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The Arrogance of Utopianism

In the February 1973 Chalcedon Report, Rousas J. Rushdoony writes that utopianism’s folly is its idea that sin can be overcome by sufficiently careful organization of society.

  • Timothy D. Terrell,
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In the February 1973 Chalcedon Report, Rousas J. Rushdoony writes that utopianism’s folly is its idea that sin can be overcome by sufficiently careful organization of society. In a utopia, he writes,

[m]an is not seen as a sinner, nor does man need a Savior; man’s need is for the expert, the elite mind, to take over man’s life and all society and to reorganize all things in terms of his own wisdom. Man, especially elite man, is beyond good and evil. Man must become his own maker, and in terms of the thinking of his philosophical and scientific elite, rethink all things and redefine the public good, happiness, profit, and justice.1

Utopianism usually begins with the arrogant thought that God’s law is useless for society. When Biblical law is removed, social constraints are the next to go. Social patterns that have developed over millennia—tradition, case law, property rights—are all readily discarded in favor of the intellectual creations of the utopian visionary. Common features of utopias include a complete reworking of the law, abolition of private property, common housing, uniform dress (or perhaps nudity), commonality of sexual partners, and centrally directed education. Later utopias rely on technology to render sin obsolete.

One of the earliest utopian visions was that of Plato, who proposed a system of communal property for society’s elite ruling class of philosophers-kings. To remove the temptation to acquire wealth, all corrupting property would be abolished for this aristocracy. Even marriage was too exclusive, and the choice of marriage partners should be made by the state. Children would be raised separate from their parents, in communal schools.

Later utopians made similar pronouncements on property and family. The fourteenth-century Free Spirit cults in Germany held that all property was common, including the property of those outside their circle of believers. As Free Spirit Johann Hartmann writes, “The truly free man is king and lord of all creatures. All things belong to him, and he has the right to use whatever pleases him. If anyone tries to prevent him, the free man may kill him and take his goods.”2 The fifteenth-century Taborites in Bohemia advocated revolutionary violence to accomplish their communistic utopia. They forbade marriage, and a husband and wife seen together could be executed.

After the failure of the Taborite community, the Bohemian Adamites continued and extended their utopianism. Making promiscuity mandatory, they decided that any man could require the submission of any woman, subject to the consent of their leader, whom they called Adam-Moses. Consistent with some other utopian communes, they generally went about in the nude. Since the Adamites made every effort to kill those outside their community, neighboring troops eventually invaded their refuge and slaughtered them all.3

Nineteenth-Century Experiments

Experimentation with “progressive” ideas continued in nineteenth-century communes. Charles Fourier, an early nineteenth-century utopian, also proposed communal living, with “free love.” Fourier, who suffered no lack of strange ideas (e.g., in the coming eighth stage of the earth, man would grow tails, five more moons would appear, and the oceans would turn into lemonade), advocated the replacement of capitalism with small communes called “phalanxes.” Everyone in these phalanxes would have a guaranteed minimum income, and even guaranteed minimum sex due to an “angelic group” within the community.4 American admirers of Fourier tried many times to organize phalanxes, but all soon failed.

John Humphrey Noyes’ utopian community in Oneida, New York, became well known for making silverware. Noyes taught that man was perfectible in this life, and, according to Clifford Thies, “once perfected was freed from the usual restriction on behavior imposed by private property and marriage.”5 Noyes controlled the community’s property, as well as the women. He evidently fathered most of the commune’s children.

One of the best-known examples of utopian communism was Robert Owen’s community at New Harmony, Indiana, founded in 1825. It lasted less than three years. Robert Dale Owen, who with his father had founded the New Harmony community, became a vigorous proponent of compulsory public education. Owen, along with Frances Wright (a former New Harmony resident), ran a newspaper called the Free Enquirer, which championed “national, rational, republican education; free for all at the expense of all; conducted under the guardianship of the State, and for the honor, the happiness, the virtue, the salvation of the state.”6

Owen and Wright, drawing perhaps from Plato, advocated institutionalized care for all children, from age two to sixteen, with limited parental visitation. In these state-run boarding schools, egalitarianism would be the rule.

