Wednesday, February 13, 2013

How to Spend a Million Dollars to Promote Liberty

Some time back, a successful libertarian of my acquaintance asked me to suggest ways of spending money to promote libertarianism. It's a harder problem than it might at first seem. Many, perhaps most, activities that promote liberty, such as writing a successful and persuasive book or starting a firm that provides a substitute for some government service,  work without a subsidy if they work at all. And subsidizing a set of ideas creates what I described in a post some time ago as the rice Christian problem. If you make generous scholarships available to libertarian students, you risk attracting students whose commitment is more to the scholarship than to the ideas, increasing the number of professed libertarians at a cost, possibly substantial, to their quality.

I discussed the question, and some possible answers, in an earlier post. I have just thought of another one.

Most of my books are currently available for free online as well as in hardcopy from Amazon. I do it that way, almost whenever my publisher will let me, because I write books not primarily as a source of income but as a way of spreading ideas. Making a book available online not only means that anyone who wants to read it and is willing to do so off a screen can read it for free, it also means that people who do not know the book exists may find it while looking for something else. The web is a tolerable technology for selling information but a magnificent technology for giving it away. Making my books available for free online might increase my income, either because people find a book online and then buy a copy or in less direct ways, or decrease it. It surely increases the number of people who read them.

I have just finished reading Ethical Intuitionism by Michael Huemer, a libertarian philosopher. It's an interesting and important book, but not a libertarian book, since the subject is not what ethical views are correct but what the nature of ethical views is, what it means to say I should or should not do something and how one knows what one should or should not do. Its argument could be used by a socialist to defend socialist ethics as readily as by a libertarian to defend libertarian ethics.

The author has a more recent book of which that is not true, one that argues against the claim that the state has some special authority that we should respect. I have considered buying it—my university library does not have a copy—but have not so far done so. The book, in paperback or Kindle, costs more than thirty dollars. I am not sure it is worth the cost, in time and money, to read an argument for a conclusion I already agree with, even if written by an author I think well of.

Which gets me to my idea. Suppose a well-off libertarian compiles a list of a hundred books that do a good job of promoting libertarian ideas and are not currently available online, goes to the publishers and offers to buy the online rights. Most books, including most books about ideas, do not make all that much money, so my guess is that a publisher should be willing to sell the online rights for ten thousand dollars, perhaps less. A few will be books that were or are best sellers, and their rights might be expensive—but those are books that most curious readers can probably find in the local library, so although webbing them would be useful, it would not be as useful as webbing less successful books. Cross them off the list and replace them with a few less expensive ones. Total cost a million dollars.

The project also requires a libertarian lawyer willing to volunteer his time to negotiate the purchases and a libertarian web designer willing to web the books, perhaps with the assistance of a few more libertarians willing to scan them. Libertarian lawyers and libertarian web designers exist—I've even gotten offers from some of the latter to redesign my somewhat out of date web site for free. And putting a hundred such books on the web should significantly increase both the number of people who become convinced by libertarian arguments and the quality of the arguments of those already convinced.


DR said...

Libertarianism's competitiveness in the marketplace of ideas faces two big barriers. Number one is that much of libertarian ideology is grounded on complex, and frequently counterintuitive, economic concepts.

Raising the minimum wage can hurt poor people. Legalizing drugs can reduce the harm coming from drugs. FDA safety regulations can reduce the quality of available drugs. Don't even get me started on competitive advantage.

These concepts are simply intellectually inaccessible to a large fraction of the cognitive distribution. You might as well try teaching quantum physics to high school dropouts.

Libertarianism will never be a populist movement for this reason. Populist movements may contain libertarian-ish positions on some things, but more often than not populism tends to be anti-libertarian.

The second barrier that libertarianism faces is that it offers few rewards or lucre to those who support. Most political ideologies and platforms have patronage that they can distribute to supporters if and when they gain power. If you're a movement with pet cause A, then you have a mandate to distribute power, jobs, grants, monopolies, etc to those who supported pet cause A.

Those who work as elite opinion makers in our society have an incentive to support the anti-libertarian side of positions. When the EPA sets up its carbon regulatory unit Michael Mann is a lot more likely to be tapped to head it than Lubos Motl. If the global warming alarmists are defeated, there's no corresponding reward for the sensible, besides the very non-material knowledge that they were honest.

Hence libertarianism will never be pushed as an ideology by the elites either. At least not those elites who are hired to work as professional thinkers.

The simple conclusion is that trying to advance libertarianism through democratic means, i.e. by persuading masses of people, is a futile effort.

The best we can do is try to push through procedural changes that weaken democracy, and favor libertarian leaning groups. A good example here might be the independent central banks. While most Western central banks don't come anything close to true libertarian ideals, they certainly act in a much more libertarian manner than we'd expect if money was directly controlled by the government.

Shailesh Saraf said...

i tend to agree with the pessimistic scenario painted by DR (the first commenter).

However, disagree with his solution (weaken democracy). Governments (and independent regulators) do more harm when they are not accountable even to the people.

The US, for example, has too little democracy (the Presidential system combined with FPTP-elected legislatures is designed to force people to choose between 2 evils) and hence, there is very little accountability.

Proportional representation (preferably South African style but even German style) means much more democracy and, I believe South Africa will prove, much better government.

Unknown said...

Firstly, my own conversion to Libertarianism came rather swiftly (months) and largely through auto-didactic reading of Mises, Rothbard, Friedman, D and Hoppe. So in the long run I see significant merit in David's suggestion to his friend.

In the shorter term, I unfortunately have to agree with DR's comments about the apparent futility of it all.

Shailesh - I spent about 25 years in South Africa and, I believe, that some of the greatest horrors inherent in socialist theory, will exhibit itself there.

Max said...


You can't imagine how tickled I am to hear that you read a book based on my recommendation. I'm only moderately disappointed that you picked (imo) the weaker of Huemer's recent publications and that it wasn't strong enough to convince you to pick up the other.

I don't know how quickly you read or the price of your time, but I'd be happy to donate a reasonable sum to buying TPoPA and paying you to read it. Unlike your successful acquaintance, I'm not looking to spend a million dollars to promote liberty - not all at once, anyway. Would $100 be enough?

Hopefully it's apparent that my interest is in more than simply convincing you to read an argument for a conclusion you already agree with. I imagine there are lots of books like that, none of which I care very much about. However, I find it almost impossible to believe that the 3rd edition of TMoF will not benefit from your having read this book. The second half is a weaker form of arguments you've made before; the first half covers ground you haven't (afaik) but should.

Tim Worstall said...

I think I would actually reverse that argument.

Instead of the rights to old books being purchased and webbed, I think I'd argue that the money should be spent on subsidising the production of new books.

It is near impossible to get an advance of more than $1,500 or so these days.....assuming that you're not a known name that is. Which simply isn't enough to be able to take the time out to write a well researched book.

However, $20k or so does indeed allow for, say, 4 months away from other work to properly research and write a book. Which can then, say, be sold to a publisher but with the electronic or web rights reserved and then webbed as you suggest.

The advantage of new books being that the arguments can be illustrated with current examples, thus making said arguments clearer to contemporary readers.

Admittedly, this argument does rather come from my own experiences and hopes.....

Simon Andersson said...

But Max, if you think a synthesis of The Problem of Political Authority and The Machinery of Freedom would be valuable, why don't you write it? David can't do everything.

Unknown said...

You may like to look at which is a startup focussed on freeing books by raising funds to buy out the publisher rights.

Max said...


I can't imagine that I would do a better job updating David's book than he would himself. My comparative advantage lies elsewhere. =)

Eric said...

Hi, I'm Eric from As the previous comment points out, we do much of what this post suggests, but not just for libertarian books. We host crowdfunding campaigns to make books free to the world, with the cooperation of the rightsholders.

As a way of demonstrating to rightsholders that there is support for "ungluing" a book, we let users sign into the site and make "wishlists" of books they'd like to see unglued. You could for example, make a list of books that are important to libertarian thinking.

If you're making your own books free, I'd strongly encourage you to make use of Creative Commons licensing. This will signal to libraries and other distributors of free books that you want your books to be free.

August said...

I work in a library. I believe a cafe/library spot would work. Here's why- there are a few of us who get on-line and learn; the rest just hang out on face-book.
So, currently our public libraries are run on desperation- they want to be relevant, but the ALA is also pretty much socialist, so the trend is toward lowest common denominator entertainment and large government propaganda.
So, people seldom find a new idea in a library anymore. But if you have a cafe, which people like to go to for the social scene, and it is filled with books that describe libertarian, or just non-coercive, ways of approaching whatever it is they are interested in, then the process of discovery can take place. The confluence of things like libertarianism, paleo diet, permaculture, alternative medicine, etc- suggest that there are approaches in almost any subject that are basically libertarian in nature. When Republicans get involved with raw milk, for instance, they are far more likely to become more libertarian in their views than they do after reading Hayek.

Fred Mangels said...

Marnus wrote, " own conversion to Libertarianism came rather swiftly (months) and largely through auto-didactic reading of Mises, Rothbard, Friedman, D and Hoppe."

The problem is that vast majority of people have little, if any, interest in reading such books. Joe and Jill Sixpack- the ones who need convincing if you want change- don't have much interest in politics, much less libertarian philosophy.

I applaud the idea of getting exposure to such books out at little to no cost, but I wouldn't expect any change in the status quo because of it.

As an aside, in regards making books available at libraries and such; Some years ago we had a libertarian fellow who worked at the Humboldt State University library. He bought three copies of the late Harry Browne's book Why Government Doesn't Work and was going to donate them the the library in hopes of getting a few students to read them.

The Head Librarian wouldn't accept the books. She said the books were "too controversial".

Anonymous said...

Political theory is 95%+
meaningless blather. If you know a bureaucrat who has done something to help a libertarian cause, and you walk into your congressman's office and ask to have an attaboy sent to that administrator's file, you will have done more for liberty than almost any book. Or if you around your block and ask neighbours for help in some libertarian cause.

Um, except 'Law's Order'. 'Harald' was great too!

VangelV said...

I think that what David wants has been done already.

The Mises institute already makes available many books on libertarian ideas that are downloaded by interested individuals from all over the world. They are available in PDF, Kindle, and ePub versions, often are available in audio format that can be downloaded for free from Apple and can be read on-line. I would say that it is doing a fine job spreading libertarian ideas.

People who try to support libertarianism by arguing about utility will aways have a hard time because they tend to rely on narratives while pretending to have empirical evidence that proves that what they favour is the best system. A far better approach is the one that David has rejected, which is to support the libertarian position on an ethical basis as Hans Herman Hoppe does.

Those interested in libertarian ideas might want to look to Laissez Faire Books. For $10 a month you get a free download of a book each week. (Hoppe's, The Theory of Socialism and Capitalism, which makes a persuasive argument for libertarianism, is one of the books that is available for free. I just downloaded a free audio version of Jacob H. Huebert's, Libertarianism Today. Other books available for free include, Stephan N Kinsella's, Against Intellectual Property, Walter Block's, Defending the Undefendable, Ayn Rand's, Anthem, Rose Wilder Lane's, The Discovery of Freedom, Mises', Socialism, Robert Lefevre's, The Nature of Man & His Government, Albert Jay Nock's, Our Enemy, the State, and many more.

Access to good books at a low cost is not a problem. The problem is the narrative. Some 'libertarians' will not be persuasive because they are not consistent and do not have a proper foundation for their ideas. Others will advance the argument forward because they have a much better foundation. And I do not believe that the ideas are too complex. If one looked around at the attention that Ron Paul got on campuses it is easy to see that kids will accept a principle based defense of libertarian ideas and will give the arguments a hearing even if their initial response is to reject them.

Richard said...

This approach will only reach those who read books, and only a small number of them. If you want to promote liberty, do it the same way collectivism has been promoted: In popular media (particularly TV entertainment), and in classrooms (the younger the better).

Simon Andersson said...

This will cost more than a million, I suppose, but still...

How about a university that researches and teaches things that are of interest to a stateless or minarchist society. This would include the kind of privacy-enhancing information technologies (e-cash, encryption) that David discusses in Future Imperfect. It would include the development of usable embedded legal systems. And it would include the study of Popper and Hayek and the Friedmans and the like.

The vantage point is certainly very different from that of a regular university. The purpose is different also from free-market think tanks because it is not primarily about electoral politics or 'policy'.

The point is less to advocate particular conclusions and more to learn about the possibilities and practicalities of a free society. And also to bring together people who are interested in alternatives to the top-down social engineer's vision of the world.

Fred Mangels said...

How about a university that researches and teaches things that are of interest to a stateless or minarchist society.

Again; the vast majority of people wouldn't be interested in anything like that. Anybody that went to such a university, graduated and went out to speak to the world about it would be branded some kind of wingnut.

Simon Andersson said...

Fred, the idea as I see it is not to immediately convince the masses or to produce graduates.

My personal perspective: I'm already very happily working at a European university; if I had the chance to study/work at an institution that either

(1) worked on developing technologies and law for a free society


(2) studied the ideas and theories of a free society

I could find it somewhat interesting. But if I could study/work in a place that did (1) and (2), that would be super interesting. The combination of disciplines, of theory and practice, and of people with different backgrounds, would be important.

I don't think such a university would even have to award credit. People who have other jobs / studies could do half a year, a full year or two years or part-time studies.

Of course a majority of people would not be interested. But that is true of Stanford and Yale, and they still have some impact on society.

August said...

Again; the vast majority of people wouldn't be interested in anything like that.

Yes, people are usually looking for very basic info, like how to stop getting acne. There are top down solutions that don't really work- like going to the doctor and getting a prescription for stuff that will damage you long term. Then there are self-directed solutions- like stop eating wheat, soy, and milk proteins (casein seems to be the culprit there). Anyway, the self-directed solution provides relief, and to the extent that they can implement it in their lives, the person becomes a believer in having freedom of action rather than being dictated to by authority figures.
There's no need to preach politics. This is why I want a library- self directed education, which is what libraries were there for originally, inculcates freedom. This is why so many of us on the internet are libertarians in the first place- we are highly interested in learning. The majority have had their taste for knowledge marred by public school, but these small questions are out there, and in a supportive environment some of them will start trying again. A book on car mechanics is more likely lead to libertarian views than a political tome. Besides, the more subjects people get familiar with, the more obvious the lies on television are.

Simon Andersson said...

I like August's idea...

I think there's a difference between 'narrow' proposals (that very directly advance a very specific idea of liberty) and 'broader' ones. The latter seek to create an environment that lets liberty happen. I'm inclined to believe that the broader approach will be the most fruitful.

Anonymous said...

I think a problem that David and most of the commenters are missing is that most people are not like them. Nearly every reader of David Friedman's blog is far more knowledgeable and intellectually curious than the average American. We are the sorts of people who would benefit from obscure political treatises being made available online. But we're also already aware of libertarian principles. And knowledgeable/intellectually curious statists are not statists because they can't find libertarian views online; it's because they disagree with those views. They wouldn't be interested in reading libertarian books even if they were free, so this would not change anyone's minds.

The Federalist Papers have been available for free in various forms for over two-hundred years. I'm sure that most of us have read at least some of them. But I'm also sure that only a tiny minority of average Americans have. Economics in One Lesson has been available for free for close to 10 years, and I can't think of a single non-libertarian I know who has read it.

The best methods of promoting libertarianism would be those that bring libertarian ideas to the masses, especially to the kinds of people who don't care enough to put effort into learning about political theory.

My suggestion would be to fund contests for people to produce stories, novels, screenplays, YouTube shorts, stage plays, etc., that promote libertarian values. I think the focus should be on works of fiction rather than dogmatic essays. People who aren't interested in seeking out new ideas can still be exposed to those ideas through compelling stories. Having the contest curated by judges avoids the rice Christian problem. Genuine libertarians would evaluate whether the content truly promotes their ideals. And if the author is someone who promotes these values while not really believing in them, so what?

This would also have a multiplier effect. People who don't win the contests would still be creating their content, and that content would still be out there.

Simon Andersson said...

boffo, the pop culture angle has some merit, but I think another thing that persuades people are empirical examples. So far, the best one has probably been Hong Kong. But the examples can only happen if there exist already

(1) A small number of people who believe in the ideas

(2) A body of knowledge of how to implement the ideas

I think it's worth investing in (1) and (2).

David Friedman said...

I agree with the people who argue that most of the population isn't interested in books on ideas. But the beliefs of most of the population depend in part on the beliefs of the sort of people who do care, intellectuals broadly defined. A program that changed the beliefs of one percent of the population would have a very large effect if it was the right one percent.

Gil said...

Most people don't want to read such books, but maybe they'd be willing to watch a persuasive/provocative short video that illustrates key ideas from these books. The video could end with links to the books for those interested in persuing more detail. These videos, if done well, would spread more easily on social media than book suggestions.

Godfrey Miller said...

I agree with Max, and strongly recommend Michael Huemer's "The Problem of Political Authority".

By probing the foundations of law and economics, "The Machinery of Freedom" helped to convince me that anarcho-capitalism would work in practice. Unfortunately, most people I know reject free markets on moral grounds, not utilitarian ones, and simply aren't that interested in understanding how a truly free society could operate.

The purpose of "The Problem of Political Authority" is, first and foremost, to undermine the widespread moral presumptions that favor the state. He makes a strong case that, secretly, almost everyone is already an anarcho-capitalist. He argues that the primary reason most people don't identify as such is that they consistently fail to apply their common-sense moral judgments to the actions of the state. Here are some key excerpts that summarize the logic of his approach:

"The Problem of Political Authority" also provides a good outline of how anarcho-capitalism might work in practice, but it's not as comprehensive as it could be. Having read it, a person might still object to anarcho-capitalism on the grounds that states are a necessary evil. At this point, their minds would be primed to accept the content of "The Machinery of Freedom".

Joe said...

I suspect that funding the right film or series would spread libertarian views. I've never seen a film portray anarchists as anything more than punks looking to smash things. As someone else put it, we need a film with "Bow tie wearing mother fuckers".

Fiction or otherwise, I don't think it would convince anyone without counterarguments included.

For example the thing which blew me away about "Free to Choose" before I was a libertarian was that Milton gave more time to the socialist speakers in the debates than himself - often letting them have the last word.

As a modern example, I don't think Ron Swanson from "Parks and Recreation" would be nearly as lovable if the show didn't use his views as a source of humor ("I want to remove traffic lights") and provide contrasting characters.

If I could make "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" into a film, I would stress a psychosis of De La Paz - his open willingness to lie/kill/steal for his political aims. Anything less and his anarchist ramblings would seem evangelical to the audience rather than entertaining - which (seemingly paradoxically) I think would turn people away.

A final example: I believe Firefly promoted libertarianism despite openly showing both state and non-state criminal organisations.

Andromeda Yelton said...

Hi, I'm Andromeda, also from I'd explain the idea but I see that's been taken care of already, so I'll just say, small world: you took me out to dinner once with a mob of Patri's Mudd friends. Thai place, I think? At any rate, I'd love to talk with you further about the idea (or which books you think would be most beneficial to unglue, or which authors & publishers you think might be amenable to this, et cetera).

David Friedman said...

re Unglueit:

Nice to see other people with similar ideas doing something about it. I've added two of Huemer's books, plus my Hidden Order, to their list.

Bradley Calder said...

Dear Professor Friedman,

Actually, I tend to disagree with your idea about webbing additional books (presumably) in English. I think a smarter strategy is to web the best books in languages where no translation currently exists in countries that may be considerably less free than English speaking ones. Mandarin, Russian, Arabic, etc.

I think more freedom in the New York City would be excellent, but imagine so much more could come from that freedom if it grew in Guangzhou.


Anonymous said...

A millionaire could do a lot of good using bitcoin tips. Consider the signature of this post for example:

Dave said...

I asked Michael on his AMA at econlog how much it would cost to do this for The Problem of Political Authority, but I didn't get a response to that particular question. My guess is that peeling the rights away from his publisher would not actually be that easy.

Maurizio said...

Dear dr. Friedman, can I have the honor to buy you a copy of "The Problem of Political Authority"? Just give me your kindle account email or your paypal credentials.

Anonymous said...

I remembered this post and realized I should let you know what is going on with TOR. Presumably you know already that the largest drug market in the world (Silk Road) is on there, a sort of "ebay" where people sell drugs with bitcoins.

Well recently a group has started setting up TorBroker ( The idea is for people to trade stock anonymously and then cash out without paying capital gains or being investigated for insider trading.

The operators actually requested a public figure to hold 1000BTC as a security in case the operators decided to run off. He didn't accept that offer for the legal risks. Someone else might.

Its easy to imagine the next steps. Distributed delivery networks selling untaxed alcohol, skype connections with unregulated doctors in third world nations, everything predicted in "Future Imperfect" and more.

That said, it carries legal risk, and not all the predicted results are going to be attractive even for libertarians. It may also be less about money and more to do with a good programming drive. But it's worth anyone with money knowing about.

Unknown said...

I'd like to suggest that making the books free would also diminish someone's interest in these books.

I worked for an art museum last summer. We had vigorous debates about whether to throw open the doors for free more often. People who are normally scared of the $20 would be able to come in and, hopefully, fall in love with the museum.

The counterpoint is that if something is free, people wouldn't value it as much. The museum would be like a public park: it's there, it's free, I can always go, I can always go later.

Likewise with my books, I'm much more likely to read something that I purchased rather than something I downloaded to my Kindle.

Irrational, maybe, but I think that that's how people are. On net probably more people will read a book if it's free, but maybe making something cheaper is a way to raise the quality of the reading.