Politics

Libertarian Possibilities: Completely At Sea?

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The debate I'm participating in over at Cato Unbound on libertarian possibilities–asking the question, roughly, must libertarians actively create fresh polities of some sort or can they move this old world in a more libertarian direction through talk and education?–continues with many more entries.

Peter Thiel, PayPal co-founder and Seasteading supporter, thinks the worlds of the sea and space (outer and cyber) are where the libertarian action will be; Jason Sorens of the Free State Project wonders if a nonlibertarian world will accept these sorts of libertarian outposts, and muses on the sorts of outlier personalities such projects attract; Patri Friedman has a nuanced view of the importance, and also the limitations, of such pure intellectualism; and I wonder if everyone who says that some particular path toward successful libertarian activism can't possibly work might, alas, all be right.

Previous blogging on the start of this debate. I'll be writing at greater length on seasteading in a forthcoming issue of Reason magazine.

NEXT: Are You a Terrorist? Take Reason's Short Quiz For Answers, Dammit!

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  1. Peter Thiel, PayPal co-founder and Seasteading supporter, thinks the worlds of the sea and space (outer and cyber) are where the libertarian action will be

    For once, libertarians are right!

  2. I think that the Soren piece has two things in it that are odd:

    1. First, his example of a libertarian enclave going “too far” is one that allowed the production of narcotics. I think that he vastly overestimates the tolerance of the statists here, because recent events should demonstrate that to bring down the hammer of the statists all you’d have to do is allow gambling, or provide bank secrecy, or just charge a lower tax rate than that prevalent in the EU.

    2. I also think that it’s odd that his example of an “outlier personality”, as Doherty puts it, is [again] someone who would manufacture or use narcotics. That’s news to me – I thought advocating drug legalization was pretty much basic mainstream libertarianism. I thought “outlier personalities” would refer to out-and-out crazy people, as in people with cognitive impairment and delusions and severe neuroses, who do tend to show up on the margins of libertarian politics. But Soren runs right past those people to complain about people who actually believe in the libertarian position on drugs and would act on it.

  3. I’m just waiting for things to fall apart.

    After the bloodshed, it will be time to do things better. I encourage all libertarians to make it through the hard times by buying guns and ammo and being ready, willing, and able to fight for what you believe in.

  4. I agree, JB.

    Once the splicers are everywhere and Big Daddies roam free, we’ll all need to be armed.

    /mandatory Rapture reference

  5. I’d like to be / over the sea / in a libertarian’s garden / in the shade

  6. I love how these ostensibly thought-provoking threads end up with 5-7 comments, while threads about… I don’t know, fucking v-chips… end up being the impetus of 300-400 comments.

    I, for one, am saddened…

  7. I hate to break it to the Libertarians but the first space colonists are probably going to be religious groups looking to make a new city on the hill. Starting off in a hostile environment with no established infrastructure is not really conducive to radical individualism. The first space colonies are going to be more like military operations and will resemble communes. You will have to work together and live by pretty strict rules at first or everyone will get killed. A committed group of religous separatists would be the kind of society that would succeed at least in the initial stages. After things got established, then you could have more of a wild west phase where individuals would have a chance to come and succeed on their own.

  8. Shut the fuck up, LoneWacko.

  9. Finally have my husband talking about wanting to buy a gun. Mwahaha… I’m turning him!

    It’s so bad, we’re looking into immigrating (emigrating?) to New Zealand.

    But then I’d feel badly for abandoning my country… until I remember that my country has essentially abandoned me.

  10. love how these ostensibly thought-provoking threads end up with 5-7 comments, while threads about… I don’t know, fucking v-chips… end up being the impetus of 300-400 comments.

    I think the problem is people are already “involved” in another thread by the time they come up, and just don’t have the time to invest in a new one.

  11. What John said.

    Hydraulic despotism. Both sea and space are ruled by it.

  12. I think the problem is people are already “involved” in another thread by the time they come up, and just don’t have the time to invest in a new one.

    You’re an optimist.

