The Importance and Limitations of Groundwork

I’d like to clarify my thesis a bit and acknowledge the important (but limited) role of existing libertarian organizations.  Brian Doherty wrote:

“Folk activism” — talking, debating, and proselytizing, as [Patri] defines it — does indeed have the potential to see libertarians “changing system-wide incentives.” Admittedly, it’s a long, slow, so far largely failed slog — if changes in every libertarian direction already are what we need.

The implication of a “long, slow…slog” are a line that is slowly and steadily trending upwards.  If someone has such a line for the libertarian movement, I would love to see it, but I do not believe it is an accurate assessment of our history (though if anyone can prove me wrong, it is Brian, our chronicler extraordinaire).  The one graph I have seen of LP membership looks nothing a slow, steady increase.  Neither do sales of Atlas Shrugged, even if they are up lately.

In addition, whatever progress we do make has a ceiling, as I mentioned in my essay based on David Nolan’s work, or you can find in the research of Cato’s own David Boaz.  That ceiling is in the range of 9 to 16 percent of intuitive libertarians — plenty to take over New Hampshire or start a new country, but not to be a major power at the national level.  And the hope that libertarian morality will prove contagious beyond those intuitive libertarians is, I believe, a mirage.  Research by Jonathan Haidt suggests that people’s morality is an instinctual judgment, with reasons made up after the fact (one might call it “folk morality”).  Yes, some minds can be swayed, but this does not augur well for a mass conversion.

There is a big difference between a long war and an endless one, and for these and all the reasons I argued initially, I believe that folk activism is the latter.  I won’t go so far as to say we’re slogging slowly in circles, but there is an insurmountable cliff between us and our destination.  So it’s a question of possibility, not just Patri’s patience.

With that said, there is a critical difference between an inchoate individualist mass and an organized, self-identified group.  If our 10 percent of the population had no political party, no think tanks, no magazines, and no reputable academics, not only would we not have political impact, but it would be incredibly difficult for a new project to gain any traction.  The Seasteading Institute has benefited enormously from the groundwork laid by libertarian organizations in the spirit of folk activism, and I should have mentioned this in my original essay.  I may be skeptical that Cato will ever convert DC to a belief in markets, but I certainly appreciate having a sophisticated forum like Cato Unbound to be able to discuss and refine my ideas.

The Ron Paul campaign also exemplifies this distinction between impact and community.  As a method for electoral success, it had zero chance to as many decimal places as you care to name.  Yet I’ve met numerous libertarians who before Ron Paul had never heard of the philosophy or movement, and are now a valuable part of our community.  Systemic change is required — but it takes an organized group to make a systemic change.

And so the libertarian activism which Brian so aptly characterized as “consumption expense” has positive externalities for all of us.  I’d much rather people read and wrote and ranted about libertarianism than sat around and watched TV.  My concern is that people are deceiving themselves about the impact of this type of consumption (I know I did), which leads to misallocated efforts and long-run burnout when no change occurs.  (There is nothing unique about libertarianism in this area — ever since I was a teenager I’ve viewed petitions and boycotts as ways to make people feel good and feel like they’ve done something, without the effort of actually working towards real change.)

Brian also wrote:

I don’t know what will prove the best and most effective strategy for liberty. I think a lot of actions that are less than “best” or “most effective” are still worth doing, and that the inclinations and beliefs of each specific libertarian will be the best guide toward what will make them most effective at what they are doing — even if that particular thing isn’t the most effective thing!

This agnosticism about strategies towards liberty stems from one part of the libertarian philosophy: respect for the judgment and tastes of the individual.  Mine stems from another: the belief that resources are limited and some options are more efficient than others.  There are many paths towards liberty, but some go in circles, and others (like holing up with guns) lead off a cliff.  We need an organized group to reach the land of liberty, but we also need a map and a realistic plan to deal with the enormous geographic obstacles.  Folk activism has given us the group, and economic theory the map — and we’ve learned that we cannot simply walk to our destination.  We need the technologies Peter calls for to let us reach the heights to which we all aspire.

The groundwork has been laid, but it alone can’t get us off the ground.  Let’s invent technologies that can.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Beyond Folk Activism by Patri Friedman

    In this month’s lead essay, Patri Friedman charges libertarian activists with falling victim to bias: Specifically, they seem to suffer from the belief that advocacy and education are enough to change public policy. Friedman suggests otherwise, and he recommends that much more effort be put into demonstration projects that will show how a libertarian world might work. Not only will these projects do more than mere persuasion toward winning the war of ideas, but they will also allow individual libertarians to live in a much freer society, and they will exert competitive pressure on existing governments to reform themselves. Friedman discusses several such projects, including his own, the Seasteading Institute.

Response Essays

  • The Many Paths to Libertarianism by Brian Doherty

    Brian Doherty argues that Patri Friedman is both right in some ways and wrong in others. He’s right when he argues that incentives and technologies largely determine the shape of government today, and create the problems that libertarians tirelessly point out. He’s wrong, however, to dismiss “folk activism” entirely: Not only has it achieved some clear though incremental good, but it also helps create more libertarians, and at some point, this effort seems likely to bear fruit. Not only that, but seasteading relies on some folk activism itself, in convincing a large number of people that it would be a good idea to try. On the whole, Doherty welcomes seasteading as one of many possible paths to a more libertarian world.

  • Leveraging Institutional Change by Jason Sorens

    Jason Sorens reviews several important historical developments, including the rise of free trade in the nineteenth century and the growth of the welfare state in the twentieth. He concludes that structural change matters, and that incentives play a larger role than ideology in determining the type of government we get. He then considers several of the key challenges of both Seasteading and the Free State Project, as well as a few encouraging developments in recent politics that appear tied to the rise of the Free State movement. He counsels patience, but also proposes several strategies for moving forward.

  • The Education of a Libertarian by Peter Thiel

    Peter Thiel shares the belief that politics is mostly futile, a conclusion he reached after years of activism. In particular, he believes that democratic politics is unlikely to bring about libertarian outcomes. Fortunately, politics is just one sphere of human life, and it’s possible, he argues, to create technologies that minimize its reach. Thiel describes a “deadly race” between politics and technology, in which human freedom is the prize. The goal of libertarian activism should not be to win in politics, he argues, but to escape it.

The Conversation

Letters to the Editor