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Exciting Secession Week Action!

4th of July is coming up, which means we're celebrating Secession Week at Let A Thousand Nations Bloom. JW linked to the event earlier, and I'd like to give you pointers to each of the days topics in case one of them catches your eye:

And stay tuned the rest of the week as well, for discussion of state vs federal sovereignty disputes, and of course the American Revolution.


If it fails, do less or more?

One of the key differences between private and public sectors is that in the private sector, failure is punished. If a product or company fails, resources shift away from it. In the public sector, unfortunately, the opposite seems to be the case. A program which solves its target problem will go away, while one which cleverly tackles an impossible problem or uses a poor strategy is guaranteed a long lifespan.

The private method is more scientific, because it views any project as an experiment, whose initial success or failure is a meaningful data point about whether the project is possible or worthwhile. The public method ignores the data generated by early trials (or even worse, gives them a reversed interpretation).

I'm at a Mercatus Center + IHS mini-conference today, and Brian Doherty gave a talk about the enduring legacy of Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman. Most of the talk was about the details, but his views on the future basically seemed to be that Rand & Friedman had significant cultural & academic impact, and so we should be optimistic and keep on trying those routes.

Yet I can't help but see a disconnect between the positive change in the cultural and academic climate, and the lack of change in outcome metrics like government spending as a percentage of GDP, pages in the Federal Register, or the government's Keynesian response to the recent financial crisis.

Now, one way to look at this disconnect is as progress - we've won part of the battle, now it's time to bring it home. Yet this perspective ignores the data generated by the results so far. Another way to look at the disconnect is as evidence that cultural and academic change may not work, and if we want results, we may need to try something else. This interpretation is scary because it suggests that the approach most natural to us may not be the most effective - but it is no less valid for of its unpleasantness.

I'm not arguing that we should completely ignore culture or academia - they are surely part of the answer, and perhaps even the ultimate solution. But I am deeply concerned that the freedom movement is almost completely invested in strategies that may have won mindshare, but have demonstrably failed to achieve our ends.

We need to decide: do we want to be like the public sector, throwing good money after bad, or like the private sector, nimbly switching strategies based on the evidence? At the very least, we should take seriously the idea that we might be fighting the wrong war - like the war of ideas instead of the war of concentrating power. And if that is a possibility, shouldn't we be putting more of our resources into new strategies, like the Free State Project, my own Seasteading Institute, or Agorism?


Think tanks and activist organizations are complementary

From an email I received from an FSP participant:

David Boaz just spoke at Dartmouth and had this response to a question about the FSP:

"My own attitude towards the Free State Project is that the federal government should move to New Hampshire and leave the rest of us free,” Boaz joked."

He just blew an easy opportunity to say something nice about a fellow libertarian organization.

(Boaz is the Executive Vice-President of Cato).

This attitude is silly. Yes, national reform would be way better. It would also be way better if I shat gold bricks instead of poop and the Miss America Pageant included a category on sexual prowess with me as the judge. The FSP's goal may be far more modest, but at least their goal is not a fantasy and their methods have at least some chance of working.

Policy think-tanks have a valuable role in helping libertarians signal affiliation, showing how flawed the current system is, and generally building culture and momentum. But that diffuse culture and momentum have to be eventually concentrated so that our small movement can have real impact. Projects like the FSP and seasteading are examples of concentrated efforts.

I'm glad that Cato helped promote seasteading, and I wish they would work with and promote the FSP. The apparent attitude that the FSP is a quaint provincial group makes no sense given the strategic landscape for libertarianism. Only such groups have a chance at radically increasing liberty, and that is (or should be) Cato's ultimate goal.


Secession Week Blogging Event

Since July 4th is Secession Day, next week is Secession Week, so A Thousand Nations is going to post links to secession-related blogging all week along.

You can participate by blogging about secession and emailing us a link at athousandnationsbloom@gmail.com.


