Down with Policy Libertarianism

Libertarian thinkers can be plotted on many axes. Presently, the axis I am most concerned with is Policy Libertarianism vs. Structural Libertarianism.

Policy Libertarians (PLs) include the vast majority of the most visible organizations and writers in the modern libertarian movement: the Reason Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Ron Paul campaign, the LP, the Constitution Party, most libertarian economists (e.g. Milton Friedman), and single-issue organizations like Students for a Sensible Drug Policy. PLs, as their name suggests, focus their energies on inventing and advocating a list of policies that governments should follow. For example, you can find policy libertarians opposing liberal eminent domain laws, fighting for lower taxes and deregulation, supporting cultural tolerance, opposing invasive police searches, and advocating the rest of the familiar libertarian manifesto.

Structural Libertarians (SLs) are much rarer in modern times than PLs, although the opposite used to be the case. Structural libertarians include Patri Friedman, Mencius Moldbug, David Friedman, Murray Rothbard, all libertarian Public Choice economists, Lysander Spooner, and the classical liberals that libertarians have adopted as intellectual ancestors. SLs often have the same moral and policy beliefs as PLs, but they focus their energies on the alternative ways to structure a government and the effect that government structure has on its incentive to adopt good policy. At their most extreme, SLs barely sound like libertarians. Under a market-based government system (a common SL proposal), the architects of Singapore would likely find plenty of customers for a burbclave that is incredibly prosperous and clean, but where communists are sent to jail and litterbugs are viciously beaten with sticks.

The decline of the structuralists and the rise of the policyists is a phenomenon that should interest us. It is a by-product of general political trends in the modern western world. Simply: democracy has won. Democracy is considered to be righteousness and goodness and freedom, all else is tyranny. Didn't the American colonists risk their lives and fortunes to institute democracy and overthrow monarchy? And wasn't America the shining example on a hill, leading the rest of the world into a democratic century?

Today all competing political ideas acknowledge this. Conservatism, libertarianism, liberalism, environmentalism, socialism, and nationalism are all strictly policy movements. Since our government structure is assumed to be sound, they focus on advancing their agendas through electoral politics.

But what if democracy is not the impartial "marketplace of ideas" that moderns assume? What if liberal democracy contains its own unwholesome incentives and biases? In other words, what if the game is rigged?

This is why policy libertarianism seems like a weak and incomplete philosophy to me. Presumably if libertarians believe that libertarian policies are just and beneficial, then they would want to live in a world where those policies are implemented. However, if the incentives of the political system are stacked against libertarianism, then their efforts advocating libertarian policies are futile. No amount of pamphleteering and blogging will make vast amounts of people act against their self-interest. Quoting Jefferson at housewives isn't going to sway them when Obama Claus is on the television offering free college educations and health insurance. Putting 51% of the country on welfare programs and then campaigning to enlarge the payments will remain a winning strategy no matter how many DVDs of "Freedom to Fascism" are printed.

Policy libertarianism is only valid in a particular time and place, and then only if you have certain beliefs about the political system at that juncture.PL is useless otherwise. If we kidnap Ron Paul and ship him back in time to live under the Bourbon Dynasty in France, what should he do? Presumably he still thinks that libertarianism is as just and wise in Bourbon France as it is in 21st century America. Should he write florid epistles to the king, trying to convince him of the value of universal human rights? Should he try to marry a princess?

Or suppose we send Ron Paul to live under a government run by evil robots that grow humans in vats and then suck out their life force to power their machines in some physics-defying green energy scheme. Likely Ron still thinks the evil machines should respect his property rights and freedom of speech. I don't see how Ron's beliefs matter very much. He is going to have to hire a damn good lobbyist to overcome the sway of the human-vat-maker union.

Under an incompatible government structure, policy libertarianism is an impotent philosophy. As soon as your faith in liberal democracy wavers, PL looks naive. It's as useless as a lawn ornament. It's gazelle trying diplomacy with lions.

My faith in democracy is at a low ebb, so I think structural libertarianism should be given more thought and policy libertarianism less. As one of the 200 million most influential people in America and one of the 20 most influential writers on this blog, I hope I can lead the libertarian discussion in that direction.

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I'm not sure how you

I'm not sure how you separate policy libertarian and structural libertarian. Are you talking in terms of means or goals ?

