June 2017

Libertarians are great at making the moral case for liberty. Indeed, we’re great at making a lot of different moral cases for liberty. But then what? All the moral conviction in the world won’t necessarily build institutions or practices that respect individual rights. Doing so necessarily takes engineering work, and it’s high time that we give that work more thought. 

We libertarians believe these institutions will be voluntary in character, so there should be little reason not to build them today. Or so argues this month’s lead essay by Jason Kuznicki. Replying to him will be Alex Tabarrok of George Mason University, Tom W. Bell of Chapman University School of Law, Edward Peter Stringham of Trinity College, Hartford; and Vitalik Buterin, the creator of the Etherium cryptocurrency. What they share in common might not be so obvious at first, but each has studied and in some cases perhaps created the kind of voluntary institutions that sidestep the state.

We welcome you to join the dicussion in the comments, which will be open through the end of the month.

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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.

Letters to the Editor

Coming Up

Discussion to continue through the end of the month.

Related at Cato

Cato Unbound: What Can’t Private Governance Do?, October 2015

Cato Unbound: The Private Digital Economy, July 2013

Cato Unbound: How and How Not to Privatize, October 2012