Posts on Let A Thousand Nations Bloom

Since most of y'all have not yet subscribed to / blogrolled / linked to Let A Thousand Nations Bloom, I will subject you to ruthless cross-posting. Here are the last week's posts:


Metal-backed currency vs. violence-backed currency

The people behind the Liberty Dollar have been arrested for competing with government issued paper currency, by issuing their own commodity-backed currency. Fiat currency is essentially backed by violence, in that if you don't accept it for payments (as a merchant) or try to compete with it, you will get tossed in jail. It is not used because it is superior, it is used because people with guns will stop you if you try to offer an alternative.

This is, fundamentally, how government works. By offering inferior services and threatening to put anyone who competes with them in a cage. (Well, ok, also by occasionally offering genuinely non-excludable / natural monopoly / public goods. Shoddily.)

Here is a blog on the arrests. Also a DOJ Press Release:

Acting U.S. Attorney Edward R. Ryan of the Western District of North Carolina said, “When groups seek to undermine the U.S. currency system, the government is compelled to act. These coins are not government-produced coinage, yet purchasers were led to believe by those who made and sold them that they should be spent like U.S. Federal Reserve Notes. Such claims are in violation of federal law.”

It's absurd to claim that any alternative currency producer says that their currencies will be accepted universally, like violence-backed currency. Alternative currencies come with caveats, including the Liberty Dollar.

The indictment alleges that the purpose of NORFED is to mix Liberty Dollars into the current money of the United States, and further alleges that NORFED intends for the Liberty Dollar to be used as current money in order to limit reliance on, and to compete with, United States currency.

Oh no, we can't have businesses limiting reliance on and competing with US currency! We can't make it compete by being desirable, we have to eliminate competition with violence.

The indictment alleges that members affiliated with NORFED sell the Liberty Dollar coin at a greater price than they pay for it, and that the profit for these individuals is the difference between their discounted purchase price and the price for which they sell the coin. Additionally, according to the allegations contained in the indictment, a person who is not affiliated with NORFED pays the face value minted on the coin.

This is why I wouldn't buy Liberty Dollars - they don't sell for true value. (This is done in order that the conversion to regular dollars not change constantly with every fluctuation of the metal price. It brings a big benefit in convenience, but I still don't like it. I'd rather let a computer convert my purchase price based on current spot prices, and have metal coins that are worth their full weight). But it's comically absurd for the people who print Federal Reserve Notes, and pocket a profit equal to the full face value minus tiny printing costs, to complain about people making a profit from a currency.

And the most absurd statement of all:

“People understand that there is only one legal currency in the United States. When groups try to replace the U.S. dollar with coins and bills that don’t hold the same value, it affects the economy. Consumers were using their hard-earned money to buy goods and services, then getting fake change in return,” said Owen Harris, the Special Agent in Charge of the Charlotte Division of the FBI.

That's right, metal-backed currencies don't hold the same value as violence-backed currencies. The former, everywhere and always, appreciates relative to the latter. Put another way, the former holds its value while the latter dwindles away. What a disingenuous comparison - or perhaps he is so utterly ignorant of the nature and history of money to have meant the reversed meaning.

And people wonder why we want to make government more competitive.


The Wire - Best Libertarian Propaganda I've Ever Seen

One of the things I love about The Wire is that "The System" is a character. hell, a main character. Hell, in many ways, The System is the antagonist of the entire show! Cops/Drug dealers does not map to Good Guys / Bad Guys. Instead what you have is a bunch of people trying to accomplish their goals and often being prevented by the nature of the world and the web of incentives that governs it. A system that those nominally in charge of (Mayor, police chiefs) are at the mercy of almost as much as everyone else.

I mean, that's the economic worldview! That's the libertarian / public choice worldview. And the amazing thing is that it doesn't seem to spring from economic or libertarian inclinations - only from being based on actual experience as cops (the show's creator spent a year embedded in a police dept and wrote a book about it), and studies of drug dealers. (Apparently the drug gangs are based on that study described in Freakonomics where the econ grad student hung out with drug dealers and learned how it actually works).

