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Another Kind of Libertarianism

July 8, 2009

Tyler Cowen categorizes the main strains of libertarianism, based on Tom Palmer’s new book, but leaves the Seasteading / A Thousand Nations approach out, as several of the commenters mention.

What should we call this strain?  I wouldn’t characterize it as “seasteading” because that is just an implementation method. “Competitive government” or “Meta-libertarianism” or “Second-level libertarianism” are more accurate.

Essentially, this viewpoint states that there are three levels on which we can focus: Policies, Systems/Institutions, and Industry/Ecosystem (the market for government).  We believe it is short-sighted to focus on analyzing policy and suggesting better ones, because policies emerge from institutions, and democracy is not an institution which optimizes for good policy.  Reforming institutions is worthwhile, and we believe the best way to do this is by making the governing industry more competitive by lowering the barrier to entry and cost of switching providers.  This has a number of advantages over other methods, like the ones listed in my Cato Unbound Essay:

  • It creates specific, real-world examples to point to when debating the merits of various systems. How many millions of words of academic papers about the benefits of free-markets does it take to add up to the two words “Hong Kong”?
  • Prospective customers of the new system could actually experience it physically and emotionally, rather than as a mental abstraction, which is far more powerful for changing minds. For citizens of the USSR, a single visit to the West could outweigh years of Soviet propaganda.
  • It enables proponents of an alternative system (like libertarianism) to live their dream much sooner, because they only need to get a small group together to experiment with their new society, rather than convince an entire existing nation (which may never happen).
  • It supports an ongoing, evolutionary process where societies learn over time, and change with the world.
  • It doesn’t assume there is one best society for everyone. People can attempt to live their ideals without having to impose them on others. Not only does it embrace multiple variants of libertarianism, but other goals and methods for creating a good society.  It can gather vastly broader support than any fringe libertarian ideology.

Some other advantages:

  • It is humble about our knowledge of what values and institutions make for a good society.  We believe the governing industry will, like any market, produce better products for its customers when it is more competitive, and it will do so even if we are currently wrong about how best to design a new nation.  In other words, even if libertarianism is wrong or impossible, a more competitive market for government will still improve government.
  • It includes a difficult but plausible implementation path (seasteading), whereas with the exception of agorism, none of the other strains have any realistic, incremental way to get from here to there.  They may be fun to talk about and imagine, but without any realistic approach, they are idle speculation.  Which means if anyone wins, we will.  Floating cities are hard, but converting the United States to a Misesian, Catoian, or Hayekian culture is absolutely impossible.

We will be advocating this path, with references (lots of Mancur Olson), but little to no mention of libertarianism, in our upcoming seasteading book.

  1. Rafi permalink
    July 14, 2009 5:48 am

    Well at least they are asking, eh? How long until they just flat out take?

    • July 14, 2009 6:31 pm

      Soon as the Lisbon treaty is ratified by all the countries in the EU. Then they can take whatever they like.

  2. July 11, 2009 5:42 pm

    I’m generally intrigued by the idea of maintaining culture in a dynamically stable critical stasis, which balances prosperity against long-term stability. The reason I’m skeptical about any complaint about the U.S. system is that it actually comes pretty close. Although the EU may today be closer to the ideal of our founders.

    Some hierarchy is necessary to maintaining stability; figuring out how to give ambitious and capable young people from all walks of life opportunities to ascend within the hierarchy without destabilizing it — that’s a hard case.

    • July 11, 2009 8:38 pm

      I’m afraid the EU’s public relations machine is as efficient as ever. It paints itself as “a free trade area plus” but really it’s the epitome of undemocratic top-down statism. Asinine but expensive regulation, massive subsidies to special interest groups, huge barriers to trade outside the EU, and riven with schism within.

      Just look at the recent Lisbon Treaty to see the EU’s contempt for democracy. The EU Constitution was oft compared unfavourably to it’s transatlantic equivalent — not just because of it’s heft, but it’s impenetrable legalese, nobody quite knew what it did. So when most countries were offered a referendum on it, they voted “No” in droves.

      “Ah, sorry, that was the wrong answer” came the reply — some junior bureaucrat did a find and replace and the Constitution became the Lisbon treaty. As “just another treaty” no referendum was offered, except in Ireland, where some clever chap worked out that the changes outlined in the treaty were so sweeping it would require an amendment to the Irish Constitution to pass it into law, and Constitutional amendments require a referendum.

      But, they voted “No” too… so what does the EU do? Asks again… 😛

  3. July 11, 2009 5:37 pm

    I assume you’ve also seen the California vs. Texas article in the recent Economist, demonstrating the importance of federalism in which different policies allow different outcomes.

    (It also includes a depressing idea of how free-market policies lead to prosperity, which lead to the immigration [in this case illegal, but that’s not the key feature] of people trying to capture a slice of that prosperity for themselves, which leads to redistributive interest groups, which leads to ever-expanding government, which leads to the stagnation that we see in California. In other words we only see libertarian governance in poor but developing areas, and even this libertarianism contains the seeds of its own destruction.)

  4. July 9, 2009 12:13 am

    Oh. And public choice theory is simply a more rigorous statement of Marxism.

  5. July 9, 2009 12:12 am

    We believe it is short-sighted to focus on analyzing policy and suggesting better ones, because policies emerge from institutions, and democracy is not an institution which optimizes for good policy. Reforming institutions is worthwhile, and we believe the best way to do this is by making the governing industry more competitive by lowering the barrier to entry and cost of switching providers.

    This is the cultural analog to the nature/nurture debate. The answer is yes, both. Policies => Institutions => Policies’ => Instiutions’ => etc.

    Now what you have going for you here is the historical fact that institutional reform almost never comes from within. Almost.

    What you have goign against you is perhaps more signifant — and disadvantages are noticable absent from your post here. What you have going against you is a history of fantastically bloody and violent revolutions. Competition among sovereigns tends not to be polite!

    Take two historical models: the French and American Revolutions. How are you going to tweak your reform efforts in such a way as to be more like one than the other?

    The answer you will find, I believe, is that some good institutions emerge from good policies that preexisted them. See Weber, Calvin, Luther, &c., &c.

    See here, for example:

    • July 9, 2009 8:50 pm

      I concurr; revolutions are bloody and largely unpredictable. The idea behind second-order libertarianism is that if you want to do things differently, you find somewhere that will let you. Vote with your feet, etc.

      Currently, that place looks to be the Sea, which will require a carefully concocted incrementalist approach to sovereignty, but largely-autonomous financial areas like JAFZ, Singapore, and Hong Kong set a nice precedent for partial-seccession within a larger, more illiberal country.

      • July 9, 2009 9:51 pm

        I probably came off as overly critical. But negative feedback can have a stabilizing effect, so I hope it’s taken in good faith, as it was meant.

        I may also not have given enough weight to the experience of the founding generation of having drafted multiple state and federal constitutions. There is a strong argument that it was that iterative set of experiences with constitution making that produced our Constitution as much as it was the background cultural norms that facilitated its ratification. Again, nature and nurture.

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