Friday, November 28, 2008

How to Promote Liberty

I recently had a conversation with a wealthy libertarian, a successful entrepreneur, who wanted ideas for how to use both his money and the talents that had made it for him to spread liberty. It is not an easy question, nor is it one limited to libertarians; the same problem arises for people with other views who would like to promote them. Broadly speaking, I think there are at least three different approaches:

1. Political. Identify and support candidates who agree with your views and will try to implement them.

As I read the current news, Barack Obama is in the process of demonstrating why that approach mostly does not work. There are increasing signs of disappointment from people who supported him in the belief that his policies, both abroad and at home, would be radically different from those of his recent predecessors and are concluding that they will not be.

I suspect they are right. It is quite likely that Obama will expand the size of government, but the reason is not that he is a left-wing ideologue but that he is a practicing politician; the current financial crisis provides excuses to spend lots of money, a situation politicians are almost always glad to take advantage of. Given these circumstances, I expect that McCain would also have substantially expanded the size of government, just as Obama's predecessor did, with a different set of excuses.

2. Intellectual. Promote your ideas in colleges, in newspapers, in any way that will spread them, ideally to people themselves likely to be influential in passing them on.

This is a popular approach and probably does some good. Its limits come from the fact that the crucial resource in spreading ideas is not money but people, in particular smart people who like the ideas and are eager to expand and spread them. One H.L. Mencken or Adam Smith or, on the other side, George Bernard Shaw is worth many millions of dollar spent subsidizing ideological magazines or college lecture series.

This approach also has a danger, what I think of as the rice Christian problem. Rice Christians were Chinese who converted to Christianity because the missionaries had rice. In the political context, the equivalent are people who adopt an ideology because doing so is profitable--gets them a good job, government or private grants, and the like. One disadvantage of being the party in power is that your missionaries have a lot of rice, which increases the number of converts but can badly reduce their average quality. To a much more limited extent, that can happen with private donations as well.

3. Indirect. Find ways of spending your money that will encourage changes in the world whose effects go in the direction you want.

The most successful example that occurs to me, although it does not have a lot to do with libertarianism, is the invention of the birth control pill. My understanding--readers who are better informed on the subject are invited to correct it--is that its development was subsidized by a donor who thought a reliable form of female contraception would have social effects she approved of. I do not know how nearly the effects fitted her intention, but I think it is clear that that particular technological development had very large effects on the society and did so at the cost of a trivial investment.

A more recent libertarian example, on which the results are not yet in, is my son Patri's seasteading project. The idea is to develop an inexpensive technology for floating housing. The theory is, first, that it would make taxpayers more mobile, hence governments more competitive, and second that it would open up opportunities for small scale floating polities ouside the control of existing governments. My guess is that, like most such clever ideas, it won't work--but if it does, it could have very large effects over the next few decades in a direction that I would approve of.

Another possibility, which I do not think anyone is pushing at the moment, is the development of anonymous digital cash. Interested readers can find a discussion of the idea in my recently published Future Imperfect. So far it has not happened, probably because many governments would very much prefer that it not happen. But if it did come into existence, it could considerably reduce the ability of governments to control their citizens, especially in their online activities.

Readers are invited to contribute their own suggestions for how to spend money and talent promoting liberty--or, for that matter, promoting alternative large scale objectives.


Anonymous said...

Just a short elaboration of #1 and #2.

In states with initiatives, it is possible to investing in initiatives rather than politicians. An initiative is not flexible like a politician --- it is a specific statute --- and so it cannot be corrupted. And an initiative, if it passes, can serve an educative function.

So perhaps a libertarian program might start with one initiative with the following qualities: politically feasible, practically feasible, and highly educative if it passes and works. (Examples might include toll roads, some sort of trial school vouchers, peak use freeway pricing.)

Assuming it passes, libertarians can then argue that liberty and limited government work, note the benefits of the program, and then argue that initiative #2 applies the same principles in a different area. At this point, they have a little credibility, and might be able to convince the public that another similar program is worth pursuing.