In these nurseries of a free nation, no inequality must be allowed to enter. Fed at a common board; clothed in a common garb ... raised in the exercise of common duties ... in the exercise of the same virtues, in the enjoyment of the same pleasures; in the study of the same nature; in pursuit of the same object ... say! Would not such a race ... work out the reform of society and perfect the free institutions of America?7

Maintaining equality in spite of natural variations in human capabilities and desires would require the suppression of individuality. Any exceptional abilities would inevitably have to be suppressed, and individual preferences smothered. To prevent the influence of the inequalities of the children’s home life, the students could not live at home. Rather, the schools

must receive the children, not for six hours a day, but altogether must feed them, clothe them, lodge them; must direct not their studies only, but their occupations and amusements and must care for them until their education is completed.8

Murray Rothbard argues that Owen and Wright’s influence on the public education movement in the United States has not been trivial.

Further examples of utopian communist thought include, of course, Proudhon’s famous remark, “Property is theft,” and Aldous Huxley’s slogan, “Everyone belongs to everyone else.” Through all of these utopian ideas runs the theme of central control, forcing conformity to the visionary’s fantasies. Apart from God, these fantasies are deadly.

Utopian Arrogance

Many utopian proposals attempt to merge capitalism with idealistic socialism. One early example is found in the writing of Claude Henri de Rouvroy Comte de Saint-Simon (1760–1825), a French noble. Despite Saint-Simon’s antagonism toward government (“Government always harms industry when it mixes in its affairs, it harms it even in instances where it makes an effort to encourage it”), Saint-Simon had a centralized plan for an “industrial parliament.” This would bring the intellectual and industrial elites—artists, scientists, engineers, and other talent—together to produce new ideas for society. The ominously named “Chamber of Execution” would have the power to levy taxes, the revenues then to be devoted to promising areas of research and development. Like other utopians, Saint-Simon trusted deeply in his ability to organize society. The fantasies of his brain counted for more than Biblical truths about human nature or the collective wisdom of long centuries of social development.

Karl Marx, who was influenced by Saint-Simon, nevertheless regarded him as unrealistic, calling him a “utopian socialist.” Marx, by avoiding Saint-Simon’s level of detail, maintained a mystic awe that avoided criticisms of detailed applications. As Murray Rothbard writes,

In contrast to the various groups of utopian socialists, and in common with religious messianists, Karl Marx did not sketch the features of his future communism in any detail. It was not for Marx, for example, to spell out the number of people in his utopia, the shape and location of their houses, the pattern of their cities. In the first place, there is a quintessentially crackpotty air to utopias that are mapped by their creators in precise detail. But of equal importance, spelling out the details of one’s ideal society removes the crucial element of awe and mystery from the allegedly inevitable world of the future.9

The unadulterated arrogance of utopians is sometimes stunning. Saint-Simon believed that Charlemagne had appeared to him in a vision while he was imprisoned during the French Revolution to tell him that he should save the French Republic after the French Revolution. He instructed his servant to wake him in the morning every day by saying, “Arise, Monsieur le Comte, you have great things to do today.”

Utopia, FDR-Style

From small experiments like the Oneida commune or New Harmony in the nineteenth century, utopianism hit the American mainstream during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Herbert Hoover, the engineer-president, wanted to supersede market coordination and resource allocation with government planning. Franklin D. Roosevelt took Hoover’s statist tendencies and expanded them. These were not attempts to promote outright socialism. Instead, Hoover and Roosevelt sought a “third way” between capitalism and socialism. The mixture was to be concocted by a selfless intellectual aristocracy with enormous coercive power.

Roosevelt brought well-educated experts to Washington—mostly university professors. Journalists began to call this group the “Brain Trust.” Roosevelt’s administration flouted law and precedent to create his New Deal programs, regarding the wisdom of the Constitution’s authors as secondary to the ideas of his intellectual elites. As critic John T. Flynn puts it,

