Private Cities and Technologies of Liberation

If you’re reading this blog and not Let A Thousand Nations Bloom, there’s something wrong with you. That’s where I’m doing my substantive blogging – though that’s admittedly not very frequent lately.

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Exit, Voice, and Liberty

There’s been some interesting, and heated, debate in the libertarian blogosphere about the importance of democracy to freedom. Will Wilkinson suggests that since charter cities (and presumably seasteads) are undemocratic, they might allow rulers of authoritarian regimes to reap the benefits of high economic growth without giving their subjects “real freedom.” I think Will’s point that charter cities may allow illiberal regimes to create market-facilitating institutions and increase economic freedom (most often good for dictators) while ignoring civil liberties (most often bad for dictators) is important.

Will seems to think that an important aspect of freedom is democracy, though, and that’s what has caused the debate. Arnold Kling argues that real freedom is exit, not voice. Charter cities and seasteading aim to make exit easier and thus remove the need for democratic voice:

The exercise of voice, including the right to vote, is not the ultimate expression of freedom. Rather, it is the last refuge of those who suffer under a monopoly. If we take it as given that the political jurisdiction where I reside is a monopoly, then perhaps I will have more influence over that monopoly if I have a right to vote and a right to organize opposition than if I do not.

The idea of charter cities (or seasteading) will be a success to the extent that it creates a viable exit option vis-a-vis government. … In fact, if we had real competitive government, then we would be no more interested in elections and speaking out to government officials than we are in holding elections and town-hall meetings at the supermarket.

Will Chamberlain and Patri Friedman expand upon Arnold’s argument at A Thousand Nations; Wilkinson responds to Arnold here. All of these posts, including the comments, are well worth reading. I’m with Arnold and the other competitive government types and I have little to add to their joint efforts.

As a side note to the debate, though, I think Wilkinson is right to suggest that exit, narrowly conceived, is not enough to produce real freedom. Seasteading aims to do more than simply make exit easier; it’s about producing the technology to lower barriers to entry in the governance market.

Most people are free to exit their jurisdictions (county, state, country) and move to another (albeit at a fairly large cost). What they are not free to do, though, is to start their own country. This is why Will’s second-guessing of Arnold’s commitment to exit as freedom on the basis that he hasn’t left his county are so off-base. A major reason for jurisdictional exit’s failure to do much to enhance freedom today is the poor selection of products in the governance market. Even with zero relocation costs, I only have the choice among some really bad autocracies and a fairly homogenous set of liberal democracies. It’s not simply freedom of movement (exit, narrowly conceived) which enhances freedom, but meaningful choice.

The only way I can see of getting meaningful choice of government is to lower the barriers to entry.  When there are literally a thousand forms of government from which to choose – and the possibility of creating your own if none are quite right – you’re surely orders of magnitude freer than you are today, even with freedom of movement and the cost of relocation remaining constant.

You think voice is important for liberty? Fine! Go somewhere with voice. I disagree, and strongly suspect that the bloated and liberty-restricting governments (relative to my standard of what a government should be, not to any actually existing governments) that we see today are pretty much an inevitable outcome of democratic decision-making. The only places to which I can currently relocate in order to get away from democracy, though, are even worse.

I don’t much care for voting and would prefer to live under a government run like an insurance firm. I think even voluntary governments run democratically will be subject to the problems of expressive voting and rational irrationality (see my somewhat related arguments here and here), and will therefore fail to satisfy people’s true preferences. If I’m right, we won’t see too many democratic seasteads survive too long: people will voice their prejudices and then exit once they realise they have to pay the cost.

The beautiful thing about competitive government is that we don’t need to argue about who’s right. I could be wrong, and maybe voting will prove to be an important part of freedom. I just don’t see, though, how one can maintain that voice is just as fundamental as exit (defined widely as freedom of movement combined with low barriers to entry in the market for governance). If you start with only the capacity for exit, you can move somewhere which gives you voice. If you begin only with the capacity for voice, there’s no obvious way to get the capacity for exit. This asymmetry is crucial: exit can give you any other freedom, including voice. Competitive government isn’t about securing any particular freedom, but giving people the freedom to choose whether or not they want other freedoms. Exit, thus conceived, is the most fundamental freedom.


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