The Old View

Dan Greenberg’s response begins:

I think though that perhaps this forum’s contributors — in their search for the best route to freedom — have overlooked the obvious. I believe that for ideologues generally, the most effective path to achieving their political goals is to support the campaigns of capable, trustworthy, and principled people for public office — a strategy that might include being such a candidate. When I read the first few contributions to this forum, I shook my head in puzzlement: for many libertarians, the notion that the best way to pursue freedom is by means of conventional political action is apparently counterintuitive.

My essay says the opposite, actually: it claims that conventional political action is a very intuitive strategy, just not an effective one. This should be no surprise, since the longer a problem has existed, the less likely it is that it can be solved the obvious way, and the more likely it is that a clever counterintuitive solution is needed. Physicists are not going to unify field theory by doing the simple, obvious thing, and libertarians are not going to fix government that way either. I don’t think I’ve yet met anyone who comes at the structuralist viewpoint from the beginning: we all start out assuming that “conventional political action” can work, but eventually we give up on it.

Let me again make it clear that everything I say is related to the goal of achieving a substantially freer society. If the current United States is a 5 on the 1-10 scale, we’re looking for an 8 or higher. With this goal, it is simply ludicrous to think that a good way to achieve it is running for public office in a country that is 85% – 95% non-libertarian, and uses a system (democracy) that is clearly (in both theory and empirical evidence) antithetical to economic freedom. No one is saying that becoming a public official has no effect. But I would like to hear a plausible path via which electing a few libertarians to local or state offices results in the dissolution of the DEA, BATF, and IRS.

In principle, I totally agree with Greenberg when he writes:

If it is the case that ideas and values become enacted into law not simply because of their merits but (in some essential sense) because a public official is espousing them, why do ideologues spend so much time dissecting faulty ideas but so little time thinking about how they themselves might become situated to write their own views into law? If you have ideas you like more than (say) lunar education, it might be worthwhile to consider how you might plausibly get them written into law.

Dissecting faulty ideas is one of the acts of folk activism that I call out in my essay. We do far too much of it, when we should be directing most of our efforts to proposing and implementing alternative solutions where we can “plausibly get them written into law.” I’m with him so far, but how can any libertarian think that libertarian views can plausibly be enacted in America today? The goal is not to push slightly better laws through the flawed system, it is to actually be able to live in a libertarian country. And it is exactly the consideration of how this might plausibly be accomplished that has led me to the sad belief that the only way I can be situated to write my views into law is by creating a new country on the frontier.

Dan does touch on some of the arguments about systemic factors:

Ideologues have a slew of objections to direct participation in the political process. They argue (for instance) that ideologues cannot win, that people are politically ineducable, that it’s immoral to participate — even to vote — in a corrupt system, that there’s a systemic bias towards big government that makes ideological efforts pointless, and that it’s a lot of hard labor for relatively little return. These arguments, in some respects, have force; in other respects, they smell like an excuse for avoiding work.

First, “in some respects, have force” is far too weak an evaluation of these systemic factors, which profoundly influence the policies generated by a government. It is not intuitive to view results as emerging from the rules of a system, as opposed to the actions of individuals, but if anyone can understand this, it should be libertarians, since our familiarity with economics teaches us that incentives matter. A libertarian would be laughed at for suggesting that the cure to high prices is price fixing, yet people like Greenberg routinely suggest that the cure to bad policies is policy fixing, ignoring the degree to which bad policy is the result of human action, not human design.

Second, and more importantly, I am dumbfounded that anyone who reads my essay can say “in other respects, they smell like an excuse for avoiding work.” Here I am claiming that the solution to these systemic incentive problems is to go build cities on the ocean, and Greenberg says I’m making excuses to avoid work? Are you kidding me? It’s the other way around: kissing babies is a helluva lot less work than pioneering a new frontier!

Greenberg seems to have succumbed to the romance of democracy when he writes:

It’s a reality in politics, especially legislative politics, that although ideologues will never win all the offices they run for, they can win enough of them to get a place at the table. They can win enough to have their views taken seriously in the political process and to be treated reasonably by the media.

What I want is to live in a society which operates in accordance with my morals, not one which takes them “seriously,” treats them “reasonably,” and then rejects them, again and again. Ron Paul has a place at the table, and while it makes for some great YouTube videos, it has no effect on Washington. Without influence, mere participation in the democratic process is worthless.

And finally:

But as the man said when he was asked how he liked being old: consider the alternative! If you really think that we need political change, what serious alternative is there to direct political action?

Greenberg’s choice of metaphor is quite telling. He assumes that the alternative to being old is being dead — apparently Dan has not yet met Aubrey de Grey! In the new view, the alternative to being old is to create rejuvenation technology. And the alternative to direct political action within existing political systems is to create a technology to enable experimentation with new political systems. [Editors’ note: Aubrey de Grey also contributed to Cato Unbound in December 2007.]

The old view resigns itself to the status quo; the new one tries to create alternatives. The old view operates through individuals; the new one, through technology and systems of incentives. The old view may have helped slightly stem the tide of statism that swept the United States in the 20th century, but it is clearly inadequate to enact any substantial change. For those of who want true liberty in our lifetimes, is it any wonder that are turning to a new view where direct political action within existing systems is no longer considered to be a credible option?

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