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Since When Is Competition Illiberal?

May 6, 2009

Mike has already responded to some of the points in Will Wilkinson’s Libertarian Democraphobia, and I’d like to join in as well.  Will’s focus on philosophy and on the specific mechanism of democracy leads him to miss the broader, more important points about the benefits of competition in the market for government.

The libertarian non-coercion principle is a good abstract first approximation of the liberal presupposition that persons are free and equal. No one has a natural right to rule over another, and no one has a natural duty to obey. The liberal presupposition sets a high bar for the justification of coercion, and thus the justification of the state. Many libertarians think there is no justification. Therefore the only acceptable rule of collective choice is unanimity or full consensus. This is one focus of the debate between anarchist and limited-statist libertarians.

The choice between anarchism and minarchism is a false dichotomy, and here we champion a third way, the meta-way: Let A Thousand Nations Bloom And A Thousand Schools Of Thought Contend.  Will seems trapped in the hopeless quest to philosophically define a single just society.  I find the idea that one can determine, philosophically or practically, the best way to organize a society a priori to be laughable.  And that’s even if we agree on a single set of goals for our society – which we don’t.  Competition and consumer choice are the answers – why is this so hard for a libertarian to understand?

But I don’t think they take seriously enough the problem of governance in the DIY frontier.

Quite the opposite.  We face a very hard problem – the problem of creating a good system of social organization, one with the power to enforce laws,  yet which does not abuse this power.  As liberals, we know how to solve hard problems – use markets.  Which is why I advocate for a competitive market for government.  Will, strangely, seems to like the current oligopoly with its high barrier to entry and high switching costs, and is skeptical that a more competitive market will provide a better solution.

Note that this argument has nothing to do with democracy, and doesn’t depend in the slightest on the morality or practicality of the system.  Democracy is simply the current industry standard product that firms offer customers.  If it truly is the ultimate form of social organization, then in a world of competitive government, democratic seasteads will outcompete all other seasteads, attract all the customers, and people will eventually give up trying other forms of government.  Personally, I find the idea that this ancient Greek technology is the best we’ll ever do to be absurd, but even if I’m wrong, even if our Thousand Nations are all different variants of democracy, the system will still improve politics by allowing for competition between those variants so we can find those that work the best.

Thus even a democraphilic should want competitive government.  It’s not democraphilia or democraphobia which is the key here, but agoraphilia or agoraphobia (meaning markets, not open spaces, of course).  So my challenge to Will, and any other agoraphilic skeptic of competitive government is to resolve this contradiction.  If you generally believes in the power of competition to offer better products to consumers, why is the market for government fundamentally different?

To engage on some more specific points:

I have questions about how well the Friedman plan can scale, as newcomers come to the settled frontier, and as pioneers raise children who do not share the consensus of the initial settlement. Sooner or later the problem of pluralism and moral disagreement will rear its head, and there are liberal and illiberal ways to respond. If the response is to maintain the consensus of self-segregation by evicting inevitable dissidents, one begins to wonder what to call those with the power to evict. At a certain point, the differences between a sovereign monarch and a monopoly landlord becomes semantic.

Huh?  If we translate this claim to education, we have Will saying: the difference between a single monopoly school system which everyone is required to pay for and every child must attend, and a competitive system of private schools, is semantic just because the private schools are allowed to expel students.  Say what?  I thought we were libertarians here – do I really need to argue why a system of competing private entities which engage in consensual trade is superior to a monopoly?  Yeah, the trade requires the consent of both the customer and the business, but I shouldn’t need to defend the benefit of consent by the business – all the libertarian arguments against anti-discrimination laws apply directly.

We can think of this in Social Contract terms.  I’m suggesting a world where people and governments explicitly sign such a contract, on immigration or at the age of maturity.  And Will seems to be worried about excluding those who won’t sign the Social Contract from society.  Is it really illiberal to respond to someone who won’t sign the Social Contract by telling them to go find (or start) a society whose terms they do agree with?  Color me confused, but I thought the liberal viewpoint on contracts was that they are entered into voluntarily by both parties.

