Sunday, 16 September 2012

Critique of Patri Friedman on Folk Activism

Patri Friedman, founder and chairman of the Seasteading Institute, has an article at Cato Unbound called Beyond Folk Activism, in which he criticises the advocacy approach taken by many libertarians, which he refers to as “folk activism”.

Libertarians tend to spend a lot of time debating with non-libertarians, and amongst themselves, in an attempt to promote liberty to the masses, and bring about a large-scale change in public opinion, one person at a time. Friedman says this tendency to debate stems from “an instinct to seek political change through personal interaction, born in our hunter-gatherer days when all politics was personal.”

He continues:

“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.” 

This seems to overlook completely the insights of Mises and many other thinkers who have pointed out that the opinions of the masses are the ultimate determinant of what kinds of institutions exist and how they operate. Mises wrote:

“The masses, the hosts of common men, do not conceive any ideas, sound or unsound. They only choose between the ideologies developed by the intellectual leaders of mankind. But their choice is final and determines the course of events. If they prefer bad doctrines, nothing can prevent disaster.” 

“The supremacy of public opinion determines not only the singular role that economics occupies in the complex of thought and knowledge. It determines the whole process of human history.” 

Murray Rothbard was also very clear on this:

“The world, at least in the long run, is governed by ideas.” 

And so is Ron Paul:

“Fighting for liberty with ideas makes much more sense to me than fighting with guns or politics or political power. With ideas, we make real change that lasts.” 

Etienne de la Boetie understood the implications of this when he wrote:

“Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed. I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break in pieces.” 

The idea that societal institutions reflect the attitudes, opinions and values of the people at large seems irrefutable. Consider first a society where everybody believed in the necessity and benevolence of government. Then there would be government. Now consider a second society where everybody identifies the notion of government as a scam and considers anyone who proposes setting one up as immoral. In this society, no government could exist. 50 years ago, pretty much everyone did believe government was necessary and benevolent. Since that time however, and particularly in the last decade, there has been a seismic shift and now a sizeable minority of the population are anti-statist, or very close to it. If the trend continues, eventually anti-statism will be the majority view, bringing us closer to a situation where we know no government could exist.

So this raises the obvious question: when will we start to see visible changes that reflect this change in public opinion? De la Boetie is certainly poetic, but what does he mean the Colossus will "fall of his own weight"? What will that look like? What events will take place to make that happen?

This is a widely debated question. One idea is that when a sufficient number of people are anti-state, they will elect representatives who will put an end to state activities “from the inside”. This strategy is the one taken by organisations like Cato and Reason, and recently the Libertarian Party. It is a widely rejected strategy, and in his article Friedman points out some of the problems with it: he describes it as libertarians “bashing their heads against the incentives of democracy”.

Secession and nullification is another strategy, and one that is far more likely to be successful. Hans Hoppe outlines the strategy in theory in this lecture. The Free State Project and The Seasteading Institute are both attempts at putting this theory into practice. While these projects are very important for bringing about liberty, it must not be forgotten that these projects are only possible after sufficient numbers of the masses are in favor of liberty. It seems that Friedman forgets this when he writes that:

“This plan [Seasteading] is one of immediate action, not hope or debate. It makes use of the people we have now rather than trying to convert the masses” 

He goes on to say:

“Seasteading is far from certain to succeed, but this is a hard problem, and there will be no easy answer. Two of the greatest risks are the expense and danger of the marine environment, and the chance that states will interfere. The latter is a systemic risk for any reform (if they'll interfere with a new city in the ocean, then no place is safe[7]), but the former is an idiosyncratic risk that could be diversified away if seasteading was part of a portfolio of freedom projects.” 

The risk that states will interfere is the key risk and it is worth spending some time thinking about how this risk can be mitigated. What will determine whether or not the state will interfere and how might they interfere? If a Seastead or a town in New Hampshire declares independence, the state has a very strong incentive to ignore the declaration, and send in an army of police, regulators and tax collectors, if they have to. It is not just the immediate lost tax revenue, but the risk of further secessions, until the state becomes obsolete, that will make the state extremely keen to prevent any secession.

Will they be able to send an army of police to prevent secession? That depends on how the situation will be perceived by the masses. If it is obvious to the masses that the secessionists are peaceful people who want to try out living in an independent state, then they may have no objection to the secession, and may be strongly opposed to the state moving in on them. The public may simply wish the secessionists good luck. If, on the other hand, the state can convince the public that the secessionists are "bad guys" in some way, they will be far more likely to accept the government moving in to put an end to the secession.

The state will do everything it can to turn public opinion against the secessionists. They will call them terrorists. They will say the seceding region will be a drugs haven and tax haven. They will call the secessions free riders, exploitative and unpatriotic. The state will do whatever it takes.