In the capital one bumped suddenly and frequently into a happy and eager bureaucrat who had but recently been a tutor or professor or instructor in some college where he was eating his heart out over the futility of the professor’s existence—where he presided over the destinies of two dozen youths in some small fragment of human learning, while lesser and baser men directed the destinies of the nation. Now he is in Washington and by a swift turn of the wheel of Fortune he presides over a numerous division of lesser bureaucrats, earns twice what he got as a teacher and is amazed and delighted at finding himself fabricating a policy to mold the lives of a million farmers or twice as many housewives. The sense of anonymous power sends the blood coursing through his heated brain. After a while he seems not unequal to any problem, however vast.10

Roosevelt’s Brain Trust helped him dream up some of the sweeping changes in law that would remedy the market’s supposed failure to ensure consistent prosperity. These Brobdingnagian programs, with names like the National Recovery Administration, Public Works Administration, and Agricultural Adjustment Administration, are now often acknowledged to have hindered recovery rather than promoting it. It was, once again, a utopian fantasy.

One of Roosevelt’s Brain Trust members was Rexford G. Tugwell. Tugwell taught economics at Columbia University and became Assistant Secretary of Agriculture during Roosevelt’s first term. He was contemptuous of ordinary people and was notorious for having terrible manners. Highly skeptical of the market economy, Tugwell advocated extensive control by experts (such as himself, of course). He argues,

The Cat is out of the Bag. There is no invisible hand. There never was. If the depression has not taught us that, we are incapable of education ... We must now supply a real and visible guiding hand to do the task which that mythical, nonexistent, invisible agency was supposed to perform, but never did.11

Tugwell was a socialist. Socialism comes in many varieties, but one variety that was popular in the 1930s was “planned capitalism.” The economic “high ground” would be nationalized—banks, railroads, mines, etc. Most of the economy would be left in the hands of the private sector, there to be subject not to government ownership but merely to regulation. Regulation on labor contracts, consumer product quality, prices, and the financial sector would address the common failings of the market.

This form of socialism was attractive to many in Roosevelt’s system because it allowed them to claim that they were basically capitalists, while holding to the essentials of socialism. This form of socialism was called fascism when adopted by Mussolini’s Italy or Hitler’s Germany. By the time Roosevelt latched on to the idea, fascism had a bad name, so it had to be called something else: the Planned Economy. After all, how can one be opposed to planning?

The Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises makes the point that the absence of central planning does not mean no planning. In a market economy, it is the individual who plans the use of his own property, and not the government planning the use of everyone else’s property.

Why wouldn’t central planning work? Why wouldn’t it be a good idea to have a central authority plan the movements of labor and capital, set prices, and regulate output? Doesn’t the government have possession of better information about the economy than an individual? Mises explains, “[I]n the socialist system everything depends on the wisdom, the talents, and the gifts of those people who form the supreme authority. That which the supreme dictator—or his committee—does not know, is not taken into account.”12 Roosevelt’s administration was full of people who thought themselves gifted and knowledgeable enough to make decisions for everyone else in the country.

Roosevelt’s onetime vice president, Henry Wallace, illustrates well some of the oddities of FDR-style utopianism. Not a stable thinker, Wallace bounced from Presbyterianism to Roman Catholicism to Episcopalianism to Confucianism to Buddhism, and even astrology. He was, for a time, a fan of a strange guru of Eastern philosophy named Nicholas Konstantin Roerich.13

At one time, Wallace was the Secretary of Agriculture, and, during World War II, served as the head of the Board of Economic Warfare. Chief economist for the BEW was Dr. Maurice Parmelee. Parmelee is the author of a book called Bolshevism, Fascism, and the Liberal Democratic State. In it, he displays a predilection for central planning, Soviet-style:

The high technological development in the United States renders it feasible to introduce a planned social economy much more rapidly than has been the case in the U.S.S.R. ... The superficial paraphernalia of capitalism can be dispensed with more quickly than in the Soviet Union.14

Parmelee was a colorful character. He has also written a book called Nudism in Modern Life, in which he advocates a strange brand of nudism called gymnosophy. This was an old cult of Hindu hermits who went around with little or no clothes. He urges nudism “wherever feasible in office, workshop, or factory.”15 As with other utopians, nudism went hand-in-glove (or, in Parmelee’s case, out-of-glove?) with Parmelee’s socialism. He writes, “[T]hese gymnosophist nudist colonies furnish excellent opportunities for experiments along socialist lines ... Customary nudity is impossible under existing undemocratic, social and economic and political organization.”16

Parmelee became a little too embarrassing for the administration, so he was replaced as chief economist with Harvard-trained John Bovingdon. Bovingdon was quite the artist, in addition to whatever economic credentials he may have had. He became director of the International Theater in Moscow, worked as a journalist there, and wrote radio scripts and plays. He came back to the United States in early 1935, where he became a kind of informal advocate for the Soviet Union. Indeed, utopians in the Roosevelt administration provided a channel for Soviet infiltration during the wartime alliance with Stalin.

