Relatively Absolute Ideology

Patri Friedman’s rejoinder is up at Cato Unbound. The debate seems to have reached a reasonable synthesis, with Patri admitting that Folk Activism does have some value and Brian Doherty admitting that it has its limits. Most of the remaining disagreement seems to be little more than a matter of emphasis.

Patri does make one point I disagree with:

In addition, whatever progress we do make has a ceiling, as I mentioned in my essay based on David Nolan’s work, or you can find in the research of Cato’s own David Boaz.  That ceiling is in the range of 9 to 16 percent of intuitive libertarians — plenty to take over New Hampshire or start a new country, but not to be a major power at the national level.  And the hope that libertarian morality will prove contagious beyond those intuitive libertarians is, I believe, a mirage.  Research by Jonathan Haidt suggests that people’s morality is an instinctual judgment, with reasons made up after the fact (one might call it “folk morality”).  Yes, some minds can be swayed, but this does not augur well for a mass conversion.

Ideology is probably best treated as a relatively absolute absolute – something which changes but is stable enough to be treated as constant for most, but not all, analytic purposes. It’s true that there is currently a more or less fixed number of people receptive to libertarian ideas, but I don’t think it’s safe to assume that this will always be true. Intuitive libertarianism is very unlikely to be some disposition that a certain proportion of people are born with, but a culturally contingent factor which can change over time. The enormous cultural changes we have seen in recent years – from most people seeing homosexuality as an abomination to most people seeing it as entirely unobjectionable, for example – show us that we can’t treat the existing distribution of preferences as stable in the medium to long term. The acceptance of democracy may be the clearest example. A few hundred years ago democracy was seen as crazy, and very few people found it appealing. Fast-forward to the present and any libertarian is all too aware of the reverence people have for the will of the people.

This isn’t meant to downplay the difficulty of convincing people of the virtue of a voluntary society, but to suggest that the ceiling on progress is shifting. At any point in time, there will be many we cannot reach. Over time this number will change. The current climate makes it seem equally likely that ideology will shift in an illiberal direction. In either case, advocacy is important. Even if we never achieve a society freer than we have today, it is chilling to consider a counterfactual world in which illiberal sentiment is not balanced by libertarian folk activism.

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One Response

  1. [...] Seasteading will make inter-community altruistic punishment more difficult by increasing the costs of monitoring and enforcement. This will be good for those who like gay sex and cocaine, but bad for those worried about child-torture. Altruistic punishment can produce great good or great evil, depending on human motivations.  For any given realistic distribution of preferences, changes in the tendency to engage in altruistic punishment will have opposing effects on the freedom of people to use drugs, and of children not to be tortured. The only way for both drug-users and torure-victims to simultaneously become more free is for the ratio of anti-drug and anti-torture sentiment to reduce. As I’ve said before, this makes ideology a crucial part of a free society. Changing ideology is not easy, of course, but I don’t think it’s impossible. [...]

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