Making Liberty Happen

Jason Kuznicki’s lead essay posits two kinds of libertarian activism: the usual sort of gratifying but ineffective moral suasion (with Ayn Rand’s work cited as an example) and “libertarian social engineering.” Framing it as a choice between futile theory or transformative practice, Kuznicki calls for less of the former and more of the latter.

Kuznicki offers the Dominant Assurance Contract (DAC) as exactly the sort of thing that the world needs more of. On that point, I wholeheartedly agree. Alex Tabarrok deserves a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his pioneering work on the DAC, an idea that has already survived field testing and that, if scaled up, stands to revolutionize the provision of public goods.[1] As Kuznicki notes, the DAC could render nation states obsolete.

Powerful stuff. Powerful good stuff, too, for friends of liberty. So Kuznicki wants more of the same, and pronto. But what about the moral theorizing he seems to dismiss? Does it play any role in the brave new world of practical libertarianism?


Beyond Theory?

Kuznicki calls for a kind of  “social engineering.” Though not the most politic name, it does reveal a profound regard for theory. What do engineers do, after all, but translate theory into practice? Bridges stand because civil engineers apply the Newtonian model of physics to real world facts; computer chips run well because electrical engineers apply the quantum model to semiconductors.

Kuznicki’s call for more libertarian engineering thus includes an invitation to libertarian theory. And not just any theory. A practical fellow like Kuznicki will want a theory that, like Newtonian or quantum physics, does a good job of describing its domain. Kuznicki evidently doubts that Objectivism will do the trick, but beyond that, his essay does not go. On it rushes, to the attractions of practical libertarianism.

And so, too, will this essay. But not before noting that Tabarrok’s DAC exemplifies the theory that consensual market exchanges maximize social welfare. This shows in the very motive for creating the DAC: to offer a purely voluntary and private mechanism as a better alternative to the political provision of public goods. Tabarrok’s description of the DAC offers more in the line of mathematical equations than philosophical theorizing, but the whole of his enterprise coheres with the theory that the more consent, the better.[2]


Libertarian Coders of the World:  You, Write!

Now, to Kuznicki’s main concern: mobilizing libertarians to design institutions that respect individual rights, promote economic growth, and cultivate social harmony. Who could disagree with that? So Kuznicki hits the gas. He concludes, “if these institutions can be built voluntarily, then presumably they can also be built today.”

That twee “if” marks a significant turn of argument, however. In terms of physics, seasteaders can (sort of, probably) build entirely autonomous floating islands on the high seas. In terms of finances or politics, though? Kuznicki’s libertarian engineers will never get a chance. That is one reason why The Seasteading Institute decided to work with French Polynesia to create a Floating Island Project in the shallow waters of one of that island nation’s sheltered lagoons.

Kuznicki calls for libertarians to code the software of liberty. Well and good. It will come to little, though, if they have no hardware to run it on. And applications that “run on top” of existing institutions, the way that Bitcoin operates above and beyond the reach of any particular government, can only get so far in the virtual world. Internet clouds eventually come to ground on sovereign territory.

Seasteads might soon offer suitable platforms for trying out new and better ways of providing consent-rich governing services. Or maybe Honduran ZEDES, or the fledgling Liberland, or another of the contemplated special jurisdictions will provide the hardware necessary for running the kind of software that Kuznicki wants libertarians to start writing. Here, it must suffice to say that hard working people have been trying to make it happen—and to offer the pragmatic reminder that these things take time.


Quick Answers to Hard Questions

Kuznicki warns friends of liberty that if they want to sell new and improved kinds of government, they will have to answer some tough 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 public goods? With what resources? And by what authority?

He is not the first to make such inquiries. Again: hard working people have been seeking answers for quite a while, in venues all over the world. Speaking solely as an individual academic and not for any client, here follows a sketch of one general approach to private governing services.

It combines three main elements:

  • Shared ownership;
  • Double democracy; and
  • Open source law.

Shared Ownership. Because nobody owns traditional political institutions, nobody really cares for them. Resident-owned communities offer a better alternative. Private governments can learn from the commercial corporate world, where intense competition has driven the evolution of institutions capable of supporting large, complex, and consent-rich communities. Your next government might thus resemble a city-sized corporation, with you and other residents buying shares, electing the board of directors, and so forth. Think of it as residential co-op, upgraded for the big leagues.

Private governments cannot simply adopt the Model Business Corporation Act or Delaware Corporation Law, however. Commercial corporate codes aim at protecting shareholder rights—not residents’ liberties. How can private governments best protect individual rights?

Double Democracy. Political institutions typically offer to protect individual rights via official declarations. These proclaim various wonderful things, which ultimately mean nothing more than what paid agents of government decide. Ahem. Rather than offering yet another catalog of rights, therefore, private governments should simply offer a blanket “Most Free Person” guarantee—and leave its interpretation to truly independent, third party judges, chosen via methods commonplace in private arbitrations.

Better than even words, though? Structural protections of individual rights. Like democracy, but more so. Double democracy.

In double democracy, owners manage the community on a one share/vote basis while residents enjoy the power to veto select laws or officers on a one person/vote basis. Owners construct; residents correct. Double democracy provides a structural safeguard against offensive governments without opening the door to mob rule. Both shareholders’ property rights and residents’ individual rights get represented in double democracy.[3]

Open Source Law. And where will the law of private governments come from? Not from any one flag, but entirely from private, non-governmental sources. Not owned by anyone, but free to all, like GNU/Linux open source computer operating software. Hence Ulex, the open source legal operating system.[4]



Kuznicki’s essay voiced little patience for idle theorizing. He called for libertarians to get to work writing, in effect, social software. Kuznicki had lots of questions about how private governments will work, too. This essay defended theory, counseled patience to eager Kuznicki, and offered a quick sketch of what his next government might look like.



[1] Alexander Tabarrok, “The private provision of public goods via dominant assurance contracts,” I 96: 345–362, 1998,

[2]  For a consent-based theory about the design and justification of social institutions, see Tom W. Bell, Your Next Government? From the Nation State to Stateless Nations (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming 2017).

[3] Tom W. Bell, “What Can Corporations Teach Governments About Democratic Equality?” 31 Social Philosophy & Policy 230 (2015),

[4] Your Next Government?, cited at [2], offers more about Ulex; version 1.1 can be read here.

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.