Classical Liberal Visions of the Future III: Liberal Experiments, Frameworks, and Archipelagos

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


Having a single utopian vision is the hallmark of the statist or the socialist and it is a vision which they want to impose on others by force if necessary. Only in this way can all the errors and injustices of the old arrangements of society be destroyed and the new, rationally planned, and just arrangements of the new society be created.

The CL/L rejects this idea on two grounds:

  1. force is used on non-consenting individuals – hence it is immoral and unjust
  2. their schemes will not work because they ignore fundamental principles about human nature (that individuals are selfish or at least self-interested) and they violate important laws or principles of economics (such as the ever present problem of scarcity, opportunity costs, and incentives) – hence it is impractical and unworkable for groups larger than the family or the tribe (as Hayek argues in Law, Legislation and Liberty (1973-79)

This poses a dilemma for the CL/L, which is that, given the facts of human diversity and the complexity of modern societies it would appear that there can be no one, universally agreed upon vision of a free, peaceful, and prosperous future society. How then can the CL/L accommodate different people pursuing their own different visions of the “good life”? Here I would like to discuss four interesting answers to this problem which have been given:

  • John Stuart Mill’s idea that people, if free to do so, would undertake “experiments in living” which would both satisfy their own desire to live in a way they thought best for themselves, and provide, through a process of trial and error, examples for others to observe and take up if they were so inclined
  • Robert Nozick’s idea of competing utopias in a “framework for utopias” (1974)
  • Friedrich Hayek’s idea of a “utopian” vision of a legal “framework” within which a large number of associations and organisations which would make up what he calls “The Great Society”
  • Chandran Kukathas – idea of the “liberal archipelago” of multiple jurisdictions (some liberal, some not) in a sea of mutual toleration (2003)


  • John Stuart Mill, CHAPTER III: “Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being” in On Liberty (1859)
  • Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), “Chap. 10. A Framework for Utopia,” pp. 297-334.
  • Friedrich Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty: A new statement of the liberal principles of justice and political economy 3 vols. (1973-79)
  • Chandran Kukathas, The Liberal Archipelago: A Theory of Diversity and Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). Chap. 1 “The Liberal Archipelago,” pp. 19-40.

JS Mill’s idea of “experiments in living” (1859)

[John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)]

In his great book On Liberty (1859) JSM (1806-1873) envisaged a free society in which individuals could engage in “different experiments of living” in an attempt to discover which one worked best and which one best suited their particular needs and interests. He likened the process to that of free speech in which different ideas could be tested in free argument and open debate and those that were found wanting could be ignored, and those that proved their truth or usefulness would remain and be used by others. He believed that there should be many instances of “the trial of new and original experiments in living” and that these so-called “experimentalists” be completely free to do this, so long as they did so at their own cost and did not impose their choice on others against their will. In other words, the way one lived one’s live also operated in a competitive, free market and one could attract adherents to your way of living if your living experiment proved itself like any other good for sale in the market place.

The famous passage from CHAPTER III: “Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being” in On Liberty (1859):

The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people. But if he refrains from molesting others in what concerns them, and merely acts according to his own inclination and judgment in things which concern himself, the same reasons which show that opinion should be free, prove also that he should be allowed, without molestation, to carry his opinions into practice at his own cost. That mankind are not infallible; that their truths, for the most part, are only half-truths; that unity of opinion, unless resulting from the fullest and freest comparison of opposite opinions, is not desirable, and diversity not an evil, but a good, until mankind are much more capable than at present of recognising all sides of the truth, are principles applicable to men’s modes of action, not less than to their opinions. As it is useful that while mankind are imperfect there should be different opinions, so is it that there should be different experiments of living; that free scope should be given to varieties of character, short of injury to others; and that the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically, when any one thinks fit to try them. It is desirable, in short, that in things which do not primarily concern others, individuality should assert itself. Where, not the person’s own character, but the traditions or customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress.

Source: John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XVIII – Essays on Politics and Society Part I, ed. John M. Robson, Introduction by Alexander Brady (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977).

