Technology versus Ideology

Patri Friedman has an excellent essay at Cato Unbound (HT: Eric) arguing that libertarian activists are largely wasting their time by taking an advocacy approach.

I deeply yearn to live in an actual free society, not just to imagine a theoretical future utopia or achieve small incremental gains in freedom. For many years, I enthusiastically advocated for liberty under the vague assumption that advocacy would help our cause. However, I recently began trying to create free societies as my full-time job, and this has given me a dramatic perspective shift from my days of armchair philosophizing. My new perspective is that the advocacy approach which many libertarian individuals, groups, and think tanks follow (including me sometimes, sadly) is an utter waste of time.

Argument has refined our principles, and academic research has enlarged our understanding, but they have gotten us no closer to an actual libertarian state. Our debating springs not from calculated strategy, but from an intuitive “folk activism”: an instinct to seek political change through personal interaction, born in our hunter-gatherer days when all politics was personal. In the modern world, however, bad policies are the result of human action, not human design. To change them we must understand how they emerge from human interaction, and then alter the web of incentives that drives behavior. Attempts to directly influence people or ideas without changing incentives, such as the U.S. Libertarian Party, the Ron Paul campaign, and academic research, are thus useless for achieving real-world liberty.

Friedman distinguishes between three levels of abstraction in politics:

1. Policies: Specific sets of laws.

2. Institutions: An entire country and its legal and political systems.

3. Ecosystem: All nations and the environment in which they compete and evolve.

Policies emerge from institutions, which themselves emerge from the ecosystem. This approach is undoubtedly right, and I agree that complaining about outcomes while ignoring the milieu from which they emerge is utterly pointless. I disagree, though, with Patri’s characterization of the relevant ecosystem from which political institutions emerge. Instead of treating the ecosystem as purely technological, it is important to recognize that institutions emerge from both material capabilities and ideological preferences.

Patri’s approach gives primacy to the technological context in which political institutions develop, arguing that the currently dominant model of geographic monopoly with extremely high barriers to entry is the major factor in limiting freedom. There are significant costs to moving countries, and it is impossible, short of winning a war, revolution or election, to start your own. Seasteading is one of the few ways of actually advancing freedom, since it changes the underlying ecosystem from which government emerges. It strikes at the root of the problem rather than hacking at the branches.

The technological context is very important in determining political outcomes, but I would suggest that preferences should also be considered as part of the ecosystem out of which policies and institutions emerge. Patri takes a view of politics, informed by Public Choice Theory, that politics is strongly influenced by entrenched special interests.

As a libertarian, I find it easy to see the empirical evidence that incentives matter. More difficult, but very important, is to look at the vast gap between libertarian principles and the size and scope of current governments as empirical evidence that power matters too. Politicians are demonstrably, consistently, and ubiquitously expert at entrenching the power of the political class. To most libertarians this is morally illegitimate, but morality has sadly little influence over the realities of power.

While this is definitely part of the story, I think incentive-based explanations for the poor performance of government have been overstated. The expressive voting / rational irrationality view of politics suggests that democracy does not fail because it is hijacked by special interests, but because it gives voters what they ask for. While the role of special interests are bound to be significant in policy areas with low salience to voters, the public generally has strong preferences over those issues which most affect our freedom. Politicians cannot ignore these preferences and expect to stay in office.

The neglect of preferences has become standard in economics (the rationale is given in this paper by Stigler and Becker), but there are very good reasons for doubt, particularly when it comes to politics. Protectionism is not the triumph of special interests over the general will. The public likes protectionism. Unpopular policies seldom survive and policy responds to changes in preferences.

Of course, the expressive voting story says that democracy produces poor results because electoral incentives are poor: it is ultimately the institutional structure and in turn the technological ecosystem which determines outcomes. At the very least, though, the expressive voting approach shows us that if preferences were to significantly change, policy would most likely follow. The massive shifts in preferences over the twentieth century leave us in no doubt that preferences do change over time. Same-sex and interracial relationships are now widely accepted, as is freedom from religious persecution. Those living in western democracies are now generally much freer than they were fifty years ago. This is primarily due to changing social norms and preferences.

Illya Somin makes the argument that advocacy has substantially increased liberty here:

I question Friedman’s key assumption that promoting libertarianism in existing societies through research and activism is “an utter waste of time.” It certainly has not been as effective as he and I would like. But it has nonetheless led to important victories for freedom. For example, as I discuss in my recent debate with Sandy Levinson, there were important reductions in the size and scope of government in the 1980s and 1990s, many of them traceable in part to advocacy by libertarian scholars and movements. Even more impressive reductions in government power were achieved in nations such as Ireland and New Zealand during the same period.

Ironically, Patri Friedman’s grandfather Milton Friedman was one of the best examples of the impact of libertarian advocacy on policy. Among other things, Milton Friedman’s efforts, combined with those of other libertarians, played a key role in ending the draft, one of the greatest infringements on individual liberty in modern American history. Friedman also helped influence many governments around the world in the direction of adopting relatively more free market economic policies.

To say this is in no way denies that we are still very far from achieving a truly libertarian society. And at the moment, we are obviously moving in the wrong direction. It does, however, suggest that libertarian political action can be effective, even in spite of the many ways in which the system is biased against it.

Political institutions are alternative mechanisms of converting the preferences of people into laws. Certain institutional structures make it harder to transform certain kinds of preferences into law, but a preference held sufficiently strongly and widely will be reflected in law regardless of the institutional and ecological environment. If a large majority people hate drugs, see them as a threat and are willing to back up their preferences with money, for example, it will be impossible to take drugs openly even in an anarchist society. Seasteading is not immune to the problem of illiberal preferences. The ability to sail your house away from oppression will likely make you less subject to the whims of others, but will not free you from them completely. The preferences of others will continue to affect your freedom. This is especially true when we consider the potential of existing governments to interfere with seasteads.

Particular policies and the institutional structure from which they emerge are indeed mere branches at which many libertarians hopelessly hack. Preferences, however, are part of the root we need to strike.

At this point, I think it’s important to carefully distinguish between our beliefs over the relative influence of various factors in determining the level of freedom in a society, and which of these factors are most directly manipulable by individuals wishing to advance freedom. I think it is clear that both technology and ideology matter. The question remains as to where libertarians should concentrate their energy.

While I doubt that lobbying government to remove trade restrictions, for example, is likely to have much of an effect, I do think that offering a vision of a free society and backing it up with sound argument can produce a more free society in the long term. We probably aren’t going to convert any socialists or homophobes, but by pointing out the folly of foolish positions we can hope to dissuade young people from coming to these positions in the first place.

The most productive method of promoting freedom will depend on the individual. Patri’s comparative advantage is in creating floating platforms on the sea. Many others have no skill in such things, and would promote liberty more effectively by writing op-eds or conducting scholarly research. Obviously, we can’t all be Milton Friedmans and have any discernable influence on policy, but neither can we all be Patri Friedmans and have any discernable influence on libertygenic technology.

I am fairly convinced that Patri’s commitment to seasteading will make a significant contribution to freedom. I have no idea whether this contribution will be greater than that made by his grandfather through advocacy. I am absolutely positive, though, that both are worth pursuing.

4 Responses

  1. […] Brad Taylor: Democracies Never Compete and Technology vs. Ideology […]

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