Roosevelt’s administration, stocked though it was with leftist utopians, was nevertheless too moderate for some thinkers of the time. Upton Sinclair, who is perhaps most famous for his novel The Jungle, was a prolific critic of capitalism. He won the Democratic nomination for governor of California, with the idea of turning the state into a socialist utopia.17 Sinclair’s plan involved getting the state government to put up borrowed money to restart all the idle factories and abandoned farms, which would then hire the unemployed. Ten or fifteen percent of California’s population would be moved immediately into a socialistic economy. Sinclair got Roosevelt’s support after winning the primary, but the Republican candidate defeated Sinclair.18

One oddball utopian group of the 1930s, the Technocrats, took their ideas from the aforementioned Saint-Simon. The Technocrats wanted to unite with Canada, Mexico, and the Central American countries and eliminate the democratic system. Engineers and economists would then run the country. This was to be called the Soviet of the Engineers. This council of elites would have abolished the current monetary system and based all money on a unit of energy called the erg.

Roosevelt-era utopianism was horrifyingly wasteful and occasionally laughable. But forms of it have persisted to the twenty-first century. While the modern utopian is likely to accept some modicum of capitalism, as New Dealers did, environmentalism is now a prominent feature of ideal societies. The primitivist “hippies” of the late sixties and early seventies made the usual association of communal living and sexual anti-traditionalism, but inserted environmental concerns. State coercion was soon enlisted to enforce allegedly pro-environment behavior.

Christian Utopia?

Christians who advocate a society based on God’s law are sometimes classified as utopians. But merely considering how an ideal society might look is not the error of utopianism. A Christian worldview requires thinking about “ideals,” informed by the Bible. Christians might well look to the commands against theft or covetousness as indications that private property is part of an “ideal” Biblical society. We might also note the impossibility of human perfection in this life and know that it is foolish to expect sinless, selfless devotion to communal living. We might find in the Bible the indication that only God is omniscient, so knowing the best uses of resources is beyond the power of any individual, government bureaucracy, or think tank. A price system acknowledges human ignorance and helps condense and convey the most important information about resource scarcity.

The problem of utopianism is the pursuit of ideals in the face of all we know from the Bible. It is the arrogance contained in the belief that one can reconstruct society from man’s wisdom. It is an arrogance that results in poverty and death.

1. Rousas J. Rushdoony, Roots of Reconstruction (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1991), 838.

2. Murray Rothbard, Economic Thought before Adam Smith (Aldershot: Edward Elgar, 1995), 162.

3. Ibid., 164.

4. Clifford F. Thies, “The Year 2000,”

5. Ibid.

6. Quoted in Murray N. Rothbard, Education, Free and Compulsory (Auburn: Mises Institute, 1999), 45.

7. Ibid., 46.

8. Ibid., 47.

9. Murray N. Rothbard, “Karl Marx as Religious Eschatologist,” Review of Austrian Economics, vol. 4, 124.

10. John T. Flynn, The Roosevelt Myth (San Francisco: Fox & Wilkes, 1998), 150.

11. Quoted in Walton and Rockoff, History of the American Economy, 9th ed. (Toronto: Thomson Learning, 2002), 516.

12. Ludwig von Mises, Economic Policy: Thoughts for Today and Tomorrow (Irvington-on-Hudson: Free Market Books, 1995), 29.

13. Flynn, 207–210.

14. Flynn, 283.

15. Ibid.

16. Quoted in Flynn, The Roosevelt Myth, 283.

17. Ibid., 64.

18. Ibid.

  • Timothy D. Terrell

Timothy Terrell is associate professor of economics at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and is an Associated Scholar with the Mises Institute.

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