What JSM was doing here was to take the decades old socialist idea of setting up experimental socialist communities with the twist that, instead of moving to Texas or Indiana to set up these social and economic experiments, and thus cutting themselves off from the broader community and economy, individuals would do this within existing societies, in competition perhaps with traditional ways of arranging one’s affairs, and thus attracting more “adherents” if they were successful, or ultimately failing to attract new members or supporters if they were not. He thought, whatever the outcome, society would be better off because it (or rather some of its members) had the choice to try something new and different. Or not, as the case may be.

Robert Nozick’s Framework for Utopias (1975)

[Robert Nozick (1938-2002)]

116 years after Mill the American philosopher Robert Nozick (1938-2002) argued for something similar in his path-breaking book Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974). He begins by posing the question whether or not CL/L have a utopian vision of the society in which they would like to live, and if so, is it a vision that anybody would be willing to “go to the barricades” (and thus possibly risk death) in order to defend or to bring into existence. Sadly he has to admit, that the vision of the moderate liberals of a society ruled by a limited government “lacks luster”, i.e is boring and not likely to inspire any passionate and risk-taking visionaries:

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 (his was at Harvard), 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). He describes this “framework” as follows:

a wide and diverse range of communities which people can enter if they are admitted, leave if they wish to, shape according to their wishes; a society in which utopian experimentation can be tried, different styles of life can be lived, and alternative visions of the good can be individually or jointly pursued. The details and some of the virtues of such an arrangement, which we shall call the framework, will emerge as we proceed. (p. 307)

Given human nature, he believed that there would be “many communities trying out different patterns” or “experiments in living” and that there would be “filtering process” which would weed out poorly functioning communities (they would fail, people would leave or “exit”) and leave standing only those that performed well in satisfying the needs of their members. Those that could keep their members or attract new ones would flourish and those that did not would stagnate or be wound up.

What makes Nozick’s argument more interesting and richer than JSM’s is his idea that what he is proposing is not just “a bunch of hippy communes” (not his expression) but what he calls a “meta-utopia”, a utopia which consists of the many individual utopias which have been established by the committed individuals who created them:

The conclusion to draw is that there will not be one kind of community existing and one kind of life led in utopia. Utopia will consist of utopias, of many different and divergent communities in which people lead different kinds of lives under different institutions. Some kinds of communities will be more attractive to most than others; communities will wax and wane. People will leave some for others or spend their whole lives in one. Utopia is a framework for utopias, a place where people are at liberty to join together voluntarily to pursue and attempt to realize their own vision of the good life in the ideal community but where no one can impose his own utopian vision upon others. The utopian society is the society of utopianism. (Some of course may be content where they are. Not everyone will be joining special experimental communities, and many who abstain at first will join the communities later, after it is clear how they actually are working out.) Half of the truth I wish to put forth is that utopia is meta-utopia: the environment in which utopian experiments may be tried out; the environment in which people are free to do their own thing; the environment which must, to a great extent, be realized first if more particular utopian visions are to be realized stably. (pp. 311-12)

He goes further. The utopia is not the fact that a framework for multiple utopias has been created, but what come out of that framework over a long period of time, say “150 years”. What kind of societies will be produced by this kind of society cannot be known in advance but he is convinced that “what grows spontaneously from the individual choices of many people over a long period of time” is what will be the most interesting thing.

Utopia is not just a society in which the framework is realized. For who could believe that ten minutes after the framework was established, we would have utopia? Things would be no different than now. It is what grows spontaneously from the individual choices of many people over a long period of time that will be worth speaking eloquently about. (Not that any particular stage of the process is an end state which all our desires are aimed at. The utopian process is substituted for the utopian end state of other static theories of utopias.) Many communities will achieve many different characters. Only a fool, or a prophet, would try to prophesy the range and limits and characters of the communities after, for example, 150 years of the operation of this framework. (p. 332)

