Reframing the Libertarian Movement

The editors are pleased to publish the following letter from libertarian activist Max Borders.


If technological change makes a law hard to enforce, the best solution is sometimes to stop enforcing it. - David D. Friedman

We are approaching a tipping point for human liberation along a number of dimensions. In other words, the world’s about to get a lot freer. And there will be little government officials can do about it.

If you believe such prognostications, they should be welcome. But what if I told you this tipping point isn’t likely to start among politicos, wonks, or policymakers?

Such might seem heretical in this space. But please bear with me. If this new freedom is to come, it will require we adopt a new reference frame.


Reference Frames

Let’s call our current way of thinking the Moral-Political Frame. It involves principles, policy, and politics, which is necessary as The Moral-Political Frame animates our movement around a set of ideas concerning the way society ought to be arranged. It is also how most libertarians are used to operating. As Jason Kuznicki writes in “Two Kinds of Activism” for Cato Unbound:

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.

But we must embrace a new frame. Call it the Innovative Frame.

The Innovative Frame involves the generation of culture, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Though we’re all familiar with these areas, we tend to think of them as the fruits of freer institutions, not a means to them.

In other words, our Moral-Political Frame can bias us, telling us that if we work through the political process to change policies around our principles, the world will be a better place. Robust culture, innovation, and entrepreneurship will follow. And this isn’t wrong. It’s just severely limiting.

So it’s time to reframe our thinking. It’s time to treat culture, innovation and entrepreneurship as a primary means of catalyzing social change. It’s time for libertarians to embrace the Innovative Frame.


Embrace the Innovative Frame

Like it or not, rapid technological change is giving rise to new outlooks—including a new breed of libertarian. Why? Because technology creates new incentives. New incentives create new behaviors. New behaviors create new cultures. And the cycle restarts as new culture influences innovators.

It can all be rather dizzying. But it is a brute fact of contemporary life. And the process is accelerating. We can try to run from this fact or we can embrace it as a catalyst. We can engage in what Kuznicki wryly refers to as “libertarian social engineering.”

The first wave of innovations includes sharing economy services like Uber and Airbnb. More profoundly though, cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum are ascending. These latter technologies promise to disintermediate people, decentralize authority, and in some cases, dissolve power.

“I’ve heard about this stuff,” you might be thinking. But the first wave is only a ripple. Bigger waves are coming.

Futurist Peter Diamandis refers “exponential technologies” that tend to double in power (or processing speed or market penetration) every year, while their costs go down. Some leap forward by orders of magnitude. But rapid adoption of exponential technologies cannot occur without corresponding changes to our everyday lives.

And therein lies opportunity.


Opportunity: Subversive Innovation

Exponential tech has the potential to transform our institutions, our incentives, and our behaviors en masse. It all happens without anyone’s permission, as a thousand coders code, a million users adopt, and eventually whole populations wake up in very different circumstances—a “social singularity.”

Politics becomes a lagging indicator. Policy wonks become chroniclers. And politicians all become toothless, mutant conservatives—standing athwart progress yelling “Stop!”

Recall that Mancur Olson described the phenomenon of “concentrated benefits, diffuse costs.” The special interest state, Olson thought, was tough to reform because general-interest voters had neither the sufficient incentive nor the knowledge required to fight the various ways in which favor-seekers take advantage of the tax and regulatory regime.

But Olson did not live to see the first subversive innovators, who developed exponential technologies that flipped the logic of collective action on its head. For example, if you could create a technology a lot of people really wanted (like Uber in San Francisco) or desperately needed (like Bitcoin in Argentina), the benefits would be dispersed and the costs of maintaining the status quo would become concentrated on officials.

Today we see old-guard cartels fighting against a massive hive of new contenders. And there are fights to be sure. But there are also changes where none seemed possible before. Who ever thought taxi cartels would face competition, even obsolescence? Who ever thought at least some in Venezuela would have a way to escape their inflated currencies and form commercial relationships in the cloud above Maduro’s goons?

Subversive innovators look for ways to exploit the weak joints or leverage points of the current system. In some ways they’re innovators like any other. The key difference, though, is they are willing to take their ambition and ingenuity into the headwinds of the regulatory state. When everyone else thinks linearly, they think laterally—or even non-linearly.

And they’re just getting started.


