Two Kinds of Activism

To my mind there are two ways to do libertarian activism.

One approach is easy, deeply satisfying, and - at least on our current margin - it’s basically ineffective. The other approach is difficult, usually thankless, and - I dare say it - revolutionary when it works. 

Let’s call the first way libertarian moralizing. We know it by what it aims to produce: The intended product is more libertarians. Eventually we’ll persuade everyone, or at least enough of everyone, and then we’ll change the world.

In this approach, activists often urge non-libertarians to read some classic book; we are a bookish people. Perhaps it’s Atlas Shrugged or The Road to Serfdom. Activists trade and pass along memes that reinforce the message. They are apt to mention, often at the least opportune moments imaginable, that taxation is theft.

And who knows? Perhaps the listener has never heard those three words in exactly that order before. Maybe the listener will agree.

The point in this type of activism is to disseminate a particular moral message, and to bring people to agree with libertarian conclusions simply because their moral sense tells them so. Practical difficulties tend to be dismissed with an appeal to the moral sense alone: Win the moral high ground, the claim goes, and you will win the war. Ayn Rand certainly thought this way, and she has John Galt proclaim:

I have called out on strike the kind of martyrs who had never deserted you before. I have given them the weapon they had lacked: the knowledge of their own moral value. I have taught them that the world is ours, whenever we choose to claim it, by virtue and grace of the fact that ours is the Morality of Life… the industrialists, the conquerors of matter, had not discovered the nature of their right.[1]

To this way of thinking, the task of activism is to develop and disseminate moral truths that have so far been elusive, evaded, or obscured. Rand certainly believed that capitalism was a moral system, and a good one, and importantly she added a further claim: Such a system requires a public defense that is offered in moral terms as well, one that is accessible to all those who are inclined to accept it.

We can argue about the merits of Rand’s particular moral defense of capitalism elsewhere. For now I will say that I agree with her that the moral high ground is crucial. That high ground is worth winning, and the war itself cannot be won without it.

But there’s a big problem here, and it’s very simply stated: Moral messages alone don’t seem to produce stable beliefs. They’re all fire and no fuel. The typical person who’s made it through Atlas Shrugged without immediately despising it usually falls in love: The world is changed, and for a time at least it seems that nothing will ever be the same again. Comparisons to a religious conversion are quite apt.

But there’s a reason it’s called the Ayn Rand phase. Like it or not, an infatuation with Ayn Rand rarely lasts longer than a year or two. And then it fades. For years thereafter, the person who has undergone an Ayn Rand phase may have the sense that a sort of low intellectual trick has been played on them. We’ve all seen the “proofs” that  2+2 = 5, or that perpetual motion really is possible under certain conditions. I’ve heard it suggested that maybe Ayn Rand is something like that.

I would not agree. I think there’s something there. But merely getting more people to read Ayn Rand seems likely only to leave more people perplexed, annoyed, and slouching back to statism, vaguely but grimly convinced that they’ve been conned. That’s absolutely not where we want to leave them.


What’s Missing from Libertarian Moralism

The intense but fleeting quality of Ayn Rand’s appeal may have to do with genuine shortcomings in her philosophy - a giant can of worms that I’m not going to touch - but it may also have to do with the second kind of libertarian activism, the kind I’d like to talk about now.

To pick a completely incendiary name, I will call this second type of activism libertarian social engineering. By this I mean the deliberate attempt to create, on an incremental, case-by-case basis, the new, voluntary institutions and practices that a society would need if it were to become significantly more private, more decentralized, and more free. I mean here institutions like cryptocurrency, which is already well known; private institutions of assurance and trust in consumer satisfaction and safety; and Alexander Tabarrok’s idea of the Dominant Assurance Contract, which is exceptionally obscure, but which stands to my mind a fair chance of making almost all state action obsolete.

As editor of Cato Unbound, it’s my job to look for new, interesting questions, ideas, and thinkers, and to present some of them every month for our audience. For quite some time now I’ve wanted to do something with the idea of the Dominant Assurance Contract, because even among fairly hardcore libertarians, I’ve found almost no one who knows about it - and yet to my mind this is exactly the type of work that we should be doing.

The Dominant Assurance Contract works like this. A wealthy philanthropist provides seed money for a project that he hopes will eventually be pursued. We’ll say that it’s building a school. The philanthropist’s money is only a small fraction of the total, but he advertises that others may subscribe to the project as well, with an announced deadline sometime in the future, and a total sum of money that he hopes is to be collected before then. (The total is sufficient to fund the project.)