Whereas House, say, clearly is motivated by atheists (it is written by atheists), and can be dismissed as having an axe to grind, and Atlas Shrugged is the product of moral intuition, not data, The Wire comes to a worldview that is very nonintuitive to most people and that is increasingly at the center of my political beliefs, purely based on data and experience.

In many ways it's not that fun a TV show because it isn't a happy world where people are faced with concrete challenges and opponents that they can overcome. It's not about people getting things done - because that isn't how government works. It isn't about the world getting better - because that isn't what government does. It's a portrait of real people in a mostly dysfunctional system. I'm amazed that it has gone on for 5 seasons and got lots of viewership, even though it is complex and nuanced and very non-feel-good.

It's the best libertarian propaganda I've ever seen.


Open Letter To Ron Paul Supporters

Awesomeness (by which I define as other people dropping great lines espousing my beliefs) over at Strike The Root (emphasis added):

I believe your efforts in the 2008 campaign will one day be viewed as a turning point in our long fight for a free society. Although the Ron Paul campaign didn't bring us smaller government, it resulted in three huge accomplishments for the libertarian movement.

1. It demonstrated the potential of the Internet to spread good ideas quickly, at little to no cost.

2. It showed that libertarians are more than a herd of disorganized individualist cats and are quite capable of effective political organization.

3. It proved once and for all that libertarians will never accomplish meaningful change by working within the confines of the existing system.

It is for #3 that I am most grateful.

For as long as I've been involved in the libertarian movement, there has been a vigorous debate between those who think we need a strategy of participation, of reform from within, and those who think we need a strategy of secession, of reform by dropping out.

Reform from within seemed so much easier -- it was certainly worth a try. Try it we have. We've been trying with all our might for decades now. We haven't had success.

Even as we libertarians have gained significant traction in the ideological debate, we’ve accomplished very little in terms of actual results. Every day, every week, every year, for many years in a row, government has grown larger and more intrusive. Still, you libertarians who sought reform from within kept your chins up. You held out hope that we would eventually gain some ground if we could just get some access.

With the Ron Paul campaign, libertarians got that access. We ran a candidate with strong credibility both in the libertarian movement and in Washington. We had lots of mainstream media attention and even more alternative media attention. We had full entry in the debates. We had lots of money. At some points in the primary race, we had more spending cash than any other candidate. We had the most motivated, organized, impressive grass roots movement of any political campaign in my lifetime.

It led nowhere.

Zing!

While I agree at least 80% with this viewpoint, I feel compelled to point out the weaknesses/alternatives. Even if the Ron Paul campaign failed completely to achieve direct political change, it was enormously useful at getting libertarians to organize and self-identify. It also promoted a culture of libertarianism (although perhaps not as much as Robin Hanson's favorite show). I am somewhat skeptical of the power of long-term cultural change (especially without real-world examples), but there are certainly good arguments for this route.

Still, while building a culture of liberty is certainly valuable, without restoring competition to government, I think it will go nowhere.

Read Stewart's followup also - A New Strategy For Liberty - Part 2: Secession in Three Easy Steps


Make Everybody Rich

Via Michael Strong's latest guest post on A Thousand Nations - Innovation in Government, Part II comes this excellent piece by Frederick Turner (not the Turner thesis Frederick Turner, but the poet/scholar Frederick Turner), which begins:

Any inventory of the world’s current problem areas probably includes several of the following: war, the environment, education, health, crime, women’s rights, unemployment, the oppression of the poor, racism, xenophobia, restrictions on political liberty, the decline of religious spirituality, various crises in the arts, lack of support for scientific research and the space program, and overpopulation. There is, in fact, a simple and effective solution to all these problems: make everybody in the world rich. Poverty is not just one more head on the hydra, but the hydra itself that grows all the heads. Put a stake in the hydra, and the heads disappear.

And then fills in the details. How ironic that wealth, that achievement which the left sees with ambivalence at best, and with confiscatory anger at worse, is the true solution to so many of the problems which they so counterproductively try so solve with government.