This also has the advantage of proceeding incrementally. If, by some chance, David's ideal anarcho-libertarian society had some unanticipated problems, we might be better off moving towards that solution gradually rather than simply abolishing the government in one fell swoop. : )

Anonymous said...

My favorite dream for a billion dollars is to start a new college. The faculty would be picked for their teaching, not research ability. Good teachers would have long, maybe 16 year, contracts, but not lifetime appointments. Many points of view would be encouraged, with no speech code formal or informal. The common curriculum would include fairly serious science, economics and Western civilization and American history requirements (thus a libertarian connection ... albeit indirect). It would also require being able to communicate well in English and some in another language. Quantitative and logical reasoning would have to be demonstrated, probably through papers which also demonstrate English skill.
Students would be encouraged to take a year abroad or in paid or unpaid work related to their major during their (possibly 5 year) program.

An easier possibility would be to develop and validate a testing program for academic subjects that would cover a continuous range of levels from 3rd grade to college. This would use adaptive testing and have such a large supply of questions that there would be no need for security. Indeed the questions should be publicly published; thus those who learnt every question would have a excellent education up to the point of what can be tested by computer. Imagine, for example, 20,000 or 30,000 English vocabulary items. Maybe there would be essay questions scored by low wage, high education people somewhere.

Such a program could be used by any school that wished to work to defined standards, home schoolers, employers, individuals or colleges should they care to give up SAT. If well done and cheap it would provide a world- or at least nation-wide standards for any style of education. The result would be to avoid the huge ambiguity inherent in phrases like "high standards."

Anonymous said...

Easy: just donate money to the Mises Institute.

Anonymous said...

My favorite idea is to establish a K-Phd free school on the Internet that any child anywhere could use as an alternative to government schools. The curriculum would of course stress libertarian values.

Anonymous said...

Bribe a small country to implement libertarian policies. Iceland needs money.

Anonymous said...

Patri's seasteading might not work; Professor Peter Leeson's "anaaarrrchy" pirates will attack them.

Chris Hibbert said...

While not explicitly libertarian, my favorite recent example of a new way to spend money and have a much larger than expected effect is the X Prize foundation. They're promoting private development of space and a variety of other things that are less connected to freedom. But overall, they're finding that the prizes spur spending on a much larger scale than the cost of the prize.

If you endow a new prize, you can choose the technology to be developed.

David Tomlin said...

I suggest investing some funding directly in the problem: psychological research on how people change their minds, sociological research on how ideas spread, etc.

Of course, people with other agendas will also be able to use the results. (I doubt they could be kept secret for long, and I don't think they should be.) But if I expect the right ideas (my ideas, or ideas even better than mine) to win out in free competition, then I would want to speed up the process.

daryl jensen said...

Charity for the poor. The poor and downtrodden who are able to get back up on their feet would be less likely to allow governments to trample on them. We know government "charity" doesn't work. It's up to us to demonstrate the right way of things.

Kent McManigal said...

Develop a weapon that would be cheap, easily concealable, not detectable with any of the state's current detectors, effective at reasonable ranges, and simple to use. That power in the hands of enough people would change things greatly for the better. Remember: an armed society is a polite society, and parasites prefer unarmed peasants.

Patri Friedman said...

i prefer calling #3 "technological", rather than indirect. if the goal is to change the world, one could argue that new technology does so more directly than new ideas, by directly altering the fabric of options and incentives.

#2 and #3 play well together, some of the brightest people interested in seasteading are ancaps, for example. spreading ideas can help a new technology get initial uptake. for ecash, which suffers from needing scale to work (who wants a currency that no one accepts?), having a large audience of libertarians and goldbugs is useful.

Anonymous said...

You mentioned eCash. I welcome corrections, but I understood the main reason it failed was that Chaum, as the main patent holder, wanted more control over the project than anyone in their right mind would let someone else have over their finances.

montestruc said...

for patri

I tried to post this about a year ago on your website. This below is a reference to a gold mine of engineering texts for use in ship and offshore rig design free online.

Raphfrk said...

Wouldn't a handgun meet most of the 'weapon' criteria?

No weapon (at least in the near future) is going to be undetectable if someone is physically searched.

