Bryan Caplan  

Liberty in the Long Run

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The last topic in the last lecture of my Public Choice class is the "transition problem."  Suppose you accept that radical libertarianism would be a big improvement over the status quo, and stable once established.  How do we get from here to there?

The main possibilities, plus critique:

1. Violent revolution.  I dismiss this as sheer idiocy; to quote David Friedman, "Revolution is the hell of it."  Violence can be an effective way to create a new tyranny.  But it always leads to massive abuse of freedom in the short-term, and the promised long-run increase in freedom rarely materializes.  In fact, the long-run effect of revolution on freedom is normally negative.

2.  Persuasion.  It's useful at the margin, but for radical change, it's a long shot even in the long-run.

3. Infilitration.  Critique: See persuasion.

4. Coordinated movement to change the median voter - e.g. the Free State Project.  Might work, but the private cost of moving to New Hampshire is very high for most people.  I'll bet that most people who promise to come once the group reaches its threshold (20,000) don't actually move within 3 years.

5. Create your own society.  "Start your own country" projects almost always fail.  Charter cities and seasteading have some logistical and diplomatic advantages over playing Crusoe, but most people don't want to move to a new city in a weird country, and almost no one wants to take to the high seas.

During the lecture, one last strategy popped into my head.  In the Battlestar Galactica pilot, President Roslin's plan to save mankind is simple: "We need to start having babies."  Suggesting:

6. Strategic fertility.  Standard twin methods find that political philosophy and issue views (though not party labels) are at least moderately heritable.  But wait, there's more: Since there's strong assortative mating for political agreement, standard methods seriously understate the heritability of politics.   The upshot is that if libertarians can get and keep their birth rates well above average, liberty will actually be popular in a century or two.  And even if this plan to free the world fails, it will still create a bunch of awesome people.

Strategic fertility might seem like a big burden, but as I keep arguing, being a great parent is a lot easier than it looks because nurture is so overrated.  And even if I'm wrong about the power of nurture, having one extra child is probably easier than moving to New Hampshire, and certainly easier than moving to a seastead.  Admittedly, if you want radical libertarian change in your lifetime, strategic fertility isn't much help.  But what is?

Other critiques?  Other ideas?


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The author at The Warwick in a related article titled Bryan Caplan’s Secret Libertarian Plot writes:
    (from a conversation with alison) Bryan Caplan recently had a post on EconLog about transitioning from the status quo to a libertarian society. I was alerted to a particular section of the post, where Caplan describes one method for libertarians to cre... [Tracked on May 22, 2010 3:08 AM]
COMMENTS (37 to date)
BZ writes:

My favorite suggestion at the moment amounts to "being at the table when the revolution happens anyway". The idea is that as the west goes the way of Greece, the effectiveness of persuasion goes way up, as people start looking for radical solutions to their radical problems. Our goal then is to persuade academia and those whose voices might be most likely heard at the moment of truth.

A variation on #4 might be the various secession ideas frequently floated. As much as I love my Texas home, I'm somewhat suspicious of devolution since, atm, the power of states to restrict commerce with other states is quite limited, and I've no doubt at my mind whatsoever that a "Buy Texas" movement would spring up here pretty quickly.


david writes:

It's useful at the margin, but for radical change, it's a long shot even in the long-run.

(okay, perhaps that was excessively snide... but it seems like an accurate assessment)

Hahahah.
Bryan, only the extremely passionate deontologists will endorse an approach that costs them a lot in their life to bequeath liberty to a generation two centuries away.

Jody writes:

Religions and conquering nations have understood this for a LONG time. I would go so far as to say that if you belong to any self-aware group that has a future time orientation, then strategic fertility is already in your repertoire.

Because of the strong economics strand that runs through libertarianism, I'll take future time orientation as a given. But I'm somewhat doubtful that libertarians self-aware as a group (i.e., to they self-consciously identify themselves primarily as belonging to the group of libertarians) due to strong individualism.

Also see Idiocracy for the flip-side.

Snorri Godhi writes:

A couple more ideas:

7. Foot voting. It combines obvious benefits for individuals with incentives to governments. The strength of the incentives to governments is proportional to the responsiveness of individuals to incentives.

8. Darwinism. IF libertarian government really is best, then it is the most likely to survive. That is because of both foot voting and the greater efficiency of the free market.
I admit that some deviations from pure libertarianism might be needed for survival; but then, I am much more Darwinist than libertarian.

floccina writes:

Another possibility is a new invention that makes it impossible to collect taxes.

Joe writes:

A friend of mine who's wife is from Québec used to joke about how the Catholic Church used to encourage French-Canadian's to have a large number of kids, in part to increase the votes for Québec independence. I don't know how true it is, but seems to mirror the idea of strategic fertility.

Bob Murphy writes:

Let me make the obvious joke: Bryan, have you ever checked out the male/female ratio at a libertarian event? Are you suggesting cloning?

Daniel Kuehn writes:

I'm kind of intrigued that you teach this in a class. I've never had a professor's normative position so front-and-center as course material. You sort of got a sense of their normative positions, but not like this.

Is this a common way to handle normative issues at Mason? I found that rather surprising.

Disclaimer - not that I'm saying my experience is representative. I have experience from the economics departments of George Washington University and William and Mary. I know we had some quite opinionated professors, but none of it ever came out in the lecture notes like this.

A radical extension of #2 is to pool resources with like-minded individuals to buy up media companies and spread your radical libertarian ideology through propogranda, a la Rupert Murdoch. The trick is in starting from a popular (read: profitable) perspective with a wide enough base of readers/listeners/viewers and then gradually progressing towards more radical libertarian ideals. If you do it slow enough then it will be more likely that your ideas will be well received and less likely to lose your customers.

Propoganda may have been a more effective medium of the past when information was less available, only through newspapers, radios, and magazines. But if information is more easily obtained now, then it will make your effort less expensive. Blogs and social media, with sufficient viewership, can aid in increasing the speed of the distribution of ideas.

Rebecca Burlingame writes:

An economic framework that allows individuals to tap into a lifetime of skills would definitely help. Unfortunately, money as it is currently used has people thinking that 99 percent of what they have learned in life does not really count and the repercussions of this in the present are not good.

Arthur_500 writes:

This is the tactic espoused by the Roman Catholic Church so you really aren't the first to mention such an idea. There is much to be said for the idea but it has some obvious flaws.

There is a relationship among cultures with great needs they desire to be filled by government that already have high birth rates. Do you think you could out-fertilize those populations?

Obviously higher populations would require more services and there would be an outcry for greater government. I think that would be counter-productive - no pun intended.

On the other hand the practice would bring a lot of smiles to the faces of the population and that can never be a bad outcome. Since I left New Hampshire many years ago and I don't own a ship, let me know where to sign up for this new solution.

Damn, now I need healthcare...

John T. Kennedy writes:

Life extension.

Tom Dougherty writes:

“The upshot is that if libertarians can get and keep their birth rates well above average, liberty will actually be popular in a century or two.”

Wouldn’t this also be an argument against open borders, a view many libertarian's have? There are tens of thousands of new people coming here every year illegally that come from a country without a tradition of liberty that out number or at least off set the amount of children from libertarian parents. The Heritage Foundation 2010 ranking of economic freedom put Mexico at 41 just ahead of Kuwait. While there are short term economic benefits of getting your yard mowed cheaply or getting your fruit picked at low cost, there are also long term economic costs associated with having lots of people at the ballot box who are not so enamored with liberty and would rather vote themselves benefits paid for by the US Treasury. Illegal immigration might have short term economic benefits (although there are certainly short term economic costs as well) but aren’t we inviting tyranny in the long run.

Nathan writes:

Tom--Immigrants are generally not representative of the countries from which they come, but are, almost by definition, outliers. I don't have any data offhand on whether immigrants are more or less libertarian than their (ex)countrymen, but it's an interesting question.

Mike Sproul writes:

#7. Government itself is privately owned. Shopping malls, homeowners' associations, and apartment complexes are small-scale examples of privately owned governments. The worse the governance in other areas, the more the privately-owned governments thrive.

Yancey Ward writes:

Dramatic change only comes with revolution- almost all of which are violent. The commenter that wrote "be at the table" when it does. With this said, a lot of the Bryan's suggestions are ways to be at that table.

Arthur B. writes:

So you have to outpace world population growth, 1.17% / year. Very doable, but compare this to persuasion. If every libertarian converts someone once in 85 years, that beats population growth. Persuasion seems very ineffective, but on a Darwinian scale it's actually extremely powerful. If you manage to convince someone once in 10 year, that's a 10% / year growth rate, dwarfing population growth.

mulp writes:

I find it odd that you dismiss a number of options as too expensive and then propose having a lot of kids, which is very expensive, unless you depend on the big government subsidies for big families.

Sure, the US doesn't have the big government family policies of northern Europe, but still, big families get government aid greater than the taxes paid. The families with the highest incomes tend to have small families; or perhaps the relationship is big families are sacrificed to increase family income.

In any case, it seems to me you are arguing that libertarian principles are not seen as worth the sacrifice by most who claim to be libertarians. I have long had the feeling libertarians have been looking for the free lunch of societies built by big government without the cost of big government.

Malalex writes:

Strategic secession.

There's always somebody up for secession, anywhere. Which means your movement gets to draw resources from Alaskans, Okinawans, Basques. As you note in 'Myth of RV,' in-group rhetoric is tastier to the masses than didactic libertarianism any day of the week.

So step 1 is coordinate various local movements into a Secession Internationale.

Step 2 is achieve, once the ball gets rolling, hundreds of thousands of teensy microstates.

This reduces the required scale of the Free State project. So now it's about, say, 35 families moving to The Republic of Northwest Peoria.

ziel writes:

"having a lot of kids, which is very expensive..."

Not so bad if you don't send them to private colleges. The rest of your comment is characteristically sophistic and off-point regarding anything Bryan wrote.

User writes:

Coup

Edward Luttwak has some convincing arguments about why this can't happen in the contemporary United States, but coups can, have, and will occur in other times and places.

Note that a coup is very different from a violent revolution in that it is not a mass movement, but a very limited application of force. A coup must lead to some abuse of freedom, given that violence is almost always involved, but there's no reason you must assume that it will lead to a massive one, even in the short term. Of course, a coup is only libertarian if those holding it are. I have no idea how common that is in practice, but I would guess "not very."

Ryan Vann writes:

What about non-compliance/non-violent resistance? In my mind, this and violence are really the only immediately effective revolutionary tactics. Of course, to get a critical mass where these tactics would work takes a bit of all of the other approaches mentioned above.

Lori writes:

Suppose you accept that radical libertarianism would be a big improvement over the status quo, and stable once established.

Suppose you don't. Then what?

Persuasion.  It's useful at the margin, but for radical change, it's a long shot even in the long-run.

I tend to take the view that anything that's good essentially sells itself. Like most left-of-center types, I've become accustomed to being lectured endlessly about 'evolutionary not revolutionary change' and 'why can't you just be pragmatic.' Perhaps the rightist version of libertarianism should also bide its time and wait its turn. And settle for incremental change.

Infilitration.  Critique: See persuasion.

The fact that the word libertarian used to mean, among other things, anticapitalist, is a textbook example of infiltration.

Coordinated movement to change the median voter - e.g. the Free State Project.  Might work, but the private cost of moving to New Hampshire is very high for most people.  I'll bet that most people who promise to come once the group reaches its threshold (20,000) don't actually move within 3 years.

So what? Your ideology equates human rights with property rights, so there's nothing in it for the non-affluent anyway. Filtering out the riff-raff and looooozers should logically appeal to 'libertarians.'

Strategic fertility.  Standard twin methods find that political philosophy and issue views (though not party labels) are at least moderately heritable.  But wait, there's more: Since there's strong assortative mating for political agreement, standard methods seriously understate the heritability of politics.   The upshot is that if libertarians can get and keep their birth rates well above average, liberty will actually be popular in a century or two.  And even if this plan to free the world fails, it will still create a bunch of awesome people.

Natal nationalism again rears its ugly head. Sounds like the children of 'libertarians' would be a means to an end. I thought one of the doctrines of 'libertarianism' was the individual being an end in themself. Would you disown a child for becoming a filthy collectivist like me?

HiggsBoson writes:

"Strategic fertility" seems like a risky strategy to me, how are we to be sure our children will be libertarians?

Personally I like options #2-5, and what about agorism?

I'll take the bet that most Free Staters will not move. I do think a significant number will not move, but I would bet it will be less than most.

Philo writes:

"How do we get from here to there?" If *we* included all American citizens, and we all embraced libertarianism, there would be no problem: we would institute a libertarian system by voting within the existing democratic framework. In practice, *we* are a very small minority, and the answer to your question is: "We don't."