Nozick’s final argument is that it is the “minimal state” (his expression for limited government) which makes this “framework for utopias” possible by protecting individual property rights, maintaining the rule of law, and keeping coercion to a minimum. This is why, to return to a quote at the beginning, Nozick would “go to the barricades” to defend the ideal of limited government:

The framework for utopia that we have described is equivalent to the minimal state. …

This morally favored state (the minimal state), the only morally legitimate state, the only morally tolerable one, we now see is the one that best realizes the utopian aspirations of untold dreamers and visionaries. It preserves what we all can keep from the utopian tradition and opens the rest of that tradition to our individual aspirations. Recall now the question with which this chapter began. Is not the minimal state, the framework for utopia, an inspiring vision?

The minimal state treats us as inviolate individuals, who may not be used in certain ways by others as means or tools or instruments or resources; it treats us as persons having individual rights with the dignity this constitutes. Treating us with respect by respecting our rights, it allows us, individually or with whom we choose, to choose our life and to realize our ends and our conception of ourselves, insofar as we can, aided by the voluntary cooperation of other individuals possessing the same dignity. How dare any state or group of individuals do more. Or less. (pp. 333-34)

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. Afterall, it is the individual utopias within the broader liberal society which inspire people, not the liberal society itself, which is what I think Hayek thought needed to be inspirational if it were to attract adherents.

Friedrich Hayek’s “Great Society” as a Framework of spontaneous orders

[Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992)]

Hayek on the Framework of a Liberal Society

In the “consolidated” Preface of the 1982 edition of LLL which combined all three volumes into one, Hayek acknowledges the existence of Nozick’s book ASU but confesses that he did not want to delay publication of volumes 2 and 3 of LLL any further (as he was getting older) in order to read it carefully and do it the justice it deserved in a lengthy and considered response. I also think FAH was unwilling to shift gears intellectually, which is what he would have to do in order to properly engage with Nozick, as Nozick based his defence of CL/L on a very different notion of coercion than the one FAH used. The details of this important difference cannot be discussed here, but Nozick was working within the radical liberal intellectual framework development by MNR which saw the actions of the state as inherently coercive and hence rights violating, while FAH did not and so thought the powers of the state should be much more extensive. Rothbard’s supporters, like Ronald Hamowy, had criticised Hayek’s earlier book The Constitution of Liberty (1960) precisely on this point (to which FAH had replied) and Nozick had built upon that interpretation of coercion in ASU (1974). Hayek couldn’t or wouldn’t change his theory of coercion and continued to argue for a very extensive role for the state in LLL vol3. The Political Order of a Free People (1979) which placed him very much within the “neo-liberal” or “Ordo liberal” camp and not the radical liberal (or libertarian) camp of critics like Hamowy, Rothbard, and Nozick.

In spite of this reluctance, FAH had developed a similar idea of a “framework” within which a liberal order might emerge “spontaneously” as well as continuing to advocate the need for an articulated “utopian” vision to guide or inspire the emergence of this order. In the first volume of Law, Legislation and Liberty “Rules and Order” (1973) he calls the larger, overall, “more comprehensive spontaneous order” within which smaller organisations and spontaneous orders exist “The Great Society” – a kind of “orders within orders” or a “meta-order” as it were:

That the two kinds of order will regularly coexist in every society of any degree of complexity does not mean, however, that we can combine them in any manner we like. What in fact we find in all free societies is that, although groups of men will join in organizations for the achievement of some particular ends, the co-ordination of the activities of all these separate organizations, as well as of the separate individuals, is brought about by the forces making for a spontaneous order. The family, the farm, the plant, the firm, the corporation and the various associations, and all the public institutions including government, are organizations which in turn are integrated into a more comprehensive spontaneous order. It is [47] advisable to reserve the term ‘society’ for this spontaneous overall order so that we may distinguish it from all the organized smaller groups which will exist within it, as well as from such smaller and more or less isolated groups as the horde, the tribe, or the clan, whose members will at least in some respects act under a central direction for common purposes. In some instances it will be the same group which at times, as when engaged in most of its daily routine, will operate as a spontaneous order maintained by the observation of conventional rules without the necessity of commands, while at other times, as when hunting, migrating, or fighting, it will be acting as an organization under the directing will of a chief.