Even ignoring the risk of metal detectors, most people aren't going to walk down the street with a concealed weapon if it is illegal to carry weapons.

On ecash, the problem is that credit card companies offer people what they want for online paying and it isn't worth the effort to go to ecash. (Also, Chaum wasn't a very effective businessman).

Anonymous said...

Perhaps this falls within approach 1, but how about employing lobbyists? It seems to work for some special interest groups to get legislation made in their favour.

Actually I've no idea if it could be an effective way to introduce pro-liberty legislation. What do people think? Could, for example, drug legalization be bought?

Anonymous said...

In the past, we have had people that used their personal fortunes to shape the future of our society. Loomis helped develop Radar before WWII and also set up the model for the Federally Funded Research and Development Corporation (FFRDC) that still is used to operate DOE national labs and DOD support "Corporations" (such as the Rand Corporation).

We have had the example of Alexander Graham Bell setting up and funding Bell labs going forward, producing the transistor, the laser and other boons to mankind. (And this gift to our children has been since destroyed by the decision of a judge.) On a smaller scale, Battelle did something similar in his will by creating a nonprofit organization and ended up providing initial funding for what became Xerox.

Now we have many, many business managers who have no clue of how to run technical research programs or how to value research efforts if they are successful. (The example of Xerox Research Park management snatching failure from success comes to mind at the front of many other examples.)

If you can't create a lab or a technical funding organization as part of your legacy, maybe at least some economists could be funded to study how to make better decisions in managing technical organizations and research programs. (Even a reasonable proposal for a path to successful technology transfer from national labs would help.)

Anonymous said...

A strong nationally-coordinated program based on the very simple principle: "Don't Vote for the Incumbent". Cost has been estimated at approx $15M.

This would require heavy media advertising and backing of several prominent spokespersons of both parties (perhaps respected, retired political figures).

This should be supplemented by a series of very detailed bipartisan exposé books about political scandals involving as many sitting or recently sitting politicians as possible. Authors of such books are helped by working in a target-rich environment. The books should be scheduled to come out a few months before the next election, and should be funded for maximum impact (book tours, media shows, etc.). The underlying theme of these books is: the actions of the actual politicians you elect demonstrate you can't trust them. The only solution is to not keep sending them back to Washington.

It would also be nice if one could induce, with a sufficient cash payment, a higher level former Congressman to write a tell-all book revealing how decisions are "really made" in DC. The special-interest manipulations, the voting without reading the bills, the utter cynicism, the earmarks-over-ideology, the distortions of the truth, the Congressional hearings as political theater, etc. Again, maximum exposure 2-3 months before election.

Those neophyte congressmen elected need not run on and need not be strictly libertarian. The mere fact they're new to DC gives them a greater statistical likelihood of voting against government expansion independent of party (see old Cato Policy Analysis on this topic).

Anonymous said...

There should be term limits. As in, every Congressman and President should be restricted to one term at the maximum.

Arthur B. said...

Movies (especially fiction) are the best propaganda tool ever devised. It seems everyone knows that except libertarian.

Produce movies with libertarian themes, values and ideas.

Anonymous said...

My favourite realistic philanthropy/liberty entrepreneurial proposal is James Tooley's idea of building a brand network of cheap private schools in developing countries. It's a potentially huge market which offers an opportunity to spread liberty and the idea of property rights to areas where it is most desperately needed, create a viable alternative to universal western public schooling and preclude the establishment of statist educational systems in the destination countries.

Anonymous said...

You wrote:
the development of anonymous digital cash. Interested readers can find a discussion of the idea in my recently published Future Imperfect. So far it has not happened, probably because many governments would very much prefer that it not happen.

Also, because doing it right, and getting it working, turns out to be hard. Past efforts have screwed up either the cryptography, the user interface, the API, and often all three

montestruc said...

Raphfrk wrote:

"Wouldn't a handgun meet most of the 'weapon' criteria?"

No, Essentially all modern handguns are remotely detectable as they are made of metal and shoot metal pellets. Any such weapon can be detected with a remote device (metal detector) that does not require a physical search.

