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.


  1. Great response. One point that I would like to add is that if all liberty-minded people dedicated 100% of their efforts to education and nobody directed their efforts to Seasteading or Free State Project type secession attempts, then it may be several decades or more before we achieve a free society.

    Therefore, it seems clear that if we want to achieve a free society before then then we ought to devote a certain percentage of our efforts to secession attempts. Now, the question is, how much effort?

    It's not clear to me what Patri's answer is. It seems that he thinks we currently devote too much of our efforts to education relative to active secession attempts such as seasteading. I don't think he thinks that *all* of our efforts should be devoted to secession attempts however.

    From the article, Patri writes:

    "[3] Policy analysis is not without benefit. It helps people realize how flawed existing policies are, which is the foundation for seeing that institutions are flawed. Understanding the flaws in institutions helps us understand the market which breeds them. The process helps our economic understanding, and the tradeoffs which any society must make. Policy analysis is an important base for our understanding, but we have plenty of base — now we need some boom."

    I think I agree with this. We could also substitute "policy analysis" with "education" and I would also agree. Education and policy analysis are definitely great, but Patri may be right but we have plenty of that right now and not enough active secession attempts.

    This is not to say that education is unimportant. Rather, it is to say that our current need for more secession attempts is greater than our current need for more education. Therefore, some libertarians should consider devoting their efforts away from education and towards secession attempts instead.

    As for what that means for the average person like you and I, however, I do not know. Some of us can be full time educators and that is fine, but I think I do agree with Patri's point that a more effective strategy for achieving a free society would involve some people who currently devote their efforts to education deciding to spend their time trying to secede instead.

    1. "it seems clear that if we want to achieve a free society before then then we ought to devote a certain percentage of our efforts to ***secession attempts***. "

      ... secession attempts, or any other attempt to directly establish free societies, such as Startup Cities (also called Free Cities). Seasteading is also different than secession.