The Seeds of Their Own Destruction: Lessons from Utopian Experiments in Nineteenth-Century America - Part 1
47 Pages Posted: 25 May 2021 Last revised: 20 Jul 2021
Date Written: May 24, 2021
social experimentation. The combination of the young nation's commercial and religious freedom and its expansive frontier enabled hundreds of social entrepreneurs to attempt utopian societies and--according to their ambitions--a template for changing the world. None of them succeeded, but the challenges they shared provide clear lessons from their failures.
This paper focuses on the some of the best organized and longest-lived experiments from the hundreds that we studied, each starting with a compelling vision promoted by the community's founder, then tracing the problems that plagued their community as it grew, and how their attempts to address them led to further problems in a cycle that eventually undid their societies. We follow up those examples with a discussion of how progress was ultimately achieved in the larger societies that these experimental communities had inhabited, including how the lack of ideological constraints helped them to succeed where the utopians had failed.
The overall paper is developed in three parts:
Part 1: The Other American Dream
Part 2: The Corporation, Body and Soul
Part 3: Intelligent Design vs. Evolution of Societies
The present submission is Part 1, describes the rise and failure of Hopedale, Oneida, and Amana as socialistic communities, and their respective revivals as successful for-profit corporations. We describe the fundamental challenges to societal viability that they each faced, including the incentive problem, the public choice problem, and the knowledge problem.
This part includes the full list of societies that we studied.
Keywords: utopia, socialism, communalism, incentives, public choice
JEL Classification: A13, B14, B15, H42, N31, P27
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation