New at Cato Unbound

This month’s Cato Unbound continues our tradition of stirring up controversy. The lead essay is by Patri Friedman, who challenges the advocates of liberty as follows:

I deeply yearn to live in an actual free society, not just to imagine a theoretical future utopia or achieve small incremental gains in freedom. For many years, I enthusiastically advocated for liberty under the vague assumption that advocacy would help our cause. However, I recently began trying to create free societies as my full-time job, and this has given me a dramatic perspective shift from my days of armchair philosophizing. My new perspective is that the advocacy approach which many libertarian individuals, groups, and think tanks follow (including me sometimes, sadly) is an utter waste of time.

Argument has refined our principles, and academic research has enlarged our understanding, but they have gotten us no closer to an actual libertarian state. Our debating springs not from calculated strategy, but from an intuitive “folk activism”: an instinct to seek political change through personal interaction, born in our hunter-gatherer days when all politics was personal. In the modern world, however, bad policies are the result of human action, not human design. To change them we must understand how they emerge from human interaction, and then alter the web of incentives that drives behavior. Attempts to directly influence people or ideas without changing incentives, such as the U.S. Libertarian Party, the Ron Paul campaign, and academic research, are thus useless for achieving real-world liberty.

Cato isn’t called out by name, but it easily could have been. Like I said, Cato Unbound tries to be controversial.

What’s needed, Friedman claims, is not more study or advocacy, but a change in the deeper institutional structures that give rise to government policies. Competition among states (and non-state agents!), new technologies, and new intentional communities may just induce old-fashioned governments to behave a whole lot better. By contrast, just recommending somewhat better policies won’t do very much, not if all we do is write about them. (Friedman seems particularly skeptical about blogs. Ahem.)

Is this just a young person’s impatience? Or has Friedman found a serious weakness in libertarian activism? One reply I might make is that Cato scholars have researched quite a few topics that Friedman would probably find worthwhile. It’s important to document these things, and much of this work directly furthers the kind of structural reform that Friedman favors.

Consider the many Cato scholars who have heralded the rise of tax competition — in which states feel increasing pressure to deliver a low-cost product when their taxpayers can move elsewhere. Or consider Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter, a book whose conclusions inform Friedman’s own project. This book began with a series of discussions among public policy scholars (on a blog no less!). Cato actively promoted Caplan’s work, and we would hope that Friedman would find this an effort well-spent. An upcoming event with author James Tooley shows how the world’s poor are founding their own schools to educate themselves, admirably free from any state interference — a new, private social practice bests an incompetent government! These things matter, I’d say, and they matter even if we accept Friedman’s premises. (We’re also giving a platform to Friedman, both here and at an event on April 7.)

In any case, this a big and very important discussion for the libertarian movement, of which the Cato Institute is only a part. Cato Unbound will have a remarkable series of panelists commenting throughout this week and next, including Jason Sorens, founder of the Free State Project; Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and noted philanthropist; and Brian Doherty, who has researched and written about more forms of libertarian activism than most of us can even recall. Whatever side of the debate you end up taking, be sure to stop by to catch this month’s edition of Cato Unbound.

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