About this Issue

There are at least two ways to try to achieve libertarian goals. One is to try to influence current public policy. This is the usual focus of the Cato Institute. Such work involves patiently educating and convincing voters, elected officials, judges, and regulators as we go. It’s time-consuming and incremental, and, honestly, not as successful as we might like.

But another way to achieve libertarian goals is simply to build a more libertarian community or institution “from scratch,” as it were. Although it may sound utopian, individuals and groups have actually done this, as, for example, in the American Revolution. This month’s Cato Unbound examines efforts to start new institutions and communities in our own time — institutions and communities that make liberty their founding concern. How do these efforts compare to “policy” libertarianism? What are their practical chances of succeeding? What pressures might they bring on extant governments if they were to succeed, or even if they just credibly threatened it?

This month’s lead essayist is Patri Friedman, executive director of the Seasteading Institute. He will discuss what he sees as the inappropriate bias toward policy-oriented libertarian activism, and also his own project, which hopes to create permanent offshore platforms that might be put to libertarian ends.

Following up on Friedman’s essay will be Jason Sorens, the founder of the Free State Project, a movement which seeks to influence the local politics of New Hampshire — already by many measures the freest state in the Union — in the direction of still-greater liberty; Peter Thiel, a key backer of the Seasteading Institute and co-founder of PayPal, which was conceived of as a private currency; and Brian Doherty, a senior editor at Reason magazine and expert on the various branches of the libertarian movement, their histories, goals, and prospects.


Lead Essay

Beyond Folk Activism


I deeply yearn to live in an actual free society, not just to imagine a theoretical future utopia or achieve small incremental gains in freedom. For many years, I enthusiastically advocated for liberty under the vague assumption that advocacy would help our cause. However, I recently began trying to create free societies as my full-time job, and this has given me a dramatic perspective shift from my days of armchair philosophizing.[1] My new perspective is that the advocacy approach which many libertarian individuals, groups, and think tanks follow (including me sometimes, sadly) is an utter waste of time.

Argument has refined our principles, and academic research has enlarged our understanding, but they have gotten us no closer to an actual libertarian state. Our debating springs not from calculated strategy, but from an intuitive “folk activism”: an instinct to seek political change through personal interaction, born in our hunter-gatherer days when all politics was personal. In the modern world, however, bad policies are the result of human action, not human design. To change them we must understand how they emerge from human interaction, and then alter the web of incentives that drives behavior. Attempts to directly influence people or ideas without changing incentives, such as the U.S. Libertarian Party, the Ron Paul campaign, and academic research, are thus useless for achieving real-world liberty.

In this essay, I will describe our misguided instinct, present some principles for the incentive-level approach, and then describe some of the paths to reform it suggests. My hope is to persuade those brave souls who labor for liberty so diligently to work more wisely as well.

Also, I want to clearly avow that while I criticize folk activism, it often still drives my actions. It is a deep bias, and hard to correct — I strive to overcome it, and I see it in the world because I see it in myself.

What Is Folk Activism?

Our brains have many specific adaptations tuned for the hunter-gatherer environment in which we evolved, which in some ways differs wildly from the modern world. Consider the prevalence of obesity: we eat according to outdated instincts, feasting before a famine that never comes, rather than adapting to our new world of caloric abundance.

Similarly, many people have an intuitive “folk economics” which includes a number of biases such as the anti-foreign and make-work biases. These beliefs are demonstrably wrong, ubiquitous, stubbornly resistant to argument and can be tied to to aspects of the pre-agricultural economy, strongly suggesting they are an evolved adaptation. While economically literate libertarians delightedly skewer those who argue mistakenly from folk economics, we constantly engage in what I shall call folk activism.

In early human tribes, there were few enough people in each social structure such that anyone could change policy. If you didn’t like how the buffalo meat got divvied up, you could propose an alternative, build a coalition around it, and actually make it happen. Success required the agreement of tens of allies — yet those same instincts now drive our actions when success requires the agreement of tens of millions. When we read in the evening paper that we’re footing the bill for another bailout, we react by complaining to our friends, suggesting alternatives, and trying to build coalitions for reform. This primal behavior is as good a guide for how to effectively reform modern political systems as our instinctive taste for sugar and fat is for how to eat nutritiously.

Folk activism broadly corrupts political movements. It leads activists to do too much talking, debating, and proselytizing, and not enough real-world action. We build coalitions of voters to attempt to influence or replace tribal political and intellectual leaders rather than changing system-wide incentives.

This is not a cause for despair. Quite the opposite: it is cause for great hope. It suggests that the failure of libertarian activists to produce libertarian countries may stem more from misdirected efforts than from the impossibility of the task. Using analysis instead of instincts, perhaps we can find a better lever, fulcrum, and place to stand from which to attempt our Archimedean effort.

Principles For Realistic Activism

The world is complex and there are many principles that can be used to guide reform, so here I will discuss only the most vital.

Power Has Inertia

As a libertarian, I find it easy to see the empirical evidence that incentives matter. More difficult, but very important, is to look at the vast gap between libertarian principles and the size and scope of current governments as empirical evidence that power matters too. Politicians are demonstrably, consistently, and ubiquitously expert at entrenching the power of the political class. To most libertarians this is morally illegitimate, but morality has sadly little influence over the realities of power.

If we are ever going to move beyond philosophizing on barstool and blogs to change the power structures of the world, we must accept that power equilibria have considerable inertia. We cannot shift them with hope and outrage alone — we need carefully calculated action.

Democracy Is Not The Answer

Democracy is the current industry standard political system, but unfortunately it is ill-suited for a libertarian state. It has substantial systemic flaws, which are well-covered elsewhere,[2] and it poses major problems specifically for libertarians:

1) Most people are not by nature libertarians. David Nolan reports that surveys show at most 16% of people have libertarian beliefs. Nolan, the man who founded the Libertarian Party back in 1971, now calls for libertarians to give up on the strategy of electing candidates! Even Ron Paul, who was enormously popular by libertarian standards and ran during a time of enormous backlash against the establishment, never had the slightest chance of winning the nomination. His “strong” showing got him 1.6% of the delegates to the Republican Party’s national convention. There are simply not enough of us to win elections unless we somehow concentrate our efforts.

2) Democracy is rigged against libertarians. Candidates bid for electoral victory partly by selling future political favors to raise funds and votes for their campaigns. Libertarians (and other honest candidates) who will not abuse their office can’t sell favors, thus have fewer resources to campaign with, and so have a huge intrinsic disadvantage in an election.

Libertarians are a minority, and we underperform in elections, so winning electoral victories is a hopeless endeavor.

Emergent Behavior

Consider these three levels of political abstraction:

  1. Policies: Specific sets of laws.
  2. Institutions: An entire country and its legal and political systems.
  3. Ecosystem: All nations and the environment in which they compete and evolve.

Folk activism treats policies and institutions as the result of specific human intent. But policies are in large part an emergent behavior of institutions, and institutions are an emergent behavior of the global political ecosystem.

Institutions, Not Policies

I believe that libertarians (including myself) waste enormous effort exploring solutions which will never be implemented or even influence policy. These are not necessarily libertarian solutions — often they attempt to achieve the goals of the majority in an effective way. We’re following the intuitive, folk-activism approach of proposing plans to our tribe. Unfortunately, the problem is not that our legislators lack for good ideas, but that democracy is a flawed method for choosing among them, because politicians respond to incentives too. So while we could argue for weeks about the most effective way to stimulate the economy, effectiveness is not the primary criterion by which lawmakers evaluate policies.

