Bryan Caplan  

Seasteading, Strategic Fertility, and Public Goods

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In response to my recent reflections on liberty in the long-run, Patri Friedman defends seasteading over strategic fertility:

As an avowed natalist, I am certainly not going to object to advocating for libertarians to have more kids.  I would love libertarians to have more kids.  But as a strategy to promote political change, it is problematic for the same reason as education and policy activism: they are all public goods.

Having kids for your own personal happiness is, of course, a private good.  But that's not what Bryan is arguing here - he's got a whole book coming out to do that.  Strategic fertility is suggesting that parents have extra kids in order to achieve long-run political change.  But just like educating, proselytizing, or advocating for good policies, the costs of these extra kids are born by their parents, while the benefits accrue to everyone.  Thus they are a public good, and will be underproduced.

Moving to a seastead may be hard, but at least the individual immediately and individually gets the increased freedom. Making the costs (in money, isolation, etc.) less than that increased freedom are a major challenge.  But at least we know that if we meet that challenge, we can get liberty and grow a free society through individual benefit, without having to convince large numbers of people to engage in self-sacrifice for a distant vision.

This all sounds plausible, but I'm not convinced.  Patri's point makes sense once viable seasteads are up and running.  But there's every reason to expect a long, shaky start-up period where most seasteaders will make major sacrifices to live their ideals.  And right now, research into seasteading is - you guessed it - funded by charity - including the tacit donations of talented people who give up much more lucrative positions elsewhere.

Patri's right that having more kids than you'd privately prefer is a public good.  But it's much less of a public good than non-economists (and even many economists) calculate.  Why?  I doubt Patri would make this mistake, but most of the calculations of the "charitable contribution" of one extra kid either count the full out-of-pocket costs, or the out-of-pocket costs plus lost wages.  That could easily add up to $500,000. 

Fortunately, asking libertarians to have one more kid is much less demanding than asking for a $500,000 contribution, because people like their kids!  It's more like asking them to pay $500,000 for an item they selfishly value at only $495,000, or $450,000, or $400,000.  Imagine paying $100 for an elegant Cato banquet; the true charitable contribution, even by the IRS's calculation, might only be $20 or $30, because you get a private good in the bargain.

Bottom line: Almost any strategy for radical change asks people to voluntarily contribute to a public good.  Tying libertarian change to private goods is smart marketing, but it's not enough.  It's also vital to figure out how to get the most bang for your charitable buck.  Maybe Patri's right that seasteading has a bigger expected return for liberty than strategic fertility, but he'll have to work harder to convince me.


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COMMENTS (16 to date)
kevin writes:

God help us if these are our best options for protecting and expanding liberty. There does seem to be a kernel of libertarianism at the heart of the Tea Party movement, for now that seems to be our best hope.

I say this as someone who has donated to The Seasteading Institute.

wintercow20 writes:

Bryan,

I am not sure you are giving enough weight to the possibility that some libertarians would be willing to sacrifice a great deal for some more freedom. For example, we abhor our public schools here and so we eschew our school system. The neighborhood is nice - and on our little house we pay about $6500 per year in property taxes - most of which goes toward our public schools.

We have and continue to plan to send our 2 children to a local catholic school. Doing this for 12 years does not get me to $500,000 - but certainly part of the way there. I think the nature of the costs matters as much as the magnitude of the costs.

For example, we love paddling and hiking here in the Finger Lakes - we would miss that more than anything and it would really be what stopped us from seasteading - not just the financial burden, if that were solely the problem.

Butler T. Reynolds writes:

In terms of promoting libertarianism, perhaps you'd get more bang for your buck if you joined the Free State Project and had extra kids in New Hampshire! :)

Jim writes:

If libertarians raising kids is a public good, should we be advocating for government subsidies for libertarian couples to reproduce?

Hume writes:

Bryan,

I am unfamiliar with the research, but my intution tells me that the genetics and personality traits that may nudge one individual towards libertarianism may have the opposite effect on their offspring. Perhaps contrarianism is passed down genetically (I have no idea if this is the case), and this is a leading factor in the development of a libertarian's beliefs (I'm not claiming that this is what guides libertarians). What better way to act on your contrarian personality than to rebel against your parents' political/libertarian beliefs?

Hume writes:

"If libertarians raising kids is a public good, should we be advocating for government subsidies for libertarian couples to reproduce?"


