Questions to ask of Real Utopian Proposals

1. Normative Foundations:  What are the fundamental goals the proposal hopes to achieve, and what are the normative principles embodied in those goals? This is not always a simple question. Thus, for example, in talking about universal basic income, it is not really enough to say that this proposal reflects a commitment to egalitarian values. What is needed is a clarification of what kind of egalitarian principle basic income is thought to embody, what the egalitarian ideal really consists of. There may, of course, be more than one value in play in any proposal.

2. Design Principles. What precisely are the institutional design principles of the proposal? How is it supposed to work? What are the “rules”?

3.  Context  Conditions. Are there conditions in the social/institutional context of a proposal that are essential for its viability? How restrictive are those conditions – are they very exacting, or fairly loose? In workers’ coops, for example, there may be hostile or conducive conditions in the broader political economy which make it easy or difficult to establish coops and reproduce them over time – things like public subsidies, tax policy, credit policies, etc.

4. The problem of robust sustainability. Are there internal contradictions within the proposal that make the reproduction of the project difficult over time? Does the dynamic over time of the institution tend to reinforce or undermine its viability?  For example, basic income may reduce labor supply to the point that the basic income cannot be financed through taxation.

5. Scalability. Some proposals can be instituted in small scale, local settings, but cannot be scaled up. A worker coop, for example, is certainly much easier in a small taxi cooperative or a farm than in a multinational automotive corporation. Deliberative democracy is easier in a town than in a large nation state. So, for every proposal it is important to think about scale issues.

6. Divisibility. Can the proposal be partially implemented in ways that would accomplish some of its goals, or is the institutional design basically an all-or-nothing design? Are there critical threshold effects in the implementation of the proposal so that the positive effects only kick in after some threshold is reached? A very small basic income may generate none of the desirable effects of a generous BI, but a modest basic income might. Weak forms of deliberative democracy might still be improvement over purely representative democracy; or, perhaps, weak forms would lose the advantages of representative democracy without the gains of deliberative democracy.

7. Negative unintended consequences. Every institutional innovation has unintended consequences – side effects other than those which are the goals of the innovation. Some of these may be positive, unintended yet desirable effects. But some may be negative. Language policies that subsidize minority languages in the name of cultural diversity may increase the isolation of a minority culture, reduce social integration, and increase hostility. Central planning in socialist economies, designed to eliminate the “anarchy of production” of the market, may generate all sorts of pathologies of planning irrationality.

8. Positive unintended consequences. Often with wide-ranging institutional innovations there can be positive effects others than those that motivate the innovation. Basic income, for example, may increase political activism and the arts by providing a wage subsidy for non-commodified activity.

9. Political feasibility. What kinds of political economic conditions are likely to be needed to institute a particular kind of proposal? Some proposals may be possible without political mobilization: a group of people can self-organize a workers coop. Others require massive collective action: market socialism cannot be instituted from below. Political conditions include such things as: the necessary coalition of social forces for a proposal to be supported, the power of the potential political opposition, the procedural rules in state institutions that might block a proposal, etc.