Steppin' in to defend the SLs

I've been busy at my day job actually trying to bring about Libertopia (wow, it's fun to say that!), rather than just talking about it (oh, snap!), hence my only blog contribution to the debate thus far has been a response to Bryan Caplan's Policy All the Way Down over at the TSI blog (and some comments on Caplan's post).

But since I am a vehement structuralist, I feel compelled to enter the fray wit' some agreein' (yawn), and disagreein' (fun!). Let me briefly (for me) try to hit a few major points of my position and response. Those interested in a messy but long work-in-progress about my politics can find it here. A discussion of seasteading compared to other libertarian activism methods is here.

First, I've been a big fan of Jacob's SL/PL posts. Not saying I fully agree with everything he said, because I never fully agree with everything anyone says, including myself, but I largely agree with it. Good stuff! I've been bookmarking them all on my list of things to talk about when I start a structuralist blog, which may well happen soon.

CJ's portrayal of SL as a "disdain for sullying the purity of their ideal theory" is wildly off the mark, at least as far as my SL goes. I am a very pragmatic, consequentalist guy, and I am an SL for purely pragmatic, empirical reasons. If I thought there was the slightest change of any substantial reform from PL, I wouldn't be an SL. The danger of having to try new structures and societies, the geopolitical difficulties of starting new countries, the fact that our best option requires us to tame a new frontier, the ocean - SL is hard!

But frankly, over the years I have come to believe quite strongly that we have no chance at significant reform in current democracies. I have never heard a particularly plausible scenario. Ron Paul never had a chance. Libertarianism is not popular, and it will never be popular. The US will not let the FSP secede with NH (although the FSP is certainly my favorite US-centric project). Democratic reform is hopeless.

It's hopeless for the same reasons Bryan touches on: "The level of federalism is low and stable for a reason - when there was more federalism, political actors have incentives to reduce it; now that's low, political actors have little incentive to change it. Alas, it's policy all the way down." In other words, things are the way they are for a reason. Because it's an equilibrium. And we have decades of failed libertarian activism, and a hundred years of watching democracies grow bigger and bigger governments, to provide massive empirical evidence that this shitty equilibrium is stable.

Sure, PLs may win occasional small victories. There are occasionally net-positive PL projects and reforms. But as a project to bring about an even slightly libertarian society, it is utterly hopeless. As DR's esteemed founder Jonathan Wilde demonstrated long ago, even if libertarianism was popular, it would still lose out in elections.

As Bryan Caplan points out, structural libertarianism within an existing structure is policy libertarianism. But as he then adds, seasteading is different: "Whatever else you think about seasteading, it does bypass the problem of changing either structure or policy in existing societies."

If, as CJ says, "however much we might want to live in Libertopia, it's arrival isn't coming any time soon.", PL might be the best we could hope for. But we have another option! I work on it every day. It's a long-shot, but more like 1 in 10 than the 1 in a billion chance of a Ron Paul Revolution. It has serious challenges - but they are challenges of money and engineering, challenges which humans are good at. PL fights human nature, systemic incentives, and the corruption of politicians. That's a sucker's battle!

So repent of your PL ways, and come join our seasteading community. We're working to bring about a world with countries that have 0% tax rates, instead of fighting tooth and nail over whether taxes are 39% or 40%. It's more realistic, more exciting, and more fun!

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The constant debate over

The constant debate over what kind of libertarianism is right becomes tiresome. It reminds me of the clash between the two camps of Objectivists. I consider myself an Objectivist, but couldn't give a damn over which side "wins". What matters is that the philosophy gain exposure.

All this libertarian navel-gazing accomplishes little more than keep it on the fringes of American politics. Cut it out!

I think you're

I think you're miscategorizing the debate. I'm trying to convince more libertarians to support structural change, and explain the benefits of doing so. I'm not trying to divide the movement or condemn one side of it.

I know that if my ideas diffuse into the larger libertarian populace, the median activist will probably take them the wrong way. The ability to tolerate nuance and unresolved disagreement is not widely shared. Look how cranky and factious the libertarian movement is today. But there is no helping it.

And the differences in libertarian thought matter a great deal to me. If we are trying to make "our" philosophy successful, then it is of concern just what this philosophy contains. Libertarianism is a bag of incompatible ideas, and I want to know which ones we are supporting before I sign up for the revolution.

You can still work together

You can still work together to give exposure to ideas but this does not mean esoteric debate is useless or counter-productive. There is no reason to hide the errors we perceive in people holding similar but different ideas. The ARI for example is way to centered on the ideas of Rand and doesn't want to look at the contradictions in this ideology. They should always be reminded that their minarchist stance is unethical and irrational.

There's room

You can still work together to give exposure to ideas but this does not mean esoteric debate is useless or counter-productive.