Libertarians pour much of our resources into dissecting policy and proposing alternatives. But agitating for a specific policy is like complaining about a price — and forgetting that it’s set by supply and demand. While policy analysis is certainly an interesting field, as a method for improving political performance it is about as useful as price-fixing is for improving economic performance. And while not without benefit,[3] policy debates feel far more important than they actually are. Our cognitive bias is to assume that we have a voice equivalent to an individual in a Dunbarian hunter-gatherer tribe, and so we comment on nationwide events with a passion to match — even when no one is listening. (Now you understand blogs and bar conversations!) These debates function as a mirage which distracts us from the more fundamental structural reforms that would actually achieve liberty in our lifetimes.[4]

Ecosystem, Not Institutions

Government is just another industry, where countries offer services to citizens, but it has some unfortunate features. It is a geographically segmented monopoly, and since all land is taken, the industry has an enormous barrier to entry. To start a new government you have to beat an old one, which means winning a war, an election, or a revolution. And it has very high customer lock-in: there are barriers to emigration and immigration, and switching countries involves both high financial and emotional costs. These characteristics result in a horribly uncompetitive industry, so it is no surprise that existing firms tend to exploit customers instead of innovating to attract them.

This analysis neatly avoids moral debates and has clear practical implications: if the problem is an uncompetitive market, the solution is to make it more competitive. It also exposes the futility of strategies that don’t address this issue, like trying to win the war of ideas. While appealing and noble, this is ineffective. Without competitive pressure, our institutions generate flawed policies which benefit the political class, not those that reflect the consensus of academic economists. We need more competition in government, not more academic papers or mindshare.

An Experimental Ecosystem

Before I was introduced to the field of law and economics, I assumed that the main problem in achieving a good society was coming up with shared morals and values. Then you just write them down as laws, and you are done. It turns out that even if we agree on a definition of rights, there is no straightforward way to derive laws and enforcement mechanisms. Implementation is not a trivial detail, it’s the hard part! To make things worse, designing policies is the easy case. When we view them as the emergent behavior of institutions, things go from difficult to impossible (so they’ll take us a little longer).

Because we have no a priori knowledge of the best form of government, the search for good societies requires experimentation as well as theory — trying many new institutions to see how they work in practice. This requires institutions to be embedded within a system which allows for their easy creation, testing, and comparison. A governing industry with a lower barrier to entry and easier switching of providers would allow for this constant small-scale experimentation.

This system would offer a host of benefits:

  • It creates specific, real-world examples to point to when debating the merits of various systems. How many millions of words of academic papers about the benefits of free-markets does it take to add up to the two words “Hong Kong”?
  • Prospective customers of the new system could actually experience it physically and emotionally, rather than as a mental abstraction, which is far more powerful for changing minds. For citizens of the USSR, a single visit to the West could outweigh years of Soviet propaganda.
  • It enables proponents of an alternative system (like libertarianism) to live their dream much sooner, because they only need to get a small group together to experiment with their new society, rather than convince an entire existing nation (which may never happen).
  • It supports an ongoing, evolutionary process where societies learn over time, and change with the world.
  • It doesn’t assume there is one best society for everyone. People can attempt to live their ideals without having to impose them on others. Not only does it embrace multiple variants of libertarianism, but other goals and methods for creating a good society.

The Role Of The Frontier

As Bryan Caplan says,[5] when working within existing institutions, structural change and policy change are the same, because you can only change structure by implementing a policy. Only by starting with a blank slate can you make a better structure without having to overcome entrenched interests, which tend to resist innovation because it reduces their power. Historically, the frontier has functioned as this canvas for experimentation.

There are positive aspects to this need for a frontier, because there is a subset of people (currently quite frustrated) for whom the urge to pioneer is a primal drive. For all that I rail against bad instincts, it is far easier to work with instincts than against them, so it’s good to have one on our side!

Also, the first steps toward settling a frontier are to come up with a new idea, spread it, and build a coalition of people ready to live it — the same procedure and instinct as folk activism. The difference is the strategy of actually implementing the vision with the number of people one can reasonably enroll, rather than one which requires millions to agree before it can be put into practice. The problem is not instincts, it is following them without re-evaluating whether they are appropriate for the modern world.

Technology Is Much More Important Than Rhetoric

Consider the relative effects of Zero Population Growth rhetoric vs. birth control technology at changing the population growth curve of the world. It’s monumental. Technology alters incentives, which is a far more effective way to achieve widespread change than to attempt to fight human biases or change minds. Unfortunately, technology is also much newer in human history than persuasion, and so is a much less intuitive strategy.

Alternatives To Folk Activism

Free State Project

The FSP aims to bring 20,000 liberty activists to the state of New Hampshire. So far, 9,000 have signed up and 700 have moved. Even these few have been able to elect 4 of 400 state representatives, which makes it plausible that the full 20,000 could have a substantial impact on state politics.

I have doubts about the amount of freedom the FSP will be able to secure, because most restrictions and taxation are at the federal level, and the issue of states’ rights was pretty solidly settled in 1865. Instead of opening a new frontier, it is on land claimed and controlled by the most powerful military force in the world. It also operates within traditional democracy and its flaws.

Still, the FSP was consciously designed as a reaction to the failure of libertarian reform to date, and is a vast improvement over folk activism. It concentrates our strength rather than depending on a mass libertarian movement which will never come. It is based on immediate action: practicing our principles today to demonstrate that freedom works, rather than just endlessly preaching.

Being inside the United States may limit the freedom achievable, but it also limits the difficulties, so this is a good low-risk, low-reward option.


Proposed in Tim May’s Crypto Anarchist Manifesto way back in 1988, the idea is that anonymous digital cash could greatly limit government power. While computer and networking technology has developed enormously since it was written, digital cash has not taken off, and the main impact of digital transactions seems to have been on record industry sales, not on “the ability to tax and control economic interactions” as May predicted.

Despite the mathematical elegance of digital crypto, our analog world is the site for most spending and income, which can thus be taxed and regulated. Also, physical reality provides a nexus for control — no matter how sophisticated the avatar, a knife between its master’s shoulderblades will seriously cramp its style.

While the Internet has been a big step towards a more virtual lifestyle, we aren’t all going to be jacked in full-time anytime soon. Over time more of May’s predictions will come true, but only slowly and for a limited subset of human affairs. Still, cyberspace is an inherently more competitive, more anonymous, harder to tax and regulate environment, and so advancing it is a way to accelerate freedom through technology.

Market Anarchism

As described in books like Machinery of Freedom, this is a system where competing private agencies define, judge, and enforce the law. It is a strange and beautiful idea which is impossible to do justice in a short space, in part because it is so much a system of human action, not human design. Its brilliant logic neatly solves the problem of how to create an institution that will generate efficient policies. And it is an ecosystem, not just an institution: it generates many legal systems through competition, innovation, and imitation.

Unfortunately, there is no clear incremental path to such a society. Proponents offer the vague hope that governments will somehow fade away, but as observed earlier, power is demonstrably good at perpetuating itself. Anarchism is worth revisiting only if we can get a political tabula rasa some other way. For example…


Seasteading is my proposal to open the oceans as a new frontier,[6] where we can build new city-states to experiment with new institutions. This dramatically lowers the barrier to entry for forming a new government, because expensive though ocean platforms are, they are still cheap compared to winning a war, an election, or a revolution. A lower barrier to entry means more small-scale experimentation. Also, the unique nature of the fluid ocean surface means that cities can be built in a modular fashion where entire buildings can be detached and floated away. This unprecedented physical mobility will give us the ability to leave a country without leaving our home, increasing competition between governments.

This plan is one of immediate action, not hope or debate. It makes use of the people we have now rather than trying to convert the masses, and avoids entrenched interests by moving to the frontier. Most importantly, it increases jurisdictional competition. It will not just create one new country, but rather an entire ecosystem of countries competing and innovating to attract citizens. Like any market, the process of trial and error will generate solutions we can’t even imagine — but that we know will be better for customers.

