When I started blogging here about 18 months ago, I knew that I was having trouble identifying myself as exactly “libertarian”, despite that being my primary blogging perspective for years before that. I’ve mapped out important parts of this “new” position in previous posts, but now I think it would make sense to put everything in one place. This post is labeled “2.0” since former postlibertarian.com blogger Joshua Hedlund defined it pretty well in 2011. This is a more in depth analysis.
There were several ways I found libertarianism initially attractive. One was of course the impressive simplicity of competitive markets providing incentive structures that created efficiency, with high quality goods at low prices (and I’ll get back to that). Libertarianism also drew me in because it allowed for a rational, skeptical perspective on the political process, where debate often seemed bogged down in tribalism and name-calling instead of results.
From there, I learned about libertarian takes on philosophy, economics, politics, and more. There’s definitely a personality type that is drawn to libertarian ideas: engineers, technologists, logicians. Their way of thinking is not about feeling, but about applying rules and working through problems. Thus, logic and rationality are often vital to libertarian thought: a common critique of right-wing or left-wing politics is that they are not internally consistent, whereas libertarianism is. There’s even a strong subset of libertarians who advocate building a libertarian philosophy from first principles (notably, the Non-Aggression Principle); this is inherently attractive to people who lean libertarian (and perhaps even non-libertarians!).
So, if you are taking libertarianism seriously, if you believe in property rights, can you justify the existence of the state? It’s pretty hard. The way I dealt with this was to focus on practical reforms, and if it ever got to the point where we had to worry about minarchism vs anarchism, I’d figure it out then.
Then, around five years ago, I found reddit, and really dove in. Internet arguments don’t sound like the most productive use of time, but reddit discussions made me much more aware of other people’s views, and how best to communicate my ideas or understand theirs. It also made it quite apparent that deontological arguments didn’t work that well. If someone has a view of fundamental rights that differs from those of a hardcore libertarian’s, there is no argument you can make to change their fundamental beliefs. In my view, this is related to the is-ought problem: it’s very hard to go from statements of fact (is statements) to moral statements (should statements).
So I moved towards consequentialism, i.e. we should pass libertarian policies because they will lead us to the best outcomes. This was doubly beneficial for allowing me to focus on practical reforms (you can advocate for partial reforms if you’re not constantly preoccupied with all taxation being theft), as well as allowing for an easier method of interacting with non-libertarians. It also seemed to make more sense logically: maybe inviolate property rights was the best policy, and maybe it wasn’t, but if there was a situation where other policies could do better, was there a point in sticking with the Non-Aggression Principle?
Ultimately, it is consequentialism that is the founding tenet of any postlibertarian philosophy, and each succeeding section is based on consequentialist assumptions.
Probably Not Anarchism
At this point, I hadn’t rejected anarcho-capitalism; the state might not need to exist, but justifications would have to be consequentialist, not rights-based. Nonetheless, it just wasn’t much of an important question to me. What mattered was pragmatic improvements in policy, hopefully with studies and evidence.
Honestly, the importance of practicality is an excellent critique of anarcho-capitalism; focusing on destroying the state might make you too crazy for any bridges with people who want to do something about the world today. But I think it’s still important to formulate a deeper understanding of anarcho-capitalism on its own merits and determine whether it should be rejected accordingly.
One big problem is that there is little empirical evidence for an anarcho-capitalistic society; if it was such a great idea, societies should spontaneously end up there, as no country would choose to switch away from the best possible set up. If the counterpoint is that no ancap society could stick around as long as there were other states, well that makes anarcho-capitalism either unobtainable or requiring all-out warfare, which is undesirable.
Another issue is that even if you slowly devolve away parts of the state, it seems to me that microstates would naturally reoccur. Perhaps through private developers contracting with private protection services in neighborhoods or apartment buildings, we would have neighborhood or apartment buildings with single legal regimes, which is a microstate. Or perhaps various private protection services over a broad area would agree on a standardized set of arbitration rules (i.e. “law”), and boom, we are also back with a microstate.
But the most impressive point to me was when I read David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom. Friedman is the authority on consequentialist justifications for anarcho-capitalism, yet when it comes to one of the most fundamental aspects of the state, national defense, he essentially concedes that the public goods problem is difficult to overcome. There is no way to force free riders to pay for national defense without a state. Of course, that is only the very edge I am rejecting; I may not identify as an anarcho-capitalist, but private law seems pretty radical to everyone else. I’m going to revisit this later, but for now, we’re coming right up to the ancap deep waters and stopping just short.
