely to inspire anybody to get out of their study chair (let alone their favourite TV viewing chair) to go to the barricades to defend it from its enemies. However, what it does do is to inspire people indirectly by providing a “framework” in which other utopias can be realised and which themselves inspire and motivate people to take action (see pp. 333-340). It is a clever argument, as many of Nozick’s are, but ultimately it is still not very satisfying and would probably not assuage Hayek’s deep angst that CL had become a “vision-free” political ideology and was thus doomed to failure in competition with ideologies which do passionately inspire their adherents, such as the socialists of his and our day and the environmentalists today.

I want to briefly discuss here the vision of a future society some CLs had in the 17th through the 19th centuries (and in doing so contrast them with socialist visions from the same period), and in a later post what some modern day CL/Ls think about the matter.

Some Visions of the Future Society

In the West, we have two important sources for much of our thinking about utopias and dystopias. There is the Christian Bible with its utopian visions of the idyllic Garden of Eden and the ultimate reward for the faithful of Heaven. Then of course, there is the dystopia of Hell for the wicked and sinful. The second key example is the classic vision of a “utopia” (which defines the genre) is Thomas More’s book De optimo rei publicae deque nova insula Utopia (Of a republic’s best state and of the new island Utopia) (1516).

In these stories one’s vision of the future depends upon one’s attitudes towards the following:

  • human nature: will it stay the same or must it be changed?
  • social and economic institutions: will they be similar to those which exist today or will new ones replace them?
  • the supply of resources: are resources such as time and natural materials limited or do they exist in abundance, and is much effort required to acquire them?
  • the role of the State and other coercive institutions: can people run their own lives harmoniously or do they need guidance and control by a lord, master, king, or technocratic elite?
  • the role of science and technology: should one be optimistic or pessimistic about their impact?

CLs and Socialists have very different assumptions/conclusions about these variables which I summarise as follows:

Classical Liberals:

  • human nature: it stays the same, CLs believe that there is an unchanging “human nature” which is observable and understandable
  • social and economic institutions: these remain pretty much the same, although they can be improved with some modification/reforms; there is a vigorous defence of private property
  • the supply of resources: these will always remain limited in supply, they can be used to satisfy many often conflicting demands which have to be prioritised, and they are costly to acquire
  • the role of the State and other coercive institutions: these will be much reduced, even eliminated in some cases
  • science and technology: CLs had mostly optimistic views about their impact and their capacity to allow human progress


  • human nature: human nature has to change as it is self-centred even selfish and this can be done usually through a gradual evolution or more quickly by force (state coercion); the result will be a “new socialist man” more suited to living in a socialist society; socialists assume that human nature is ultimately malleable and not unchanging
  • social and economic institutions: these need to be radically transformed especially the ownership of property and the making of profits; they identify the key relationships which need to be abolished (wage labour, exploitation, money transactions, private property, the family), and argue for some completely new institutions which need to be created (planning bureaucracies), and new habits and discipline introduced via communal living, public schools, and conscription into army
  • the supply of resources: a common theme in socialist writing is that the scarcity of resources is a problem caused by capitalism, private property, and selfish behaviour; in a new socialist world there would be no exploitation or profits and hence there would be abundance for all
  • the role of the State and other coercive institutions: there will be “rational planners” of all things, Big Brother is always a wise ruler, and a managerial elite run everything efficiently
  • science and technology: socialists could be optimistic (19thC) or pessimistic (late 20thC) about their impact

Side note: It should be pointed out that before there were explicitly socialist visions of the future the two classic utopian visions (that of the Christian bible and that of Thomas More) had no place for private property, there was an abundance of goods which were nearly costless to acquire, and these goods could be acquired at very low cost . For example, Adam and Eve could just pick the fruit in the Garden of Eden with minimal effort; most of the labour in Utopia was done by the slave class.

I have discussed socialist visions of a future society elsewhere so I will not deal with it again here. [See “Competing Visions of the Future: Socialist and Classical Liberal” especially the section on “Socialist Visions of the Future”.] Instead I will briefly mention some interesting CL visions of what a future free society might look like and how it would function.

CL/Libertarian Visions of the Future

It is interesting that CL/Ls seemed more inclined to write dystopian visions of a future filled with descriptions of state oppression and socialist tyranny than to write glowing portraits of a happy and prosperous future society based on private property and unfettered free markets. I think that the Lucas and Nozick view that such descriptions would be boring to say the least since an important feature of good film or fiction is the existence of conflict and how individuals attempt to resolve that conflict, if they can. In a completely free, peaceful, and prosperous liberal society the amount of conflict would be much reduced (though never eliminated).

