Topic: Government and Politics

Seasteading and Other Technologies for Liberty

I’ve been following Patri Friedman’s work on seasteading for a number of years, so I was excited to see him contribute the lead essay in this month’s Cato Unbound. I think he makes some good points about the difficulty of achieving a free society through ordinary electoral politics. As he points out, libertarians are a minority of the electorate and the political game is stacked against politicians who aren’t willing to use their power to reward special interests. So smart libertarians should be looking at options outside of campaigns and elections to make the world a freer place.

But I think it’s a huge and unwarranted leap to go from this observation about the limits of electoral politics to claim that “the advocacy approach which many libertarian individuals, groups, and think tanks follow (including me sometimes, sadly) is an utter waste of time” and that “academic research has enlarged our understanding but they have gotten us no closer to an actual libertarian state.” It’s not difficult to find examples of academic research that changed the world. One of the most important trends toward liberty in the United States during the last century, the deregulation of transportation and communication markets in the 1970s, came about because a small group of academics persuaded Washington policymakers that deregulation would benefit consumers (and, in the process, their own political prospects). It surely mattered that Margaret Thatcher was a devotee of Friedrich Hayek. And if Friedman will forgive me for personalizing the debate a little bit, he must be familiar with the role his own grandfather had in ending the draft, achieving (relatively) stable money, and inspiring the modern school choice movement.

Now, Friedman says he’s interested in living in an “actual free society.” He probably regards the above examples as merely “small incremental gains in freedom.” But if that’s his critique, he bears the burden of showing that his preferred approach, seasteading, will itself achieve an “actual free society” rather then mere “incremental gains.” I’m not so sure.

Friedman makes much of the distinction between “technology” on the one hand and “advocacy” on the other. He thinks technological approaches are better because they provide superior leverage: a group as small as a few hundred people may be able to permanently lower the barrier to entry to statehood and fundamentally transform the nation-state game.

It’s an appealing vision, but I don’t think the distinction between technology and advocacy is so stark. As my colleague Will Wilkinson has pointed out, ideology is a kind of infrastructure. The tools of persuasion — magazine columns and television specials, for example — are means of improving this infrastructure by spreading new and better ideas. Modern communications technologies offer a kind of leverage not so dissimilar to the leverage Friedman hopes to achieve through seasteading. A small group of talented people can permanently change public attitudes, thereby shifting the Overton Window and changing the constraints politicians face.

Indeed, it’s obvious that Friedman himself understands this on some level. You’ll notice that right now, he’s not spending his time at a dry dock constructing an actual seastead. Instead, he’s using the same technologies he derides in other contexts — giving talks, writing essays, giving media interviews — to spread a set of ideas that he thinks will change the world. Getting seasteading to actually happen is a collective action problem. The tools he needs to overcome that collective action problem are precisely the “folk activism” tactics that he derides in other contexts. I think he’s largely right that national elections are not an arena in which “folk activism” has much impact, but there are clearly circumstances in which those tactics do work, and blanket dismissal of those tactics is therefore misguided.

I think Friedman overestimates the extent to which successful seasteads would achieve revolutionary, rather than merely incremental, changes in the amount of freedom in the world. Friedman’s vision for the future is a floating Hong Kong surrounded by a billion-dollar breakwater. He’s not going to be satisfied with a bunch of glorified houseboats. So the society he hopes to build would be a complex system with many of the anti-libertarian tendencies that afflict today’s cities. He’s right, of course, that the power of that city’s leaders will be limited by the greater ease of exit. But a large fraction of the inhabitants of a floating Hong Kong would still be tied down by professional, family, and social ties. And as a consequence, the political leaders of such a society would still have considerable political power.

Therefore, large, permanent floating cities will only remain free if they’re built with good ideological infrastructure: with institutions and public attitudes conducive to liberty. That means that the efforts of libertarian public policy scholars is complementary to Friedman’s own organizational and engineering efforts. Their efforts can help in two ways. First, they can help to guide the founders of new seastead cities in making institutional design decisions that will maximize the likelihood that the society will remain free over the long run. Second and more importantly, the continued growth of the libertarian movement provides the seasteading movement with its most important input: “customers” who will instinctively understand the appeal of the seasteading project. Self-identified libertarians are likely to not only be the first people willing to join seasteads, but also the strongest advocates of preserving liberty within floating cities once they become firmly established.

