Topic: Political Philosophy

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.

New at Cato Unbound

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.

Fight Moral Panics — With Beer!

In the UK and here at home, brewers have increasingly been producing specialty beers with the alcohol content of wine. Naturally, it’s time for a moral panic:

The new breed of bitters, with their intense flavours and alcohol contents of up to 12 per cent, are the work of young brewing entrepreneurs trying capture the attention — and cash — of lager-guzzling twentysomethings.

Beer writers and aficionados have welcomed the speciality bottles, which can contain 10 times as much hops as a traditional pint, as a necessary revitalisation of a market dominated by corporate giants turning out similar 4 per cent brown bitters.

But alcohol campaigners have complained that drinkers may be unaware of the strength of the new products, a single 330ml bottle of which is enough to make an adult exceed their daily recommended alcohol intake.

In January the Portman Group, the alcohol industry watchdog, ruled the brashest exponent of the movement, BrewDog brewery in Aberdeen, had broken its code on responsible marketing for its Speed Ball beer, named after the cocktail of cocaine and heroin which killed the actor John Belushi, star of The Blues Brothers.

Despite the group rejecting complaints against three of BrewDog’s other beers, Punk IPA, Rip Tide and Hop Rocker, its managing director, James Watt, accused Portman of being “outdated” and “out of touch”. He did, however, concede that his company had been provocative. “We thought we would give them something worth banning us for,” he said.

Good for them.

Note the comically low, and comically named, “recommended daily alcohol intake,” which would apparently forbid splitting a standard bottle of wine with another drinker. (Is there any better way to drink wine?) Incidentally, today’s 750 mL bottle derives from the “fifth,” or fifth of a gallon, which in the good old barrel-chested days of yore may well have been a single-serving portion.

It’s fascinating how the narrative of moral panic just keeps getting recycled, as if journalists only ever had this one idea in their heads. Is it their fault, or is it the watchdog groups? A question worth asking.

Either way, it works like this: Someone does something faux-provocative, often as a marketing stunt (to beer connoisseurs, brews with 12% alcohol are a fine old tradition, not a terrible new menace). But a group of Very Concerned People takes it all quite seriously and issues a worried press release. An interview is set up. The young are always invoked, as are previous moral panics. Anxious stories are written. Entirely fake concerns arise. (Hops, for example, don’t intoxicate, and strong hop flavors incline one to drink less beer, not more.)

If a moral panic keeps up for long enough, the legislators will get called in, because it’s their job to protect us naive ordinary folk from the dangers of the world. Maybe something will be done about it, or maybe not. Either way, the average member of the public goes away worried, which is just what the Very Concerned People want. They feed on worry.

They hope for a perpetual climate of worry, a feeling of unease that will carry over from this issue to the next one and to the one after that. It makes what they do — taking away freedoms — that much easier. It’s our job, as freedom-loving citizens, to deny them this perpetual undercurrent of worry. And if we can do it while drinking beer, then so much the better.

Taxpayer Financing of Campaigns Returns

Taxpayer financing of congressional campaigns has returned.

Yesterday Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Arlen Specter (R-PA) introduced a modified version of their public financing bill first proposed in 2007, now as then called the Fair Elections Now Act (FENA).  The older version included “free media vouchers” and discounted ad rates for television; the new model focuses more on small contributions and matching funds from the federal treasury.

These bills to finance campaigns with government revenue are often introduced in Congress and rarely make any headway, much less pass either chamber.  Their perennial failure is not difficult to understand. Members are interested in campaign finance regulations that make it more difficult for challengers to raise money.  They are not interested in giving candidates federal revenue to run against incumbents. Members are especially unwilling to fund campaigns because the public takes a dim view of  using taxes in this way.

FENA tries to avoid public opposition by creating the appearance that taxpayers do not actually fund this scheme.

As Politico reports:

In the Senate version, the public money would come from assessing the country’s largest government contractors with a small surcharge… In the House, the money would come from the sale of broadcast spectrum.