Jim,

Deontological libertarians would not favor such a subsidy. This is because such a subsidy will require violations of libertarian rights through taxation. For example, perhaps such a deontological libertarian believes that he has a duty to respect the (libertarian) rights of others. Thus, he believes that such rights have a value. Now one would say, "shouldnt he then favor institutional policies that maximize this value?" The answer is no. A deontological libertarian will not support institutional policies that require specific acts that violate the duty to respect the (libertarian) rights of others, even if the violation in question will lead to less violations of the duty in question. This is the distinction between favoring an institution that "honors a value" vs. favoring an institution that "promotes a value" (consequentialist).

Jim writes:

Hume,

Well, that was kind of a joke actually. I suppose such a subsidy would also be problematic for consequentialist libertarians once you consider the unintended consequences of putting the government in charge of determining how to define "libertarian" for eligibility purposes and calculating the correct amount of the subsidy to achieve the socially optimal quantity supplied of libertarian children.

Butler,

Right on. That's what I'm doing.

Rebecca Burlingame writes:

To be sure, creating a family or community environment of ideas is one way to encourage more libertarians. But I believe a far more effective way is to actually create sets of economic tools within social infrastructure networks which actually allow those tools to work. Through the actual use of those tools, people can show how libertarian ideas work by specific examples. A lot of people are willing to accept ideas when they see them actually working in practice. Otherwise, for some, no ideological persuation may be sufficient.

8 writes:

The very first question is how much the parents expose their children to the public school system and unfiltered popular culture, which are the major ideological transmission systems for the low fertility progressives.

Michael Bauscher writes:

"The womb of the Arab woman is my strongest weapon."

Three guesses on who you can attribute that quote to. The first two don't count.

"God help us if these are our best options for protecting and expanding liberty. There does seem to be a kernel of libertarianism at the heart of the Tea Party movement, for now that seems to be our best hope."

The Rand Paul hooplah has highlighted a glaring separation between the libertarian and Tea Party movements. A social conservative libertarian comes off as a racist. Its hard to proclaim that racism is an regrettable by-product of property rights while being against... say... same sex marriage.

The Tea Party has simply cherry picked elements of libertarian philosophy to provide intellectual justification for some of its views. They don't extend the same personal liberty views to red state hot button issues that would alienate the conservative constituency.

Within these states, the libertarian parties are loudly distancing themselves from the Tea Party candidates. And with good reason. Their name is being tarnished.

Matt Flipago writes:

If the initial start up only requires a few people to sacrifice, this is not really an impossible task. After the masses won't respond to self sacrifice for the good of humanity, but some will. Relying on a small fraction for self sacrifice is very plausible.

(Michael): "It's hard to proclaim that racism is a regrettable by-product of property rights while being against... say... same sex marriage."

This sounds confused. Does anyone really contend that "...racism is a regrettable by-product of property rights..."? More like, State protection of property rights will, as a "by-product", protect some expressions of racist beliefs. So also will State protection of free speech protect some expressions of racist beliefs. So also will State protection of freedom of association protect some racist beliefs (or would you prefer that the State compel people to choose mates at random?).

(Michael): "The Tea Party has simply cherry picked elements of libertarian philosophy to provide intellectual justification for some of its views. They don't extend the same personal liberty views to red state hot button issues that would alienate the conservative constituency."

Opposition to a legal redefinition of "marriage" to include same sex couples is entirely consistent with the Tea Party emphasis on tax limitation. Redefinition of "marriage", with the consequent expansion of health care coverage for government employees, is a tax increase.

mulp writes:

Given libertarian ideals seek to eliminate government, it seems the evidence overwhelming argues evolution selects for those favoring government.

Let's take Pitcairn Island which must be near the libertarian ideal. It reached a peak population of 233, but has since fallen to about 50 as its citizens have moved emigrated elsewhere.

Libertarians might have migrated to US Virgin Islands in the 70s when the population was around 60,000 and had lots of kids there. Then voted to have the US Virgin Islands to become independent.

Still, the population is only 100,000; 20,000 libertarians moving there and having 5 kids per couple should be enough to swing the Virgin Islands to Libertarian Islands in a quarter century.

EH writes:

Bottom line: Almost any strategy for radical change asks people to voluntarily contribute to a public good.