As I mentioned, the ability of markets to allocate resources for high production at low cost was one of the first things that drew me to free market ideology and libertarianism specifically. I still find this basic analysis of markets generally compelling. Hayek’s essay on price theory, The Use of Knowledge in Society, is still one of my favorite pieces of economic discussion. It illuminates one of the most fundamental reasons I find markets important: they coordinate action with information from as many sources as possible, in ways that centralized authorities could not possibly find out. It is for this reason that markets with lower barriers to entry (from governments or otherwise) can better respond to consumer demand. Deregulation or disruption has thus been successful in so many industries, like air travel (Airline Deregulation Act), trucking (Motor Carrier Act), taxis (mobile ridesharing apps), entertainment (Netflix, YouTube, music streaming), etc.
Moreover, in a broad sense, centralized economic planning failed in the 20th century, and most countries you’d generally want to live in have market or mixed market economies, because you just can’t generate prosperity without a market economy. Even Scandinavian countries that Bernie Sanders likes to point to, like Denmark or Sweden, score well on measures of regulatory freedom (Economic Freedom Index, Human Freedom Index) even if they spend a great deal more money on redistribution than the United States.
I don’t believe markets are perfect, because they don’t solve every issue; if you are poor, markets can make you more productive, reduce the cost of your expenses, and even expand your access to credit, but generally only over the long-run. In the short run, there can be gaps. Moreover, actors are often irrational, not planning for bad times or not preparing for unforeseen problems. Government often creates new problems through moral hazard where market actors expect the state to provide a safety net, but imperfect democratic processes result in bad policy or poor implementation. Finally, it’s entirely possible that market actors’ starting skills or cash endowment is too low to practically exist off of, or that even properly laid private planning can collapse in unforeseen ways, leaving an individual in dire straits through no fault of their own. Perhaps a libertarian interpretation of the “deserving poor” would be very narrow, but I argue (1) it does exist, (2) is not addressed by the market, and (3) may not be addressed by any voluntary organizations.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that the welfare state as it currently exists is good, or that it makes economic sense. Rather I’m stating that if I’m really a consequentialist and it is the outcomes that matter, and if I’m thus not wed to the abolition of the state, it is conceivable that there are market interventions I could be ok with. In other words, state economic policy that goes beyond Nozick’s night watchman state may be justified under a postlibertarian philosophy. To anyone who isn’t an anarcho-capitalist, this acknowledgement may be obvious, but I think even to hardcore libertarians, it is a strong statement that may distinguish my philosophy from libertarianism.
Finally though, any market interventions I advocate for must have minimal impact on the market itself. Redistribution may thus be justified to ensure a social (unemployment, retirement, disability, etc) insurance program for those unable to plan for themselves, but regulation might not be. At the very least, today’s state could do a much better job at harnessing market forces for good ends rather than fighting the market directly. If there must be regulation, taxing externalities is better than banning them; if there must be safety inspections, government labeling of what is safe is likely better than FDA banning of untested but promising drugs; if there must be taxes, efficient taxes are better than politically expedient ones (pass land value taxes!). Market incentives work, and we should be using those incentives and small state tweaks to achieve beneficial outcomes. Fundamentally, markets, trade, and exchange are vital in improving the human condition and building human society.
Political Liberalism, Pluralism, and Rationality
It probably goes without saying, but I don’t have a high opinion of government restrictions on individuals’ political freedoms. It’s certainly true that I tend to think of things from a consequentialist viewpoint, but constitutional rights are a excellent heuristic with which to get good outcomes. So I think that the government should obviously not violate people’s right to practice religion freely, or take individuals’ liberty without due process, or conduct searches without specific probable cause, and I’ll argue as much. When this blog discusses politics, I want to be practical and focus on actual policy impacts and so I’ll tend to side with political liberalism and against government overreach. Thus, I’ll discuss how federal immigration overreach is worrying, Trump’s authoritarian ideas are bad, or Obama’s spying and drone strikes are blatant abuses of power.
Of course, I think there is a next level, and while I like talking about politics, I’d like to imagine a time when political and personal rights are assumed to be respected by the state instead of tenaciously fought for. I’ve also discussed my tentative approval of the privatization of a great many things, including the legal system. At that hypothetical point, the question of political liberty is not about the American values inherent in the Constitution, it’s about what society we can construct that best defends our individual freedom to interact voluntarily in a host of different ways. Thus, I believe it’s not just government that shouldn’t restrict our freedoms, but even if there was only private law, all people should be tolerant and accepting of others. The point of freedom in postlibertarianism isn’t to take away power from the state so that we can hammer down our own repressive-but-not-governmental culture on others, it’s to encourage freedom in a much broader cultural sense.