…the point of the DIY frontier for its present advocates is precisely to demonstrate that society without politics is possible.

Not at all. The point is to create a competitive market for political systems.  Like any market, this will provide better solutions than those that currently exist, including new innovations and twists on old innovations that we’d never have dreamed of in advance.  We can’t get away from politics, politics is inevitable.  But we can improve the ecosystem in which political systems compete by increasing the selection pressure for good government.

By bringing it up as a reason why democratic progress is hopeless, Thiel does make it sound like he thinks the problem’s not democratic politics per se, but democratic politics without good prospect of producing the right answer. But 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 reasonable pluralism fails to generate consensus on the right answer — even when the content of the right answer is a radical version of liberalism.

It sounds like Will is using liberal philosophy as the basis of his evaluation for institutions.  He is saying that if democracy is philosophically justified, then whatever it results in is OK, that the liberal virtue of political equality outweighs any rights violations that may result.  So I guess he is happy with the direction that the Bush administration took on civil liberties and national security and the Obama administration is taking on spending and regulation, because both administrations came to power via a happy fuzzy liberal system of equality where everyone got to vote.

Me, I look at things differently.  I know what kind of society I want to live in, what rights I want it to protect, and what characteristics I want it to have (low crime, high growth, etc.), and I judge institutions by how well they do at achieving those goals.  I’m happy to wrangle about the philosophical aspects of voting as coercion vs. a legitimate social choice function over a glass of cider, but at the end of the day, I judge democracy based on whether it results in the kind of country I want to live in.  And it doesn’t – not by a long shot.  I don’t want to “find a way to live together” under an institution whose results I find morally abhorrent – I want to create a better system.

Hell, let’s get personal.  I don’t want to “find a way to live together” with people who think that Will & I should be locked in cages because we smoke pot.  Fuck that!  If being liberal means not calling out current society as tyrannical, well, I guess the phenomenon of the self-hating liberal has come to classical liberalism.  As for me, I don’t care how “reasonable” pluralism supposedly is – it results in a society that steals from me, regulates me, and thinks I should be locked in a cage because of my harmless hobbies.  And I think that’s the wrong answer.

Call me a pragmatist, but I think the cause of liberty is better served by finding institutions that will generate the right answer than analyzing the philosophical basis that produces the wrong one.

  1. Chris permalink
    May 6, 2009 5:18 pm

    This whole seasteading thing is news to me, so please forgive my ignorance, but I’m wondering if this is a purely hypothetical proposal made for its political appeal or if folks have really done any engineering grunt work on the feasibility of a floating city. Is this even plausible from a mechanical standpoint?

  2. DanB permalink
    May 7, 2009 1:56 am

    The great lengths to which people go in arguing about politics are a source of continual amazement to me. Issues like this – is democracy a better form of government than the alternatives? – simply cannot be settled by debate. The only way to find out is to try; the idea that we can get closer to the truth by “debating” reeks to me of obsolete Greek philosophy. The Greeks thought they could just reason their way to the truth; they totally failed to realize that better results would be obtained by just going out and measuring a bunch of things.

  3. May 7, 2009 2:25 pm

    I don’t think anybody is calling you a pragmatist, Patri. That aside, you talk about eliminating a priori foundations of government while then immediately positing competition as just such an a priori. Let’s be counterfactual for just a second and say that a better result would come about through Stalinist central organization, but that the level of competition you’re proposing would actually destabilize whatever benefits we might enjoy.

    To use Stalinism to be facetious, certainly, but I don’t think the point is. There are costs to markets that can’t be ignored and when you pose clean and clear Social Contracts as the form of legalized state power, again you’re a priori, and worse, you’re still in Greek philosophical technology but instead of a semi-empowered human acting on the state, you’ve traded that for the servility of the Crito. Even if your seastead is a liberated as you presume and brings aboard no counter-revolutionaries, a small Social Contractual state can be more binding than the state we find ourselves in, too top-heavy and distracted with the problems of empire to be bothered with putting upper-class intellectuals in cages. Sometimes the most pervasive freedoms are in the failures of the overseers not the hubris of the slaves.


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