[Letter to the Editor published in Washington Post ca. Dec. 11, 1993. I was at a conference of libertarians near Washington on the day it was published, but none of them mentioned it to me.]
There is no factual basis for E. J. Dionne's charge that libertarians are "utopians." ["Libertarian Lure," op-ed, Dec. 6] It is an easy label to slap on anyone, and Dionne will get away with it because few readers are familiar with us, but no one who has even glanced at our publications could believe that we ignore "messy realities." Most libertarians think that because reality is so irremediably messy, voluntary cooperation under a strong, impartial common law system is the most practical, flexible way to deal with it. Unprovoked threats, force and extortion tend to have socially mischievous effects, and we think it is foolish to expect better results when well-intentioned governments use them than when private citizens do.
Unlike utopians, we don't hope to transform humans into angels or to make them cogs in some wonderful new system. We simply want governments to stop doing harm, and to let society manage its own problems by lawful means. Human societies have always had ways of looking out for children and old people, helping the poor and making people be responsible. For example, to adapt to the massive changes of the late 19th century, all sorts of voluntary mutual help groups, insurance and pension funds developed. Governments supplanted these (and outlawed some) not because they failed, but because of a Utopian faith in technocrats and large monopolies.
It will take a few years for society to wean itself from government, because much of its immune system, its shock absorbers, its lubrication, its ability to adjust, has been taxed and regulated away. As Meng-tzu observed 2200 years ago, "When taxes exceed 10 percent, the very old and the very young are rolled into canals and drainage ditches." It's especially hard to be generous and tolerant when nothing we own is secure, and everything is up for grabs by one political faction or another.
It seems that when libertarians aren't being called utopian or euphoric, we're accused of being cynics. Actually, we are squarely in the middle on the question of human goodness: we believe that people are pretty much good enough to govern themselves, but not good enough to govern each other very much. That is the view of human nature upon which America's system of government is founded.