Seasteading is far from certain to succeed, but this is a hard problem, and there will be no easy answer. Two of the greatest risks are the expense and danger of the marine environment, and the chance that states will interfere. The latter is a systemic risk for any reform (if they’ll interfere with a new city in the ocean, then no place is safe[7]), but the former is an idiosyncratic risk that could be diversified away if seasteading was part of a portfolio of freedom projects.

I founded The Seasteading Institute to advance this path, so if you’re interested in learning more, check out our website, FAQ, and book.


If a fraction of the passion, thought, and capital that are wasted in libertarian folk activism were instead directed into more realistic paths, we would have a far better chance at achieving liberty in our lifetime. We must override our instinct to proselytize, and instead consciously analyze routes to reform. Whether or not you agree with my analysis of specific strategies, my time will not have been wasted if I can get more libertarians to stop bashing their heads against the incentives of democracy, to stop complaining about how people are blind to the abuse of power while themselves being blind to the stability of power, and to think about how we can make systemic changes, outside entrenched power structures, that could realistically lead to a freer world.

Patri Friedman is executive director of the Seasteading Institute.


[1] Essentially this was a movement from a far view to a near view, see Robin Hanson’s discussion of the difference in A Tale Of Two Tradeoffs and Abstract/Distant Future Bias. The difference is also covered in Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling On Happiness.

[2] Mancur Olson’s The Rise and Decline of Nations is one source. The most recent work on this I know of is Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter, although it covers only one area of democratic failure.

[3] Policy analysis is not without benefit. It helps people realize how flawed existing policies are, which is the foundation for seeing that institutions are flawed. Understanding the flaws in institutions helps us understand the market which breeds them. The process helps our economic understanding, and the tradeoffs which any society must make. Policy analysis is an important base for our understanding, but we have plenty of base — now we need some boom.

[4] This is the motto of the Free State Project, and a wonderful rallying cry.

[5] Policy All The Way Down, Except Seasteading.

[6] Also note that space has even more mobility than the ocean, and far more resources, plus it diversifies humanity off rock #3, which is extremely important. Thus the oceans are merely the penultimate frontier.

[7] Some people argue that strong defense against existing states is another answer, such as WMDs. This solution has some issues: 1) Pioneering can be done incrementally, while big trouble happens to those who almost have nukes. 2) Self-defense doesn’t address any of the systemic problems that hamper current governments. 3) Being able to successfully defend against the strongest existing nations is a huge barrier to entry. For these reasons, the experimentalist world we are looking for will be unlikely if states commonly interfere with small experimental societies.

Further Reading

I recently started a blog called Let A Thousand Nations Bloom with Jonathan Wilde and Mike Gibson to cover this topic of improving the market for government. We welcome guest posts.

I have found little work that directly addresses this area, and would welcome other references, here are some that I know of:


Thanks to Chris Rasch, Chuck Grimmett, Daniel Holt, James Hogan, Mike Gibson, Michael Hartl, Michael Keenan, Liz Lacy, Justine Lam, and Wayne Gramlich for their comments on earlier drafts of this essay.

Note: This essay is also available in Danish.

Response Essays

The Many Paths to Libertarianism

Patri’s arguments had great personal resonance. I share his goal, his yearning to live in a more free society. I practice what he dubs “folk activism” — and which he writes off as obviously hopeless. My entire professional life I’ve done journalism, most of it with an implicit or explicit libertarian message.

I’ve also, as has Patri, been involved in some small, temporary attempts to forge intentional communities with more liberty and less outside control than typical American life, in the context of the experimental community/art festival Burning Man. From that shared set of attitudes and experiences, I am reasonably certain: Patri is positively right — except in those places where I’m pretty sure he’s wrong.

When he’s making positive assertions, he’s fully convincing. Power undoubtedly has inertia. The incentive structure and entire intellectual ecosystem of the world weight toward statism.

Frontiers and experimentation are both vital elements of finding valuable new ways for human beings to live and relate. Technology and the incentives it generates and possibilities it creates change culture and beliefs in huge ways. Patri astutely explains technology’s limits when it comes to libertarianism — we are bodies moving through space and time, not merely digitized ideas, and those out to control us can’t be merely evaded in cyberspace.

Yet the World Wide Web, for example, helps us see one of the ironies of Patri’s position. One of the ways that technology has most importantly changed the world is that it has made the old-fashioned goals of “folk activism” — spreading ideas, changing minds — immensely easier, and more fun.

Thus it’s when he’s making his negative assertions that I think he’s probably wrong. “Folk activism” — talking, debating, and proselytizing, as he defines it — does indeed have the potential to see libertarians “changing system-wide incentives.” Admittedly, it’s a long, slow, so far largely failed slog — if changes in every libertarian direction already are what we need. The turnings of democracy have not yet gotten us zero taxes, a completely tort-based “regulatory” regime, complete drug legalization, and an end to tariffs. But they have gotten us lower taxes, an end to antiquated systems of trucking and airline regulations, medical marijuana in some states, lower tariffs in many areas, and a systematized regime that helps in some cases stymie protectionist reflexes.

I know it’s not enough. For someone as activist and eager as Patri to live the way he wants to live, unquestionably it’s unsatisfactory. But I’m not convinced, in the long view, that it’s utterly impossible and futile.

When it comes to trying to declare war on any particular form or method of libertarian activism, I tend to be a conscientious objector. I have a soft spot for any effort that helps make another libertarian. As I detailed at great length in my history of the postwar American libertarian movement, Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, the “folk activism” of every active libertarian effort until the 1970s was explicitly not about actually moving the institutions of society and governance in a libertarian direction — that is, not really about making a libertarian society at all in the active, direct sense. Rather, the efforts of groups from the Foundation for Economic Education, to the Institute for Humane Studies, to the Nathaniel Branden Institute, to the Freedom School, to numerous libertarian journals large and small (mostly small) was about turning people into libertarians through economic and philosophical reasoning.

Underlying these efforts was probably a loose and not fully worked out folk belief in democracy — that you make enough libertarians in America, America’s political institutions will get more libertarian. But all the early American libertarians understood politicians would be lagging indicators of popular belief, and that the cultural and intellectual battle would be long — longer than Patri is willing to deal with, no doubt.

With all the sclerosis and bad incentives of the current state and current electoral system, I still think that it’s very possible — indeed, very likely — that an America with, say, ten times as many people who believe in the rough libertarian vision of how human governance should work will create a very different ball game than the one we are currently suffering though. In that sense, I applaud the clever political hack of the Free State Project — concentrating the numerical powers of what libertarians we’ve already got in a smaller democratic polity, though I share Patri’s doubts of how far one state in the United States of today can go in a libertarian direction.

I’ve been thinking about Patri’s particular methods, as I’m working on a forthcoming article for Reason about the Seasteading idea. One interesting thing I found was that even among the people most interested in thinking, talking, blogging, model-building, supporting, and conference-attending about Seasteading, a firmly stated dedication to actually living on one where it’s most important — in the early, experimental phase — was pretty thin.

Patri is asking a lot of the people who he wants — needs — to share his dream. To uproot everything about the way they’ve lived and relocate to a strange and hostile environment is a big deal. He uses the phrase free society, not merely personal freedom. He doesn’t want to be a hermit — there are already ways, which I’m sure he’s aware of, for people to whom being uncoerced is the primary value to slip away from those craving to tax and regulate them. But they aren’t much fun, if you value the company of your fellow humans or want a family.

Patri may be right to rely on a sort of pop-evolutionary biology explanation for why people like trying to use verbal and written reasoning to convince the people around them or the world at large to turn more libertarian, rather than his sort of gritty, build-your-own-nation-on-floating-platform, difficult-but-rewarding activism.