It seems counterproductive for Friedman to spend his intellectual energies denigrating the efforts of those of us who have chosen to use communications technologies, rather than maritime technologies, to advance liberty. I predict that the technologies of persuasion we use at the Cato Institute will prove to be more important for the long-run success of liberty than the maritime technologies Friedman hopes to develop. But I’m glad that Friedman is experimenting with a different approach, and I would be thrilled to be proven wrong. If the seasteading movement does prove successful, I think it’s success will have been greatly accelerated by the existence of a large and enthusiastic audience that has been created and nurtured by the “folk activism” of the broader libertarian movement.

Week in Review: Successful Voucher Programs, Immigration Debates and a New Path for Africa

Federal Study Supports School Vouchers

arne_duncanLast week, a U.S. Department of Education study revealed that students participating in a Washington D.C. voucher pilot program outperformed peers attending public schools.

According to The Washington Post, the study found that “students who used the vouchers received reading scores that placed them nearly four months ahead of peers who remained in public school.” In a statement, education secretary Arne Duncan said that the Obama administration “does not want to pull participating students out of the program but does not support its continuation.”

Why then did the Obama administration “let Congress slash the jugular of DC’s school voucher program despite almost certainly having an evaluation in hand showing that students in the program did better than those who tried to get vouchers and failed?”

The answer, says Cato scholar Neal McCluskey, lies in special interests and an unwillingness to embrace change after decades of maintaining the status quo:

It is not just the awesome political power of special interests, however, that keeps the monopoly in place. As Terry Moe has found, many Americans have a deep, emotional attachment to public schooling, one likely rooted in a conviction that public schooling is essential to American unity and success. It is an inaccurate conviction — public schooling is all-too-often divisive where homogeneity does not already exist, and Americans successfully educated themselves long before “public schooling” became widespread or mandatory — but the conviction nonetheless is there. Indeed, most people acknowledge that public schooling is broken, but feel they still must love it.

Susan L. Aud and Leon Michos found the program saved the city nearly $8 million in education costs in a 2006 Cato study that examined the fiscal impact of the voucher program.

To learn more about the positive effect of school choice on poor communities around the world, join the Cato Institute on April 15 to discuss James Tooley’s new book, The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves.

Obama Announces New Direction on Immigration

The New York Times reports, “President Obama plans to begin addressing the country’s immigration system this year, including looking for a path for illegal immigrants to become legal, a senior administration official said on Wednesday.”

In the immigration chapter of the Cato Handbook for Policymakers, Cato trade analyst Daniel T. Griswold offered suggestions on immigration policy, which include:

  • Expanding current legal immigration quotas, especially for employment-based visas.
  • Creating a temporary worker program for lower-skilled workers to meet long-term labor demand and reduce incentives for illegal immigration.
  • Refocusing border-control resources to keep criminals and terrorists out of the country.

In a 2002 Cato Policy Analysis, Griswold made the case for allowing Mexican laborers into the United States to work.

For more on the argument for open borders, watch Jason L. Riley of The Wall Street Journal editorial board speak about his book, Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders.

In Case You Couldn’t Join Us
Cato hosted a number of fascinating guests recently to speak about new books, reports and projects.

  • Salon writer Glenn Greenwald discussed a new Cato study that exadead-aidmines the successful drug decriminalization program in Portugal.
  • Patri Friedman of the Seasteading Institute explained his project to build self-sufficient deep-sea platforms that would empower individuals to break free of national governments and start their own societies on the ocean.
  • Dambisa Moyo, author of the book Dead Aid, spoke about her research that shows how government-to-government aid fails. She proposed an “aid-free solution” to development, based on the experience of successful African countries.

Find full-length videos to all Cato events on Cato’s events archive page.

Also, don’t miss Friday’s Cato Daily Podcast with legal policy analyst David Rittgers on Obama’s surge strategy in Afghanistan.

Whitehurst: “Duncan Is Not Lying”

Brookings senior fellow Grover Whitehurst has just come to the defense of education secretary Arne Duncan over charges that Duncan sat on (or remained “willfully ignorant” of) a study showing that the D.C. voucher program is boosting achievement. The Senate passed a bill sunsetting funding for the program on March 10, but Whitehurst contends Duncan wouldn’t have known about the study’s results until a week or so later (it was released on April 6th).