But the question should be asked: if public financing of campaigns will actually achieve all the great things claimed by its proponents, shouldn’t the public be asked to pay the bill? After all, the public can expect to receive the promised benefits. Why should the bill be financed by government contractors and the sale of public assets?

We know the answer to these questions. Durbin and Specter have to obscure the role of taxes in these schemes because the public would oppose the bill if taxpayers were on the hook for the funding. Yet the senators obscure rather than eliminate the role of the taxpayer who will have to pay higher levies to fund more expensive government contracts or to replace the money that might have been obtained from the sale of the spectrum.  Once the FENA lunch turns out not to be free, will voters feel like paying the tab?

The rationale for the new program also merits attention. In the past, advocates of taxpayer financing argued that private financing of campaigns corrupted representation, policymaking, and the general political culture.  Replacing private contributions with public financing would, it was claimed, remove private interests and end corruption.  That rationale appealed to most of the supporters of  public financing; they tend toward the left politically and had little trouble believing the Republicans running Congress – all of them – were corrupt.  But 2006 brought the Democrats back to power, and general claims of corruption no longer fit the background assumptions of both powerful legislators and supporters of public financing. So we now hear little about corruption and a lot about how FENA will free up legislators to “tend to the people’s business.”

Will “tending to the people’s business” be enough to convince Americans to spend tax dollars funding congressional campaigns at a time of record public sector deficits brought about by reckless spending on bailouts and much else?

The question answers itself.

How Progressive Are You?

I’m two weeks late coming to this, but the “Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party” Obama Administration Farm Team Center for American Progress has developed a quiz aiming to answer the question, “How Progressive Are You?“  The quiz asks you to rank, on a 10-point scale, how much you agree with 40 different statements.  Now, I won’t quibble here with the misuse of the word “progressive” – having debased the term “liberal” (which in any other country pretty much means what Cato supports), the Left moves on to its next target – but the quiz highlights the false dichotomy between “progressive” and “conservative.” 

The fallacy of this linear political spectrum forces people to wring their hands and call themselves “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” – does anyone call themselves “fiscally liberal” even if they are? – or “moderate” (no firm views on anything, huh?) or anything else that adds no descriptive meaning to a political discussion.  Where do you put a Jim Webb?  A Reagan Democrat?  A Ross Perot voter?  A gay Republican?  A deficit hawk versus a supply-sider?  Let alone Crunchy Cons, Purple Americans, Wal-Mart Republicans, South Park Conservatives, NASCAR dads, soccer moms, and, oh yes, libertarians. 

And the statements the quiz asks you to evaluate are just weird.  I mean, yes, “Lower taxes are generally a good thing” (I paraphrase) gets you somewhere, but what does “Talking with rogue nations such as Iran or with state-sponsored terrorist groups is naive and only gives them legitimacy” get you?  Or “America has taken too large a role in solving the world’s problems and should focus more at home”?  What is the “progressive” response to these statements?  The “conservative” one?  I think I know what the Bush response and the Obama response would be to the first one, but how does either fit into any particular ideology? 

The Institute for Humane Studies at least gives you a two-dimensional quiz, so you can see how much government intervention you want in economic and social affairs (the “progressive” view presumably being lots of intervention in the economy, none on social issues).  And IHS poses classical debates in political philosophy rather than thinly veiled leading questions relating to current affairs.  

In any event, when you finish the quiz, it tells you your score and that the average score for Americans is 209.5.  How do they get this number?  A selectively biased survey of people who frequent the CAP website would surely score much higher on the progressive scale.  No, it’s based on a “National Study of Values and Beliefs.”  Well, ok, but, again, if those are the types of questions you ask people – or, even worse, the quiz designers code the survey responses – I’m not sure how much I care about the result.   (Incidentally, the survey reveals that “the potential for true progressive governance is greater than at any point in decades.”  Great, that’s either a banal formulation of the fact that Democrats have retaken the political branches or a self-serving conclusion.  Or both.)

