So if you haven't yet read Patri's Cato Unbound essay, you should go do that now. And, if you didn't happen to catch it live, you should also check out the podcast of his Seasteading talk at Cato. Of course, regular DR readers are already familiar with Patri's basic thesis: governments are inefficient local monopolies that impose (a) high barriers to entry and (b) exceptionally strong customer lock-in. That's not an especially controversial claim. What is, perhaps, somewhat more controversial Patri's diagnosis: Policy Libertarianism is useless in the face of overwhelming institutional obstacles, so if we want a truly free society, we should instead focus on changing its fundamental structure.*
But it strikes me that a lot of PL types (and certainly a lot of the commenters at Cato) rather significantly misunderstand Patri's vision. Will Wilkinson offers the clearest -- though hardly the only -- such example:
That said, one of the merits of Friedman’s "dynamic geography" is that it is not really a "libertarian" project at all...I think there’s good reason to expect competing sea-top jurisdictions to settle on a scheme of governance more libertarian than what the world’s current nation states have to offer. But I also think there’s little reason to expect a seastead to embody the system of most libertarians’ dreams unless a lot of libertarians coordinate and settle there.
I don't want to get into any sort of I'm-more-libertarian-than-you shouting match here. Still, I think it's wrong to dismiss dynamic geography as not libertarian. I submit that it's best to understand Patri's project as what I'm going to call second-level libertarianism.** I'll try to explain what that means below.
Many (perhaps most) PLs are concerned with bringing about what we might call first-level libertarianism. That is, they want to live in a society with a minimal (or possibly even nonexistent) state, one with little-to-no taxation, an unfettered market, purely voluntary associations, and no restrictions on self-regarding or consensual behavior. Appropriately enough, PLs concentrate on ways of making our society more like that. And, as Patri allows in his talk, this can be a positive development. Lowering tax rates and increasing growth (even if only by a little) can have large positive-sum utility when aggregated over lots of people.
Moreover, the PLs have a point when they complain that Patri may be giving them too little credit for the work that they are doing. To the extent that seasteading is practical, it will be because enough people in the United States are willing to let seasteaders go their own way. To put the point another way, the best way to keep the U.S. Navy from parking a carrier group outside Floating Libertopia is to convince lots of Americans of the value of allowing small groups to pursue alternative political arrangements. Wilkinson and Reason's Brian Doherty are right to suggest that seasteading would be even less likely to succeed without Reason, Cato and the rest of the PL crowd. For that matter, it's not totally unreasonable to suggest that absent the work of Patri's grandfather, there's a real possibility that the Seasteading Institute's venture capital would have gone to cover Peter Thiel's 90% marginal tax rate.
But Patri's critique is fair in another way. See, where the SLs and the PLs part company, I think, is that Patri isn't really aiming at a first-level libertarian society. Will is right in that respect. But Patri is aiming at what I'm calling second-level libertarianism. The analogy I have in mind is similar to the distinction made between act- and rule-utilitarianism.***
Basically, the idea is that, like with utilitarianism, libertarianism can be applied in two different ways. It can be applied to particular governments -- that is, we can say that a particular state is more or less libertarian depending on the extent to which it conforms with whatever principles we take libertarianism to consist of. But both utilitarianism and libertarianism can also be used in a second-level fashion, as a way of generating the specific rules (in the case of utilitarianism) or the specific societies (in the case of libertarianism) that govern our ordinary, day-to-day lives.
What the particular rules are don't really matter here; the point is just that, on the second-level view, we don't necessarily appeal directly to utility at the level of action. We might, if it works out that direct appeals to utility are the best rule-of-thumb available. But if they aren't, then we might well end up being guided by rules that don't look particularly utilitarian.****
I think Patri is doing much the same thing. Indeed, he says as much during the talk, though it's a point that seems to have escaped most of the audience. Dynamic geography -- and by extension, the seasteading project -- isn't about creating a first-level libertarian society. It is, rather, aimed at creating a libertarian framework for creating new governments. If we take seriously Patri's argument that government is just another industry, then we should aim at a world in which the industry of government is a competitive market. We ought, in other words, to apply the principles of libertarianism to the generation of government itself.
To put the point another way, libertarianism -- much like utilitarianism -- can be applied at either of two levels. It can be used as a set of guidelines for a particular government. But it can also be used as a set of guidelines for generating the set of existent governments. PLs are aiming primarily at the former. SLs like Patri are aiming primarily at the latter. The idea, of course, is that a libertarian framework will -- as Will suggests -- be likely to generate particular libertarian societies. But even if it doesn't, I think that there is a good case to be made for the argument that a world in which governments are generated via a libertarian framework is, in some very real sense, a libertarian world even if none of the actual societies generated from that system looks like Libertopia.
* I'd like to point out how thoroughly -- and quickly -- Jacob's PL/SL distinction has become standard parlance; Cato's Doug Bandow, for example, uses the term throughout his response to Patri.
** For those philosophers out there, yes, I am borrowing the idea of two-level libertarianism from R.M. Hare. Obviously the analogy is far from perfect. That's why the actual post uses act- and rule-utilitarianism rather than Hare's critical and intuitive levels. I've stuck with stealing Hare's terms, though, because rule-libertarianism sounds like such a glaring oxymoron.
*** I am, by the way, particularly delighted by this analogy since (a) many of the Catallarchs are on board with Patri's vision of dynamic geography and (b) most of them also hate rule-utilitarianism. It's a nice analogy in another way, too: as with "utilitarianism" people use the word "libertarian" as if it has but one meaning, when in fact, it encompasses a huge array of possible meanings. Still, I think it's useful to talk about both in a general fashion, as long as we're aware that we are really talking about a set of theories with a strong family resemblance and not any particular concrete theory.
**** Again, for the philosophers out there, yes, I am arguing that second-level libertarianism might well turn out to be self-effacing.