I agree. Furthermore, there is room enough in the world for many things to be going on in parallel. This blog is (at the moment) a blog of ideas. Ideas are going to be debated in blogs like this. And that's a good thing. If this blog turns into a center of campaign for the libertarian revolution full of "vote for me" campaign messages, then other blogs will take over the function of areas of debate, serving those libertarians who are not interested in reading campaign propaganda day in and day out. If some libertarians tire of debating libertarian ideas then there is room in the world for them to move on to do something else, while other libertarians - who have not yet tired of debating ideas - will continue to debate ideas.

As far as serving a function, debate serves the same function as natural selection. Ideas are not fixed, they are in flux. They are apt to mutate. Most mutations are bad mutations. Debate helps to keep some of the bad mutations in check, while allowing good mutations to survive.

Mere debate is not enough by itself. But it is a help.

Libertarians who act need libertarians who think. If you are going to act on ideas and you don't want to make a mess of things, then the ideas need to be correct.

Anyway, there is debate going on all over the political map. Conservatives are debating with each other, liberals are debating with each other. If debate really were what keeps libertarianism on the fringes, then it would do the same to mainstream politics, and it does not.

it is not about who is right

Or about who is moral, or who is the true heir of Rand.

It is a debate about the best practical way of increasing liberty. To characterize tthe most pragmatic and fundamental of questions: "how can i most effectively act to bring about a better world" as navel-gazing shows a profound misunderstanding of the debate. It is ignoring this question, or giving wrong answers, which relegates us to the fringes of society. Always talking, never doing.

Defending PL

I fear that I may have been unclear in my post on nonideal theory. I didn't intend to imply that all supporters of SL are guilty of "a disdain for sullying the purity of of their ideal theory." Rather, I meant to argue that a certain sort of argument in support of SL (namely, the one that Jacob advances) boils down to a disdain for nonideal theory.

The target I have in mind is not seasteading, as such. I'm actually a big supporter of the project and very much hope that Patri and company can pull it off. I'm all for experiments and competition, and if something like seasteading worked, it would put pressure on other states to move in a similar direction.

No, the target I was aiming at is the libertarian who says, in effect, those Cato folks are sellouts to the libertarian cause. Deliberative democracy is hopelessly FUBARed and we should refuse to have anything at all to do with it. That (expressed in admittedly far more gentle and eloquent terms) struck me as the gist of Jacob's argument for SL.

I'm not arguing at all that it's wrong to think that deliberative democracy may be incompatible with a robust notion of liberty. As Constant says in a comment on my initial post, that's pretty much just mainstream economics. What I'm arguing is that it's wrong to bail out on deliberative democracy on the grounds that it's incompatible with liberty. That move, it seems to me, is very much in line with a Kantian disdain for dirtying one's hands. There are other less bad [read, pragmatic] reasons for bailing out on DD, and I'm not really saying anything about those. I'm simply addressing the one very particular argument for SL (or, perhaps more accurately, I'm addressing an argument that is advanced against PL).

I do see some use in Policy

I do see some use in Policy Libertarianism. My personal road to libertarianism was through Ayn Rand, the LP, reason, and Cato. So, I think the educational effects of policy libertarianism are valuable.

I just think their direct goal of influencing policy is futile, and any successes they do have are likely to be short-lived. If your goal is to influence policy, then policy libertarianism probably is not the best strategy.

I recognize that there exists other libertarians who like to condemn anyone that doesn't completely agree with their point of view, but that is not me. My point of view changes too often for me to follow that course of action.


I just think their direct goal of influencing policy is futile, and any successes they do have are likely to be short-lived. If your goal is to influence policy, then policy libertarianism probably is not the best strategy.

I guess I just don't see that this is especially accurate. Just a few examples of things that have been accomplished just in the (relatively) recent past, without having to blow up deliberative democracy:

  • Jim Crow died. I mean, a black man with a funny name ran for president and won North Carolina. Whatever you think of the policies, that is not a small thing.
  • The top marginal tax rate dropped by 56 points.
  • The draft ended. Yes, we're still sending men off to fight unjust wars in Asia, but they are at least all volunteers this time around. That's progress, anyway.
  • Women won acceptance in careers other than teaching and nursing.

The fact is, the U.S. is, in many important respects, much freer in 2009 than it was in 1959 (particularly if you happen to be something other than a white dude). The U.S. is far from Libertopia. But it's a hell of a lot closer to it than it was 50 years ago. I think it's worth remembering that while we may be fighting over whether or not to make the top marginal tax rate 39% or 40%, no one is talking about 91% anymore. We can complain about rampant defense spending because we forced a massive, nuclear-armed, Marxist Soviet Union into bankruptcy. And we can object to the Patriot Act precisely because we have grown so accustomed to living in a state where the government can't just behead us whenever it wants.

My point here is that if progress looks slow, it's probably because PLs (joining sometimes with allies of convenience) have already won a lot of the really big battles. The (relatively) smaller illiberal bits of society will be harder to eliminate, in large part because they affect relatively fewer people. Still, I remain more confident than Patri or Jacob that, even if seasteading fails to take off, by 2059 we'll be closer to Libertopia than we are today.


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