Patri Friedman on Folk Activism


Unfortunately I can’t add much in the way of comments or thoughts on Patri Friedman’s article titled Beyond Folk Activism published on Cato Unbound yesterday. I just don’t have the time as I have to prepare my 2008 taxes. I’m not joking.

It’s a thoughtful article and I wish I could force* all of my libertarian activist friends to read it.

The underlying reason my original blog autoDogmatic has fallen by the wayside (as far as my own writing is concerned) is because it wasn’t doing much, if any, good — that is, other than to encourage my own teeth-gnashing and bitterness at the current busted systems of control. There was a point where I just realized: this is all nothing more than talk. It’s toothless.

I have no idea of Patri’s specific solution of seasteading will work. However, he’s absolutely right that we need more competition in government and a means to escape the entrenched power structures in place with existing governments. The only way to get “there” from here is to create new frontiers (See my post on Freedom is found at the Frontier), and going to the sea is one way of doing that.

One thing I’d like to add to Patri’s discussion is that governments tend to consolidate power and grow. Thus, not only is the scarcity of frontier-space a problem, but it’s a problem further compounded by the tendency of new government iterations to consolidate power over time. Just look at the transition of individual States in a Union after the Revolutionary War to the United States of America we have today.

I wonder if the search for the most functional and free government is a leprechaun we’ve no hope of catching. This could be because governments are inherently anti-freedom (After all, they are: monopoly of force is always anti-freedom), so their very existence unavoidably negates the goal. I’m not sure it matters. It seems the best solution is to seek out new frontiers. Seasteading, space exploration, and “more fences” via digital encryption all work to achieve more frontier. We need it.

And now I go to work on my taxes. Here’s a clip from the article (be sure to check it out!):

Government is just another industry, where countries offer services to citizens, but it has some unfortunate features. It is a geographically segmented monopoly, and since all land is taken, the industry has an enormous barrier to entry. To start a new government you have to beat an old one, which means winning a war, an election, or a revolution. And it has very high customer lock-in: there are barriers to emigration and immigration, and switching countries involves both high financial and emotional costs. These characteristics result in a horribly uncompetitive industry, so it is no surprise that existing firms tend to exploit customers instead of innovating to attract them.

This analysis neatly avoids moral debates and has clear practical implications: if the problem is an uncompetitive market, the solution is to make it more competitive. It also exposes the futility of strategies that don’t address this issue, like trying to win the war of ideas. While appealing and noble, this is ineffective. Without competitive pressure, our institutions generate flawed policies which benefit the political class, not those that reflect the consensus of academic economists. We need more competition in government, not more academic papers or mindshare.

P.S. Also added Jonathan Wilde and Patri’s new blog, Let a Thousand Nations Bloom to Google Reader.

*Joking, sort of.

Freedom is Found at the Frontier

SFS Interior
photo credit: patrissimo

I’ve heard it said that the success of the creation of the United States was due in part to the American society being founded on a frontier. Of course the Native Americans were already in North America when the “white man” showed up, but the land was sufficiently “up for grabs” for some element of force and technology to overtake “we were here first.” How that unfolded is unfortunate, but I believe generally moot.

The overarching nature of North America was a place without property rights or government. This frontier paved the way for the establishment of a new form of government, a Constitution, and the United States.

Today, what is left unclaimed? Where are the frontiers? How can we experiment with new forms of government if we have no more frontiers left? I think Patri Friedman has enumerated this problem: lack of competition due to both a lack of options (frontiers) and high transaction costs to changing governments means society stagnates within archaic, increasingly bloated and controlling bureaucracies. We need a lot more frontiers if we want to see alternatives to the status quo. However, all the land save the uninhabitable Antarctica has been claimed, so where can we find any frontier, much less the needed abundance to really see a plethora of options take form? And of the options available, which are actually likely to take form? After all, putting “practicality aside” is easier said than done.

Revolting against current regimes can create a frontier of sorts, but if history is any guide (a poor guide), post-revolution governments (again U.S. being excepted for various reasons) don’t tend to be much better than the one’s they replace. Out with the old boss in with the new boss. To some extent, the New Hampshire Free State Project is taking this approach. I wish those liberty-minded folk the best of luck.

Another solution to the shortage of frontier is to go to the oceans. The oceans make up a huge amount of “unclaimed” frontier. Sure, they are water and not land — slight problem. But there is an ounce of historical precedent to support new sovereign nations at sea: see Sealand. This solution to the frontier-problem is what the Seasteading Institute is pursuing. I’m lending my support to TSI however I can, and I wish Patri the best.

Assuming mankind doesn’t blow itself up and we eventually learn to cheaply blaze a trail through the universe, space truly will be the “final frontier” (Save transdimensional pioneering). There are untold millions of planets out there that are just waiting for bungalows and Wal-Marts. Human existence in space could look something like Firefly or perhaps a new frontier is made from the Moon a la Robert Heinlein. Homesteading space just presents a few teeny logistical hurdles.

So where does that leave us?

What about the Internet? Even having advanced radically over the past two decades or so the Internet is still very much a wild west. Could the Internet be the frontier we have available right now to secure increased human freedom?

The logistical problems are fairly obvious, of course. The internet is virtual and as much as our lives become digitized, we still have to eat and live in real space. However, the government can’t tax what it doesn’t know you have. Encryption creates frontier by obscuring information from the taxman. Further, there’s a natural progression that increases the likelihood we move more of our lives beyond the purveyance of Big Brother: as governments make our existence in real space more onerous, there will be ever-increasing incentives to take life to cyberspace, encrypt it, and thereby restore freedom. For practicality purposes, this may be the best option we have for at least increasing our freedom in the near term. To some extent, it is already happening (i.e. see The Pirate Bay’s fight against the RIAA and MPAA).

The frontier problem is real, but human ingenuity is vast. Are there other frontiers out there worth pursuing? Freedom where art thou?