Structural Libertarians (SLs) are much rarer in modern times than PLs, although the opposite used to be the case. Structural libertarians include Patri Friedman, Mencius Moldbug, David Friedman, Murray Rothbard, all libertarian Public Choice economists...

Uh ? AFAIK, David Friedman's vision for a transition to a libertarian society is that of government that withers away by becoming irrelevant, and Rothbard's vision is deeply rooted in policy changes by political means. They may favor structures which are more prone to libertarianism than democracy, but so might the organization that you cite as pushing for policy change.

I'm unsure what methods that

I am simply drawing a distinction between the idea of libertarianism as a family of policy prescriptions, and libertarian thought that goes beyond that. Reason magazine thinks that taxes should be lower, the bailout should be stopped, and the cops should stop using paramilitary raids to arrest nonviolent offenders of the law. David and Murray think those are swell ideas, but they would also like to do away with democracy and replace it with a society where you can buy your law on the market. There is a qualitative difference there.

Structural libertarians share PLs goals, but they also have additional goals that involve changing the way society works. These additional goals are often seen as a means towards achieving the shared goals that they have with PLs.

Another example, the American classical liberals did not limit themselves to devising policies that they thought King George should implement in the colonies. They went farther, advocating constitutional democracy and the right of secession, which puts them squarely in the structural libertarian camp. Very few modern libertarians are so bold.

Moldbug thinks the United States government should be put in bankruptcy and converted into a for-profit corporation. Patri thinks we should build boats on the ocean and reenact Waterworld. There is a qualitative difference between their proposals and those of Reason, though they probably think Reason's ideas are pretty swell.



I'm not sure I understand the term "structural libertarian"...

...completely, but from what I think it to mean, Murray Rothbard is not a structural libertarian. He did not think you should be able to buy your own law on the market. Rather he thought that all law should be based on the NAP. His outlook is fundamentally rationalist and universalist, not pluralist.


He did advocate structural change through moving to market anarchism, not just changing existing policies.

But he didn't really focus

But he didn't really focus on structures or institutions. He thought that an ancap society would be held together by libertarian ethics, that the vast majority of people would embrace a stateless society because it would become apparent to them that it's the only way to live ethically.

I see little difference between Rothbard and Rand. Aside from the former preferring anarchism and the latter preferring minarchism, both were essentially morality-based libertarians.

I like this post, and I

I like this post, and I definitely consider myself more a structural libertarian than a policy libertarian. One problem is: in the world of activism and libertarian-related professions, there are far more opportunities for policy libertarians than structural libertarians. This problem stems from the fact that, though often futile, policy libertarianism can be broken down into marginal chunks, whereas structural libertarianism cannot. The hope of Seasteading is to make structural libertarianism capable of change at the margin, but similar efforts have failed in the past.

The counterargument to the structural libertarian, from a policy libertarian perspective, is this David Kirby and David Boaz paper.

I think all structural

I think all structural libertarians are policy libertarians, but no policy libertarians are structural libertarians. Once you stop trying to win the game by the rules and start thinking about how the rules should change, then you're a structural libertarian.

However, the policy libertarians are still a very important part of the libertarian movement. They tell us what we should shoot for and why. However, getting there is a job left to the structural libertarians, unless constitutional democracy proves to be workable.

The abstract of the Cato paper you link to proves my point. At 9% to 13% of the voting populace, libertarianism (which I am sure is loosely defined) is not a winning issue.

I was actually surprised,

I was actually surprised, and am still somewhat skeptical of the 10% figure. If true (that around 10% of the population can be accurately described as libertarian), this has profound implications for the power of libertarians as swing voters. One problem, though, is that this 10% is scattered among many different groups often at odds with each other (Democrats, Republicans, Libertarian Party voters, nonvoters). The key, at least if we follow the Kirby/Boaz argument, is to somehow harness this significant minority together to make marginal steps towards more libertarian policies.

If we could press a button and make all libertarians act a certain way, it would be easier to implement libertarian policies. But part of what makes a libertarian a libertarian makes that scenario very unlikely. Cats, herding, yadda yadda. It's both a feature and a bug.

