On "Libertarian Outcomes"

At Hit & Run, Brian Doherty gives a nice shout out both to Patri and Jonathan's new Let a Thousand Nations Bloom blog and to Michael Strong's recent post. Brian quotes Strong's take on innovation before noting approvingly that "such innovations in governing styles won't necessarily lead to more libertarian outcomes, though."

I have to confess that I find Doherty's (and, for that matter, Strong's) claim to be a tad confused. Or, at the very least, I think that their observation conflates two very distinct ideas of "libertarian outcome."

Let me start by saying that I, like pretty much everyone else here, have a vision of libertopia. In my vision, people are free to do pretty much whatever they want in their own private lives, just so long as everyone involved is consenting. I may well personally disapprove of your heroin-injecting, meat-consuming, teenage sex-having, book-burning ways, and I might well try to talk you out of them. But neither I nor anyone else will turn the heavy hand of the state on you to force you to stop. But I will, in my same vision, turn that hand on you in order to keep you from dumping toxic sludge into the river from which we all draw our drinking water. And I'd use it to make you pay for some share of our common defense. In short, my libertopia contains a state that works to curb genuine collective action problems. And it'd probably also provide something of a safety net, perhaps in the form of a negative income tax.

Now I realize that my vision of libertopia is very different from the vision that most DR regulars have. And I've spent many hours defending various parts of it from commenters here. I think (obviously) that I have well-grounded reasons for my position and that those reasons follow from deeper beliefs about things like rule-utilitarianism, justice, fairness, rights and so on. In short, my conception of the ideal society is based upon "that which is equal, rational, planned, enlightened, and principled." I am, in short, very much in the rationalist camp.

The distinction I'm drawing, of course, comes from Jacob Levy's "Liberalism's Divide," an essay that FWIW, has probably had more of an impact on my thinking than anything else written post-Mill. There Levy argues that the welfare/laissez faire distinction is just one of two important distinctions that cut across liberalism. Levy sets the enlightened, principled rationalists against pluralists, who argue that freedom is instantiated in the "local, customary, unplanned, diverse, and decentralized." Levy actually puts most strains of libertarianism -- indeed, everyone from Narveson to Nozick to M. Friedman to Mises (and one can safely include Rand here, as well) -- into the rationalist camp.

But Patri, most DR-readers and Strong are far more in line with Hayek's pluralist approach to libertarianism. For Hayek, libertarianism is about creating space in which the local and the unplanned can thrive. It's about recognizing spontaneous order, and, perhaps more importantly, it's about recognizing that that order will take different forms in different places.

And that's really the point of the Thousand Nations thesis. It's about creating a world in which thousands of diverse, local societies can form. Some will organize in one way, and some in another. Many of those forms may well be an anathema to a Nozick or a Narveson or a Mises -- or, for that matter, to a Doherty or a Trillian or a third-generation Friedman. But that does not entail that the outcome is not libertarian.

Doherty is certainly right that Seasteading isn't a guarantee for creating what I've called a first-order libertarian outcome. That's just another way of saying that it's entirely possible that none of the Thousand Blooming Nations may turn out to be something that a rationalist libertarian would recognize as libertopia.

But it's simply inaccurate to suggest that a world with space for thousands of competing local systems of government would fail to be a libertarian outcome. It might fail to be a rationalist libertarian outcome. But it just is a pluralist (or, in my terms, a second-order) libertarian outcome.

Share this

Thanks for saying this

I've been meaning to write something similar. A common criticism from libertarians, including people like Wilkinson, has been "But there's no guarantee that seasteads will be libertarian." My response is, "That's a feature, not a flaw" from two perspectives:

1) Some of my best friends (indeed, most) are leftists and rightwingers. I want them to find happiness in a society that matches their preferences.

2) "Design your own govt" is a much better sell than "Find liberopia" because most people are not libertarians.

My first post on the new blog was a defense of a non-libertarian vision.

Well no, it's a flaw. If a

Well no, it's a flaw. If a seastead is not libertarian it means there is institutional, hence massive crimes committed against individuals.

A seastead made of happy leftist who enter a covenant to pay for a social security or socialist healthcare scheme is libertarian.

Libertarianism is not about smoking weed while carrying a concealed weapons and having sex with your wives. (Though that's definitely cool), it's about not coercing the individual. Libertarianism isn't a lifestyle of a set of positive liberties. Libertarianism isn't a system to be balanced against other, it is the philosophy of rights, it is the only moral stance.