But I think a more likely explanation can be found in that old favorite social science of the libertarian: economics. It’s simply a lot less effort, a lot lower personal cost, to pursue the path of folk activism. For decades many libertarians have upbraided others to start putting their money where their mouth is, to start building real libertarian institutions, even to start actively meeting the social needs that most people think we need a government for, to show-not-tell the world that this unbridled individual liberty thing can really work. And for decades most libertarians have found writing, talking, and thinking a more congenial path, one whose costs seemed easier to manage.

This is true, at least if you are divorcing the means from the ends. That is, if achieving the end of a libertarian world is actually necessary for you to think your activism was worthwhile ex post, then it’s all a waste of effort.

But I strongly suspect much libertarian activism is more consumption expense anyway — and a good thing, too, because, as obviously underlies this whole debate, it’s largely out of any individual activist’s hands to make sure the end goal is reached. Even Seasteading requires the active, very active, agreement and efforts of other people, though thankfully not as many other people as the folk activist “convince everyone to become a libertarian” democratic nation-changing alternative.

The social world is not, ultimately, ours to make, except through persuasion and violence. Patri has a decidedly brilliant and decidedly eccentric way around that timeless and terrible dilemma — creating an actual completely new social world, with nothing but self-selected comrades. Whether even that can get around the problems he smartly identifies about the overall political ecosystem remains to be seen. Most baldly, will a world of nation-states actually allow small groups to create their own free communities in the ocean?

The irony of Patri’s intellectual position — that “folk activism” within the typical political and intellectual context is hopeless — is that it doesn’t matter if he’s right or not. All that matters is, can he, in the world we live in, launch a viable Seastead?

It is a core message of libertarianism that most people are wrong — that an organized state with a monopoly on rule-making and force is not necessary to accomplish all vital social tasks. Libertarians think we can Do It Ourselves. The DIY (Do It Yourself) culture of computers and of Burning Man in which Patri has marinated has convinced him of something true: that we can, if we are smart and brave, build something like our own culture from the ground up. It’s a great thing to try to convince libertarians of — but the truth of his positive message doesn’t mean that old-fashioned folk activism is as inherently worthless as he argues.

Something I wrote right here at Cato Unbound in 2007 is relevant here, so I’ll repeat myself: “I don’t know what will prove the best and most effective strategy for liberty. I think a lot of actions that are less than “best” or “most effective” are still worth doing, and that the inclinations and beliefs of each specific libertarian will be the best guide toward what will make them most effective at what they are doing — even if that particular thing isn’t the most effective thing!”

I wish Seasteading the best of luck — which means wishing that Patri’s “folk activism” succeeds in convincing enough people to try it. And I hope one day to join Patri in a toast on a working Seastead: a toast to all the many, many paths to trying to create a more libertarian social order.

Brian Doherty is a senior editor at Reason magazine and author ofThis is Burning Man (BenBella), Radicals for Capitalism (PublicAffairs) and Gun Control on Trial (Cato Institute).

Leveraging Institutional Change

Patri Friedman’s critique of “libertarian folk activism” is basically right. Free-market ideas have enjoyed near-dominance in academic economics for roughly thirty years at least. Libertarian think tanks are well funded and influential. Despite these encouraging developments, the overall size of government continues to grow. Both national parties in the United States are, in deed if not in word, manifestly committed to expanding government and shrinking freedom. Having the right ideas and communicating them effectively have not substantially changed politics for the better. We need the ideas and the proper communication of those ideas, but these strategies alone are not enough.

It would be wrong to claim that ideas do not matter, or that democratic politics always fails to advance liberty. One remarkable historical example is Britain’s repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, a monumental event that heralded the first era of globalization. Even though his own party opposed him and he was immediately deposed from leadership for his decision, Prime Minister Robert Peel led the unilateral repeal of Britain’s grain tariffs with support from the opposition. In this case, Peel’s persuasion of the merits of free trade discomfited the predictions of standard trade models, which held that that import-competing producers will organize better than exporters and consumers, and therefore that unilateral trade liberalization should rarely occur. To be sure, liberalization would not have been on the agenda without the support that Britain’s burgeoning textile industry, concentrated in Manchester, had given to the Anti-Corn Law League, or without the approval of the greater part of the Whig Party.[1] Nevertheless, ideas mattered in the final result.

On most issues in contemporary politics, interests trump policy ideas. Persuading policy makers that freedom enhances prosperity and welfare matters little when those policy makers are beholden to organized interests that want special favors. The “collective action problem” helps to explain why only narrow interests will successfully organize and achieve policy victories, and why these will come at the expense of the citizenry.[2] Interest groups can achieve these victories only because voters are deeply, irremediably ignorant of philosophy, politics, economics, and public policy. Trying to educate voters is hopeless because they lack the proper incentives to learn and employ political knowledge.

Libertarianism can be defined as the political philosophy of the general interest. Hence, we should expect that libertarianism, whatever its other virtues, will always be politically disadvantaged relative to special interests. Friedman is therefore correct that changing policy makers’ incentives requires fundamentally changing institutions. To change institutions, we need debates — like this one — about strategic ideas.

One idea is to amend constitutions to increase veto players in government. Veronique de Rugy finds that in periods of divided government in the United States, government spending has grown more slowly. Of course, veto players make it more difficult to contract the size of government as well, particularly its regulatory and punitive apparatus. The only institutional form that appears consistently to reduce government’s economic footprint is fiscal federalism with decentralized taxation.[3] The United States is already the archetypal case of fiscal federalism among high-income countries, and its federalism has been gradually eroded over time. Besides, amending constitutions is even more difficult than changing policies.

The more ambitious the outcome we seek, the riskier our strategies must be. Friedman describes the Free State Project (FSP) as a low-risk, low-reward strategy. The FSP proposes to move thousands of libertarian activists to low-population New Hampshire to influence its future political development.[4] The logic behind this strategy is to use the collective action problem in freedom’s favor. For whatever reason — genetic mutations, environmental fluctuations, or random chance — there is in almost every society a tiny minority of people who come to view the political, coercive means of expropriating wealth from those who use the economic, voluntary means of creating wealth[5] as inherently unjust, and who furthermore become sufficiently motivated to do something about it. As long as they are a tiny minority, they will be out-lobbied, out-spent, and out-voted. By physically transplanting themselves into a single society they can at least have a fighting chance of battling the organized special interests there to a draw, or even of winning important triumphs.

Some evidence suggests that the FSP strategy is working to mobilize votes and change policy in New Hampshire. Many libertarians supported Ron Paul’s presidential candidacy last year, which makes Ron Paul’s vote shares a decent proxy for grassroots libertarian activism. Controlling for type of election (primary vs. caucus), turnout, and number of candidates, I found that New Hampshire gave Ron Paul his highest vote share in any state in the 2008 Republican primaries (PDF). I also found that New Hampshire towns with more Free Staters had higher percentages of non-Free Staters cast their ballots for Ron Paul
, implying that some Free Staters are persuading their neighbors. Free Staters and their local allies in New Hampshire have been important, perhaps decisive, in defeating red-light camera authorization, in liberalizing home schools, and in devising medical marijuana legislation now expected to pass the legislature.[6]

Friedman argues that the potential payoff from the Seasteading enterprise is greater, and that may be so. The idea is to effect a qualitative shift in the “ecosystem” in which governments survive, by forcing them to compete with bottom-up, citizen-launched governments. Clearly, system-level changes in the incentives facing governments the world over are necessary for any fully free society to survive.