In spite of this weakness, there are several very powerful statements by CLs about what they envision a future free society might look like. See the following pre-20thC examples:

  • the concluding section of Voltaire’s “philosophic tale” Candide (1759) about how people can get along with each other if they focus on “tending one’s own garden” (il faut cultiver notre jardin) online
  • Condorcet on the future progress of mankind towards full liberty and political equality in the “10th Epoch” of his Outlines of an historical view of the progress of the human mind (1794-5) online
  • Richard Cobden’s “I have a dream” speech about a world in which free trade has become the governing principle in all things (1846)
  • Frédéric Bastiat’s utopian visions of economic dictators who refuse to exercise their political powers and cut the size of the state to the bare bones instead:
    • in his “economic sophism” “L’utopiste” (The Utopian) (January 1847) about a radical liberal politician who dreams of being able to form a new government with the power and authority to enact his dream slate of policies in order to reform France, namely drastically cutting expenditure on everything;
    • “Barataria” (c. 1848) in which two characters from Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote discuss what policies Sancho should impose on the citizens of an island which he controls as the dictator; his decision is to let the people ”do as they please”
    • his introduction to his treatise Economic Harmonies directed towards the young students who might read it and whom he hopes to inspire with his rousing words about freedom and social harmony
  • Gustave de Molinari pursues his “radical hypothesis” to its logical conclusion where there is “competition in all things” and “entrepreneurs and markets for everything”:
    • his (or “The Economist’s”) conclusion to Les Soirées de la rue Saint-Lazare (1849) which I have called his “Spartacus speech” where he gives the reader a rousing speech in favor of individual liberty and reminds them of those who were oppressed in the past and their struggles for liberty [See in my anthology of his writings]
    • his “Credo” or statement of his liberal principles (1861) in which states his fervent desire for “la Liberté et la Paix: (liberty and peace)
    • the chapter on “Les gouvernements de l’avenir” (Governments of the Future) in L’Évolution politique net la Révolution (1884) where he argues that governments will be run like private companies which compete for willing customers and thus creating “free trade in government”. [See here.]
    • and his book The Society of Tomorrow (1899) where he summarises his “utopian” views about competing governments
    • the essay “Où est l’utopie ?” (1904) where he argues that utopia lies in a society which has become “un seul et vaste marché” (a single huge market) in which everything is provided by voluntary exchange
  • Herbert Spencer’s vision of a fully free “industrial society” of the future in “Political Retrospect and Prospect” (vol. 2, chap. XIX. ) and “The Near Future” (vol. 3, chap. XXIII in The Principles of Sociology (1876) in which private associations would gradually replace all political ones and centralised government would give way to radically localised municipal governments (if there were any need for such government).

Along with these 20thC examples:

  • Henry Hazlitt’s novel Time will run Back (1951) in which central planners face a crisis and gradually figure out that the only way to solve the economic problems caused by planning is to allow free markets and the pricing system to function again. [Online at Time Will Run Back | Mises Institute.]
  • Ayn Rand’s utopia of a nearly anarchist refuge of “Galt’s Gulch” as an escape within the broader dystopian statist world in Atlas Shrugged (1957)

[See the more extended discussion with extensive quotes in the section on “CL/Libertarian Visions of the Future” in Competing Visions of the Future.]


Let me conclude with a quotation from what I have called Richard Cobden’s “I have a dream” speech about a world in which free trade is the governing principle (1846). On the eve of victory for the free trade Anti-Corn Law League, the British Member of Parliament Richard Cobden (1804-1865) gave a speech in Manchester on January 15, 1846 in which he outlined his dream of a future world where the principles of free trade “in everything” was the governing principle. In this speech on the eve of victory in the House of Commons (15 January, 1846 – the repeal came on 27 January 1846) Cobden was at pains to show that his motives had never been personal or pecuniary but were based on deeply held moral and economic principles that were above the specific place and time of his campaign. At the very end of the speech Cobden gave what is in effect his version of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech in which he outlined what his vision of the world would look like 1,000 years hence when “the Free-Trade principle” he advocated had become universal. Cobden sincerely believed that this would result in “the greatest revolution that ever happened in the world’s history”.

But I have been accused of looking too much to material interests. Nevertheless I can say that I have taken as large and great a view of the effects of this mighty principle (free trade) as ever did any man who dreamt over it in his own study. I believe that the physical gain will be the smallest gain to humanity from the success of this principle. I look farther; I see in the Free-trade principle that which shall act on the moral world as the principle of gravitation in the universe,—drawing men together, thrusting aside the antagonism of race, and creed, and language, and uniting us in the bonds of eternal peace. I have looked even farther. I have speculated, and probably dreamt, in the dim future—ay, a thousand years hence—I have speculated on what the effect of the triumph of this principle may be. I believe that the effect will be to change the face of the world, so as to introduce a system of government entirely distinct from that which now prevails. I believe that the desire and the motive for large and mighty empires; for gigantic armies and great navies—for those materials which are used for the destruction of life and the desolation of the rewards of labour—will die away; I believe that such things will cease to be necessary, or to be used, when man becomes one family, and freely exchanges the fruits of his labour with his brother man. I believe that, if we could be allowed to reappear on this sublunary scene, we should see, at a far distant period, the governing system of this world revert to something like the municipal system; and I believe that the speculative philosopher of a thousand years hence will date the greatest revolution that ever happened in the world’s history from the triumph of the principle which we have met here to advocate. I believe these things: but, whatever may have been my dreams and speculations, I have never obtruded them upon others. I have never acted upon personal or interested motives in this question; I seek no alliance with parties or favour from parties, and I will take none—but, having the feeling I have of the sacredness of the principle, I say that I can never agree to tamper with it. I, at least, will never be suspected of doing otherwise than pursuing it disinterestedly, honestly, and resolutely.

Source: Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden, M.P., ed. by John Bright and J.E. Thorold Rogers with a Preface and Appreciation by J.E. Thorold Rogers and an Appreciation by Goldwin Smith (London: T.Fisher Unwin, 1908). 2 volumes in 1. Vol. 1 Free Trade and Finance.