You can get false positives, but a handgun has a lot of metal set next to a belt buckle or money clip, watch or other personal possessions.

A handgun that used no metal at all, would I think be possible, but would also be very limited in effect and power.

montestruc said...


Look into the octopus card

Seems to have real potential.

David Tomlin said...

A handgun that used no metal at all, would I think be possible . . .

In the movie In the Line of Fire, an assassin uses a gun made of plastic except for the firing pin and bullets. He conceals those in a large ornament attached to a key chain.

Raphfrk said...

As I said, I think you are serious over-rating the threat of metal detectors.

Do you really think that the reason that people don't carry around guns is because they are afraid of being detected by metal detectors?

Ofc, for something like aircraft, where people have to pass through metal detectors, it could increase the number of people who are armed.

Anonymous said...

"Seasteading" has already been tried several times and has failed. In 1972 this was the goal of Werner Stiefel’s Operation Atlantis, whose attempt to create a new island in the Caribbean foundered in a hurricane, as it was of Michael Oliver’s Republic of Minerva, who failed to create a sovereign state in the South Pacific as well as in the Bahamas. But I do like the option #3 -- indirection may have the best chance of success.

Anonymous said...

Unlike one poster the last place I'd put money is the paleo Mises Institute.

Educational projects seem best. And it can be done without the Rice problem as long as one isn't paying people to be converts.

One venture that helps in education is financing the publication of books promoting libertarian ideas through publishing ventures like Laisse Faire ( Another method is to open for-profit schools with some good free market teachers promoting libertarian ideas on equal par with the bad ideas most schools are required to teach. If the school is well run then people will pay you to teach good ideas to their kids.

Renee Daphne Kimball said...

Top down solutions no longer work. It's time to start at the bottom of the pyramid. Until we have a populace steeped in the ideas and focused on ethical values, everything else is a waste of time.
1. Walk your precinct connecting with libertarians, independents, Republicans and anyone else who will sit still long enough to hand them a DVD.
2. Distribute A) "The Philosophy of Liberty" 8 minute flash animation DVD ( B) "Overview of American" 28 minute DVD on the various forms of government ( and C) a 35 minute DVD called "Individualism vs Collectivism" by a kid from Australia (view on YouTube but we're re-recording to eliminate music).
3. Connect with the Sheriffs in your town and give them a copy of the Constitution. Explain how they are the highest authority in the State.
4. Stage "liberty" events and spectacles that promote principles and philosophy.
5. Use the cable access TV system of 600 stations throughout the USA to promote liberty ideas and organizations.

Renee Kimball
Portland Oregon
social commentary without the hatred

Anonymous said...

Here's an idea. Organize a bank boycott. Everyone hates the banking system now, not just libertarians. The boycott can be combined with an educational effort - pointing out the damage caused by the Federal Reserve etc.

montestruc said...

Raphfrk said...

"Do you really think that the reason that people don't carry around guns is because they are afraid of being detected by metal detectors?"

I often do not carry a firearm as it is illegal in many cases even if you have a license to (easy enough in the state I live in).

Even if you are reasonably careful and are not searched, sh&^% happens, and you could drop it on the floor, or in a seat, or even have it go off on you. Either by having a defective firearm or be unknowledgeable as to how to carry, but as one can see in the news you can shoot yourself, or some innocent bystander. Also you can just lose it and then it can be used by others.

To me the pain in the butt thing is that if you are carrying illegally, you are criminally liable and can lose a hell of a lot of civil rights under law if you get caught, which is far from impossible.

I would say I was not SPECIFICALLY afraid of metal detectors, but rather of being caught committing a felony, when I did not think I had a very good reason to be packing.

Safer IMHO to not carry in most situations than carry illegally.

Fester said...

If I had millions here are the things I likely would put my money towards:

I like the x-prize thing.

I think libertarian lawyers have been somewhat effective, like the institute for justice and the ACLU.

I think pop culture libertarianism is fun and works, so I would contribute to radio programs like Free Talk Live. I might also fund movies, TV shows or other libertarian themed media. Pehaps fund ideas like getting a lot of libertarian novels turned into audio books and put up on sites like podiobooks for free download.