What "guarantee" means

Often people criticize libertarianism because it contains no "guarantees" that such-and-such thing will happen. But what they mean (as I discover when I scratch the surface) is that there is no law mandating that those things happen. They do not mean that the probability of such things happening is any worse than it is under a state. Oh, I'm sure they think that in the back of their heads. But when backed into a corner their point is that there is no law mandating those things.

People are deluded about the power of law. They think that without a law mandating X, then X will not happen. This is one reason why when regulations screw the economy up, as in the current recession, the popular "solution" is almost never to roll back the regulations but to add new regulations, in essence mandating by law that the economy get better. But you know and I know that a law mandating X is no guarantee - in the probabilistic sense - that X will be provided. In fact it can reduce the probability that X will be provided. For example, if food is no longer produced and delivered voluntarily in exchange for money, but is produced by law, then the result may very well be famine. This experiment has actually been tried, in the Soviet Union and Mao's China, and has produced famine.

And of course neither of these two above senses of "guarantee" is the ordinary business sense of "guarantee", which means neither that there is a law, nor that it will probably happen, but rather, that if it does not happen then the seller agrees to do some particular thing to remedy this - such as give the customer's money back, or give them a replacement, or possibly something else.

Seasteads are not guaranteed by law to produce anything - necessarily so, since they are sovereign. Nor is there a money back guarantee (well, there could be, but it is not embedded in the concept). But neither of these facts implies that seasteads aren't much more likely to produce libertarian law than current states.

Another reason it is a

Another reason it is a feature not a bug -

Seasteading makes the world better even if libertarianism doesn't work.

This is profound - we're creating a political movement so humble, so robust, that it will work out even if our cherished ideas about the good life are completely wrong. We should be tooting this more. I mean, it may not appeal to libertarians, but it's a great feature.

I think we should also argue, to libertarians, why seasteads will be more libertarian. A competitive market does much better at catering to niche consumer demands than a monopoly, it's as simple as that.

Second-order

Seasteading makes the world better even if libertarianism doesn't work.

You mean of course even if first-order libertarianism doesn't work. Since I've just been arguing that seaseading just is second-order libertarianism.

Libertarianism isn't

Libertarianism isn't intended to "work", it's supposed to be a set of moral rules. If a society is libertarian and makes everyone happy, that's great too.

Pluralism

And that's really the point of the Thousand Nations thesis. It's about creating a world in which thousands of diverse, local societies can form. Some will organize in one way, and some in another. Many of those forms may well be an anathema to a Nozick or a Narveson or a Mises -- or, for that matter, to a Doherty or a Trillian or a third-generation Friedman. But that does not entail that the outcome is not libertarian.

Maybe some will organize one way, and some in another. Or maybe they will all organize one way (with minor variations). In particular, those that organize as socialist may fail and their occupants flee. Those that organize as welfare states may fail and their occupants flee or die, possibly triggered by a natural event. This happened to New Orleans, a welfare state defended by a state-maintained ocean wall (a levee), when the hurricane hit.

I hypothesize that probably, after some period of experimentation, the surviving seasteads will be all, or almost all, highly libertarian, provided they maintain their sovereignty. Any exceptions will be religious communities, like the FLDS community in Texas whose children were kidnapped by the state to the applause of some regulars of this blog. But if one seastead conquers the rest of them by military force, then all bets are off.

We see that people migrate from the less libertarian Mexico to the more libertarian US. People, of course, migrate to wherever they can earn more money. But liberty begets capitalism, and capitalism begets wealth, so people will migrate toward liberty. In your (Trillian's) terms, second-order libertarianism begets first-order libertarianism.

This is of course not guaranteed by law or guaranteed by your money back. I hypothesize that it is highly probable - a third sense of "guarantee".

Doherty is certainly right that Seasteading isn't a guarantee for creating what I've called a first-order libertarian outcome. That's just another way of saying that it's entirely possible that none of the Thousand Blooming Nations may turn out to be something that a rationalist libertarian would recognize as libertopia.

Since the seasteads are sovereign, then they are indeed not guaranteed (in the sense of it being mandated by some law) to individually become libertarian. But I hypothesize that they will probably almost all become libertarian, the exceptions being intensely religious communities.