  13. I love how these ostensibly thought-provoking threads end up with 5-7 comments, while threads about… I don’t know…

    Because:

    a) the libertarian community by and large would rather be ideologically pure than politically relevant?

    b) because libertarian philosophy, like deism, is a self-defeating proposition? [sales pitch goes something like this: we just want to be left alone and we’d like it best if you, too, just wanted to be left alone, and here’s all the reasons why you should just want to be left alone….and when it’s all done we really don’t expect you to stand FOR anything beyond “I want to be left alone dammit!”]

    c) because democracy is positively destructive if you want fiscal sanity? [competing politicians face the same problem that newspapers do: good news is no news, and nobody remembers you for that — Machiavelli told us long ago what ambitious people are going to do about this little problem — there will be no good news]

    d) because libertarians don’t want to save the world, they really just want to be left alone?

    e) all of the above, plus more

    The libertarian movement will never succeed until libertarians are willing, like their Democrat and Republican rivals, to impose their vision. But they will not do this and that is the primary reason the movement is never going anywhere.

    Read the history books. The prevailing intellectual current in this country around the time of the American Revolution was an utter historical aberration. By and large, intellectual movements succeed if and only if the believers are willing to impose. It’s got to be something like a religious mission.

    If your rank and file don’t have that kind of passion, combined with the will to act on it, then you aren’t getting past first base.

    People BELIEVE we need to save the environment from man, and they have no problem imposing socialism on us all to that end. People BELIEVE that health care should be a “right” and they’re willing to impose socialism/statism/whatever it takes-ism on us all to that end. Etc etc etc.

    Meanwhile, the libertarians are sitting around waiting for the masses to “agree” with them and so vote the “right” way. As if that’s ever going to happen.

    Libertarian thought is self defeating in so very many different ways…..but we don’t have all night to list them.

  14. The libertarian movement will never succeed until libertarians are willing, like their Democrat and Republican rivals, to impose their vision. But they will not do this and that is the primary reason the movement is never going anywhere.

    I don’t agree.
    Ghandi won without violence. Now, libertarian mechanisms may not be the same, but lets make an analogy. At the time, people thought you had to impose your will by force, yet he violated that assumption and still suceeded.

    Today, we’ve got a more complex political process. We don’t use armed revolutions – but people recognize the problems with the two-party system and the phenomenon of partisan ship that it engenders. They DO see how politics is invariably dishonest and manipulative. I think many people are acutely aware of how oppressive this ultimately is becoming – this cycle of each side imposing their will on the other, shovelling cash to their side’s clients, and then doing their best to suppress opposition through government mechanisms. I’d even argue that much of Obama’s support last fall (especially amoung libertarians) arose from a belief that he was going to break out of that whole partisan warfare dynamic. THAT illusion is being brutally shattered, of course.

    But maybe a strategy of disengaging from partisan warfare could work – ultimately by appealing to people’s moral values – try to get them out of the two-sided party rhetoric. Maybe see that there are political options aside from winning elections and then forcing your way on everyone. Limited government, decentralized, mutual aid, non-governmental options.

  15. Ghandi won without violence.

    Poor choice for your example. Ghandi was scum. You can stab people in the back in a very non-violent manner. Ghandi proved it.

    Ghandi’s success had much to do with his dedication to what is, by most libertarian measures, a rotten philosophy. The non-violence thing was just his cover-schtich.

    Sorry, but I find little of nothing to admire in that man.

    but people recognize the problems with the two-party system and the phenomenon of partisan ship that it engenders

    What people don’t recognize yet, is that sooner or later the two parties converge at the center. Because all you need to win is half the people, plus one. It’s kind of like taking a class where a 90 gets you an A. If you get a 91, you worked too hard. 🙂

    Hate to be a pessimist about all this, but I still am.

    Libertarian philosophy, like deism, eschews the very things that would give it the power to prevail: a strong central organizational entity. Both deism and classical liberalism advocated fluid, diffuse, decentralized power structures. Both are in the vein of “live and let live”. And neither of them demands that you commit yourself to very much of anything else at all……

    Which is precisely the problem. Ghandi was not “non violent” just because he wanted to be left alone. He had a vision that he wanted to sell. A vision he believed should be imposed on society.

    “Non violently”, of course, but imposed nonetheless.

    Maybe I’m not spelling it out exactly clearly even yet, but I can sense it. “Leave me alone” just doesn’t produce the compelling grip on people’s imaginations that “free the masses from tyranny” does in socialist movements.

    As much as you and I may believe in the libertarian vein, the whole movement amounts to trying to sell a negative. Which I’m sure is way easier than trying to prove a negative.