Until last November, Whitehurst was head of the Institute for Education Sciences (IES), which released the new voucher study. He obviously knows its timelines and procedures. But even Whitehurst acknowledges that there is ”substantial reason to believe that the secretary didn’t want to draw attention to the report,” citing the choice of a Friday release (Friday releases were deliberately discontinued by the IES years ago) and the mysterious absence of the news briefing that typically accompanies the release of such reports.

So what is a fair observer to think of Secretary Duncan based on Whitehursts’ revelations? Duncan may not have had an opportunity to sit on the report, because he may not have known about it. But Duncan had ultimate control over its release and it looks as though he went out of his way to bury it.

Why would a secretary of education bury a study showing that one government program (vouchers) produces better outcomes than another government program (D.C. public schooling) at one quarter the cost? No flattering explanation comes to mind. Perhaps someone else will come forward to defend Duncan on this point.

Or perhaps the secretary himself might like to share with the American people why this study was buried at the bottom of a locked filing cabinet in the basement of an abandoned building with a hand scrawled “beware of leopard” sign affixed to it. Maybe he would like to let us know why he isn’t touting private school choice as a model for the states to emulate at a time when outcomes are languishing and money is tight. The only justification he has offered for not doing so is risible: it doesn’t serve enough kids. As Cato’s David Boaz pointed out earlier today, it is only limited in size because, uh…, Congress statutorily limited its size. We know that many more parents would like vouchers. We know from the international evidence that the supply of schools rises to meet demand, just as supply rises to meet demand in other fields.

But we also know that the Democratic party is beholden to the teachers unions and that the National Education Association sent a letter to congressional Democrats — not to all of Congress, mind you, it’s addressed “to Democrats” — demanding that they kill the D.C. voucher program.

Because of the constant pressure exerted by the NEA, Democrats who might otherwise have supported the program have voted to let it — and the hopes of 1,700 poor kids — die. To reverse their decision, a countervailing public pressure must be brought to save it.

And that is why Grover Whitehurst is mistaken when he says that ”the future of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program is far more important than the contretemps” over the secretary’s handling of the voucher study. The future of the program depends on that “contretemps.” Were it not for the public outcry, there would be no political pressure on Democrats to rethink their decision to feed these children back into the D.C. public schools.

And as someone who is much happier under divided government than under the unitary rule of either major party, I hope that Democrats figure out that long-term political calculus demands support for educational freedom. When the $100 billion ”stimulus” spending on public schools accomplishes little or nothing — as it will — the public will be even angrier at the politicians extorting them into those schools. And the party associated with defending that system to the bitter end against the wishes of families won’t recover for a long while.

A Flagging Obama Transparency Effort

President Obama made some very firm commitments about transparency as a campaigner. Among other things, he promised to post bills online for five days before he signs them. This promise has been fulfilled just once - and in that case, only arguably.

The Obama campaign Web site promised “Sunlight Before Signing:

Too often bills are rushed through Congress and to the president before the public has the opportunity to review them. As president, Obama will not sign any non-emergency bill without giving the American public an opportunity to review and comment on the White House website for five days.”

To a roar of approval, President Obama pledged on the campaign trail: “[W]hen there is a bill that ends up on my desk as a president, you the public will have five days to look online and find out what’s in it before I sign it, so that you know what your government’s doing.”

Here’s a look at the White House’s uneven efforts to fulfill that promise:

Of the eleven bills President Obama has signed, only six have been posted on None have been posted for a full five days after presentment from Congress.

One bill, the DTV Delay Act, was posted after it was cleared for presentment by Congress February 4th, with the President signing it February 11th. This arguably satisfies the five-day promise, though presentment - a constitutional step in the legislative process - would be a better time to start the five-day clock. (Congress presented it February 9th.)

Several times the White House has posted a bill while it remains in Congress, attempting to satisfy the five-day rule. But this doesn’t give the public an opportunity to review the final legislation - especially any last minute amendments. Versions of the children’s health insurance legislation, the omnibus spending bill, and the omnibus public land management bill were linked to from while making their ways through Congress, but not posted in final form.

(The page linking to the omnibus spending bill was not highlighted in the White House blog or anywhere else on I could find. The only evidence I found of when it was posted comes from Web commentary.)

