Experiments In Living

November 6, 2012

Government, Markets, Utopia

Utopian Community

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

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill


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19 Comments on “Experiments In Living”

  1. chr1 Says:

    Malcolm, great post.

    I’ll have to disagree a little and suggest that some conformity, tradition, and boringness are necessary for the duties which are necessary to maintain what is a democracy, but also a constitutional Republic, and a nation of Laws. I fall a little short of Mill’s harm principle because of the consequences to actual people who fall outside this extremely abstract ideal. Godspeed the religious and secular utopianism of the Mormons, Shakers and Amish as well as hippie communes, seasteading and the Twin Oaks people, and I firmly agree in celebrating states’ rights.

    We are all raised in communities (except the Shakers who didn’t reproduce) and groups which deeply shape our behavior and actions, our moral lights and reasoning before we even get a chance to think about them, whether commune or Quaker village or house in the suburbs. I believe there are some duties we have to our Constitution, to the common defense, to the drafting, passing and enforcing laws which keep the place running. And a la Burke, we have duties to our ancestors and to our progeny that stretch across time and which allow people to more freely enter into duties, contracts, and obligations to one another, but those duties are there.

    I stop well short of anarchic libertarianism as we’ve discussed, lest we get too close to anarchy, and its dread twin: a much less free hierarchy.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Chris, thank you for this comment. The linkages that tie people together are exactly the ones you mention – tradition, conformity, duties, familial bonds, religion, commerce, professional and civic associations, etc. These connections form an intricate and dynamic web of relationships binding people to the fabric of civil society. Problems only come when collective goals are adopted and individuals are forced to serve a collective purpose. The goal of society is then in conflict with the goals of the individuals that make up society and individual goals have to give way to collective ones. Such collective goals do not strengthen civil society, they only weaken it by loosening the organic bonds that tie people together and replacing them with coercive bonds. I have no quarrel with Burke (well, maybe a little one).


  2. chr1 Says:

    Malcolm, but who hijacks them and are they always hijacked? Do all politicians, a CEO, a religious or secular leader of a utopia…bureaucrats…any individual claiming to have moral authority over you always act in bad faith and are there no ideas you believe worthy of collective action?

    I imagine at times you’ve had to work towards collective goals but this might be ok as long as you give your consent, contracting as say, an employee? I have my doubts that perpetual anarchy works on large scales, because in the real world the power vacuum that results invites the worst people to have control over individuals, hence the duty necessary to maintain the laws, the common defense, and other basic functions.

    I’d stop short of Platonic, Kantian or religious idealism as the source of our knowledge and thus the source of legitimate moral authority for some to lead others. Religion, earthly power and corruption have a long history together (which is partly what separation of powers, term limits, the electoral college and the popular vote are all designed to do…stop the accrual of too much power in the hands of any one person or groups of people). I’d also stop short of Hobbes’ Leviathan.

    I definitely don’t agree with most liberals that secular humanism, Statism, social justice, Mill’s Harm Principle, German Idealism, Marxism, the New Left, socialism, communism, or moral relativism have proven that they should be sources of our knowledge, and thus legitimate moral authority for some to rule over others either (Mill works best but has problems for individuals within that abstract structure). Many of these ideas have a terrible track record of abusing individuals without their consent and providing no space for them under law and controlling them in the public and private sphere by increasingly ruthless tactics.

    I guess that my experience has made me doubt that an abstract system of truth and knowledge defined as values is enough to deal with human nature, meaning, evil, and the duties necessary to maintain individual freedom….


  3. Malcolm Greenhill Says:

    Chris, I apologize but I was editing out my references to hijacked goals when your other comment came through. I have re-read your last comment and it is first rate and goes to the nub of the issue.

    My overarching view is that it is strictly an empirical matter to what degree the spontaneous order of civil society can replace the top-down directed order of government. If civil society cannot find ways to “maintain the laws, the common defense and other basic functions” then it must come from a top-down order.

    Furthermore, I believe in a pluralism of values and so yes,there might be times when I would acknowledge the moral authority of someone independent of my contractual obligations to them. Hopefully these occasions would be few and far between as freedom once lost is hard to regain.

    I agree with you that “an abstract system of truth and knowledge defined as values” will not cut it. Values have to emerge from a particular form of life. This lends validity to the view expressed in the post that experiments in life are intrinsically valuable.

    As to constitutionalism as a way to limit concentrations of power, that didn’t stop the banks from walking away with a cool few trillion dollars recently.

    Once again I want to thank you for your erudite comments on issues which go to the heart of the debate over classical liberalism.


  4. chr1 Says:

    Malcolm, thanks for your responses as well, the anarchic and classically liberal schools of libertarianism, and where they meet and disagree with conservatism interest me greatly. I really appreciate your comments, and the blog.


