Seasteading and Its Critics

Cato Unbound Managing Editor Jason Kuznicki writes in Cato @ Liberty:

What’s needed, Friedman claims, is not more study or advocacy, but a change in the deeper institutional structures that give rise to government policies…

Is this just a young person’s impatience? Or has Friedman found a serious weakness in libertarian activism? One reply I might make is that Cato scholars have researched quite a few topics that Friedman would probably find worthwhile…Consider the many Cato scholars who have heralded the rise of tax competition…Or consider Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter

It is certainly true that academic research is useful for understanding what types of structural reform may help realistically transform society, and it definitely informs my strategy. In other words, even if one buys into my worldview, the optimal quantity of academic research is not zero. It is even true that the optimal rate of academic research is not zero — new phenomena such as tax competition may be worthy of study, even if you share my goals (liberty in our lifetimes), and my skepticism of folk activist methods.

However, as we anti-government types know quite well, defending something as having some virtue does not mean it is better than alternatives, or even of net positive value. Academic research is not useless, but I believe that we are over-invested in talk relative to action and in politics relative to technology, for all the reasons stated in my piece. Describing the benefits of liberty may sell some — but showing it will convince more. Telling people not to have babies may slightly reduce the birth rate — but inventing the pill reduces it drastically.

Ilya Somin has a good piece at the Volokh Conspiracy. Among other things, he says:

Ironically, Patri Friedman’s grandfather Milton Friedman was one of the best examples of the impact of libertarian advocacy on policy. Among other things, Milton Friedman’s efforts, combined with those of other libertarians, played a key role in ending the draft, one of the greatest infringements on individual liberty in modern American history. Friedman also helped influence many governments around the world in the direction of adopting relatively more free market economic policies.

I think I would like to believe that this is true, and certainly there is a strong case to be made that individual advocacy can have some occasional, limited, and temporary positive effects on liberty. I went too far in characterizing these efforts as useless. The fact remains that they will not get us “liberty in our lifetimes,” that structural reforms (such as the fall of communism and spread of democracy) have had far more positive impact on liberty than minor policy changes, and that technology is a much more realistic path to changing the world than rhetoric.

Furthermore, I question to what degree advocates such as my grandfather could influence policy without successful examples. The United States used to be such an example — but those days are long past, and the current administration seems hell bent on moving even further from them, all the while calling it “progress.” Thus even if one believes in fighting the war of ideas, examples make for powerful ammunition. Surely some of our advocacy budget (perhaps a substantial portion) should go to creating such examples. As Michael Strong writes in his new book Be The Solution (reviewed here by Max Borders), we should “Criticize By Creating.”

Both Ilya and Cato Fellow Doug Bandow mention that existing countries may not allow libertarian seasteads to exist. Bandow suggests that political advocacy in existing societies is thus an essential part of even a separatist movement like seasteading. Again, let us not confuse positive value with an efficient action. It is certainly true that a culture of liberty is conducive to tolerance of libertarian startup societies. It does not follow that the budget of a libertarian startup state (or libertarianism in general) should be spent on advertising the joys of libertarianism rather than developing a good product. A good product is, after all, the best form of advertising.

States may not tolerate freedom on the high seas — but if they don’t, then nowhere is safe. In other words, for a given cultural climate, the most freedom will always be had at the frontier, furthest from current power structures. We know that the current political, cultural, and intellectual climate means we are very far from a libertarian state inside the borders of every existing nation. The open question is: in that same environment, how much freedom can be had on the frontier? It is more, but is it substantially more — enough to be worth the extra cost and other disadvantages?

This is where the question of state intervention comes in. It is certainly a major threat, but I do not think that the case that existing governments will not allow any significant freedom on the frontier is overwhelming. Yes, the United States will intervene anywhere in the world — but only for a tiny list of offenses. WMD research, harboring terrorists, anonymous banking, and exporting drugs all come to mind as things that will provoke state intervention. But that is a very short list, and it covers most of the territory! In other words, one only needs to ban a very few things in order to be on a friendly basis with the United States.

Whether this will be sufficient to maintain autonomy remains to be seen, and even if seasteading succeeds wildly I expect complex compromises to be necessary. But I think we have a fighting chance at a huge increase in freedom. And a far better chance on the frontier than anywhere else. It’s there or nothing — let’s give freedom one last try.

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