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Wilkinson’s Democraphilia

May 5, 2009

Will Wilkinson has a well-intentioned post up about how he wants to distance himself from those wary of democratic politics.  He writes:

If you’re a new-school classical liberal (neoclassical liberal?) like me, you like democracy just fine.

I’m not quite sure what being a “new-school classical liberal” requires, other than what Wilkinson has referred to here and there as Rawlsekianism.  At any rate, an ill-defined antecedent leads to an equally abstract consequent: Wilkinson’s concept of democracy is so muddy that it leads to several misguided statements later in his post.  What kind of democracy is Wilkinson “just fine” with?  Hard to say.  But he writes as though, once you acknowledge the importance of providing public goods, then majority rule follows.  Yes, to be fair, he does mention constitutions, which may mean a separation of powers, rights and the spirit of Federalist No. 10, but the whole drift of the thing seems trapped in either/or thinking–anarchy or democracy!–which is a bit odd coming from someone who professes to accept the wisdom contained in The Calculus of Consent. There’s a lot of ground between majority rule and unanimity. 

In fact, there’s no reason to believe the current structure of democratic politics in the U.S. is optimal for the provision of public goods. Worse, these institutions seem trapped in a path dependency hell-bent on ensuring sub-optimal delivery.  It may well be true that we need to take democracy seriously, that we ought to accept decision-making procedures for the provision of public goods–I may well say yes to all of this and yet deny that the U.S. Constitution is adequate.  Its flaws may well be incorrigible.  (Wilkinson, I suspect, agrees up to a point. But I’ll leave it to him to call a constitutional convention together for new school classical liberals.) As far as seasteading is concerned, or free economic zones for that matter, this is precisely where the benefits of experimentation are obvious. Let a seastead adopt a constitution. Let some enterprising University of Chicago law grad craft a pre-New Deal constitution for an economic free zone, complete with a substantive takings clause. And let some wily group of reasonable anarchists operate a completely private seastead.  May they all live long and prosper! At the very least experimentation and competition between different polities will force governments to attain greater precision in their public goods decision-making procedure.  Wilkinson should see the wisdom in that. 

And, please, let’s talk about Robert Nozick–no, not the entitlement theory, nor his invisible hand explanation for the origins of the state, but the often overlooked, tho more inspiring last section: the framework for utopia.  There, Nozick writes

Utopia will consist of utopias, of many different and divergent communities in which people lead different kinds of lives under different institutions. Some kinds of communities will be more attractive to most than others; communities will wax and wane. People will leave some for others or spend their whole lives in one. Utopia is a framework for utopias, a place where people are at liberty to join voluntarily to pursue or attempt to realize their own vision of the good life in the ideal community but where no one can impose his own utopian vision on others. 

Talk about reasonable pluralism! Is this vision consistent with democracy? Well, yes–up to a point…up to the framework itself.  Democracy does not work well as a meta-institution; the power of exit does. If anything, what seasteading attempts, is not to build one particular society, but to build a framework for societies.  The hope is to realize more fully Nozick’s vision, whose main assumption is a world in which the costs of immigration and emigration are zero. Impossible, of course, but why not aim a little above the mark in order to hit the target?

Which brings me back to Wilkinson’s post.  He seems uncharacteristically ambivalent about the right to exit. Wilkinson writes:

liberalism starts from the recognition that free and equal people don’t agree about the right answer but need to find a way to live together anyway. The secessionist instinct does seem illiberal insofar as it’s based in the frustration that resonable pluralism fails to generate consensus on the right answer — even when the content of the right answer is a radical version of liberalism.

I disagree.  To the contrary, liberalism begins with value pluralism; Rawlsianism begins with closed borders. Liberals can, and should, reject the complacent idea that we have to find a way to live together anyway.  Given the current constraints—geography, technology, and the rest–liberals may well have to reach a modus vivendi with social democrats and others. But don’t confuse that with unalloyed endorsement.  If an opening for exit should arise…a glimpse of better government…or no government…whither liberalism then? Even if Wilkinson decides to stick behind, he should wholeheartedly applaud our efforts to find a way out. Anything less would be illiberal.

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8 Comments
  1. kurt9 permalink
    May 5, 2009 8:35 pm

    Forget all of the handwaving. When someone opposes the “option of exit” on general principle, what they are really saying is “we can’t let you leave because we need you”. The biological term for this is parasitism.

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