Don't trust Cato

They exaggerate the extent of the libertarianism of the populace, just as righties bleat about us being a "center-right nation" and Eric Alterman tells you that the American people are in favor of modern liberalism. They think people will have to pay more attention to us if they think we are a larger bloc of people. But if there were that many libertarians there would be more than one Ron Paul. Mainstream types like to fall back on the popularity of people claiming they're "fiscally conservative and socially liberal". That does NOT equal libertarianism. That's a good description of Bloomberg supporters. It identifies what might be called a class within American society. It means "I'm not some backward Old Left unionist or central planner and I'm not an uncool religious right fuddy duddy, I'm educated and hip", not "I'd like to drastically reduce the size and scope of the State".

End of democracy is near

"The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that
it can bribe the public with the public's money." - Alexis de Tocqueville

It discovered that a long

It discovered that a long time ago, yet we still somehow get by.

I think all structural

I think all structural libertarians are policy libertarians, but no policy libertarians are structural libertarians.

This would imply that the set of structural libertarians is empty.

Don't be so pedantic

Clearly he means that all policy libertarians who are not also structural libertarians are not structural libertarians.


Very funny.

I'm guessing he means that all structural libertarians were once policy libertarians, but no structural libertarians ever go back to being policy libertarians.

One-sided skepticism

Is policy libertarianism for the most part futile? Every now and then you get something like the abolition of the draft, but yeah. Does that mean that structural libertarianism is not also futile? I don't see how you've established that. A similar debate surrounds "marginal/incremental" vs "radical" libertarianism (and Walter Block doesn't consider David Friedman to be radical, nor did Murray Rothbard) or "minarchism" vs "anarchism". Ron Paul can wail for the return of the Constitution all he wants to no effect. Similarly, Murray Rothbard can pound the table for natural-law based anarcho-capitalism and Mencius Moldbug can tout the benefits of neocameralism/formalism and it doesn't make a damn bit of difference.

I don't consider myself so much a "structural" libertarian as one who takes basic libertarian (or Popperian) insights to a meta-level. So rather than trying to implement some Randian ideal of justice (which I don't believe in), I want lots of competing systems each experimenting and discovering better ways to do things.

not completely

I don't think policy is completely futile. There are occasionally times when we may be able to influence policy in a more libertarian direction. But the problem is that policy is mostly dictated by the current structure and special interest groups (such as politicians), not by what policies libertarians want. This viewpoint suggests that libertarians will rarely be able to influence policy. Policy is largely defined by structure. You can't change policy (much) without changing structure.

Every now and then, there may be a "policy libertarian" ballot proposition, and spending $10M might make it pass. But I think it is very rare that we libertarians can influence policy. Trying to do so is like yelling at the branches of evil and telling them to fall down. It isn't even hacking at the branches, let alone striking at the root. Structural libertarianism may be damn hard to see how to implement (though I am trying to change that), but it is striking at the root.

Aren't you yourself in the

Aren't you yourself in the same group as Paul, Rothbard and Moldbug? Making noise without actually making a difference?

Different forms of futility

The move from policy to structural libertarianism is motivated by the realization that policy libertarianism is futile - fair enough - but structural libertarianism is equally futile. Describing a better structure is not a step forward from describing a better policy, if changing the structure is no easier than changing the policies.

Patri, to be fair, has a program, albeit a long shot one. Mencius Moldbug has a mechanism for preserving, if not for creating, his structure, but it's at least equally far-fetched in my opinion.

As far as I can see, any plan for an anti-collectivist revolutionary movement is likely to encounter exactly the same difficulties as an anti-collectivist political party (plus a bunch of extra ones).

not quite

The move from policy to structural libertarianism is motivated by the realization that policy libertarianism is futile - fair enough - but structural libertarianism is equally futile. Describing a better structure is not a step forward from describing a better policy, if changing the structure is no easier than changing the policies.

We structural libertarians believe that structural changes will have vastly larger, longer-lasting, more far-reaching effects than policy changes. Therefore even if it is harder to influence structure than policy, the former is still more worthwhile. It is riskier, but the impact is so much greater.

Changing policy is really, really hard. Changing structure is really, really hard. I think the latter is harder - but not vastly harder. But it would have vastly more of an effect. So the EV is much higher. I think libertarians would have a far better chance at changing the world if they would focus on finding and pursuing a dozen structural paths. Only one needs to succeed.

I see what you mean by

I see what you mean by policy libertarian. I thought you made a distinctions on means (libertarianism through policy change) while you were making a distinction on ends.