Will the state be able to convince the public that the secessionists are "bad guys", so they can go Waco on them? This is the big unknown, but the chances of this are surely directly related to the extent the masses favor liberty and the concept of secession. The charge of “tax evaders!” will fall on deaf ears if taxation is considered illegitimate. The charge that the seceded region will be a drug haven will fall on deaf ears if people are opposed to anti-drug laws in their own nation. If the public recognise secession as legitimate, it will be very difficult for the state to act against the secessionists.

Friedman presents Seasteading as though it is a path to liberty that sidesteps the difficult task of “converting the masses”. But, on the contrary, the success of the Seasteading project depends on how the masses feel about secession. This is why “folk activism”, aka promoting liberty and the idea of secession to open-minded people through debates and discussion, is not “useless for achieving real-world liberty”.

I applaud the efforts of everyone involved on a practical level with the Free State Project and the Seasteading Institute, but I reject Patri Friedman’s claim that trying to change minds is a useless endeavour.   Public opinion determines the whole process of human history.

To use de la Boetie’s analogy, when a town, country or Seastead comes to secede, it will be like starting to pull the pedestal out from under the Colossus. Certainly somebody needs to do this if the Colossus is to come down. But whether the pedestal can be removed, and whether the Colossus falls and breaks into pieces after this happens, or is able to remain standing strong and repair itself, depends on the reaction of the masses. We need people working on removing the pedestal, but we also need people working to make sure that when the pedestal starts to move, it will be moved easily, and that the collapse will then ensue, in the form of a torrent or snowball of secessions, until the state is obsolete.

Fat Head

I just watched this documentary.  I was already familiar the thesis (fats are good, carbs are bad, basically), having read Taubes and Kendrick, but I was pleasantly surprised by how libertarian the documentary was.  These kinds of documentaries tend to have a leftist "it's all the greedy corportaions fault, we need more government" feel to them.  But this one didn't have that at all.  It placed the blame entirely on the government where it belongs.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

What will future generations think of us?

Here in the 21st century, we look back at people in past centuries with a sense of amazement that they actually believed the things they said, and apparently saw nothing wrong with doing the things they did. Most people in past centuries were, by today’s standards, incredibly violent, vindictive, racist, sexist, homophobic bigots. We are rightly appalled that slavery - ownership of one man by another - was not only tolerated and accepted, but supported and rationalized, by almost everyone in society – even the slaves themselves. We are appalled that brutal forms of punishment, like hanging, beheading, burning at the stake, torture, having limbs cut off and eyes gouged out etc, were once the norm, even for the most trivial of crimes or sometimes for no crime at all. We are appalled that even in the 20th century, racism and sexism were the norm, and nobody seemed to have much of a problem with it.

We believe we are now more enlightened. But what will future generations think of our values, attitudes and morals? Is there anything we consider normal (not immoral) today, that future generations will be appalled and ashamed of? Do we have any blind spots? I think we do.

A lot of people today make arguments in favor of government actions. Take the statement “I think the government should enforce a minimum wage law.” This statement doesn’t seem so bad – it is economically ignorant, to be sure, because it hurts the very people it is supposed to help – but is it immoral? It doesn’t seem immoral in the same way that a statement such as “I think black people should be slaves of white people” is immoral.

But are they really that different? Both statements are supporting the use of violence by one class of people against another. Supporting a minimum wage law means supporting the use of violence by one class of people – who call themselves ‘the government’ – against another class: employers and employees, who are trying to make a voluntary exchange with each other for mutual benefit. In both cases, the violence is aggression: whites initiate violence against blacks when they enslave them; the government initiates violence against employers and employees when it threatens them with fines or imprisonment them for breaking the minimum wage law. How could it possibly be that one initiation of violence is moral while the other is immoral?

Most people today support a great many different kinds of government action, ranging from having government merely operating courts, police and defense services, to controlling schools, healthcare, money and banking, and regulating markets, through to all-out socialism, where government controls everything. I believe people in the future will look back at us today with bafflement, confusion and shame, for the way most of us not merely tolerate, but actively and passionately support this institution called government. Future generations will ask of us: what were they thinking?

Could they not see the contradiction inherent in having an institution set up to protect rights and liberty, which must necessarily violate rights and trample on liberty in order to exist?

Could they not see anything immoral with having one small group of people acting “above the law” and controlling the lives of everyone else, using threats of violence?  Why did they think that taxation was anything but mass robbery?  Why did they think war was anything but mass murder?  Why did they think mass robbery and mass murder were OK as long as they were done by someone acting as government?

Why did they keep turning to government to help solve the problems that the government itself had created? Was it not obvious to them that the cause of all the war, poverty and suffering they complained about was the very same government they supported so zealously?

Why did they think more violence was a good solution to social problems? Why did they keep demanding more laws, regulations, central planning and control? Why did they keep giving up their rights for empty promises of security and prosperity?

How did they ever expect to be able to find some selfless angel to run the country? Why did they think that someone needed to run the country in the first place? How arrogant/ignorant/utopian were they to think that, even if they found such an angel, he would be able to run the country better than the country runs itself?

Could they really not imagine a world without government?