Freedom, Exit and Question-begging
Jonathan has a nice post up laying out the current debate about charter cities. He cites Arnold Kling's discussion of freedom as exit, calling it "elegant and powerful." I agree with Jonathan that this is a really good defense of exit.
But I also think Will has a good point in his response, namely, that defining freedom as the absence of monopoly may be question-begging. After all, if I live in a world of Hobbesian thugs, it's hard to make the case that I have any meaningful freedom, even if such a world is free from monopoly. It's not, however, question-begging in the way that Will thinks it is.
This, as with many other intra-libertarian debates, really boils back down to the whole rationalist-pluralist distinction. Arnold and Jonathan fall pretty solidly in the pluralist camp. And if you're a pluralist then the freedom = no monopolies construction does sound about right.
But if you're a rationalist, then such a construction is in fact going to look illiberal. Or, at the very least, it's going to look like something that doesn't guarantee liberalism. For those three people here who haven't already read Levy's piece, here's his definition of rationalism:
On the other we see a rationalist liberalism, committed to intellectual progress, universalism, and equality before a unified law, opposed to arbitrary and irrational distinctions and inequalities, and determined to disrupt local tyrannies in religious and ethnic groups, the family, the plantation, feudal institutions, and the provincial countryside.
I think that this is probably what Will has in mind when he calls charter cities illiberal. They fail to do anything like the liberalism that a rationalist champions. Oh, they might do so. But they are hardly a guarantee. But, more importantly, charter cities (and seasteading and exit in general) remove the very possibility of achieving any sort of universal rationalist liberalism. At the end of the day, Exit effectively puts its stamp of approval on "local tyrannies in religious and ethnic groups, the family, the plantation, feudal institutions and the provincial countryside" telling those who don't like it (i.e., any potential reformers) just to leave.
My own sympathies are with Will, though I think that I'm probably less committed to a pure rationalism than he. Exit (arguably) provides more opportunities for experimentation, something that the utilitarian in me approves of. After all, how else are we to discover what really works and what doesn't? But those same utilitarian impulses make me worry about the children we doom to grow up in religious fundamentalist societies where the little girls are taught that they should obey the boys and given little education in anything other than, say, cooking and making babies. And I worry, too, about the little boys who grow up learning that the Jews killed Jesus and that God sanctioned slavery right there in the Old Testament (it comes right after the part about killing the gays).
In liberal democracies, people are welcome to have such views. But they are not welcome to isolate themselves away with others who hold such views. Or, more to the point, they aren't allowed to raise their children in in such isolate enclaves. They must, instead, put those views into the mix of other different competing views. Their ideas must win out in the marketplace of ideas before they can become established law.
Deliberative democracy forces local illiberalism out into the open, where it must compete with (and ultimately lose out to) liberalism. Exit essentially provides protected spaces for illiberalism to continue.
Yes, I know that the argument is that eventually, when liberal experiments succeed and illiberal experiments don't, people will switch. But that assumes that people are capable of recognizing failure and have the basic education and knowledge to switch successfully. Unfortunately, exit doesn't guarantee that those preconditions will obtain.
Anyway, at the end of the day, I think this quibbling is unnecessary. My own view is that something like liberal democracy is going to turn out to be the best way we have to organize a society. Patri's seasteads are all going to turn into smaller liberal democracies with open immigration policies. At the same time, current liberal democracies are going to get more liberal and, eventually, go with open immigration policies. IOW, I expect both approaches will reach the same endpoint. The only debate, really, is over which one will get there first. I see no harm in trying both.