In this case, I just don't think it's appropriate to call them libertarians at all, for not only is the current structure of society bad to implement libertarian policies, it is also intrinsically incompatible with libertarianism.

Reciprocally, anarcho-capitalism is not only a potentially fertile society for libertarianism, it is also one of the rare form of social organization which does not automatically violate libertarian law.

"Working Within/Without the System"

First of all, don't believe you're alone as a StructuraL.

Policy Libertarians (PLs) include the vast majority of the most visible organizations and writers in the modern libertarian movement: the Reason Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Ron Paul campaign, the LP, the Constitution Party, most libertarian economists (e.g. Milton Friedman), and single-issue organizations like Students for a Sensible Drug Policy.

Focusing on these "visible" groups is a bit of a Policy bias. What you mean by "visible" is for the most part policy-oriented. Even print magazines are a policy-leaning medium.

The debate about whether to "work within the system" is as old as the hills. Incrementalism is for wimps and structuralism is for hopeless dreamers. How come I don't feel moved to switch sides?

Check out the movie "This is What Democracy Looks Like". OMG, indeed. How can it (title taken from a 1968 movie) be taken as anything but a promotion of mob rule?

Jacob Lyles, you give a nod to the usefulness of policy types, but I want to be more grateful, they:

Get people to think. Get the people who think a little to think more. Plant a little bit of mindfrack at a time. Defuse a little statist ideological momentum. Keep speaking calmly from the opposite assumptions. Practice applying ideas to current situations. Notice groups with motivation alignments. Develop re-usable arguments about specific situations. Just stand out there and look 'em in the eye. Get exposed to, learn to understand the dirty workings rather than just abstract notions about the state.

One feature of anarchocapitalism that's actually a problem is that in massive practice it would be so much like the modern world, manned by similar people in similar roles. You can say that the right structure would eventually apply correction, assuming eventually wouldn't be too late again. But on a short time and space scale, the same temptations to make the same mistakes in the similar situations would still exist. The people who live in the new world would need to understand why that wouldn't, but this would work for them there.

I think libertarians need to admit we don't simply have structural or methodological answers to apply. As long as we don't know how to change the structure, don't know what structure will implement that change, we still don't understand working structure very well. Or Patri Friedman will prove me wrong.

Incrementalism and

Incrementalism and structuralism are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Dynamic Geography is incremental structuralism, since it only requires a small initial population to move to sea platforms to be viable.

And, yes, I am on this blog because of the LP, Reason Magazine, Ayn Rand, and the Cato Institute, so I do recognize the value of the mainstream policy libertarians. I just think their philosophy is hopelessly incomplete by itself.

as above

Actually structure can be broken into chunks. Examples are:

  • judicial
    • the information given to jurors
    • loser pays
  • electoral
    • ballot access laws
    • voting systems
  • administrative
    • oversight of police
    • jurisdictional boundaries

and I could go on & on. Of course the adoption of a structure is the result of a policy.

The game is rigged

>In other words, what if the game is rigged?

The Obama campaign and election is clear evidence. The game is rigged and nothing will change except the names of the tax collectors. Our owners have gotten much smarter since the French Revolution and now the working class doesn't even know who needs hanging. Half the working class doesn't know that they are working serfs . . . even they guys grossing 250K before taxes.

All politics is bottom line economics. The left end thinks the working class will get a bigger slice of the pie if their side wins. The right end doesn't know there is a working class and thinks that they, personally, will get a bigger slice if their side wins. Libertarians want to walk both sides and think winners will win and losers will lose if the middle will win . . . they being winners.

Truth, winners will win under most any economic system and losers will lose. Me . . . I'm the middle middle because I found a government briar patch job and stayed there for 30 years . . . the guy you all love to hate. Thanks, taxpayers.

Structural Libertarians =

Structural Libertarians = anarchists?

I think the distinction that

I think the distinction that Lyles is groping towards here is better characterized as public good libertarianism vs. private good libertarianism. The former seek to advance liberty through the production of public goods and have been called movement or policy libertarians. The latter seek to advance liberty through the production of private goods - Seasteading and Assassination Politics would be examples, however flawed.

Public good libertarianism has always dominated libertarian discourse but it's as hopeless as all collective politics, of which it is a subset.


For recent Structural Libertarianism, see Bruno Frey's FOCJ proposal.