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The seed that started this post is a podcast from The Economist. The topic: what would make a modern Utopia?

The podcast is an interview with the author of the book: Utopia for Realists. I have not read it, nor do I intend to (you can read why at the end of this post…if you dare/care).

BUT the basic premise is interesting, why is Utopia so out of fashion? Are we limiting our ability to achieve or strive because we don’t have stories or visions of a better world?

The author then gets bogged down in some contemporary political issues…which is a lame segue from where the book started, and not at all interesting to me. His book is actually about the following:

This guide to a revolutionary yet achievable utopia offers three core ideas-a universal basic income, a fifteen-hour workweek, and open borders across the globe-each of them supported by lively anecdotes, multiple studies, and numerous success stories.

Again, I briefly deal with these specific issues below the fold, but they are not the interesting part.


Lets get Utopian!

Where to start…

At it’s most abstract, we could call Utopia a world without problems, but that is a paradox. A perfect world is not a world without problems. Having no problems would make people miserable because people thrive on solving problems. Would anyone be happy if there was nothing to achieve? Hell no. So even if the problems are merely of expressing oneself artistically, Utopia’s got some problems.

Utopia 1.0

Utopia is the world in which the only problem is the problem of expressing oneself. Basically everyone is just creating art.

…Right, but if you are always expressing yourself…don’t your feelings get hurt if nobody is watching? Not a problem, that’s just a little tweak.

Utopia 1.1

Utopia is the world in which there are only two problems.

1) The problem of expressing oneself.

2) The problem of getting other people to take a minute to stop expressing themselves so that they can enjoy you expressing yourself.

Basically everyone is just creating art or enjoying other peoples’ art.

Right, so in Utopia, everyone is equal…People just share their art in Utopia 1.1. And it is great.

Except, is a there a gradient? Is there a spectrum from least valuable art to most valuable art? Otherwise all art has the same value, regardless of originality, effort, time spent to master skills, et cetera… If all art is equal, then Utopia is a society that does not value merit.

How would you feel if you spent 20 years creating a masterpiece, you are Leonardo da Vinci, and everyone else just does really easy fingerpaintings. They would be like: “Oh yeah, cool masterpiece, but we’re the same. Look at my finger painting, it’s just as good.”  That would be great for all the lame finger-painters, but you–the sad, lone genius–are probably in some version of hell on earth, and we can’t have that in Utopia.

I’ve written about this before, but essentially people find ways to compete and rank each other. Like just ask: does Utopia have sports? If yes, then…well, we don’t have equality. Unless everybody wins…but that is stupid. It just defeats the point of sports. Sport is about excellence.


There is probably something about human nature that excludes us from a truly equal society. Sorry Marxism. We just get too much of who we are from competition and struggle.

Ok…so we have to have a ranking system. What is the least-bad way of doing that? As soon as we introduce scarcity, we get other problems that we need to solve. Remember, there are no problems in Utopia other than the ones we have already added.

In Utopia, people still have a limits around time, even if everyone is immortal. Let’s assume the future and the present are not the same, otherwise you can always just enjoy someone’s art later and it doesn’t matter. Adding this little constraint implies that attention is the currency of Utopia.

Utopia 2.0

Utopia is the world in which there are only three types of problems.

  1. Expressing oneself.
  2. Dividing time between creating vs. enjoying art.
  3. Deciding the nature of the art to enjoy.

Basically, everyone just creates art, and life is all about the competition to figure out whose art is the most worthy of spending the present moment enjoying.

I’m relatively pleased with this version of utopia. It has room for a lot of compelling drama, and essentially people don’t have anything really terrible to afflict them. Nothing is unfair, and Utopia 2.0 is better than the world we live in by basically any measure.

Here’s a thought: in a Utopian society we might just play elaborate games all day, and that is how we figure out who is best…hmm interesting. Elon Musk thinks we’re in a simulation. Maybe we are in the Utopian game? Like…OK, we’ve solved all the world’s problems: everyone is hype-beautiful, hyper-intelligent, hyper-rich, and so on…Who gets laid? I know!…lets recreate a simulated world with all of the problems again, and we’ll figure it out that way…Just maybe.


Wait, but…in Utopia do we have a unified theory of everything? Like, is science done? And is philosophy done? We would have to know all of the secrets in Utopia, otherwise people would be doing things other than self-expression. In other words, there is no mystery. We know which religion is correct. If people still die, we know what happens to them afterwards, and if that is not better, we just keep them alive forever. Name a technical problem, we have a solution. Nothing hurts. We just Grok everything.

So is Utopia 2.0 possible? It very well might be possible. But perhaps we have to go through some shit to get there. Or maybe it is not, if not, then we have to then tone it back a little…

Utopia 3.0

Utopia is the world in which there are four types of problems.