Competition In Government

For those of you who haven't subscribed to Let A Thousand Nations Bloom yet, continuing the whole Cato Unbound debate, we have several replies to Will Wilkinson's Libertarian Democraphobia post:


Threatened By Exit

Unfortunately, I had jaw surgery a week after Peter Thiel's response to my Cato Unbound piece came out, and so I spent the ensuing firestorm lying in bed taking liquid Vicodin, rather than vigorously debating. Which is sort of sad, because I love a vigorous debate, especially with people who are being stupid and mean, qualities which were on prominent display in the responses to Peter.

The weird thing is that the firestorm was not over any of the basic ideas, but a throwaway comment he made that one of many reasons why democracy in the US is unlikely to produce libertarianism is that women are a large, non-libertarian voting bloc, and so it is no surprise that the era of female suffrage is also the era of big government. (Although both are the post-Depression era, so as always in country-level trends it isn't like we have clean randomized data).

It is always very telling when people freak out over a simple statistical observation, and I think Jason Kuznicki has the best post pointing out the absurdity of the freakout:

The astonishing thing — the really embarrassing thing for the left-wing blogosphere — is that so many people concluded from these lines that Thiel wants to end women’s suffrage.

People, it’s just not there — he’s not saying it. You should be ashamed of yourselves.
...
Thiel isn’t interested in making any changes at all to American democracy. He wants to exit American democracy. Thiel wants to found a new government with people who share his own (admittedly very eccentric) political views. In other words, he wants to leave you and your suffrage completely alone. Just to repeat, he’s not recommending any change to American government at all, except to subtract himself from it.

There are a lot of things you can accuse a secessionist of, but disenfranchisement is not one of them! The whole point of seasteading is to create more choice among societies. How can that hurt anyone? Oh, wait, I was thinking of a just, libertarian world. I forgot about the parasitic world of the left:

I find it tremendously revealing how threatened the left seems to be at the prospect of a talented, successful individual leaving to found a new society. It’s not enough to say that he’s cooked up a wildly utopian scheme with hardly any chance of success. This might have been more than enough to dismiss him. But no — it’s got to be much worse than that. So out come the lies and the smears. Or maybe the blank incomprehension. (I’m trying to be kind.)

And he closes by mentioning how Atlas Shrugged-sian this is. Which it is! If you doubt that the reaction to Peter's essay is a display of the looting instinct, one of the earliest and highest-profile reactions from the left was entitled "Libertarian inadvertently argues for 90% marginal tax rate":

I think we all know what a combination of watching too many sci-fi movies (plus “Waterworld") and being completely shielded from reality by your money can do. You become either Kim Jong Il, or you become Peter Thiel. We can’t reach Kim Jong Il, but what we can do to help Thiel is to tax away most of his wealth. While that doesn’t initially seem like it’s helpful to take 90% of what someone makes over X million a year, what it would do is force Thiel to get out there and actually work for his money if he wants to be stinking rich. Right now, he’s obviously not getting out of the house much, and all that sitting around counting his money and not associating with the real world is breaking his mind. He needs something to do, and needs to associate with people. Ideally, he’d be in a situation where he had occasional exposure to people who don’t indulge his crazy fantasies. And with the amount of money shielding him from the world, that’s not going to happen. For his own good, that pile of money he’s sitting on needs a dramatic reduction.

Wow. I mean, it pretty much caricatures itself. If you had any doubt that there are people out there who consider all the value you produce to be theirs to dispose of, at whim, "for your own good", this should end it. (If this makes you feel depressed, go join The Seasteading Institute, and you'll feel better).

Now's a good time to note that while I've spent most of my career as a libertarian thinking of Objectivism as a subject for mockery, I am now reading Atlas Shrugged for the first time, and loving it. It hasn't changed my mind about any of the things I think are wrong with the philosophy, and I do get annoyed by things like her constantly equating certainty with strength/good and doubt with weakness/evil (sorry Ayn, but the world is Bayesian and posteriors are rarely 100%. Certainty may be sexy, but it is rarely correct).