Is five days too much to ask? The President did allow for an emergency exception, and it would not be appropriate to hold off signing a bill if life and health were immediately threatened.

The President signed a couple of bills with deadlines pressing. These were the continuing resolution, the omnibus spending bill, and the extensions of immigration and small business programs. Congress produced the crush, though, with its timing in passing the bills; the deadlines were not a product of extrinsic forces or emergencies. (A firmly enforced five-day rule would cause Congress to pass bills five days earlier when programs were expiring - after much tribulation about who is responsible when a program lapses for failure to timely reauthorize it, of course.)

Despite the economic conditions, the Recovery Act was not treated as emergency legislation by Congress or the President. Congress waited three days after its Friday passage to present it to the President, and he enjoyed a weekend visit to Chicago before signing the bill four days after it passed (one day after presentment) in Denver.

The President has signed most bills within a day or two of their presentment from Congress, violating his campaign promise. He has signed two bills more than five days after presentment, but - ironically, because it preserves the broken promise - not posted them on


Public Law Date Presented Date Signed Posted (Linked) for Comment? Five Days?
P.L. 111-2, The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 1/28/2009 1/29/2009 1/29/2009 No
P.L. 111-3, The Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2009 2/4/2009 2/4/2009 2/1/2009 No
P.L. 111-4, The DTV Delay Act 2/9/2009 2/11/2009 2/5/2009 Yes and No
P.L. 111-5, The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 2/16/2009 2/17/2009 2/13/2009 No
P.L. 111-6, Making further continuing appropriations for fiscal year 2009, and for other purposes 3/6/2009 3/6/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-7, A bill to designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 2105 East Cook Street in Springfield, Illinois, as the “Colonel John H. Wilson, Jr. Post Office Building” 2/26/09 3/9/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-8, The Omnibus Appropriations Act, 2009 3/11/2009 3/11/2009 3/6/2009 No
P.L. 111-9, To extend certain immigration programs 3/18/2009 3/20/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-10, To provide for an additional temporary extension of programs under the Small Business Act and the Small Business Investment Act of 1958, and for other purposes 3/19/2009 3/20/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-11, The Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 3/30/2009 3/30/2009 3/30/2009 No
P.L. 111-12, The Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2009 3/24/2009 3/30/2009 No n/a

Can Arne Duncan Fix All the Schools?

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, responding to a new study showing that District of Columbia students using vouchers to attend private schools outperformed their peers in public schools – a study that he has been accused of keeping under wraps until after Congress voted to end the D.C. voucher program – told the Washington Post of his concerns:

“Big picture, I don’t see vouchers as being the answer,” Duncan said in a recent meeting with Washington Post editors and reporters. “You can pull two kids out, you can pull three kids out, and you’re leaving 97, 98 percent behind. You need to help all those kids. The way you help them is by challenging the status quo where it’s not working and coming back with dramatically better schools and doing it systemically.”

But why would vouchers only serve two or three percent of the kids? Only because Congress limited the size of the voucher program. Thousands more families have applied for public or private vouchers than there were vouchers available. If the District of Columbia took its mammoth school budget and divided it into equal vouchers or scholarships for each child in the city, Arne Duncan could bet his bottom dollar that a lot more than two percent of the families would head for private or parochial schools. His fear is not that vouchers only serve two percent of the kids, it’s that a full-scale choice program would reveal just how much demand for alternatives there is.

But note also: Duncan says that he wants to “help all those kids … by … coming back with dramatically better schools.” But he ran the Chicago schools for seven years, and he was not able to make a single school good enough for Barack and Michelle Obama to send their own children there.

Wouldn’t the 97 or 98 percent of the kids in Chicago whose parents couldn’t afford the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools have benefited from having a choice?

New at Cato

Here are a few highlights from Cato Today, a daily email from the Cato Institute. You can subscribe, here

  • The new edition of Regulation examines the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), the legal drinking age and climate change policies.
  • In The Week, Will Wilkinson argues that the Obama administration should rethink its drug policy and that prominent marijuana users should “come out of the closet.”
  • Gene Healy points out in the Washington Examiner why the Serve America Act (SAA) is no friend to freedom.
  • The Cato Weekly Video features Rep. Paul Ryan discussing the Obama administration’s budget.
  • In Wednesday’s Cato Daily Podcast, Patri Friedman discusses seasteading and the prospects for liberty on the high seas.