The concept of free speech is the premier example. On the state level, maybe there are weird edge cases where restricting people’s free speech makes sense, but ultimately the American justice system has already ironed out some good exceptions (obscenity, speech inherent in criminal activity, fraud, etc) and apart from that, speech is, and ought to remain, unrestricted. Even some of these cases I’d argue are government intrusions too far. But that’s the point: I’d argue.
When there are people who disagree with me, who thought Hillary Clinton would be a good president, I argued against them, but not against their right to talk about Clinton. When Trump was sworn in as president advocating policies with no actual basis in reality, I argued against them. I didn’t think punching people in the face was the correct methodology for fixing the policy problems we are seeing. I’ve discussed this in On Tolerance, and Scott Alexander talks about our problems with tolerance today in I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup.
This is more than commitment to engage in debate, it is a fundamental outlook that the world should be based on rationality, engagement, exchange, and dialogue. Our current beliefs are not the final ideas humanity will come up, and different groups of people who challenge our beliefs will seem wrong initially, but be proven right over time. Pluralism and nonconformity of ideas is thus a valuable attribute in society; people who we disagree should not only not be censored by the state, they should not be fired from their non-political jobs or banned at non-political events. A central tenet of postlibertarianism is thus the ability to believe you may be wrong in your beliefs and update your model of the world with new information.
Democracy and Public Choice
So Enlightenment ideals about political liberty are great, pro-market policies sound cool, but let’s talk about meta-policy: the system which we use to produce policy. The two-party system, primaries, first past the post voting, Congress, the Presidency, and American politics generally all have deep flaws. The way to analyze these flaws is through Public Choice Theory, with economic and incentive analysis applied to government actors. The American democratic system encourages a two-party system (mostly through First Past The Post voting), those two parties work to keep themselves in power, and local representation means small national constituencies are always underrepresented in Congress. Reforming these systems is incredibly slow in our democratic system, even slower than passing policy.
Policy reform itself is also a problem if we analyze democracies with public choice theory: rent-seeking, special interests, diffuse costs, etc all cause headaches. Even in cases where we might agree that the market can fail, governments aren’t really that great at solving these problems either. They suffer from similar lack of information to properly price externalities or inability to know to what extent asymmetric consumer knowledge must be rectified.
Worse still, not only are market actors sometimes irrational, but those irrational individuals express irrational democratic preferences and pressures as well. Thus, our democratic representatives focus on issues and debates that get them reelected, issues which are irrationally chosen by voters. Long term problems can be rationally ignored since the representative only has a 2 or 4 or 6 year time horizon to be reelected. It’s not that good legislation can never be passed, it’s that it must be passed without very strong incentives to do so, and with irrational voter pressure that may or may not prioritize pressing issues. Higher spending paired with lower taxes is just the most clear cut of this voter irrationality.
Crypto and Routing Around the State
For postlibertarianism, these public choice problems precipitate a focus on non-governmental solutions. Of course, markets are important for economic growth as we’ve already discussed, but now let’s talk about how voluntary interactions are routing around the issues inherent in government and inherent in democracy.
Perhaps the most well known case is ridesharing applications like Uber and Lyft. Local governments had tightly regulated the taxi industry, often due to rent-seeking behavior by taxi cab owners, and so urban transportation was stale, low quality, monopolistic, and expensive. Widespread use of mobile smartphones meant that by about 2011, enough people could use software to drop the transaction costs of ridesharing to be competitive with taxis. The taxi industry has been largely crushed by the simplicity of individuals voluntarily agreeing to trade small transactions for short rides.
The internet and its low transaction costs have revolutionized almost every industry. AirBnB allows for voluntary transactions between people with excess residential space and those who want to bypass highly regulated and taxed hotels. YouTube, Twitch, Patreon, and social media platforms allow content producers to connect directly with fans and even get funding without needing to go through traditional processes like movie and TV studios or recording labels.
Effective Altruism is another interesting idea: just as businesses invest in methods that will give them the most profit return per dollar spent, we should think about the return per dollar spent on charity. Government spends a lot of money on charity, but it is largely allocated by the flawed political motivations we’ve discussed above. Through the high volume of money though, there’s probably plenty of good outcomes. Private individuals still want to give in ways that help people, but there is usually less money than public sources. So empirical analysis of how far money goes can help guide money to best places and have greater impact per dollar than government charity. Organizations like GiveWell and 80,000 Hours have done a lot of work in this area.