  1. Expressing oneself.
  2. Dividing time between creating vs. enjoying art.
  3. Deciding the nature of the art to enjoy.
  4. Mitigating the realities that prevent us from doing 1,2, and 3 (living in Utopia 2.0).

Basically, everyone spends most of their time just creating art, and life is all about the competition to figure out whose art is the most worthy of spending the present moment enjoying. We have to spend some time figuring out what is preventing us from spending all of our time with the art…etc…

Right…this doesn’t work. We obviously have limits on points 1, 2, and 3 otherwise point 4 is already solved, and we are in Utopia 2.0, so there is at least another set of problems for us to solve.


We have to assume that we don’t know everything. The most general way to forge ahead requires that we also know what we don’t know…and Donald Rumsfeld, and stuff.


Utopia 3.1

Utopia is the world in which there are six types of problems.

  1. Expressing oneself.
  2. Dividing time between creating vs. enjoying art.
  3. Deciding the nature of the art to enjoy.
  4. Mitigating the realities that prevent us from doing 1,2, and 3 (living in Utopia 2.0).
  5. Figuring out the best way to divide time between 1,2,3 and 4.
  6. Deciding who divides their time, and how much they on 1,2,3,4, 5, and 6.

Basically everyone tries to spend their time just creating art, and life is largely about the competition to figure out whose art is the most worthy of spending the present moment enjoying. But we have to spend some time figuring out what is preventing us from spending all of our time with the art. We also have to spend our time figuring out whose job it is to fix the world, and how much time we trade between fixing the world and enjoying the world, and we have to figure out a way of making that trade-off fairly, so that nobody is exploited trying to make it to Utopia 2.0.

Shit…Utopia 3.1 is going to have some nasty politics. How will people agree to not make art? Maybe there is a way to make not making art into art…like if solving the problems of the world is also a form of self-expression.

I’m not done with this topic…but today I’m going to leave it here.

The ultimate aim of all artistic activity is building! … Architects, sculptors, painters, we must all get back to craft! … The artist is a heightened manifestation of the craftsman. … Let us form … a new guild of craftsmen without the class divisions that set out to raise an arrogant barrier between craftsmen and artists! … Let us together create the new building of the future which will be all in one: architecture and sculpture and painting. -Walter Gropius




Some thoughts on the ‘realist’ Utopian policies in “Utopia for Realists”. 

He cites heavily an experiment in Manitoba…that Evelyn Forget wrote about. This was one of the key pieces of literature I used in writing my Master’s thesis. So I have been delighted to see something I spent time on in school become relevant. It has been getting a lot of attention with the universal basic income (UBI) crowd. You can read the main conclusions of the paper…there are some definite social benefits…but the study is hardly comprehensive, and you have to always remember that the tax base to fund the experiment was external to the actual town it occurred in…that is not something you can shrug off.

UBI is certainly utopian…but I would caution that it is not a silver bullet. What happens when the income of everyone rises in land allocation? Ask Robert Frank…Hint: you don’t magically get more land…so prices just go up and the same distribution happens.

Here is a thought experiment…Let’s say the government seized all of the private land in your home town. Now lets say the properties were sold back to the people of the town…no prices are set, it is all goes to auction. Let’s also say that before the government took away the homes, the richest person in town had the nicest home, and the second richest person in town had the second nicest home, and so on… Who will buy the nicest home in the auction, and the second nicest home…etc…?

There may be some shuffling, but in general, the richest person will bid up the price of the nicest home until it is out of reach of the second richest person, and the second richest person will do the same thing to the third richest person when the bidding starts on the second nicest home…and so on…

Now…the prices of all of the homes will probably be much lower than before, but the distribution of who gets what will be broadly similar.

Likewise, if you simply give everyone a lump sum transfer … for goods like land…you haven’t changed the income distribution at all…and so the allocation is going to be very similar to what it already is…UBI is probably null in solving a shelter problem…so then we probably still need an aid organisation to secure a basic need for people…and all of a sudden the idea that UBI is somehow going to erase the need for other social welfare programs starts to crumble…

The fifteen-hour workweek was predicted by Keynes 100 years ago, and it didn’t happen…and I think the reason it didn’t happen is that people care more about relative income than overall income. I tried to write about it in one of my earlier blog posts. Essentially people view the world as a giant tournament, with a fictitious ‘best’ person somewhere out there…all the while insisting that there are no one is better than anyone else…it is a real hypocrisy that I think we walk around with..

Finally, he cites open bordersDaron Acemoglu would be one person to read to find out why this is a stupid idea…actually not stupid, just naive. The idea is interesting…why don’t we  extend our moral concerns beyond our political borders is probably worth pondering. But Acemoglu will give you a decent understanding of why this occurs…and also Parag Khanna could explain to you how political borders are actually not the organising principle of the modern world.



One thought on “Utopia

  1. Pingback: FairPlay Canada is Propaganda | dilletante thoughts

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