Evidence suggests that system-level determinants of government size are quite powerful. In the 19th century, governments were generally small, and in the West, capitalist institutions swept away the guild practices and mercantilism of the absolutist era. In the 20th century, some capitalist societies fell victim to totalitarianism and others to welfare-regulatory statism. The economic footprint of governments consistently increased in the West, although the abolition of racial segregation and the emancipation of women must be viewed as immensely important 20th-century advances in freedom. By the late 20th century, government growth had slowed and changed somewhat in form, as price controls and public ownership of business fell out of favor, while regulation of health care and labor markets and spending on favored interests continued to rise. In the 1990s, it was a common belief that Internet privacy and financial globalization would force governments at least to rein in their economic depredations, but that view has been refuted by the facts. Big governments are more resilient than many believed. Government growth will not reverse without a qualitative, system-level change in the technology of government.

Of course, there are obstacles. Oversized governments will defend their turf, more likely by sanctions than by overt violence. Witness the new G20 crusade against tax havens, threatening economic sanctions against all jurisdictions that maintain banking privacy against government tax snoops. Privacy jurisdictions are already capitulating. Both Free States and Seasteads are likely to deal with similar political obstacles. Free States can try to obstruct unjust federal interventions using a panoply of tactics adapted from the Baltic republics’ and Slovenia’s stratagems during the decline of the U.S.S.R. and Yugoslavia. The federal government is more likely to respond with political and economic pressure than with violence, but there needs to be political will in place to withstand such pressure — and that will doesn’t exist yet.

Seasteads will need to find a way to take advantage of economies of scale and scope on ocean-borne facilities. Capital-intensive projects such as power plants are currently expensive to build and maintain on floating platforms. Agglomeration economies that drive much economic growth today tend to accrue to metropolitan areas with a million or more residents, an ambitious goal for a Seastead. Like everyone else, libertarians are generally unwilling to trade off the prosperity of a modern welfare-regulatory state for the freedom from coercion that anyone could probably find in a remote location today, such as the Alaskan interior.[7] This is one area where the Free State strategy has an advantage.

These problems are not insuperable. They simply mean that all institutionalist libertarian strategies will take time to work. We need more creative thinking on how to transmute ideas that work into politics that work.

Jason Sorens is the founder of the Free State Project.



1. Cheryl Schonhardt-Bailey (1991), “Lessons in Lobbying for Free Trade in 19th-Century Britain: To Concentrate or Not,” American Political Science Review 85 (1): 37-58.

2. Mancur Olson (1965), The Logic of Collective Action (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP).

3. Jonathan Rodden (2003), “Reviving Leviathan: Fiscal Federalism and the Growth of Government,” International Organization 57: 695-729.

4. There is also a Free State Wyoming movement.

5. This distinction is drawn from Franz Oppenheimer (1908), The State.

6. The New Hampshire Liberty Alliance was founded by both Free Staters and “natives” and is the

foremost font of non-partisan, libertarian political activism in New Hampshire.

7. Libertarians are libertarians not because we place infinite disutility on every conceivable constraint on our freedom, which is an absurdity, but because we find all constraints on those freedoms that are exercised consistently with the freedom of others to be unjust.

The Education of a Libertarian

I remain committed to the faith of my teenage years: to authentic human freedom as a precondition for the highest good. I stand against confiscatory taxes, totalitarian collectives, and the ideology of the inevitability of the death of every individual. For all these reasons, I still call myself “libertarian.”

But I must confess that over the last two decades, I have changed radically on the question of how to achieve these goals. Most importantly, I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible. By tracing out the development of my thinking, I hope to frame some of the challenges faced by all classical liberals today.

As a Stanford undergraduate studying philosophy in the late 1980s, I naturally was drawn to the give-and-take of debate and the desire to bring about freedom through political means. I started a student newspaper to challenge the prevailing campus orthodoxies; we scored some limited victories, most notably in undoing speech codes instituted by the university. But in a broader sense we did not achieve all that much for all the effort expended. Much of it felt like trench warfare on the Western Front in World War I; there was a lot of carnage, but we did not move the center of the debate. In hindsight, we were preaching mainly to the choir — even if this had the important side benefit of convincing the choir’s members to continue singing for the rest of their lives.

As a young lawyer and trader in Manhattan in the 1990s, I began to understand why so many become disillusioned after college. The world appears too big a place. Rather than fight the relentless indifference of the universe, many of my saner peers retreated to tending their small gardens. The higher one’s IQ, the more pessimistic one became about free-market politics — capitalism simply is not that popular with the crowd. Among the smartest conservatives, this pessimism often manifested in heroic drinking; the smartest libertarians, by contrast, had fewer hang-ups about positive law and escaped not only to alcohol but beyond it.

As one fast-forwards to 2009, the prospects for a libertarian politics appear grim indeed. Exhibit A is a financial crisis caused by too much debt and leverage, facilitated by a government that insured against all sorts of moral hazards — and we know that the response to this crisis involves way more debt and leverage, and way more government. Those who have argued for free markets have been screaming into a hurricane. The events of recent months shatter any remaining hopes of politically minded libertarians. For those of us who are libertarian in 2009, our education culminates with the knowledge that the broader education of the body politic has become a fool’s errand.

Indeed, even more pessimistically, the trend has been going the wrong way for a long time. To return to finance, the last economic depression in the United States that did not result in massive government intervention was the collapse of 1920–21. It was sharp but short, and entailed the sort of Schumpeterian “creative destruction” that could lead to a real boom. The decade that followed — the roaring 1920s — was so strong that historians have forgotten the depression that started it. The 1920s were the last decade in American history during which one could be genuinely optimistic about politics. Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women — two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians — have rendered the notion of “capitalist democracy” into an oxymoron.

In the face of these realities, one would despair if one limited one’s horizon to the world of politics. I do not despair because I no longer believe that politics encompasses all possible futures of our world. In our time, the great task for libertarians is to find an escape from politics in all its forms — from the totalitarian and fundamentalist catastrophes to the unthinking demos that guides so-called “social democracy.”

The critical question then becomes one of means, of how to escape not via politics but beyond it. Because there are no truly free places left in our world, I suspect that the mode for escape must involve some sort of new and hitherto untried process that leads us to some undiscovered country; and for this reason I have focused my efforts on new technologies that may create a new space for freedom. Let me briefly speak to three such technological frontiers:

(1) Cyberspace. As an entrepreneur and investor, I have focused my efforts on the Internet. In the late 1990s, the founding vision of PayPal centered on the creation of a new world currency, free from all government control and dilution — the end of monetary sovereignty, as it were. In the 2000s, companies like Facebook create the space for new modes of dissent and new ways to form communities not bounded by historical nation-states. By starting a new Internet business, an entrepreneur may create a new world. The hope of the Internet is that these new worlds will impact and force change on the existing social and political order. The limitation of the Internet is that these new worlds are virtual and that any escape may be more imaginary than real. The open question, which will not be resolved for many years, centers on which of these accounts of the Internet proves true.

(2) Outer space. Because the vast reaches of outer space represent a limitless frontier, they also represent a limitless possibility for escape from world politics. But the final frontier still has a barrier to entry: Rocket technologies have seen only modest advances since the 1960s, so that outer space still remains almost impossibly far away. We must redouble the efforts to commercialize space, but we also must be realistic about the time horizons involved. The libertarian future of classic science fiction, à la Heinlein, will not happen before the second half of the 21st century.

(3) Seasteading. Between cyberspace and outer space lies the possibility of settling the oceans. To my mind, the questions about whether people will live there (answer: enough will) are secondary to the questions about whether seasteading technology is imminent. From my vantage point, the technology involved is more tentative than the Internet, but much more realistic than space travel. We may have reached the stage at which it is economically feasible, or where it soon will be feasible. It is a realistic risk, and for this reason I eagerly support this initiative.