  16. The biggest flaw in the whole conception of the US government is the idea that letting the people vote, combined with a free press, would provide the tools to keep us all free.

    Newspapers will always invent ghosts to haunt the public imagination, just because that’s how you sell papers. “Oh my GOD the sky is FALLING and I have to buy the next paper so I can read all about it.”

    Competing politicians will then market themselves as the hero who can stop the sky from falling.

    And there are always more poorer people than richer, so you can always sell a Robin Hood scheme to the masses. Sooner or later they’re going to vote for it.

    Democracy sucks, the “free press” is half the problem, and the republican form is only a small improvement. Our intelligentsia in this country has been spoon fed European socialism for at least a century and half, so the “smarter few” of us would, on average, have pushed us into a socialist order sooner than the masses have been persuaded to vote for it.

    Because in a democracy everybody gets to vote, whether they’ve paid lots of taxes, or only a little, or even if they’ve paid none at all. Everybody gets their one vote.

    It’s a recipe for Robin Hood to prevail in the long haul. As sure as 1+1 = 2.

    Not that I have a better alternative to open elections. But open elections are ultimately corrosive to both economic sanity and liberty, as well as civil liberties.

  17. But maybe a strategy of disengaging from partisan warfare could work – ultimately by appealing to people’s moral values – try to get them out of the two-sided party rhetoric. Maybe see that there are political options aside from winning elections and then forcing your way on everyone. Limited government, decentralized, mutual aid, non-governmental options.

    But this is precisely one of the places libertarians are naive. One minute they understand that the D’s and R’s want to impose their views on everyone. The next minute they’ve forgotten.

    ultimately by appealing to people’s moral values

    Remember Ghandi’s moral values. Are you so sure that you want to appeal to them?

    Maybe see that there are political options aside from winning elections and then forcing your way on everyone.

    But forcing his way on everyone, is really what Ghandi was all about.

    Ditto with D’s and R’s in this country today. Appealing to their moral sentiments as they currently exist, is a waste of time. Here we go again, trying to sell them the “Live and let live” philosophy, when both the D’s and R’s have their respective religions to sell.

    “Live and let live” has never, and I submit will never, dislodge the instinctive sentiments of a dedicated believer. You’re arguing with this: “Why should I live and let live? What does that accomplish, besides nothing? I have my religious moral crusade going here and I know what *that’s* going to accomplish.”

    As Rand once put it, people may deal with one and other by rational debate or by force, by persuasion or the point of a gun.

    What libertarians have an impossible time grokking, is the very simple fact that sometimes the persuasion side of the spectrum just isn’t going to work. There are things you will never persuade your opponents of.

    This same blind spot shows up in the standard libertarian idea of foreign policy. Libertarians preach “live and let live”, and they cannot grasp the fact that some ideologies are, and always will be, irreconcilable.

    The age-old solution to this problem is war.

    Not that I’m advocating war, or armed revolts or anything like it. I’m certainly not, and would be more afraid of that (in today’s world) than I am of just letting the proverbial cart drift into the ditch.

    My point is, I see no reason to believe we’re going to persuade the American public to take up a “live and let live” philosophy at this stage of the game. It’s gone way too far for that.

    The future of liberty is going to be someone else’s torch to carry, not ours here in the US.

  18. Sorry for the long posts there Hazel, but I know from past experience you’re a thinker. With you I never get by with the short answer. 🙂

    Now, if you could show me a fatal flaw in my logic here I would be most grateful. But I think I’m not wrong.

    Until somebody figures out how to give “Live and let live” a moral and emotional fervor on par with a religious movement, the libertarian movement is going nowhere. It’s just the way the human psyche works, you have to grab hold of it if you really want to put it to work.

    “Leave me alone because we, as individuals, are all better off that way” doesn’t have the emotional grip-tion that “save society, the world, and civilization from itself” does (and curiously, there is a strong element of the Theory of Original Sin in the religions of both the R’s and D’s).

    But I strongly suspect that by the time you gave it the fervor to get traction, it would be a little less “Live and let live”.

  19. “A committed group of religous separatists would be the kind of society that would succeed at least in the initial stages. After things got established, then you could have more of a wild west phase where individuals would have a chance to come and succeed on their own.”