  5. Malcolm Greenhill Says:

    Chris, thank you. I actually feel more affinity for the Democratic spirit than for the Republican one. Classical liberalism grew out of opposition to the ancien regime of royal monopolies, a landed aristocracy , the religious estate and militaristic foreign policies. As you are no doubt aware, conservatism began as a reaction to the classical liberal spirit of the French and American revolutions and the Industrial Revolution.


  6. Gregory Zaretsky Says:

    Malcolm, I find your posts worth my time reading with increasing frequency. This one is no exception. It is well researched, fascinating and provocative.

    One might argue however with both you and Mr. Burke. We love our country regardless whether it is “lovely” or “interesting”. In one of his mini-stories Alexander Solzhenitsyn writes something like this (pardon my paraphrasing): I built a bonfire in the woods. Soon, I needed more wood to keep it going. There were plenty of thick branches lying around and I threw in one only to realize that an ant colony made its home there. I kicked the log out of the fire and watched ants scurrying away from it. But then, they would stop, turn around and go back to their smoldering, stinking, terrible homeland.

    I always make a distinction between the people and their governments. Americans are generally liked around the world. Their government is frequently not. Actually, I am not even speaking about the laws we pass (that would deserve a separate discourse), but the kind of people we hire into our Civil Service, – highly intellectual and very un-pragmatic. Most of them would not survive in a private company. If not for the government job, they could perhaps teach. They would certainly make that proverbial Harvard faculty of which William Buckley once said: “I would rather be governed by the first 2000 people in the Manhattan phone book than the entire faculty of Harvard.”

    My firm has service contracts with several governmental agencies and I have an opportunity to observe government employees “in their natural habitat”. It would help if they would have green skin or two heads… something to show how different they are. There, under the veneer of a low-key personality lies a ruthless, shrewd and… dangerous personality. They feel superior and secure in our society. These people get promoted based on how well they grovel. No wonder they crave power and no wonder they generate hatred of foreign societies. Especially those societies which are tribal (think disorganized) in nature.

    If you have a feeling that I have stopped writing too soon, i.e. before coming to some conclusions you are right. I have a ton of work and writing takes so much of my time.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Gregory, thank you for the feedback and your interesting comments. Both are appreciated.

      I particularly enjoyed the Solzhenitsyn anecdote. I concede that home is where the heart is and if it is in a boring country, so be it. You are also correct to make the distinction between a people and their goverment. I have spoken to numerous Iranians who have told me that the Iranian people love American people and American culture but they hate the American government. I also couldn’t agree more about government employees. Please read the following interesting article about the increasing synergy between science, academia and the government which the author calls Obama’s new clerisy:


  7. Othmar Says:

    Dear Malcolm,

    I wonder why it is humanly possible to perceive the government of a jurisdiction as so separate, sometimes opposite from its people. I get the notion that there must be a fundamental flaw in the system of governance.
    In response to the recent election in the US, I pondered some thoughts on government in general on my own blog:
    It is encouraging to know that some people are still actively living and experimenting with alternate and utopian forms of community. Thanks for your thoughts and the subsequent engaged discussion.



  8. Malcolm Greenhill Says:

    “I wonder why it is humanly possible to perceive the government of a jurisdiction as so separate, sometimes opposite from its people. I get the notion that there must be a fundamental flaw in the system of governance.”

    Othmar, this is great point. People think that once they elect a government it tamely obeys the people’s will. In fact it has its own separate goals, dynamic and motivations such as power, spoils, status and bureaucracy. My bias is for a smaller government as I think it’s easier to see what is happening and to contain these divergences when government is on a smaller, more local scale.


    • Othmar Says:

      Dear Malcolm,

      I am not sure if smaller government is my preferred vision in general. The size of government needs to be internally consistent with the tasks it will be entrusted with by the community. In certain cases, I say no government can be the possible solution. In others, a much larger governance structure and bureaucracy may be warranted to serve the needs of the people.
      When we look at pre-contact Inuit culture, as an example, we can see a people with no formal or centralized government structure. Inuit were able to solve their existential problems with a set of shared and common values, by maintaining relationships, and by focusing on and adapting to local needs. Life happened in seemingly isolated family units roaming the vastness of this Arctic archipelago. Nonetheless, they had a cultural identity with an embedded concern for the well being of all. They employed appropriate technology to live in one of the harshest environments. There was a “national” communications system supporting the exchange of knowledge across the Arctic. Without written tradition, this culture has produced their own experienced minds! I am not claiming that this has been utopia, because we also know of famines and tragedy, which can be seen as failures to mastering the local challenges and survival.
      Unfortunately, the process of colonization and ‘civilizing’ that imposed and established ‘proper’ governance and poured in resources, which were never available to Inuit in such a magnitude or quality before, did not result in a better quality of life or in less tragedy and economic poverty among modern day Inuit. Even after establishing the façade of self-governance through the creation of Nunavut as a distinct jurisdiction it is difficult to discern whether government is doing good for the people who continue to live in that part of the world or not.
      I agree with you that a smaller size and a more local nature will definitely make any system of governance more representative, more transparent, and more accountable. What I am still exploring as a thought is the essence that will create a governance structure that does not institutionalize power and eventually morphs into a self-serving apparatus. Why did Inuit function as a quasi-nation, as expressed by a distinct cultural identity and shared concern for welfare? There was no external power that mandated unity. What other unifying factor did make it possible then? My notion is that the answer lies in shared values and attitudes – the result of co-created meaning from multi-dimensional interactions as part of being human and the foundation for human becoming.
      We need niches in our globalized world to co-create new experiments in living, to re-conceptualize the need and structure of government, and most pressingly a process to imagine and establish shared basic values, criteria, and attitudes for a peaceful co-existence among diverse cultures and backgrounds. The one large-scale initiative that I am aware of is the Global Ethic Foundation that issues a Declaration Toward a Global Ethic.
      At this point in time, it is difficult for me to side with the trendy call to downsize governments without an extensive analysis of the motives and without some alternatives revealed. However, I support every initiative to rethink and transform what our governments have become today. Maybe one day we will have our political and economic leaders engaged in joining efforts with the spiritual/religious leaders to envision a value system and attitudes that support a peaceful existence for all!


      • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

        Othmar, thank you for continuing this conversation in such a thoughtful and profound way. There is not much in your comment for me to disagree with. Our terminology may be different but I don’t think our conceptual understanding is. You say:

        “My notion is that the answer lies in shared values and attitudes – the result of co-created meaning from multi-dimensional interactions as part of being human and the foundation for human becoming.”

        I prefer the terms ‘spontaneous order’ or ‘civil society’:

        Maybe where there is a real substantive difference between us, is in your statement:

        “The size of government needs to be internally consistent with the tasks it will be entrusted with by the community.”

        This suggests that the state is usually a benevolent entity which emerges from a genuine attempt to solve problems at a societal level. However, there is another view which sees the state as mostly being a parasitical entity, hobbling civil society’s attempt to solve its problems on a voluntary basis. As you are no doubt aware, Classical Liberalism provides the theoretical underpinning for this latter view, but for some recent supporting empirical work you might enjoy reading James C. Scott’s ‘The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia’:

        Scott, who is the Sterling Professor of Political Science and Anthropology at Yale University, argues that many ‘primitive’ tribal peoples actually make a conscious decision to adopt a ‘simpler’ lifestyle in order to avoid the burdens of living under organized states.


  9. Malcolm Greenhill Says:

    In my previous comment I should also have made reference to ‘Oath of Fealty’ a novel by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, which provides a good fictional account of how shared norms and values emerge in the heart of Los Angeles to influence a new society that wishes to be free of a dominating and inefficient government:


  10. Othmar Says:

    Dear Malcolm,

    thank you again for this exchange. I was not familiar with the use of the term ‘spontaneous order’ and will further contemplate on the concept.
    I don’t think that our views on government differ that significantly: the definition of government as a benevolent entity is an ideal that I postulate. Unfortunately, I can find very little evidence in history or contemporary society to support that notion. Most forms of government become over time these states within a state, or how you describe it the parasitical entities that dominate the civil society from solving its own local challenges.
    Therefore, do we need to abolish the idea of good governance, or do we need to rethink the notion of a nation state first? I have not read the suggested book about the tribal anarchist societies in Southeast Asia. However, I can imagine how these groups preserved their collective agency outside of a nation state structure and thus created a civil society that provided meaning and fora for collective undertakings that are too big for the individual to handle. I deeply share this utopian vision.
    By the way, I observed another organizational structure and idea that is hobbling any civil society’s attempt of solving its own problems: Humanitarian and development aid (privately or publicly funded). After several experiences in marginalized settings around the world, I am left with the impression that most places and societies that we impose our best intentions, good will, and resources on would fare much better if left alone to imagine and create their own solution for the challenges faced. But that is a completely new discussion field.
    Thanks for your book recommendation.



  11. Malcolm Greenhill Says:

    Othmar, what a breath of fresh air you are! I sense you have a wealth of first hand observations and experience in, as you say, “marginalized settings around the world.”
    Your comment below is tantalizing. I have subscribed to your blog and hope that you will post something on this subject.

    “…I am left with the impression that most places and societies that we impose our best intentions, good will, and resources on would fare much better if left alone to imagine and create their own solution for the challenges faced.”


  12. swabby429 Says:

    I’m thinking of the old Chinese curse that refered to reincarnation. “May you live in interesting times.” We must have all been deserving of the curse. 😉



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