This month's issue of Cato Unbound has drawn an extraordinarily hostile response from a couple of mainstream online publications. Writing at Salon, Michael Lind inferred, mistakenly, that our interest in Seasteading and other radical libertarian projects was due to our disappointment that Republicans lost in the 2008 election. Because this issue was my idea, I feel I can speak effectively to the charge.
As I see things, it was basically impossible to cast either John McCain or Barack Obama as a libertarian. Neither of them shared the policy goals of the Cato Institute to any appreciable degree. Speaking as a private individual, I didn't vote for either of them, and I don't regret my choice. I found both Democrats and Republicans profoundly unappealing this election cycle.
This issue of Cato Unbound was motivated solely by my desire to see one particularly radical branch of libertarianism publicly confront its critics. I wanted to see how well it could hold up. Whether it stood or fell, the issue would have served its purpose. Electoral politics had nothing to do with it.
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.
Last 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 exa
mines 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.
In today’s installment of Cato Unbound, Reason senior editor Brian Doherty defends “folk activism” (that’s what we do here at Cato, in case you’re wondering) against Patri Friedman’s complaints of ineffectiveness.
Doherty argues, in effect, that Friedman’s effort to simply go out and float a boat upon which one can do whatever floats one’s boat is parasitic on earlier “folk activism” aimed at persuasion. It is hard to find 20,000 people who will commit to moving to New Hampshire for the cause of liberty and, as Brian points out, it’s even harder to find people who will now commit to moving to a man‐made island. The viability of projects like Seasteading seems to depend on the success of prior evangelism.
That said, one of the merits of Friedman’s “dynamic geography” is that it is not really a “libertarian” project at all. As he writes in his Unbound lead essay:
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.
I think there’s good reason to expect competing sea‐top jurisdictions to settle on a scheme of governance more libertarian than what the world’s current nation states have to offer. But I also think there’s little reason to expect a seastead to embody the system of most libertarians’ dreams unless a lot of libertarians coordinate and settle there. In that case, it’s really clear that creating a libertarian society from whole cloth depends on the prior existence of libertarians, which depends on the success of the folk activism that produces them.
For more on seasteading, check out yesterday’s Cato Policy forum with Patri Friedman and today’s podcast interview.
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.
On April 3, Cato hosted a special blogger briefing with Glenn Greenwald, who was here to speak about his new paper on the success of drug decriminalization in Portugal.
Here are a few highlights from bloggers who wrote about it:
- Dan Bernath from the Marijuana Policy Project
- Scott Morgan of StopTheDrugWar.org
- Jesse Singal, associate editor of Campus Progress, a project of the Center for American Progress
Also, a few links to bloggers who are writing about Cato:
- Citing new research that shows that the DC school choice pilot program was highly successful, Betsy Newmark linked to Andrew J. Coulson’s commentary on the study results.
- Ilya Somin discussed Patri Friedman’s new essay at Cato Unbound about the Seasteading Institute and the history of libertarian activism.
- Blogger Connie Carr wrote about William Niskanen’s essay in the new Cato Policy Report, “How to turn a Recession into a Depression.”
This month’s Cato Unbound continues our tradition of stirring up controversy. The lead essay is by Patri Friedman, who challenges the advocates of liberty as follows:
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. 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.
Cato isn’t called out by name, but it easily could have been. Like I said, Cato Unbound tries to be controversial.
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. Competition among states (and non‐state agents!), new technologies, and new intentional communities may just induce old‐fashioned governments to behave a whole lot better. By contrast, just recommending somewhat better policies won’t do very much, not if all we do is write about them. (Friedman seems particularly skeptical about blogs. Ahem.)
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. It’s important to document these things, and much of this work directly furthers the kind of structural reform that Friedman favors.
Consider the many Cato scholars who have heralded the rise of tax competition — in which states feel increasing pressure to deliver a low‐cost product when their taxpayers can move elsewhere. Or consider Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter, a book whose conclusions inform Friedman’s own project. This book began with a series of discussions among public policy scholars (on a blog no less!). Cato actively promoted Caplan’s work, and we would hope that Friedman would find this an effort well‐spent. An upcoming event with author James Tooley shows how the world’s poor are founding their own schools to educate themselves, admirably free from any state interference — a new, private social practice bests an incompetent government! These things matter, I’d say, and they matter even if we accept Friedman’s premises. (We’re also giving a platform to Friedman, both here and at an event on April 7.)
In any case, this a big and very important discussion for the libertarian movement, of which the Cato Institute is only a part. Cato Unbound will have a remarkable series of panelists commenting throughout this week and next, including Jason Sorens, founder of the Free State Project; Peter Thiel, co‐founder of PayPal and noted philanthropist; and Brian Doherty, who has researched and written about more forms of libertarian activism than most of us can even recall. Whatever side of the debate you end up taking, be sure to stop by to catch this month’s edition of Cato Unbound.