The spontaneous order which we call a society also need not have such sharp boundaries as an organization will usually possess. There will often be a nucleus, or several nuclei, of more closely related individuals occupying a central position in a more loosely connected but more extensive order. Such particular societies within the Great Society may arise as the result of spatial proximity, or of some other special circumstances which produce closer relations among their members. And different partial societies of this sort will often overlap and every individual may, in addition to being a member of the Great Society, be a member of numerous other spontaneous sub-orders or partial societies of this sort as weIl as of various organizations existing within the comprehensive Great Society.

The glue which holds these organisations and smaller spontaneous orders together is voluntary exchange and commerce. “Economic relations” bring together in a peaceful manner people with different needs, tastes, skills, purposes, and most importantly for Hayek “knowledge” who can exchange with each other in mutually beneficial ways. Critics of the market disdainfully called this “the cash nexus”. Hayek renamed it “the economic nexus”, although it also brought under its umbrella many relations of a non-economic nature as well. As he stated in LLL2 “The Mirage of Social Justice” (1976) in the section entitled “Though not a single economy, the Great Society is still held together mainly by what vulgarly are called economic relations”:

The suggestion that in this wide sense the only ties which hold the whole of a Great Society together are purely ‘economic’ (more precisely ‘catallactic’) arouse great emotional resistance. Yet the fact can hardly be denied; nor the fact that, in a society of the dimensions and complexity of a modern country or of the world, it can hardly be otherwise. Most people are still reluctant to accept the fact that it should be the disdained ‘cash-nexus’ which holds the Great Society together, that the great ideal of the unity of mankind should in the last resort depend on the relations between the parts being governed by the striving for the better satisfaction of their material needs.

It is of course true that within the overall framework of the Great Society there exist numerous networks of other relations that are in no sense economic. But this does not alter the fact that it is the market order which makes peaceful reconciliation of the divergent purposes possible-and possible by a process which redounds to the benefit of all. That interdependence of all men, which is now in everybody’s mouth and which tends to make all mankind One World, not only is the effect of the market order but could not have been brought about by any other means. …

The benefits from the knowledge which others possess, including all the advances of science, reach us through channels provided and directed by the market mechanism. Even the degree to which we can participate in the aesthetic or moral strivings of men in other parts of the world we owe to the economic nexus. It is true that on the whole this dependence of every man on the actions of so many others is not a physical but what we call an economic fact. It is therefore a misunderstanding, caused by the misleading terms used, if the economists are sometimes accused of ‘pan-economism’, a tendency to see everything from the economic angle, or, worse, wanting to make ‘economic purposes’ prevail over all others. 13 The truth is that catallactics is the science which describes the only overall order that comprehends nearly all mankind, and that the economist is therefore entitled to insist that conduciveness to that order be accepted as a standard by which all particular institutions are judged.

It is, however, a misunderstanding to represent this as an effort to make ‘economic ends’ prevail over others. There are, in the last resort, no economic ends. The economic efforts of the individuals as well as the services which the market order renders to them, consist in an allocation of means for the competing ultimate purposes which are always non-economic. The task of all economic activity is to reconcile the competing ends by deciding for which of them the limited means are to be used. The market order reconciles the claims of the different non-economic ends by the only known process that benefits all-without, however, assuring that the more important comes before the less important, for the simple reason that there can exist in such a system no single ordering of needs. What it tends to bring about is merely a state of affairs in which no need is served at the cost of withdrawing a greater amount of means from the use for other needs than is necessary to satisfy it. The market is the only known method by which this can be achieved without an agreement on the relative importance of the different ultimate ends, and solely on the basis of a principle of reciprocity through which the opportunities of any person are likely to be greater than they would otherwise be.