If the total is collected by the deadline, the project goes forward, and the school is built and funded. If the total is not collected by the deadline, the other subscribers will have their money refunded, along with a bonus that comes from the philanthropist’s contribution. The project doesn’t go forward, but - unlike a Kickstarter campaign - no one ever walks away feeling scammed. Everyone always gets something that they wanted at the outset, either a school or - in the worst case scenario - something like a savings bond.

Dominant Assurance Contracts have the potential to do all kinds of good work in the provision of what economists call public goods. And intriguingly, public goods are by far the solidest justification for the existence of the state itself. If all public goods could be provided this way - and yes, that’s a big if - then we probably wouldn’t need a state at all.

Absolutely none of this is certain. It’s all a wild speculation. That said, at least trying to provide some public goods this way seems harmless enough. Why don’t we try it more often? This is a sort of tinkering that seems likely to do no harm, that might do enormous good, and that would allow libertarians to experiment with building the institutions of a voluntary society even as we enjoy the relative comfort of the present-day world. Retreating to Galt’s Gulch may be completely unnecessary.

Why this, why now? Keep in mind that we already have all kinds of different moral arguments for capitalism and voluntarism. Some are in my estimation far stronger than Ayn Rand’s, including John Tomasi’s Free Market Fairness and Jason Brennan’s Why Not Capitalism? But we have lacked even a vague idea of how crucial types of voluntary social interaction might be carried out in the absence of a state, or with little to nothing in the way of state participation.

We do have activism, of course, that aims to remove state action from areas of life where it is completely unjustified, and where no substitutes would ever be appropriate. Libertarians do fine work on keeping the press free, and on keeping the state out of religion, and on abolishing licensure for professions. None of these should stop, certainly.

Libertarian social engineering, though, is much rarer, and yet I have come to believe that it’s absolutely necessary. The end product will not be more libertarian true believers - not at first, anyway - but rather more ways of doing voluntarily all of the things that need to be done to enjoy a high standard of living in a more or less just society that is full of diverse aims and values.

It’s libertarian, because it operates in the private sphere, and no one is ever required to use it. If you don’t like what’s being done, you are free to ignore it. And it’s social engineering, because this type of activism straightforwardly tries to build the institutions that a free people would use instead of the state.

On our current margin, I think we need a lot more of exactly this type of tinkering. And I’m not alone in my belief: The sense is growing, I think, that we’ve built an enormous moral edifice, some parts much more solid than others, but that the foundations of free institutional practice are still almost entirely lacking. As libertarian philosopher Jason Brennan writes,

In my view, the principal problem that the capitalist ideal faces is that we do not know how to design that machinery that would make it run. The problem is … our lack of a suitable organizational technology: our problem is a problem of design. It may turn out to be an insoluble design problem, and it is a design problem no doubt exacerbated by our selfish, predatory, and malicious propensities, but a design problem, I think, is what we’ve got.[2]

If Brennan’s phrase has a familiar ring to it, that’s because it’s a close (and acknowledged) parody of a passage from G. A. Cohen’s Why Not Socialism?, in which Cohen suggests that perhaps socialism has the very same design problem.

If that doesn’t make my fellow libertarians at least a little bit uncomfortable, I’m not sure what will. But that doesn’t make the observation untrue. Perhaps our moral reach really does exceed our engineering grasp. And perhaps most political philosophies will wind up somewhere similar when they begin from abstract moral ideas and then attempt to build a real-world polity. Conservatism may be exempt here, but most other views will not be. Proponents of any given view - socialism, libertarianism, or nearly anything else - will of course think that their view is both moral and practical, but reality needs to be the judge of practicality. And for the libertarian case to get a fair hearing, we have much design work to do.

The fact is that we’ve barely begun to think about how to create the institutions that would give people the freedom to ignore the state. As I wrote in my own book, Technology and the End of Authority,

It may prove that many or perhaps even all of the problems that we now characterize as… problems to be given to the state to solve, may in fact be designproblems - that is, problems that could be solved in a far more morally satisfying way, if we only knew how. Proper solutions would leave behind only voluntary interactions, and possibly nothing that we might identify as a state. We just don’t know how to get there yet.[3]

The conspicuous lack of libertarian social engineering may also explain why few outside the libertarian movement can possibly take seasteading seriously. Thus the ordinary, reasonably intelligent non-libertarian looks at seasteading and immediately begins to ask questions: What happens if there’s a murder? How will property title disputes be adjudicated? What if someone doesn’t agree with the judgment? How will banking work? When pollution or other externalities occur, who deals with them, and how? In short, who provides the public goods? With what resources? And by what authority?