But it's simply inaccurate to suggest that a world with space for thousands of competing local systems of government would fail to be a libertarian outcome. It might fail to be a rationalist libertarian outcome. But it just is a pluralist (or, in my terms, a second-order) libertarian outcome.

I hypothesize that the outcome will greatly please rationalist libertarians - at least so long as they are comparing seastead-world to actually existing countries such as the US.

By the way, if the seasteads are small enough, then second-order libertarianism may be indistinguishable from first-order libertarianism, and ideally I should re-edit the previous parts of my comments to reflect this. I'll explain.

Suppose that you lived in a country in which you had to pay taxes to support a national police force. That would not be libertarian, right? (If you don't like the example, substitute something else, like a national fire department or a national water department.) Whoa, hold on! Suppose this country is a seastead as small as a mall. Now, in your average sized mall, the individual renters don't get to individually pick and choose among various providers of certain services. For example, a mall has mall cops, whose salaries are paid for by rent collected from the individual renters. In a totally, "rationally" libertarian world, it is entirely within the bounds of libertarian law for a mall to provide common security to all tenants, paid for out of their rent.

So if your country is a seastead as small as a mall, then if you have to pay "taxes" to support a "national" police force, this is simply a different way of saying that you pay for mall cops out of your rent. And this is entirely within the bounds of libertarian law in a "rationally" libertarian world. The political pluralism of second-order libertarianism is indistinguishable from first-order libertarianism, when the individual countries are small enough.

No matter what the individual seasteads do, if they are small enough then seastead-world is still "rationally" libertarian. Second-order libertarianism is first-order libertarianism, if the individual states are small enough. If they are small enough, then their internal rules are like the internal rules of private property owners, because in fact they are the internal rules of private property owners.

On the other hand, the smaller seasteads are, the more the international law governing their interactions matters. The character of this international law is what will determine whether seastead-world is libertarian.

What's size got to do with it? (Not to be defensive or anything)

By the way, if the seasteads are small enough, then second-order libertarianism may be indistinguishable from first-order libertarianism....

When we talk about private property, we talk about the relationship of the owner to all others. But perhaps it would also make sense to discuss the relationship of all others to the owner. Today’s land owner assumes the power to expel trespassers. It is assumed that there exists some place where the trespassers could go and no longer be trespassing – that is, some place that was not private property. Thus, implied within the concept of private property is the existence of non-private property – a place for a trespasser to exit.

So, what’s the difference between the mall example above and the classic “we’re trapped on an island where one guy owns all the real estate” example? The difference, as far as I can discern, is not one of size but one of exit. We don’t regard the mall owner as a tyrant, regardless of his policies, simply because shop owners are free to leave the mall if they don’t like the terms of staying. But if shop owners were somehow constrained from leaving the mall – if there was no opportunity for exit – then I might very well come to regard the mall owner as a tyrant, even if the mall was quite small.

Small size

Two closely related points. Small size makes for easier and less costly exit. And small size reduces pathologies associated with monopoly. Many arguments for this. I am thumbing on a hand device so here is just one. Perimeter increases linearly with diameter, but area increases with square of diameter. Therefore the smaller the size, the greater the ratio of border to area. Makes for easier exit. Many more reasons.

It's like science or something

I hypothesize that probably, after some period of experimentation, the surviving seasteads will be all, or almost all, highly libertarian, provided they maintain their sovereignty. Any exceptions will be religious communities...

I've a relatively similar hypothesis, though I tend to think that there will be a bit more variation. I would tend to expect a whole lot of societies that run from pretty (first-order) libertarian to solidly welfare-capitalist, with the bulk of them tending toward the latter (though with almost all of them being more libertarian than the U.S. is currently).

Now we could of course argue about which is the more likely outcome. I think that there are some good reasons on both sides of the question, though obviously I think that the better ones are on my side. :-) But arguing about it isn't likely to serve that much purpose, since, if we're really honest, a societies like the ones that you or I might prefer haven't really ever existed anywhere.

Fortunately, 300 years of science has given us a very nice method for deciding between competing hypotheses. We just run some experiments and see which hypothesis best conforms to our empirical results. And that's why, even though I'm a rationalist at heart, I still hope that Patri succeeds. It seems like one of the most promising ways of creating space to experiment with different ways of organizing a society. If it turns out that one way is far superior to other ways, well, then great. Most societies will arrange themselves that way. If it turns out that there are lots of ways to arrange a successful society, then we'll all have room to choose the one we like best.