Hayek on the need to have a vision of a “liberal utopia”

I have put online the two long quotes where Hayek discusses the need to have a vision of the “liberal utopia” is mind in order to give its advocates some focus and direction in their efforts to create a free society – “Hayek on a Liberal Utopia” (11 Sept. 2021)

Chandran Kukathas and the “Liberal Archipelago” (2003)

The Malaysian-Australian political philosopher Chandran Kukathas has put forward a novel way of looking at the problem of how communities with very different notions of justice and liberty (which are the result of their different ethnic and cultural differences) can co-exist in some reasonably free and mutually beneficial manner.

He states the thesis of his book The Liberal Archipelago: A Theory of Diversity and Freedom (2003) on p. 4:

(T)he fundamental principle describing a free society is the principle of freedom of association. A first corollary of this is the principle of freedom of dissociation. A second corollary is the principle of mutual toleration of associations. Indeed, a society is free to the extent that it is prepared to tolerate in its midst associations which differ or dissent from its standards or its practices.

Whereas Nozick talks about a free society being a “framework” of competing utopias, Kukathas sees it as an “association of associations” or a “society of societies” (p. 22)

After discussing different metaphors which political theorists have traditionally used to describe political society, such as the “body politic” or “the ship of state”, he prefers to describe the ideal political society using a geographical metaphor, i.e. as an “archipelago” which he describes as follows:

The metaphor offered here to supplant those already describes is one which pictures society as an archipelago: an area of sea containing many small islands. The islands in question, here, are different communities or, better still, jurisdictions, operating in a sea of mutual toleration. (p. 22)

Some of the characteristics of his vision of a liberal society include the following:

  • people must be prepared to “live and let live” (p. 30) or tolerate each other’s differences
  • accept the fact that there are multiple authorities and jurisdictions where no one is above the other (p. 22)
  • that the legitimacy of an authority “rests on the acquiescence of its subjects” (p. 25)
  • that such a society will consist of “a mixture of liberal, less liberal, and thoroughly illiberal societies” (p. 27)
  • the societies must allow individuals to exercise their right of exit if they find that society objectionable (p. 259)

Kukathas concludes with a description of his vision of the liberal state which emerges from his theory:

The state that emerges out of this understanding is a liberal state of a particular kind. It is one that is not guided by any larger purpose or common vision, or shaped by a particular conception of justice. It is a state made up of diverse parts, some of which might be made in the image of the whole — tolerant and liberal – while others are virtually its antithesis – sectarian and inward-looking. It is not, however, a state which evinces a strong social unity liberalism of the archipelago of discrete and separate, though also sometimes overlapping and interacting communities, jurisdictions, and associations. And in this picture, the state is only one community, jurisdiction, or association among many. It might contain many smaller bodies, but it does not subsume them. It does not make up a body politic. It comes out of the sea, but is no Leviathan, being neither terrible, nor all powerful, nor eternal. And in a matter of generations, it will be gone – broken up and reconstituted in some other configuration yet to be imagined.

The liberal archipelago is a realm of mutual toleration, in which multiple authorities coexist. To the extent that authority is not devolved entirely to smaller units, but is also exercised by agencies that govern across jurisdictions and subsume a number of associations, that authority is limited in its scope and constrained in its power. This is the ideal the framers of the American Constitution had in mind when they devised a new system of government. (p. 266)

My take on this is that the “archipelago” is “lumpy” in that some political “islands” may be very unliberal, for example those run by religious zealots who severely punish homosexuality, drug use, and blasphemy, or those socially conservative traditional societies which make it legally difficult or socially unacceptable for women to seek careers outside the home or own property or seek a divorce. Yet the archipelago itself is “liberal” in that the different political islands have developed a system of “live and let live” between them as this reduces conflict and allows some mutually beneficial trade between them. A “true liberal” might hope that those political “islands of liberty” where extensive individual and social liberty prevail will gradually expand over time and that those political “islands of oppression” will reduce in size, either as people vote with their feet and move to freer political islands or the “climate of opinion” within them changes in a more liberal direction.