Teaching and Doing Depend on Each Other

Peter Thiel’s and Jason Sorens’s most recent contributions to this debate contain both much truth and much well-justified emotion. Both of them remind me of something depressing but worth thinking about when contemplating how we might get to a satisfyingly libertarian future: that maybe it just isn’t possible at all, given any reasonable future we can imagine from where we stand.

Thiel is right that the prospects for libertarian politics, especially when it comes to economic freedom, a government that doesn’t spend as much as it can lay its hands on plus 10 times more, and any widespread understanding of the coordinative possibilities of uncoerced human choice in the overall economy seem grim right now. He offers three possible paths to a solution. Each one’s actual potential to create a libertarian world seems no more obviously plausible than the very old fashioned libertarian movement “folk activism” path — that of convincing people of the merits of a libertarian social order, mind to mind, often one mind at a time.

And it isn’t just the technological problems (Can we really make space colonies and seasteads serve as desirable places to live and work as long as land is still an option? To what extent can virtual freedom of mind and communication spread into the movements of our bodies in meatspace?). Other obstacles make these sort of “change the game, don’t just change minds” solutions thin reeds on which to weigh a libertarian future.

The great advantage of seasteading and space colonies is they can in their nature be homes for a limited self-selected few, and thus a quick path to creating a libertarian world without having to change this world into one. That’s a definite advantage. But it runs into another very apt point made by Jason Sorens — small libertarian spaces aren’t apt to be very safe in a larger unlibertarian world. As he baldly states it, “a free society in the current climate will annoy or even enrage powerful people.”

Thus, maybe not only a fully libertarian world, but any possibility for a safe, livable space for tiny libertarian subworlds on the sea or in space (outer or cyber) really does rely on what Leonard Read thought from the beginning of the modern American libertarian project: convincing enough people of the benefits of a world that allows or even embraces “anything that’s peaceful.” It could be that this is necessary for any sort of hope for an active, living libertarian practice. Perhaps we must convince enough people such that we no longer live in a world in which powerful agencies of monopoly violence will be enemies of any enclave of freedom. We need to convince enough people that they should not allow, or do not want to participate in, the snuffing out of libertarian practice, so that whatever brilliant social hack a libertarian can make real will also survive.

Which leads us back to Patri and Peter’s legitimate doubts about how well that project of folk intellectual activism can ever really work. I can’t claim with authority that it will. But I’m not sure what else can. As excited as I am about seasteading or space colonies, I’m not sure I’ve heard any ideas that I think are very likely to be better. (I’ll be very happy to discover I’m wrong.) Good thing that it’s the rare libertarian activist who has to know or believe in his ex post success in major-league world-changing to feel like it’s worthwhile to advocate and educate for liberty’s benefits.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

Letters to the Editor