I would stay away from the political system. Think Tanks. Academia. These things have been around for a long time and have shown very few results. Pop culture ideas may not be any more effective, but at least it gets movies, books, music and TV shows that are worth watching, reading or listening to in the meantime.

Justin du Coeur said...

Well, if you want to promote anonymous digital cash, then I'd recommend promoting the growth of distributed, open-source virtual worlds.

It's a matter of creating the app that requires this solution. Virtual worlds require economies, as much as any other society. Most of the existing online worlds are proprietary, so the economies are similarly proprietary. But a distributed VR world would require a distributed economic mechanism, and the most obvious means to support that is anonymous ecash in some form.

Mind, it's not an *easy* solution. But all the technologies exist at this point -- they just need to get put together right...

Dave said...

I don't disagree with any of the preceding comments, but maybe the thing to do, is stop spitting into the wind altogether, and just quietly live an anarchist life as much as possible, disengaged from authority, and doing business with like thinking people. I don't see that individualism can be enhanced by influencing the Democracy, nor can we compete with mass media and the status quo in terms of formal education.

I did particularly like the suggestion of connecting with hip young music, radio, etc. as there are still lots of counter-culture attitudes there. Our vision can be made as attractive as any in that arena I think.

The Polemicist said...

Harry Brown wrote much on this subject in his book, "How to be find freedom in an unfree world".

Gandhi summed the solution to the question as well, "You must be the change you want to see in the world."

If one cannot change themselves then how can they and their money change other people?

First be at liberty. If people like what they see then they will emulate if not then they will not. Is this not the nature of liberty.

The idea of schools for liberty is but a farsical attempt at using statist means to achieve a libertarian outcome.

Participating in government by way of voting indicate a poor understanding of how anti-human and anti-liberty government is. Never will one be able to vote or legislate liberty into existence.

Mike Huben said...

What a bunch of losing ideas. All based on repeating previously failed attempts to dislodge or evade the prevailing competitors. Funniest of all, the idea that Harry Browne had anything worth listening to: the man who (in his 2000 campaign) wanted to base our national defense on threats of bounties.

The only one with any merit is Andrew R's idea of schools in developing countries. That's a proven idea: it's exactly what the Saudi-financed madrases in Pakistan and other Islamic nations are about.

That proposal also jibes with a very important economic principle that libertarians usually ignore in their efforts: marginal returns. Don't focus your efforts where they will be insignificant: focus them where you will get the biggest bang for your buck. Libertarian arrogance, parochialism and decadence makes them much less effective than socialists or communists ever were.

the puzdy said...

Huben has the best point, actually.

Kent McManigal said...

Promote TOLFA.

Garg Unzola said...

How about advocating freedom through parody and surrealism ala Robert Anton Wilson? Not sure how effective that is, but it's fun.

Anonymous said...

Tim-pot freedom can be found in any stable 3rd world country... so long as you're not looking to start a business.

Costs $1 - $5 to bribe a cop in Cambodia. All rules are effectively voluntary. It's still quite peaceful because people are naturaly nice... and as long as you're not annoying anybody you can pretty much do what you like. :)

Anonymous said...

Isn't the main barrier to libertarian thinking Rice Statists?

Anonymous said...


You are completely correct. #2 " Intellectual. Promote your ideas in colleges, in newspapers, in any way that will spread them, ideally to people themselves likely to be influential in passing them on." is a popular approach and i also think its a great one.

If you think your ideas would make a difference in the world or for people around you then i suggest its a good idea to spread them whether its in colleges, or newspapers, and even if you have time to write a book then write it!

People are always interested in new ideas and new approaches to things because we all look for the "right" things and ways in life. Im sure some people will be skeptical but all you can do is try and make a difference and maybe you will.

I would love to be a wealthy libretarian and do all the things and have all the doors he has open so i can try make the differences he has an opportunity to do.

Wonderful. Keep up the good work.


Sciencebzzt said...

"Another possibility, which I do not think anyone is pushing at the moment, is the development of anonymous digital cash."