Perhaps most intriguingly, software has allowed the widespread use of encryption to protect digital privacy. While government privacy reforms languish in courts or Congress, individuals can now communicate securely without the need for protective legislation. Although it’s a bit of a race; while it is easier to send encrypted messages, state surveillance is now almost universal. But the most impressive technology encryption has given us yet is Bitcoin and blockchains.
Money is a collective action problem: if everyone agrees on a medium of exchange, everyone would be better off and more easily able to exchange freely. But defectors always have an incentive create their own currency and make lots of money. Historically, the equilibrium solution was to use precious metals that couldn’t be easily counterfeited, but more recently government solves this problem by issuing currencies and forcing everyone to accept them. Bitcoin solves this problem without government (and without heavy metals!), using computationally difficult calculations to make a digital currency that cannot be “counterfeited”. Bitcoin refers to several related entities: the currency itself (“I’ve got 2 Bitcoins in my account”), the distributed peer-to-peer network that runs the currency (“nodes in the Bitcoin network”), and the blockchain used to record transactions (the “Bitcoin blockchain”).
The benefits of this technology are numerous. The currency is decentralized, so no government (or bank) can control it. The network is peer-to-peer, so it is also difficult if not impossible to censor. It exists only on the internet, so it is also borderless. It is also mostly anonymous, with additional emerging technology that can make all transactions untrackable by governments. Combined, this means that people can use Bitcoin to get around capital constraints, border tariffs, regulated banking systems, perhaps even all taxes generally.
Blockchains have other uses too, including securing the domain name system (Namecoin) and creating decentralized prediction markets (Hivemind). Namecoin would mean the further decentralization of the internet itself, relying even less on internet governing institutions like ICANN. It would make the web even more censorship resistant, as well as providing a way to prove identity without a central authority. Hivemind and prediction markets in general would allow for aggregating of decentralized information across the world, in the ultimate answer to the Hayekian Knowledge Problem. Prediction markets would allow for decentralized insurance, foresight into the expected effects of economic policy adjustments, or even a method of forcing politicians to publicly bet on their own commitments. With the ability to apply widespread knowledge, almost every problem could benefit.
This is the future that postlibertarianism helps us think about: a place where individuals can use technology to bypass major parts of government, whether the state approves or not.
Empiricism and Moloch
Let’s return to the question of anarchism. Perhaps my arguments made sense about the impracticality of an anarcho-capitalist society, but there is a looming challenge when it comes to Bitcoin, the blockchain, and other encryption technologies; even if anarchism isn’t very practical, successful spread of encryption and related ideas could severely reduce the future taxable revenue of the state. Concepts like land-value taxes, which are not only very efficient, but very enforceable (tax collector just travels to the land in question and demands payment from whomever is there) may not just be interesting thought experiments, but actually necessary to save the state, or at least a sliver of it.
This means that even if we are moderate in our outlook and advocacy, Moloch could still win. The technological dismantling of the state could be very bad for the large number of people that rely on states for support. But of course, Moloch doesn’t stop there; if we are on the subject of the state losing control of technology, we can’t ignore the existential problem of artificial intelligence. The first researchers to reach that self-teaching intelligence level may not be able to take that back once it’s started.
I think the most important point to end on is that what we know will change, and our understanding of the world will have to evolve. I’ve suggested that the state might not survive these developments, but there is little to suggest we are anywhere near that yet. Empirical data must ground us in reality even if we envision a future that is radically different from today. The state has been the focus of libertarians’ ire so far in history, but it’s important to remember that bad outcomes are our most fundamental enemy. Institutions can be broken with or without the state; Moloch is always there.
Consequentialism is definitely the foundation of postlibertarianism, and the concepts of rationality, logic, and empiricism are related as well. We take these concepts to libertarian policy ideas and outlooks, but they should keep us both grounded and always questioning if libertarian solutions are the best. This philosophy is also not just post-libertarian, but leans towards being post-political when we can. Democratic political institutions themselves have problems, and it’s not clear they can be fixed. Postlibertarian solutions range from the practical to the radical and so they may be political, may be meta-political, and most radically may be unpolitical. Finally, this is version 1.0 of the postlibertarian primer because it is inherent in this philosophy that it change with new information.