I'm not a pluralist (in Levy's sense). I don't particularly care about second-order libertarianism in and of itself. But the utilitarian in me sees a great deal of instrumental value in Patri's pluralist approach, in that it'll let us figure out which rationalist approach works the best.

Gods, Demi-Gods and Levy

Levy sets the enlightened, principled rationalists against pluralists, who argue that freedom is instantiated in the "local, customary, unplanned, diverse, and decentralized."

Whoa.

So -- like -- this dude is able to distinguish between a Lawful Neutral character and a Chaotic Neutral character? Then he wins the last slice of 'za, man....

Work

"Libertarianism isn't intended to "work", it's supposed to be a set of moral rules. If a society is libertarian and makes everyone happy, that's great too."

And if it doesn't make people happy, it's immoral! (And attempting to impose some rationalist vision on society with no regard to whether or not it will work is an immoral enterprise.)

And if it doesn't make

And if it doesn't make people happy, it's immoral!

Which specific act is immoral ? If an individual is coerced, that is immoral, regardless of how merry and happy the population is.

Demanding a libertarian order has nothing to do with "imposing a view on society", it is merely demanding justice for billions of victims.

Imposing a vision

And attempting to impose some rationalist vision on society with no regard to whether or not it will work is an immoral enterprise.

It's not at all clear what you are saying, because it's not at all clear what you think would be moral. An example of libertarianism in action is a homeowner who stops a would-be burglar (this falls under defense of property rights). Does this "work"? It obviously doesn't work for the burglar, who would prefer to burgle and be on his way. It is, to be sure, "imposed" by the homeowner on the burglar, but is it "imposed" on "society"? Suppose, for the sake of argument, that it is "imposed" on society. But then what if the burglar is successful? Isn't the successful burglary, by the same token, "imposed" on society? Is there, in fact, any alternative that is not "imposed" on society?

As for the words "rationalist vision", it's not at all clear how any specific act in defense of rights and individual liberty - such as a homeowner defending his home against an intruder - is made either better or worse by being labeled "rationalist". Nor is it at all clear how the goal that the homeowner is pursuing - i.e., the protection of his own property - is made any better or worse by being labeled a "vision".

The method of your argument appears to be to speak in abstract terms, thereby avoiding specifics. Anyone can see that it is good and right that a homeowner stop a burglar. Such acts, acts in defense of person and property, in defense of individual liberty, are the stuff of which a libertarian political order is made. It is so obviously good and right that you have no choice but to speak in the abstract about a "rationalist vision" - without admitting anything about the specific content of this so-called "rationalist vision". Nobody would take you seriously if you argued that burglary was good and right, but if you say that "rationalist visions" are nasty, dangerous, whatever, then since it is no longer clear what on Earth you are talking about, you have a chance of persuading at least some members of your audience.

As for your supposed concern about whether libertarianism "works". Here too you have avoided specifics. What you are suggesting, of course, is that libertarians are careless, they have no concern for the consequences of their actions, in contrast, one presumes, to yourself. But you have merely suggested that you are more careful and concerned. You haven't actually demonstrated it. Looking at specifics there is, in any political conflict, an underlying conflict between individuals - between, in the current example, a homeowner and a burglar. And it is obvious that what "works" for the homeowner does not "work" for the burglar, and vice versa. Which places into question the very idea that any solution can be said to "work" full-stop. The very notion that any species of politics does or does not "work" is therefore dubious and arguably should be dropped - which Arthur did, whereupon you picked it up again. Your suggestion that libertarians are careless about consequences is sustainable only so long as you speak in the abstract, avoiding concrete details. Move to concrete specifics, and it becomes obvious that the defense of a person's home against burglary is very much out of a deep concern for the consequences - the consequences of the burglary if successful, of the defense if successful, and more generally the consequences of leaving his home unprotected, which would surely attract many more burglary attempts.

The example of defense against burglary is drawn from news items out of the UK, where it appears that citizens who attempt to protect their homes from intruders are now punished for their presumption by the state, which is now in the business of protecting criminals against their victims.

Bloomage

"Let a thousand nations bloom" should be renamed to "Let a thousand nations fail and some bloom"

It sounds worse than it is. That's basically science, and failing is progress.

Edit: Hell, just call it Bloomage and be done with it.