The future of technology is not pre-determined, and we must resist the temptation of technological utopianism — the notion that technology has a momentum or will of its own, that it will guarantee a more free future, and therefore that we can ignore the terrible arc of the political in our world.

A better metaphor is that we are in a deadly race between politics and technology. The future will be much better or much worse, but the question of the future remains very open indeed. We do not know exactly how close this race is, but I suspect that it may be very close, even down to the wire. Unlike the world of politics, in the world of technology the choices of individuals may still be paramount. The fate of our world may depend on the effort of a single person who builds or propagates the machinery of freedom that makes the world safe for capitalism.

For this reason, all of us must wish Patri Friedman the very best in his extraordinary experiment.

Editor’s Note: Mr. Thiel has further elaborated on the question of suffrage here. We copy these remarks below as well:

I had hoped my essay on the limits of politics would provoke reactions, and I was not disappointed. But the most intense response has been aimed not at cyberspace, seasteading, or libertarian politics, but at a commonplace statistical observation about voting patterns that is often called the gender gap.

It would be absurd to suggest that women’s votes will be taken away or that this would solve the political problems that vex us. While I don’t think any class of people should be disenfranchised, I have little hope that voting will make things better.

Voting is not under siege in America, but many other rights are. In America, people are imprisoned for using even very mild drugs, tortured by our own government, and forced to bail out reckless financial companies.

I believe that politics is way too intense. That’s why I’m a libertarian. Politics gets people angry, destroys relationships, and polarizes peoples’ vision: the world is us versus them; good people versus the other. Politics is about interfering with other people’s lives without their consent. That’s probably why, in the past, libertarians have made little progress in the political sphere. Thus, I advocate focusing energy elsewhere, onto peaceful projects that some consider utopian.

The Conversation

Free Societies Are Neither Popular nor Disciplined

Both Seasteading and the Free State Project face a similar problem: a free society in the current climate will annoy or even enrage powerful people. Certainly, any society that seeks to legalize the production and export of narcotics currently prohibited in the United States would incur swift and overwhelming retribution from the federal government.

Considerations such as this counsel caution in advancing more radical libertarian agendas.

But caution may be difficult to “enforce.” Libertarians are an independent bunch. It will be relatively easy for the press to identify the more eccentric members of a community and play up their statements and actions as somehow representative of the effort at large. Certainly, anarchist civil disobeyers (not every anarchist is a civil disobeyer, and not every civil disobeyer is an anarchist) have generally promoted their Free State Project affiliations in New Hampshire and have sometimes seemingly chosen civil disobedience actions with the intent to divide and alienate the local libertarian movement (e.g., defacing public property, disobeying speed limits and refusing to cooperate with police, etc). If a libertarian-themed seastead attempts to prohibit, say, open production of methamphetamines, the organizers of the seastead should be aware that some people will take the proscription as a challenge rather than a deterrent.

At that point, it will be up to the seastead leadership to enforce a crackdown on nonviolent, consensual activities in order to forestall a more injurious intervention from public authorities. To have the freedom to act in this way, the seastead organizers will want to avoid organizing their society on internally democratic lines, especially since “early adopters” of such a strategy are likely to be those most alienated from American society. They are not likely to support a moderate, cautious leadership.

These considerations may seem farfetched, but as long as we are taking the seasteading concept seriously, we should take these possibilities seriously as well. The initial implementation period is always the most vulnerable time for any “revolutionary” political strategy, peaceful or not.

The Importance and Limitations of Groundwork

I’d like to clarify my thesis a bit and acknowledge the important (but limited) role of existing libertarian organizations.  Brian Doherty wrote:

“Folk activism” — talking, debating, and proselytizing, as [Patri] defines it — does indeed have the potential to see libertarians “changing system-wide incentives.” Admittedly, it’s a long, slow, so far largely failed slog — if changes in every libertarian direction already are what we need.

The implication of a “long, slow…slog” are a line that is slowly and steadily trending upwards.  If someone has such a line for the libertarian movement, I would love to see it, but I do not believe it is an accurate assessment of our history (though if anyone can prove me wrong, it is Brian, our chronicler extraordinaire).  The one graph I have seen of LP membership looks nothing a slow, steady increase.  Neither do sales of Atlas Shrugged, even if they are up lately.

In addition, whatever progress we do make has a ceiling, as I mentioned in my essay based on David Nolan’s work, or you can find in the research of Cato’s own David Boaz.  That ceiling is in the range of 9 to 16 percent of intuitive libertarians — plenty to take over New Hampshire or start a new country, but not to be a major power at the national level.  And the hope that libertarian morality will prove contagious beyond those intuitive libertarians is, I believe, a mirage.  Research by Jonathan Haidt suggests that people’s morality is an instinctual judgment, with reasons made up after the fact (one might call it “folk morality”).  Yes, some minds can be swayed, but this does not augur well for a mass conversion.

There is a big difference between a long war and an endless one, and for these and all the reasons I argued initially, I believe that folk activism is the latter.  I won’t go so far as to say we’re slogging slowly in circles, but there is an insurmountable cliff between us and our destination.  So it’s a question of possibility, not just Patri’s patience.

With that said, there is a critical difference between an inchoate individualist mass and an organized, self-identified group.  If our 10 percent of the population had no political party, no think tanks, no magazines, and no reputable academics, not only would we not have political impact, but it would be incredibly difficult for a new project to gain any traction.  The Seasteading Institute has benefited enormously from the groundwork laid by libertarian organizations in the spirit of folk activism, and I should have mentioned this in my original essay.  I may be skeptical that Cato will ever convert DC to a belief in markets, but I certainly appreciate having a sophisticated forum like Cato Unbound to be able to discuss and refine my ideas.

The Ron Paul campaign also exemplifies this distinction between impact and community.  As a method for electoral success, it had zero chance to as many decimal places as you care to name.  Yet I’ve met numerous libertarians who before Ron Paul had never heard of the philosophy or movement, and are now a valuable part of our community.  Systemic change is required — but it takes an organized group to make a systemic change.

And so the libertarian activism which Brian so aptly characterized as “consumption expense” has positive externalities for all of us.  I’d much rather people read and wrote and ranted about libertarianism than sat around and watched TV.  My concern is that people are deceiving themselves about the impact of this type of consumption (I know I did), which leads to misallocated efforts and long-run burnout when no change occurs.  (There is nothing unique about libertarianism in this area — ever since I was a teenager I’ve viewed petitions and boycotts as ways to make people feel good and feel like they’ve done something, without the effort of actually working towards real change.)

Brian also wrote:

I don’t know what will prove the best and most effective strategy for liberty. I think a lot of actions that are less than “best” or “most effective” are still worth doing, and that the inclinations and beliefs of each specific libertarian will be the best guide toward what will make them most effective at what they are doing — even if that particular thing isn’t the most effective thing!

This agnosticism about strategies towards liberty stems from one part of the libertarian philosophy: respect for the judgment and tastes of the individual.  Mine stems from another: the belief that resources are limited and some options are more efficient than others.  There are many paths towards liberty, but some go in circles, and others (like holing up with guns) lead off a cliff.  We need an organized group to reach the land of liberty, but we also need a map and a realistic plan to deal with the enormous geographic obstacles.  Folk activism has given us the group, and economic theory the map — and we’ve learned that we cannot simply walk to our destination.  We need the technologies Peter calls for to let us reach the heights to which we all aspire.

The groundwork has been laid, but it alone can’t get us off the ground.  Let’s invent technologies that can.

Teaching and Doing Depend on Each Other

Peter Thiel’s and Jason Sorens’s most recent contributions to this debate contain both much truth and much well-justified emotion. Both of them remind me of something depressing but worth thinking about when contemplating how we might get to a satisfyingly libertarian future: that maybe it just isn’t possible at all, given any reasonable future we can imagine from where we stand.