We libertarians have posed these questions, often and tellingly, whenever it’s a matter of someone else’s utopian and comprehensive social system. We’ve used these questions to pick apart many collectivist and interventionist projects, and it is good that we have done so. These questions, though, can apply equally to us. We libertarians pride ourselves on being skeptical of utopianism, but we are oddly blind to that menace whenever it happens to be wearing our own colors.

We ought not to give ourselves a pass. Something roughly like seasteading might answer well to our moral intuitions, but there’s a lot of work that needs to be done between here and there, and insisting on the greatness of the end goal, while neglecting that work, is apt to make us look like perpetual-motion charlatans.

This work is hard, and it isn’t for everyone. I’m not sure that I’ve ever performed it myself. There will of course be many failures along the way as well. But if we want to capture the minds as well as the hearts of all those people we’ve won through libertarian moralizing, then we’ll have to build the institutions for them to use, or at least to point to, in the meantime. We will have to make the move toward a more voluntary society not look like a sudden leap into the dark. By making it appear more reasonable, we will keep those whom we’ve won by moral persuasion. We will also make any future libertarian world that we might build more attractive to those who aren’t so persuaded by ideological messages: At least it works, they may be able to tell themselves, and perhaps it works better than the way that things used to be.

As editor, I rarely participate in the discussions at Cato Unbound, and to date I have never written the lead essay. This month I’ve done so primarily to draw attention to the work of others - individuals who, in my judgment, have been doing and thinking about the libertarian social engineering that we will need if we’re ever going to change the world. I look forward to turning the floor over to them, and to discussing their work - and not mine - in the coming days.

Much activism for a freer world has centered so far on trying to convince people that having a freer world would be morally preferable. That’s well and good. But little work has been done on designing the institutions that that world will need. This should be strange to us, because if these institutions can be built voluntarily, then presumably they can also be built today. And eventually, in the freer world that we imagine, we will need them.



[1] Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, Signet, 1992 (1957) p. 967.

[2] Jason Brennan, Why Not Capitalism? Routledge Press, 2014, p. 40.

[3] Jason Kuznicki, Technology and the End of Authority: What Is Government For? Palgrave MacMillan, 2017, p 227.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Jason Kuznicki recommends what he calls “libertarian social engineering,” which builds institutions and practices for a freer society. Libertarians are well versed in moral arguments, he says, but moral arguments alone tend to generate only a short burst of enthusiasm before fading. Much better would be to get to work on building the practical - and voluntary - future that we all profess to desire.

Response Essays

  • Some institutions aren’t necessary to a free market as a matter of principle, but they make life in market-oriented society much better. Those of us who believe that markets are a key part of a well-ordered society should take the lead in developing these institutions. Not only might they bring about a more voluntary society, they will also improve the quality of our lives. Tabarrok cites several some surprising examples of institutional innovations to justify these claims.

  • Edward Stringham argues that there’s been a lot more real-world private governance than one might imagine at first. Historically, banks, payment processors, and financial markets have commonly created their own, self-enforcing rules, which were often highly effective. A persistent habit among statist thinkers is to assume the necessity of the state; libertarians will often counter a persistent tendency to speculate. Neither is quite warranted, says Stringham.

  • Tom W. Bell suggests three ideas that might help achieve a freer society. Together they form a general approach to privatizing state-supplied goods. He cautions that libertarian engineering will have limited capabilities under existing governments; to significantly change how law functions, and to move it in a libertarian direction, may require new systems entirely. Bell concludes with a sketch of three possible features they may contain: shared ownership, jointly held democracy between citizens and private owners, and open-source law.

  • Vitalik Buterin argues that the way to build a more decentralized world is to make that world rewarding. Most people aren’t libertarians, and few will change their minds about politics simply because libertarians urge them to. But when specific social systems make it relatively advantageous to engage in market behavior, and when people can trust one another in a context that does need the state, their actions will take on a libertarian character anyway, and the world itself will improve, both by our standards and by those of others.