I recently came across the following quotation from Edmund Burke (1729-1797) – “For us to love our country, our country must be lovely.” and for some reason it has been bouncing around in my head ever since. However, I finally realized that I did not like the word ‘lovely’, because it reminded me too closely of the words ‘pretty’ and ‘charming’. Instead I found myself substituting the word ‘interesting’ for ‘lovely’. “For us to love our country, our country must be interesting.” This combination doesn’t sound as good but it does make more sense to me. I could not love a boring country but I could definitely love an interesting country.
Reflecting for some moments on what makes America interesting, I settled on a number of characteristics, but preeminent among them was the fact that it permits a wide variety of different lifestyles. While this definitely has something to do with our toleration of diversity, it’s also a function of our federal system of government, which permits states to control their own internal affairs. For example, you may live in a state where recreational drug use is illegal, but there are still at least 14 states that have decriminalized the use of marijuana. You may also live in a state which favors mandatory union membership, but 23 states have passed the Right to Work law i.e. the right of every American to work for a living without being compelled to belong to a union. Finally, you may live in a state where even the thought of ordinary citizens walking about with concealed handguns is scary, but in more than 30 states it’s not just legal to do this but also relatively easy. So, in a sense, states’ rights ensure that we are always confronted with an ongoing series of experiments of living, whatever our particular view of the rights and wrongs of the issues, and whichever side our state has thrown its weight behind.
In 1859 John Stuart Mill published his classic work ‘On Liberty’ in which he argued that the government has no right to restrict any action that does not harm other people. Mill argued that this freedom would increase the happiness of all mankind because it would encourage people to find the very best life for themselves. Mill felt very strongly that people would be happier if they were free from the demands of social conformity, which he believed to be a symptom of both democracy and capitalism. “Mankind”, he said “are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest”. In this way he provided a powerful justification for “experiments in living”. He argued that even if a certain experiment in living had been found to fail over and over again, people should still be allowed to try it, because they need to understand why the experiment had failed and if it was banned, that knowledge would be a “dead dogma” rather than a “living truth”.
Since colonial times America has had its fair share of experiments in living, from Robert Owen’s New Harmony settlement (1638) to the Shakers (1774) and the Church of the Latter Day Saints, or Mormons (1830), to name just a few. Indeed, in the first part of the 19th century alone, more than 100,000 individuals formed utopian communities in an effort to create perfect societies. While many of these communities failed and disappeared without trace, many developed a unique culture and way of life which has immeasurably enriched our cultural heritage. For example, Harmony’s residents established the first free library and a public school system open to both men and women, while the Shaker dedication to hard work and perfection resulted in a unique range of architecture and handicraft styles which have had a lasting influence on American architecture. Likewise, following the death of their prophet, Joseph Smith, the Mormons followed their new leader Brigham Young west, and went on to found the state of Utah.
America is built upon the utopian idea that you can remake yourself into anything you want so it should come as no surprise that utopian thinking continues to bubble to the surface. Examples of modern utopian living and thinking include the Twin Oaks Community in Virginia, an intentional community reflecting “the values of cooperation, sharing, nonviolence, equality, and ecology”. Also, the Free State Project, which is attempting to recruit 20,000 liberty-loving people to move to New Hampshire in an attempt to create a society in which the maximum role of government is the protection of life, liberty and property. The Seasteading Institute, founded by Patri Friedman, the grandson of Milton Friedman and partially funded by Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal, is an attempt to set up ‘seasteads’ or floating cities which will give people the opportunity to test new ideas about how to live together. More concretely, under the general Seasteading umbrella a company called Blueseed has been formed to house entrepreneurs aboard a vessel anchored near Silicon Valley. The idea behind Blueseed is to provide a visa-free site where foreign entrepreneurs can create technology companies that utilize resources in Silicon Valley without having to deal with the cumbersome process of obtaining a U.S. visa.
It’s easy to make fun of these modern experiments in living but they represent some of the best opportunities available to test new ideas about living and working, free of the dead hand of government bureaucracy. Who knows what new insights, what new ‘Google’ or what new industry might emerge from these ventures? Rather than fearing experiments in living we ought to welcome them as open source laboratories of social life from which we can learn invaluable lessons. What we should fear are attempts to impose both uniformity and conformity across America through the evangelical moralism of both political parties – the one in favor of a puritan social life (no drugs, no gay marriage, no abortion, no foreigners, pro-military) and the other an attempt to religiously prosecute a particular vision of social justice (rampant egalitarianism). Both visions cannot escape the most damming indictment of all, that at their core, they are boring and utterly uninteresting.
“All my writing is about the recognition that there is no single reality. But the beauty of it is that you nevertheless go on, walking towards utopia, which may not exist, on a bridge which might end before you reach the other side.” Marguerite Young