In case anyone cares, I scored 100 out of 400, which makes me “very conservative.”  I suppose that won’t come as a surprise to my “progressive” friends, but then I’m always talking to them about how bad the bailouts/stimuli are for the economy, how we should actually follow the Constitution, etc.  All the folks who over the years have called me a libertine or hedonist, however, will not be amused to learn that I’m actually one of them…

Selective Taxation Is Tyranny

The House of Representatives has passed a 90 percent tax on the bonuses paid to AIG employees, seemingly forgetting President Obama’s admonition “that in a time of crisis, we cannot afford to govern out of anger, or yield to the politics of the moment.”

Everybody’s angry. But anger doesn’t make good law. And there are real questions about both the wisdom and the legality of such legislation. Bloggers like Conor Clarke, Megan McArdle, and Eugene Volokh have asked if the bonus tax is legal or constitutional. And thank goodness for bloggers who ask the questions that members of Congress and print journalists seem to ignore!

The bloggers wonder if after-the-fact taxes on specific people violate the constitutional ban on bills of attainder and ex post facto laws. (Ex post facto = after the fact.) Good questions indeed. But they should go further and ask, Are laws like this tyrannical? Ex post facto legislation isn’t just bad because it’s unconstitutional. It’s unconstitutional because it’s bad. (Nate Silver did raise these broader questions, arguing that the bonus tax bill was like the congressional intervention into the Terri Schiavo case: quite possibly legal and constitutional, but “it represented a gross overreach of the chamber’s authority, and ultimately undermined, at least a little bit, the rule of law.”)

Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe tells Conor Clarke, “It would not be terribly difficult to structure a tax, even one that approached a rate of 100%, levied on some or all of the bonuses already handed out (or to be handed out in the future) by AIG and other recipients of federal bailout funds so that the tax would survive bill of attainder clause challenge. …The fact that the individuals subject to the tax in its retroactive application would in principle be readily identifiable would not suffice to doom the tax either from a bill of attainder perspective or from a due process perspective.”

Which led liberal blogger Kevin Drum to this conclusion:

it looks like the answer here is simple: even though the purpose of this tax would pretty clearly be punitive with extreme prejudice, we need to carefully pretend that it’s not.  And we need to make sure the legislative history shows that it’s not (it should be “manifestly regulatory and fiscal” Tribe says).

Considering that the rage of the anti-bonus army is being egged on by New York Post headlines such as “Not So Fast You Greedy Bastards” and “Tax the Damn Bonuses to Hell,” it might be tough to persuade a judge that this was “regulatory and fiscal,” not punitive, legislation.

The rule of law requires that like people be treated alike and that people know what the law is so that they can plan their lives in accord with the law. In this case, a law is being passed to impose taxes on a particular, politically unpopular group. That is a tyrannical abuse of Congress’s powers. And in addition, it is retroactive legislation, changing the law upon which AIG and its employees had relied. As James Madison wrote in Federalist 62, “It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws … undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be to-morrow.”

Selective taxation is tyranny. Ex post facto legislation violates the spirit of the liberal order, even if a particular piece of legislation can be “structured” to pass constitutional muster.

The Stimulus Bill, Rebranded

A while back I noted that the administration had helpfully developed a special symbol to brand its wonderful stimulus program.  The purpose is to ensure that the people will be eternally grateful and thus will reward the president with their votes, er, no, that would be partisan and run contrary to everything the new administration stands for.  The purpose is to educate people about what the government is doing on their behalf.

As one would expect, with a symbol so ridiculous have come some wonderful parodies.  Several focus on what is being done to the taxpayers.  There’s even a funny poster to go along with some other entries.

The strongest defense of individual liberty today is going to come from entrepreneurial activists around the country like these, who have harnessed the power of ridicule, not politicians on Capitol Hill who, after voting for bloated federal budgets for years, now claim to realize that government spending is a bad thing.  The latter are “the summer soldier and sunshine patriot” who Thomas Paine spoke of back in 1776.  It is up to the rest of us to carry the heaviest burden of the battle for liberty.  The the fight is worth it as the price of freedom always has been high.  As Paine noted in “The Crisis”:   “it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated.”