Yeah, but there is such a huge difference of degree here, its pretty much a difference in kind. Your proposal relies on systematic, sustained net positive charity (not impossible, but itll happen the same day a broken glass coalesces into a whole), whereas seasteading requires only a sufficiently strong local fluctuation of charitability, after which it should sustain itself.

That said, im probably biased, working for TSI and all.

Michael Bauscher writes:

"This sounds confused. Does anyone really contend that "...racism is a regrettable by-product of property rights..."? More like, State protection of property rights will, as a "by-product", protect some expressions of racist beliefs. So also will State protection of free speech protect some expressions of racist beliefs. So also will State protection of freedom of association protect some racist beliefs (or would you prefer that the State compel people to choose mates at random?)."

The majority of Americans view the extent of personal liberty as John Stuart Mill did. "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others." That's why many see Rand Paul, Barry Goldwater, and other libertarians as wrong in this aspect of opposition to the Civil Rights Act. You are right of course. That "...racism is a regrettable by-product of property rights..." isn't a fair statement. But equating the illegality of serving black people at a restaurant, but not allowing them to sit at a lunch counter to mandated eugenics is a slippery slope.

My view would be that infringement upon property rights is an unfortunate byproduct of ensuring equal participation in civic society and the market.

Besides, as long as a property holder is reliant upon the state to enforce its policies the argument is ridiculous. A man walks into a store with a firearm when it is posted that they are not welcome, the store owner can call the police to have the gun carrier removed. If the same store owner doesn't like people with red hair, it puts the state police force in the awkward position of enforcing the shop owners wishes to the detriment of the red headed community. Private property is reliant upon public services to exist and must accept certain conditions to do so. Part of the social contract.

"Opposition to a legal redefinition of "marriage" to include same sex couples is entirely consistent with the Tea Party emphasis on tax limitation. Redefinition of "marriage", with the consequent expansion of health care coverage for government employees, is a tax increase."

This is hard to accept. Cutting federal funding to he state of Vermont would be a tax decrease. But it's hardly an explanation of what should be the expected rights and liberties of persons in Vermont.

And it was my understanding that the libertarian view of marriage is one of minimal civil union distinction that is open to all people. Recognition of a couple is necessary in as much as recognition of a corporation is. If a church wants to call you married so be it... if it doesn't then so be it as well.

(Michael): "...equating the illegality of serving black people at a restaurant, but not allowing them to sit at a lunch counter to mandated eugenics is a slippery slope."

Engrish, prease? I tried to parse this and just couldn't. Laws ban, require, or ignore. What do you intend in the above?

(Michael): "...infringement upon property rights is an unfortunate byproduct of ensuring equal participation in civic society and the market."

I hold these truths to be (almost) self-evident: that only monozygotic twins are created equal, that even monozygotic twins diverge in their physical and intellectual development as the environment impinges upon them, that differences exist among people in their desire to participate "in civic society and the market", and that a policy regime which gives to State (government, generally) actors the power to enforce an illusory "equal participation" will do far more harm than good.

(Michael): "...as long as a property holder is reliant upon the state to enforce its policies the argument is ridiculous."

We disagree. Certainly "private property is socially determined", as my Marxist friends say, trying to sound deep while stating the obvious. All legal regimes are socially determined. This does not make all legal systems equal in their impact. If the law allows me to call upon the police to evict trespassers from my house, I do not see why it should not also allow me to call upon the police to evict trespassers from my shop. Who is trespassing is for the owner to determine.

(Me): (Redefinition of marriage to include same-sex couples is a tax increase).
(Michael): "This is hard to accept. Cutting federal funding to the state of Vermont would be a tax decrease. But it's hardly an explanation of what should be the expected rights and liberties of persons in Vermont."

Dunno 'bout Vermont. I thought we were speaking generally. Morality and law are evolved customs. Society benefits when customs provide children with a supportive environment. One of the participants in the original Baer, et. al. versus Miike suit against the Director of the Hawaii Department of Health gave as her cause for complaint that the State's refusal to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples deprived her of access to her partner's tax-funded, employer-provided health plan. Her partner's employer was the University of Hawaii. Taxpayers will pick up the bill. Expanded access to State-mandated health plans of private business (Hawaii mandates health insurance for more-than-1/2-time employees) is a transfer of wealth from healthy latent heterosexuals to people who are far more likely to have an expensive medical condition and who are far less likely to have children. This is a tax increase, even if it does not pass through the State treasury.

Slippery slope arguments can slip both ways.

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