But the good things about it are things that hardly appear anywhere else, and are needed now more than ever. The whole theme of how bad laws turn honest people into criminals and outlaws, into hiding from other men instead of taming nature, and what an awful reversal this is of how a good society should be, is just awesome. That's how I've felt my whole life - I just want to create value, not constantly struggle with stupid artificial constraints, and to live my life openly, not constantly have to hide my consensual activities.

The commonalities between Gult's Gulch and seasteading are actually pretty hilarious considering that I had only the vaguest idea of what GG was until a couple weeks ago. There are some key differences, of course, but some strongly overlapping themes.


Let A Thousand Nations Bloom

Jonathan, Mike Gibson, and I have started a new blog on structuralism, competitive government, and related topics called Let A Thousand Nations Bloom. If you're interested in this specific area, please subscribe, post about it, tell your friends about it, etc. :).

I have a post on Is The World Getting Freer?, and we have a guest post from Michael Strong, author of Be The Solution, about Free Zones as an Additional Option for the Cambrian Explosion in Government. We welcome guest posts in our topic area.


Responses to my Cato Unbound essay

The trackback system on Cato Unbound seems to be imperfect, so here is a roundup of the blog reactions to my essay, for some light reading for y'all over the weekend :). I'll be making detailed replies on the Cato Unbound site starting on Tuesday.

Official responses on Cato Unbound:

Around The Blogosphere:


The way to win is not to play

I was reading a post about one of my favorite punching bags, democracy, and saw a reference to this Bryan Caplan post, which I somehow failed to argue with because it was written back in 2007 before I became a full-time seasteading evangelist. Bryan says (responding to someone who maintains a faith in democracy even after reading his book):

What more would I have to do to shake your faith? Do I need a stronger factual argument? Do I need to go after democratic values, as in Nozick's Tale of the Slave? Do I need to build a new social network to compensate for the one I'm undermining, as Larry Iannaccone might argue?

In short, to use a classic salesman's question: "What would it take to get you to abandon democratic fundamentalism today?" Make me an offer, I'm all ears.

Now, I'm going to assume that Bryan's ultimate goal is increased freedom - he is asking this question because he believes that he needs to convince many more people of his thesis to increase freedom, not because fame or book sales are his ultimate goal. If this is the case, then I think he is falling into a very similar trap - another type of democratic fundamentalism. He is so steeped in the democratic worldview that he automatically assumes that in order to win, you have to convince lots of people of the merits of his idea (win an election of sorts).

Life for libertarians would be much more depressing if this were the case. But it isn't. One of the big selling points of seasteading is that we don't have to win any elections. We only need a small committed group, who can then go off and do things their own way. Instead of drawing from the tradition of democracy to structure itself, we draw from the startup tradition. As Paul Graham says in Startups in 13 Sentences:

5. Better to make a few users love you than a lot ambivalent.

Ideally you want to make large numbers of users love you, but you can't expect to hit that right away. Initially you have to choose between satisfying all the needs of a subset of potential users, or satisfying a subset of the needs of all potential users. Take the first. It's easier to expand userwise than satisfactionwise. And perhaps more importantly, it's harder to lie to yourself. If you think you're 85% of the way to a great product, how do you know it's not 70%? Or 10%? Whereas it's easy to know how many users you have.

(I'd throw in a quote about small groups of committed people changing the world, but I hate quoting charlatans)

Now, I'm not trying to deny that it's a good thing to convince more people of the problems of democracy. And I certainly don't begrudge fame and book sales to Mr. Caplan. I'm just saying, if the goal is to change the world, perhaps talking to the people who are already convinced by your arguments about how to construct a better alternative could be more effective than trying to get more votes in the idea election.

Democracy is a crappy incentive scheme - so how about we stop trying to convince the majority and start thinking about how the existing committed minority can act on their own. The Free State Project, while imperfect, is a great example of this kind of modern libertarian thinking that is rising from the ashes of decades of failure of the Libertarian Party. So, of course, is seasteading. I'd love to see more such ideas in the portfolio.