Peter Thiel on Folk Activism

Peter Thiel’s response to Patri Friedman’s Folk activism essay is up at Cato Unbound. His central point is that politics is unavoidably illiberal, and the only way to be free is to escape the forces of politics.

Most importantly, I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible. By tracing out the development of my thinking, I hope to frame some of the challenges faced by all classical liberals today.

As a Stanford undergraduate studying philosophy in the late 1980s, I naturally was drawn to the give-and-take of debate and the desire to bring about freedom through political means. … Much of it felt like trench warfare on the Western Front in World War I; there was a lot of carnage, but we did not move the center of the debate. In hindsight, we were preaching mainly to the choir — even if this had the important side benefit of convincing the choir’s members to continue singing for the rest of their lives.

I basically agree with this pessimistic view of politics. Collective action can never give us freedom because its very core is the idea that one choice must be made for all, that there is One Best Way. Still, I disagree with Thiel’s conclusion that libertarians should focus solely on escaping from politics, since attempts to increase freedom within politics are completely useless. I have four reasons for this view:

1. Politics will never produce absolute freedom, but unfreedom comes in degrees. Hong Kong is much freer than mainland China, and New Zealand today is much freer than New Zealand twenty-five years ago. Political activism has the potential to make modest but genuine gains. Of course, the value of this would pale in comparison with escaping politics altogether, except…

2. It’s not yet clear whether it’s possible to escape politics. Seasteading may devolve into coercive government through the cartelization of competing jurisdictions. This may be less likely than in a land-based anarchic society, but I don’t think it can be discounted altogether. If this happens, the unfreedom we have today is about the best we can hope for, and will be very grateful for the incremental gains we have made: ending the draft and Jim Crow laws, legalizing homosexuality. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to think more significant advances could be made in the meantime: legalizing marijuana, liberalizing pharmaceutical regulations, lowering taxes somewhat.

3. Preferences matter even in an anarchic society. If people see drug-taking, homosexuality, or profit-making as wicked, they may very well take efforts to prevent them. This will reduce the liberty of those who like drugs, gay sex, or money. If it’s possible to change preferences through advocacy (which I think it is in the long run), this will be valuable regardless of the political ecosystem in which we live.

4. Governments may intervene to shut down seasteads, but will be less likely to do so the more liberal they are. This depends on the efforts of libertarian advocates within existing polities. As Brian Micklethwait puts it:

But seasteading will only flourish if there are enough landlubber libertarians out there to (as they say in the USA) run interference for it, by arguing against their various governments wanting to shut it down, mostly by publicising that this is what they are trying to do and threatening to publicise it some more if they do.  This was how communism got stuck in and started, and contrived for itself its various doomed chances to work.  At that, at least, it succeeded triumphantly.  It erupted in a few places, and in all other places it had sympathisers. Weight of numbers and weight of argument, in other words.  All of which took a hell of a long time to contrive.

I certainly hope an escape from politics proves possible, as this is the only way people are ever going to be truly free. I’m cautiously optimistic about this, but certainly see advocacy work through existing political institutions as very valuable nonetheless. Peter Thiel seems to make good investments. I hope the Seasteading Institute proves to be another.

2 Responses

  1. I think that Mr Thiel kind of misses the point when he discusses liberty. To be brutally honest, any type of libertarian society is kind of a historical aberration but that doesnt mean that libertarian activism is useless. We cannot know how worse off we would be if not for Von Mises, Hayek, Rand, etc. There are also other strategies that Mr Thiel doesnt discuss such as strengthening the pillars of civil society that democracy has eroded, support of libertarian art, secession, turning over federal entitlements to the states (such as has occurred in Canada for example), partially overturning Wickard V Filburn, etc etc etc. Finally I want to point out that regardless of what victories we achieve or do not achieve, support of liberty is noble and worthwhile as a spiritual good in of itself.

  2. I predict that the danger to liberty will summon forth more heroes than ever before, and that they will be vastly more radical than hitherto. Some will work publicly and some will work in the shadows, and all will work to propagate the ethical system of liberty and to destroy the philosophical foundation of statism. OhBummer may think himself a savior of sorts — but deliver us from saviors, my friends — and yank the rug from beneath his feet.

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