The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics

2018 Edition
| Editors: Macmillan Publishers Ltd


  • Gregory Claeys
Reference work entry


The word ‘utopia’ is derived from a Greek term meaning ‘no place’. A utopia is a fictional account of a perfect or ideal society which in its economic aspect is usually stationary and often includes community of goods. Many proposals for social reform have included elements inspired by utopias, and most utopias at least tacitly plead for social change. There is no single utopian tradition and thus no unilinear relationship between ‘utopia’ and the history of economic thought. Insofar as the provision of a subsistence for mankind has been the aim of all forms of normative economic thought, however, the mode of thinking about perfect or harmonious societies termed ‘utopian’ has usually presented itself as the most comprehensive answer to the riddles offered by economic writers. Particularly in the modern period this has involved the use of science and technology to solve economic problems. In turn, the most ambitious plans to settle all economic difficulties have themselves often verged upon the utopian (in the sense of being particularly fanciful or unachievable). A clarification of this relationship requires distinguishing utopian thought from at least four related modes of speculation. In millenarianism, all social problems are disposed of through divine intervention, often in the form of the Second Coming of Christ, at which time a perfect society is founded. In the medieval English poetic vision described in the ‘Land of Cockaygne’ and similar works, all forms of scarcity are dissolved in a fantasy of satiety, where desires remain fixed while their means of satisfaction increase without labour and are consumed without effort. In arcadias, a greater stress is given to the satisfaction of ‘natural’ desires alone and to the equal importance of a spiritual and aesthetic existence. In what has been termed the ‘perfect moral community’ the necessity for a prior change in human nature and especially in human wants is also assumed and more attention is given to spiritual regeneration as the basis of social harmony.

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© Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Gregory Claeys
    • 1
  1. 1.