Thiel is right that the prospects for libertarian politics, especially when it comes to economic freedom, a government that doesn’t spend as much as it can lay its hands on plus 10 times more, and any widespread understanding of the coordinative possibilities of uncoerced human choice in the overall economy seem grim right now. He offers three possible paths to a solution. Each one’s actual potential to create a libertarian world seems no more obviously plausible than the very old fashioned libertarian movement “folk activism” path — that of convincing people of the merits of a libertarian social order, mind to mind, often one mind at a time.

And it isn’t just the technological problems (Can we really make space colonies and seasteads serve as desirable places to live and work as long as land is still an option? To what extent can virtual freedom of mind and communication spread into the movements of our bodies in meatspace?). Other obstacles make these sort of “change the game, don’t just change minds” solutions thin reeds on which to weigh a libertarian future.

The great advantage of seasteading and space colonies is they can in their nature be homes for a limited self-selected few, and thus a quick path to creating a libertarian world without having to change this world into one. That’s a definite advantage. But it runs into another very apt point made by Jason Sorens — small libertarian spaces aren’t apt to be very safe in a larger unlibertarian world. As he baldly states it, “a free society in the current climate will annoy or even enrage powerful people.”

Thus, maybe not only a fully libertarian world, but any possibility for a safe, livable space for tiny libertarian subworlds on the sea or in space (outer or cyber) really does rely on what Leonard Read thought from the beginning of the modern American libertarian project: convincing enough people of the benefits of a world that allows or even embraces “anything that’s peaceful.” It could be that this is necessary for any sort of hope for an active, living libertarian practice. Perhaps we must convince enough people such that we no longer live in a world in which powerful agencies of monopoly violence will be enemies of any enclave of freedom. We need to convince enough people that they should not allow, or do not want to participate in, the snuffing out of libertarian practice, so that whatever brilliant social hack a libertarian can make real will also survive.

Which leads us back to Patri and Peter’s legitimate doubts about how well that project of folk intellectual activism can ever really work. I can’t claim with authority that it will. But I’m not sure what else can. As excited as I am about seasteading or space colonies, I’m not sure I’ve heard any ideas that I think are very likely to be better. (I’ll be very happy to discover I’m wrong.) Good thing that it’s the rare libertarian activist who has to know or believe in his ex post success in major-league world-changing to feel like it’s worthwhile to advocate and educate for liberty’s benefits.

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.

Your Suffrage Isn’t in Danger. Your Other Rights Are.

I had hoped my essay on the limits of politics would provoke reactions, and I was not disappointed. But the most intense response has been aimed not at cyberspace, seasteading, or libertarian politics, but at a commonplace statistical observation about voting patterns that is often called the gender gap.

It would be absurd to suggest that women’s votes will be taken away or that this would solve the political problems that vex us. While I don’t think any class of people should be disenfranchised, I have little hope that voting will make things better.

Voting is not under siege in America, but many other rights are. In America, people are imprisoned for using even very mild drugs, tortured by our own government, and forced to bail out reckless financial companies.

I believe that politics is way too intense. That’s why I’m a libertarian. Politics gets people angry, destroys relationships, and polarizes peoples’ vision: the world is us versus them; good people versus the other. Politics is about interfering with other people’s lives without their consent. That’s probably why, in the past, libertarians have made little progress in the political sphere. Thus, I advocate focusing energy elsewhere, onto peaceful projects that some consider utopian.

The Old View

Dan Greenberg’s response begins:

I think though that perhaps this forum’s contributors — in their search for the best route to freedom — have overlooked the obvious. I believe that for ideologues generally, the most effective path to achieving their political goals is to support the campaigns of capable, trustworthy, and principled people for public office — a strategy that might include being such a candidate. When I read the first few contributions to this forum, I shook my head in puzzlement: for many libertarians, the notion that the best way to pursue freedom is by means of conventional political action is apparently counterintuitive.

My essay says the opposite, actually: it claims that conventional political action is a very intuitive strategy, just not an effective one. This should be no surprise, since the longer a problem has existed, the less likely it is that it can be solved the obvious way, and the more likely it is that a clever counterintuitive solution is needed. Physicists are not going to unify field theory by doing the simple, obvious thing, and libertarians are not going to fix government that way either. I don’t think I’ve yet met anyone who comes at the structuralist viewpoint from the beginning: we all start out assuming that “conventional political action” can work, but eventually we give up on it.

Let me again make it clear that everything I say is related to the goal of achieving a substantially freer society. If the current United States is a 5 on the 1-10 scale, we’re looking for an 8 or higher. With this goal, it is simply ludicrous to think that a good way to achieve it is running for public office in a country that is 85% – 95% non-libertarian, and uses a system (democracy) that is clearly (in both theory and empirical evidence) antithetical to economic freedom. No one is saying that becoming a public official has no effect. But I would like to hear a plausible path via which electing a few libertarians to local or state offices results in the dissolution of the DEA, BATF, and IRS.

In principle, I totally agree with Greenberg when he writes:

If it is the case that ideas and values become enacted into law not simply because of their merits but (in some essential sense) because a public official is espousing them, why do ideologues spend so much time dissecting faulty ideas but so little time thinking about how they themselves might become situated to write their own views into law? If you have ideas you like more than (say) lunar education, it might be worthwhile to consider how you might plausibly get them written into law.

Dissecting faulty ideas is one of the acts of folk activism that I call out in my essay. We do far too much of it, when we should be directing most of our efforts to proposing and implementing alternative solutions where we can “plausibly get them written into law.” I’m with him so far, but how can any libertarian think that libertarian views can plausibly be enacted in America today? The goal is not to push slightly better laws through the flawed system, it is to actually be able to live in a libertarian country. And it is exactly the consideration of how this might plausibly be accomplished that has led me to the sad belief that the only way I can be situated to write my views into law is by creating a new country on the frontier.

Dan does touch on some of the arguments about systemic factors:

Ideologues have a slew of objections to direct participation in the political process. They argue (for instance) that ideologues cannot win, that people are politically ineducable, that it’s immoral to participate — even to vote — in a corrupt system, that there’s a systemic bias towards big government that makes ideological efforts pointless, and that it’s a lot of hard labor for relatively little return. These arguments, in some respects, have force; in other respects, they smell like an excuse for avoiding work.

First, “in some respects, have force” is far too weak an evaluation of these systemic factors, which profoundly influence the policies generated by a government. It is not intuitive to view results as emerging from the rules of a system, as opposed to the actions of individuals, but if anyone can understand this, it should be libertarians, since our familiarity with economics teaches us that incentives matter. A libertarian would be laughed at for suggesting that the cure to high prices is price fixing, yet people like Greenberg routinely suggest that the cure to bad policies is policy fixing, ignoring the degree to which bad policy is the result of human action, not human design.

Second, and more importantly, I am dumbfounded that anyone who reads my essay can say “in other respects, they smell like an excuse for avoiding work.” Here I am claiming that the solution to these systemic incentive problems is to go build cities on the ocean, and Greenberg says I’m making excuses to avoid work? Are you kidding me? It’s the other way around: kissing babies is a helluva lot less work than pioneering a new frontier!

Greenberg seems to have succumbed to the romance of democracy when he writes:

It’s a reality in politics, especially legislative politics, that although ideologues will never win all the offices they run for, they can win enough of them to get a place at the table. They can win enough to have their views taken seriously in the political process and to be treated reasonably by the media.

What I want is to live in a society which operates in accordance with my morals, not one which takes them “seriously,” treats them “reasonably,” and then rejects them, again and again. Ron Paul has a place at the table, and while it makes for some great YouTube videos, it has no effect on Washington. Without influence, mere participation in the democratic process is worthless.