    I don’t agree with this. Your comment seems to be that libertarians don’t know how to work together, and therefore would perish. While I agree that there are libertarians who are loner types, I think there are also plenty of libertarians (probably more of the lefty-libertarian mold) who do value cooperation.

  20. I, for one, am saddened…

    I share your sorrow.

  21. Let’s start with a list of successful libertarian societies throughout history.

    Then let’s see if we can spot all the logical errors in Ayn Rand.

    Then maybe let’s think more realistically about incorporating libertarianism into a sensible overall plan for a civilization.

  22. “Let’s start with a list of successful libertarian societies throughout history.”

    Don’t hold your breath.

  23. Any successful libertarian polity would be attacked by the statists. Then, the most likely resolution to the issue would be the re-imposition of statist government on the citizens of these polities. On the other hand, they might defend themselves successfully. However, in that case the famous ratchet effect would probably come into play, ultimately voiding, over time, the gains in personal liberty experienced by the inhabitants of the polities.

  24. “Poor choice for your example. Ghandi was scum.” Yeah, it’s rather crappy to let one’s wife die because you think antibiotics are an evil western affectation and then take quinine to save one’s own retched life.

  25. Primitive tribal societies are pretty libertarian.
    Also throughout most of history ‘tithing’ only meant a flat 10% tax rate. Which is pretty libertarian by today’s standards.

  26. Hazel Meade,
    I’m not sure how primitive tribal societies are libertarian. They tend not to have any clearly defined concept of private property.

  27. @economist,
    A citation, please?

  28. Any successful libertarian polity would be attacked by the statists.

    Any polity that wasn’ their own, would be attacked by the statists.

    But you’re right, war is corrosive to liberty, even faster than democracy. Because the state has to mobilize all resources in order to fight and so it grows…..

    The fact that you end up having to fight at least sometimes, is one of the many forces that will ultimately undo libertopia in the long run.

    As I’ve said, what we need to do is find a reboot button for the state. Because the memory is going to corrupt every so often.

    The Romans threw a nice little riot every 20 years or so (which helped clean out the system, unlike the modern day French who throw riots just for the fun of it). The Chinese used the simple expedient of successive dynastic collapses.

    The Romans, Chinese, and Egyptians showed more continuity over longer time spans than any other nations I can think of in history. None of them was libertarian.

  29. Okay, now that everybody is probably gone I figured out how to nicely sum up what I was trying to say in my posts above.

    Libertarians just want to be left alone. Part of what that means in practice is, that they don’t want to be spending all their time fighting statists etc (whatever flavor). They don’t really want to be spending their time on politics.

    But the true statist, like the true religious convert, is on a mission. He does want to take over, he does want to impose his vision. His motivation gives him a level of persistence that the libertarian just doesn’t have. He wants to save us from the flames of hell, or from the soul-less pursuit of “materialism”, or whatever.

    We’re all out doing “your own thing”, and they’re all out trying to figure out how they’re going to take over the system. Or, the budding politician is out trying to figure out how he’s going to make a name for himself, and we know that Good News Is No News so if this guy has half a brain, he’ll invent a crisis to solve if he can’t find one laying around handy.

    They are dedicated to fighting the fight that most of us would be much happier never having to fight.

    Which is why we loose in the long haul. In political terms it is the Libertarian’s Character Flaw. Very much like the Deist’s character flaw.

  30. Jackie Chan just weighed in with his vote on this issue.

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090418/ap_on_en_mo/as_china_people_jackie_chan;_ylt=Ag4ZtBGUgeLJCRtkR4T.Y4Gs0NUE;_ylu=X3oDMTJ0dXVoOThqBGFzc2V0A2FwLzIwMDkwNDE4L2FzX2NoaW5hX3Blb3BsZV9qYWNraWVfY2hhbgRjcG9zAzkEcG9zAzE1BHNlYwN5bl90b3Bfc3RvcnkEc2xrA2phY2tpZWNoYW5jaA–

    When people are free then they just “do what they want” and somehow that’s “not good”. His whole explanation as to why it’s not good amounts to “it’s too chaotic”.

    People make absolutely no sense…..

  31. “The Romans threw a nice little riot every 20 years or so”
    I know I’m late, but didn’t the Romans eventually end up with a bread-and-circus military government most of the time? Indeed, doesn’t the term “bread and circuses” refer to the diversions used by the Caesars to pacify the masses?

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