Making Subversive Innovators

Though our movement leaders admire innovators from the sidelines, we haven’t really bothered to bring them into the fold. We also have to begin to build real culture and community around the novel ways they are changing industries and institutions. It’s a different way of thinking from the Moral-Political Frame, particularly as the Moral-Political Frame is primarily backward-looking. The Innovative Frame is forward-looking.

Building a culture of techno-liberation allows us to normalize technological, cultural, and political decentralization among the laity. This new ethos provides a kind of filter through which innovators begin to regard the world—they too will look for ways to think within, and produce within, the Innovative Frame. As more and more innovators start to think this way, the proverbial genie is out of the bottle.

Nick Szabo, creator of bitgold (a predecessor to bitcoin) begins in this critical overlap. In 2007 he writes:

Although it discards totalitarian political structure and legal procedure, our proposed form of government is based on historically proven legal mechanisms. With the clarity of legal procedure it avoids the vague nonsense that often passes for political philosophy. Much of the political structure of Juristopia [Szabo’s ideal uncorrupted law] is based on highly evolved common law mechanisms such as property and contract, but these are used in the same basic manner as in the common law, rather than as misleading analogies or mere labels.

Think now of bitcoin, which includes smart contracts, ownership, and hard-coded scarcity—hallmarks of Szabo’s Juristopia.


A Virtuous Circle

What I’ve been arguing here is a difficult case to make to those who have long been steeped in the Moral-Political Frame. It’s no wonder. The Moral-Political Frame lights the mind and sets fires in the heart. And it is an indispensable aspect of our movement. But it can no longer operate effectively without the Innovative Frame.

At the risk of oversimplifying, social change operates as two complementary forces: innovation and culture. Each reinforces the other, raising the prospect of a virtuous circle. We’ll need an optimistic outlook as older institutions decline—for example, as the academy rots from within, the banks starts to show their cracks, and the people seek comfort in something other than the state.

That is why we have to make sure we’re building a community of techno-libertarians and providing them with a cultural and intellectual home. That home should be connected to, but also separate from, the Moral-Political Frame.

The virtuous circle stands to build a culture of trust in surprising ways. Prior to 2013, few would ever have entertained the idea of getting into a car with a stranger. With ridesharing apps, few can imagine not doing it. “Uber” is now a verb.

Likewise, culture can hasten the pace of innovation. Steve Jobs was a cultural icon, and thousands of CEOs became aspiring clones. In 2013 my friend Jeffrey Tucker and I published a piece called “Fifty Ways To Leave Leviathan.” The piece became a cultural touchpoint for the Innovative Frame. Scores of people wrote us to say that one article changed their lives. Many started new businesses. Educators started new schools. Software developers undertook new projects.

We had tapped into something important, something missing from our movement.


Seditious Questions

People steeped in a culture of subversive innovation ask: “What if we tried something outside of the institutional status quo? What if we could build something better than the welfare state? What if we experimented with new institutional forms, such as:

  • Special economic zones?
  • Distributed crypto-health insurance?
  • Micronations at sea—or in the cloud?”

These are just the sorts of seditious questions we should be prepared to ask.

The very act of asking such questions means we resist the crude binaries of partisan politics. In fact, we tend to think democracy—that golden calf—has outlived its usefulness. As politics becomes more acrimonious and hierarchies lash out, throngs divide into their respective tribes. The tribes clash, often violently. We can see why. There is a lot at stake in this enormous tug-of-war. But the hierarchies are breaking down. And the tribes will scatter and scurry to new systems.

I believe this in my bones. So much so that I’ve started a non-profit org called Social Evolution. We’re devoted to building culture and ethos around the Innovative Frame. Young people get it intuitively. Older libertarians, however, don’t always grok. Supporters seem preoccupied with how to get people to vote libertarian.

Our job at Social Evolution—and as a wider movement—is both to expose the destructive charade of electoral politics and to propose something better. But to do so, we must steep a generation in the ethos of subversive innovation. We have to re-orient our movement.

Though most people simply can’t think outside the ballot box, a few can. And we hope they will become members of our community—our readers, our contributors, and our supporters. Because every moment we spend outside the negative-sum game of politics is an opportunity to spend a moment innovating around power.

Max Borders is Executive Director of Social Evolution, a non-profit media organization devoted to creating a cultural and intellectual home for subversive innovators. Connect with him at

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.