And finally:

But as the man said when he was asked how he liked being old: consider the alternative! If you really think that we need political change, what serious alternative is there to direct political action?

Greenberg’s choice of metaphor is quite telling. He assumes that the alternative to being old is being dead — apparently Dan has not yet met Aubrey de Grey! In the new view, the alternative to being old is to create rejuvenation technology. And the alternative to direct political action within existing political systems is to create a technology to enable experimentation with new political systems. [Editors’ note: Aubrey de Grey also contributed to Cato Unbound in December 2007.]

The old view resigns itself to the status quo; the new one tries to create alternatives. The old view operates through individuals; the new one, through technology and systems of incentives. The old view may have helped slightly stem the tide of statism that swept the United States in the 20th century, but it is clearly inadequate to enact any substantial change. For those of who want true liberty in our lifetimes, is it any wonder that are turning to a new view where direct political action within existing systems is no longer considered to be a credible option?

Letters to the Editor

A Plea for Politics

Letters to the Editor

Editors’ Note: Cato Unbound occasionally runs contributions from individuals who have particular expertise or a particularly insightful view of the issue at hand. This month we received the following essay by Dan Greenberg. Greenberg is a lawyer, an Arkansas state legislator, and an adjunct professor of law at the Bowen Law School of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Greenberg is also the former communications director of the Cato Institute.

How best to achieve political goals? I can understand the attraction of the Free State Project, Seasteading, cyberlibertarianism, and even Heinleinesque societies in space. I think though that perhaps this forum’s contributors — in their search for the best route to freedom — have overlooked the obvious. I believe that for ideologues generally, the most effective path to achieving their political goals is to support the campaigns of capable, trustworthy, and principled people for public office — a strategy that might include being such a candidate. When I read the first few contributions to this forum, I shook my head in puzzlement: for many libertarians, the notion that the best way to pursue freedom is by means of conventional political action is apparently counterintuitive.

What is an ideologue? Over two decades ago, shortly after I graduated from college, I was struck by the brevity and force of a letter to the editor that appeared in the New York Times, captioned “This Country Needs More Ideologues,” — so much so that I carried it around in my wallet for years. In only a few sentences, the author (Wirt A. Yerger Jr.) makes a persuasive case that the nation needs public officials who embody time-tested, pro-freedom principles: he calls them “ideologues.” Let us accept something like his usage: by “ideologues,” I do not mean people who are out of touch with reality, but rather people whose political goals are informed by moral values and principles which they can represent and defend.

In my state, there are 135 legislators and 1 governor. Those 136 people have an immense amount of influence over the legal structure that governs our state, perhaps more so than anyone else. The reason that the views of public officials routinely appear in the media is not because they are wise or profound. Rather, it is because (within limits) those people have the power to change the rules if they so desire. In my state, if you are interested in changing policy for the better, you might try to be one of those 136 people.

Let me give you an admittedly unlikely example. Suppose there is a state legislator who thinks that exposure to the rays of the moon will increase the capacity of students to learn. The everyday person has little or no power to get such views written into a state’s educational program, but if things break right for the legislator, he can get a pilot education program passed into law and funded that will involve the education of students by moonlight.

Ideologues frequently get frustrated with such outcomes, which they correctly see as capricious. But they do not learn what I think is an obvious lesson. If it is the case that ideas and values become enacted into law not simply because of their merits but (in some essential sense) because a public official is espousing them, why do ideologues spend so much time dissecting faulty ideas but so little time thinking about how they themselves might become situated to write their own views into law? If you have ideas you like more than (say) lunar education, it might be worthwhile to consider how you might plausibly get them written into law.

Perhaps the greatest film about modern American electoral politics is a little-known and underappreciated documentary called Taking on the Kennedys, a documentary so filled with telling details of the way political campaigns really work that it rewards repeated viewings. One such detail is a sign posted in the protagonist-candidate’s office, a sign within his view as he makes one tedious fund raising phone call after another. The sign reads: “Most people are not ideological.” Ideologues tend to forget this simple truth — and, too often, relate to others on an overly ideological basis — which is one reason why they are often such bad political candidates.

More generally, a fundamental fact of the political process is that there is a significant difference in the skill set of a good candidate and that of a good public official. Ideologues typically have an excellent grasp of many of the requirements of being a good public official: being thoughtful, well-educated, well-read, and open-minded, able to make decisions on the basis of principle and reality, having the ability to articulate and explain the connections between theory and practice, and so forth. However, ideologues are typically poorer at campaigning, which requires the ability to appreciate the symbolic and emotional nature of communications with everyday people, to hear and connect with putative constituents directly and via news media, to recruit and work with volunteers and build coalitions, to campaign generally (often a repetitive, undramatic chore), and to figure out how to raise money for the expenses attendant to campaigns. My experience with ideologues who desire political office is that they are often unwilling to make the hard physical and psychological slog that is required to get there. By its nature, the system necessarily selects public officials out of the pool of “good candidates”; by and large, it does not reward eccentricity or even individual authenticity. This may have something to do with one of Ed Crane’s observations, which I hope he will forgive me for paraphrasing: that he typically finds Congressmen “creepy.”

I am generally sympathetic to critiques of “folk activism” — I would simply echo Doherty’s point by noting that the main reason that it takes place is that it’s a lot more fun to spend two hours writing a blog post or having a political argument than to spend two hours knocking on scores of doors asking people you’ve never met before to vote for a sound candidate. But the latter, while often boring and occasionally grueling, is probably more politically effective. And it is only the people who are willing to pay the price of pursuing political office who will be able to exercise political power. (I do not mean here to diminish the importance of academics and other professional policy analysts, whose work has been of tremendous importance to good government.)

Ideologues have a slew of objections to direct participation in the political process. They argue (for instance) that ideologues cannot win, that people are politically ineducable, that it’s immoral to participate — even to vote — in a corrupt system, that there’s a systemic bias towards big government that makes ideological efforts pointless, and that it’s a lot of hard labor for relatively little return. These arguments, in some respects, have force; in other respects, they smell like an excuse for avoiding work.

I don’t have the space to answer all of these concerns, but (very briefly) I will try. It’s a reality in politics, especially legislative politics, that although ideologues will never win all the offices they run for, they can win enough of them to get a place at the table. They can win enough to have their views taken seriously in the political process and to be treated reasonably by the media. They can win enough to have significant freedom of action in resisting the political power of entrenched interest groups. They can win enough to block bad programs and establish good ones; given the right cultural climate, they can make significant ideological advancements. Importantly, sometimes they win in part because of public knowledge of their political views, and sometimes because of public ignorance of them. In short, they can win enough to be more than gadflies, although as an occasional gadfly myself I think people can underestimate the importance of this role. Some ideologues apparently think that anything less than complete victory is complete defeat; I think they are mistaken.

In short, it seems to me that the obvious implication of all this is that any principled person who is dissatisfied with the current political order should seriously consider running for public office — provided that he or she has the time and the other resources required to do so. (See my discussion of the requirements for good candidates and good public officials above.) The prevalence of term limits regularly minimizes some barriers associated with incumbency. Furthermore, it seems to me that any ideological movement that stigmatizes various types of conventional political action, down to and including voting, is harming itself in an almost masochistic way.

Admittedly, the argument that conventional political avenues lead to a lot of hard work for little return is a serious one. (Ideologues who believe the only acceptable result of their political labors is a government under the complete control of like-minded people will find this argument utterly persuasive.) In fact, lowered expectations here are essential. But as the man said when he was asked how he liked being old: consider the alternative! If you really think that we need political change, what serious alternative is there to direct political action?

Seasteading? Really?