Matt writes:

Take an indirect approach: give collectivists a sizeable chunk of what they want. Once things go south (and we know they will) maybe some radical libertarian ideas can be implemented. Eliminating the Dept. of Education, minimum wage laws, and barriers to Asian students at universities would be a nice start.

Roger writes:

The only good solution that I see is AN OPT OUT PROVISION.

We need to slowly evolve the ability to opt out of the most misguided regulations and rules. It could start (for example) with an opt out for higher taxes on social security (same taxes at lower benefits), then opt out of the worst aspects of medicare or health "reform." Then perhaps the ability to opt out of restrictions to public school union monopolies.

Once something like this started, people would begin self selecting toward a more libertarian, pragmatic future. The ponzi schemes would collapse before they had a chance to grow. The system's dynamic would change from Mancur Olson's nightmare to Hayek's dream.

What we need isn't a revolution or breeding program, but a wedge issue that establishes a small precedent for opt out. Then we need to slowly and rationally extend the ability to opt out until a new system eventually evolves. The path of the process will differ by state and country. Mistakes will be made. Breakthroughs will be found and copied.

We need a personal opt out!

Roger

Larry writes:

Bob Murphy beat me to his comment. I don't think assortative mating to produce lots more libertarians is going to happen because there aren't many female libertarians.

I imagine there are more females who are libertarian than one would think just from looking at Libertarian Party events, but I suspect the ratio still isn't nearly what we would want.

Does anyone have a realistic idea about how to make more females congenial to libertarian philosophy?

Arvid writes:

Honestly Bryan, how could you not mention agorism in this post?

Alex J. writes:

All the social groups which bear lots of children of which I am aware are patriarchal. Very few of the libertarians of whom I am aware have patriarchal relationships; the two are inconsistent. Women bear more of the cost of producing children, so systems which give women what they want, all else being equal, will be systems where women have fewer children.

Consider that it was Bryan who had to convince his wife to have another child.

There's still the possibility of technologies to reduce the cost of childbirth for women.

Les writes:

Among the other long-shots, what about a constitutional amendment that limits the federal government to running nothing but:

1) The military;
2) The criminal and civil justice system;
3) A federal flat tax 4) A budget surplus;

No more federal government borrowing permitted.

It would require passing by a super majority of states. Of course its a long-shot - but what else is there?

Prakhar Goel writes:

@Nathan,

An aside to this discussion but important nonetheless: If immigrants could be demonstrated to vote in a consistently non-libertarian manner, would you oppose open borders?

Patri Friedman writes:

almost no one wants to take to the high seas

I don't know if this is true. We have accumulated 150 paying members and 1700 people on our mailing list in just 2 years. Our website has hundreds of people whose profile says "ready to move now". Of course, these people are viewing things in far mode, and in near mode I think most of those people would not actually move. But "almost no one" is, I think, an exaggeration.

One thing to remember is that you have an established community, family, and local ties. Young people are *much* more willing to move, on average.

Another thing to keep in mind is that because of this exact problem, we have strategies focused on minimizing cost at the beginning. ie initially locate 12 miles from a city, encourage people to come as tourists, buy timeshares, or try it out for a few months, rather than counting on people to commit to full-time life in a place they've never been.

Skeptikos writes:

I have multiple issues with this.

First are the opportunity costs. How many people could you have turned into a libertarian in the time you spent raising this child?

Because the heredity of libertarianism is less than 1, if having this child prevents you from turning merely 1 person into a libertarian, it is counterproductive.*

Second, planning for a century from now is just not realistic. We could be building new nations on the moon at that point. Or living under a system of deliberative democracy, or doing Ray Kurzweil stuff, etc.


*I'm simplifying. The person you persuade may die in 10 years, while the child you raise may be an active libertarian for 50 years. On the other hand, you don't need to turn someone into a libertarian to be useful. Changing minds about one particular policy helps, too, and I seem to have a pretty easy time with that. All in all, I don't find it plausible that me having a child will increase the total amount of libertarian-ness.

Not saying that it won't happen, but it won't happen for this reason.

Libby Liberty writes:

0) gorw the government so big it fails. Let freedom rain.

G writes:

To have an effect on current and future generations, it's got to get into the US Constitution...Try this for starters: http://www.amendment28.net/

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