A Tale of Two Cities: Civil vs. Political Society

In one city it seems the innovation never ceases.  Bright and talented dreamers from across the globe flock there to build amazing things.  They create solutions to problems both commonplace and incomprehensible.  You can find entrepreneurs and investors working round the clock on everything from entertaining apps to asteroid mining to life extension.  In the past few decades alone the denizens of this city have revolutionized the planet, put massive computing power in everyone’s pocket and all the libraries of the world at the fingertips of the majority of earth’s population.

This city is always looking forward, upward, onward.  It is relentlessly focused on solving problems and improving quality of life.  It is driven by curiosity, new frontiers, and prosperity.  From this city have come simple yet revolutionary technologies that unlock billions in dormant assets like extra bedrooms, apartments, and cars.  Customers love them.  Investors love them.  And the city can be proud of the world-changing impact made by the companies headquartered there.

There is another city much different.  This city puts up barriers and blockades to keep bright and talented people out.  It proposes solutions to problems that don’t exist.  You can find demagogues and petty tyrants working 9-5 on everything from grocery bag taxes to restrictions on tree branches.  In the past few decades alone the figureheads of this city have managed to take record amounts of money from citizens and demand record levels of compliance with confusing rules and regulations.  They’ve taken untold creative power out of every citizen’s efforts and resources out of their pockets.

This city is always looking backward and downward.  It is relentlessly focused on creating new conflicts and categorizing everyone’s relative quality of life.  It is driven by fear, doubt, and preservation of the past.  From this city have come complex and confounding ordinances that strangle active assets and reduce quality of life.  Customers have no choice.  Investors can’t divest.  And the city can take credit for world-changing companies that have relocated to other cities to escape the Leviathan.

Both cities are the same place.  In this case, San Francisco.  But many cities share the same fate.  The citizens are the same.  Yet they live in two spheres simultaneously and the institutions and incentives in those spheres are so drastically different you can barely recognize the actors in each as the same people.

Make no mistake, they are the same people.  It’s not that some people are peaceful, productive producers and consumers and some people are meddling petty tyrants.  It’s that the same person behaves in both ways, depending upon the incentives and institutions.  The political man (as in mankind) is a barbarous, tribalistic busybody.  The market man is an inventive, curious soul.

I’ll be sharing a specific recent example of this split-personality disorder and what leads to the contrasting behaviors in the two spheres in an upcoming piece for The Freeman.  Stay tuned.

Update: Here’s Part 2.

How Information Destroys Dictators (Are Demagogues Next?)

I recently saw a presentation by economist Antony Davies on the basics of Public Choice Theory and the predictable problems with democratic systems.  Ant laid out the median voter theorem, then observed that national elections continue to get tighter and tighter as candidates become more and more similar in an effort to win the median voter.

This process is accelerated by the information age.  Candidates don’t have to determine a platform and then go try to sell it, hoping a large chunk of people already agree.  They don’t even have to study opinion research and craft a platform most likely to win.  They can A/B test in real time.  Campaigns can go to Twitter and try out some slogans or positions, they can react immediately and pivot their posture.  The old saw that politicians put their finger in the wind is true as ever, but fingers are no longer necessary when you have a digital weather vane plus anemometer streaming real-time measurements to your smartphone.

In other words, power hungry politicians are more accountable to the shifting moods of the public than ever.  Don’t get too excited.  This is far worse than a free and open market society in terms of decision-making and individual and public good.  People behave differently when voting or tweeting than they do when their own skin is in the game, and a system that caters to the costless whims of the majority is far scarier than a truly free society.

Still, it might be better than a pure dictatorship.  I suspect the days of a charismatic, strong leader who wins over throngs of people with good speeches are numbered.  Absent a better means of communication, societies rally around symbols because they can convey quickly a complex set of feelings and ideas.  They can also be more easily exploited.  Simplistic urges like nationalism, shared hatred of perceived enemies, moral crusades, and other dumbed down tales of us vs. them are the stuff of dreams for power-hungry tyrants.  Whip them up into a sense of unity around a common (often violent, envy-based) cause, and you can own the country.  This is harder than it’s ever been.

More and more citizens around the world can jump online and see pictures of their supposed enemies.  They can see the other side.  Humans seem to have limited compassion, and proximity is one of the rationing mechanisms.  The information age brings the world closer, and therefore makes compassion able to span the globe.  A fine speech about barbarians at the gate can create a wave of support for a hawkish autocrat, but when you can see those ‘barbarians’ with your own eyes, read their stories, and talk with them, it’s harder to get behind.

The ease with which information flows – what economists would call a reduction in transaction costs – is dramatically reshaping the way we do business, culture, life, and politics.  At first we’ll see political figures that appear more like focus-group generated spokespersons, as they get better at following the trends.  The switch from forceful dictator to savvy demagogue is perhaps a small improvement.  But I don’t think it will stop there.

This reduction in transaction costs also means all the things previously thought to be collective action problems solvable only through the clumsy and corrupt mechanisms of voting and politics can be tackled through voluntary markets.  Imagine your neighborhood HOA, instead of voting on higher fees for a new park, letting residents access a Kickstarter-like app where they can pledge an amount they’re willing to pay and the project only goes forward when it hits its goal?  The political figureheads and representatives can be eliminated just as Bitcoin eliminates financial gatekeepers.

The easier it is for individuals to connect and share ideas and goods with each other, the less powerful political gatekeepers trying to take their cut and regulate our relationships become.  Ultimately, information will beat oppression.

Interview with a Rabble-Rouser: Leon Drolet

Some of the most fascinating people and ideas are in our immediate circle of acquaintances.  I have enjoyed interviewing some of my friends for the blog, and I’ve learned interesting things by asking questions I don’t typically ask of people I already know.

Today’s interview is with my good friend Leon Drolet.  I worked for Leon many years ago in the state legislature, and it was, in part, his influence that helped turn me away from politics and to what I think is the more productive world of ideas.

Leon is one of the most honest, entertaining, and sometimes shocking individuals I know.  The last thing his self-proclaimed giant ego needs is more praise, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say he has influenced me in important ways.  He likes to joke that he takes credit for everything, but in my case, he is due some credit for some successes I’ve had.  Of course, I reserve the right to blame him for all of my failures as well.

IMM: I’ve described you as a rabble-rouser because, frankly, I don’t really know what else to call you. What do you say when people ask what you do?

LD: I usually tell people that I’m not sure what I do, but “it has something to do with ‘liberty’, I think”. My goal is to advance liberty in all ways I can be effective at it. Those ways are varied: often political, sometimes educational. Sometimes I write op-eds and engage in media interviews, sometimes I run for political office (I’ve been elected six times to state and local office). Sometimes I create public events like rallies and grassroots groups, sometimes I work to change laws and state constitutions through petition campaigns and elections. Sometimes I assist college students who want to learn more about libertarian ideas, sometimes I organize forums for libertarian networking. Sometimes I work on projects that engage the public on a specific libertarian concept – like civil rights being for individuals instead of for identity groups.  How can I describe all of the above in a simple sentence? So, I don’t – it is more fun to tell people that I do not know what I do.

IMM: Are you doing what you want to do?

LD: I try to avoid things I don’t want to do.

IMM: What is the theme that runs through your various activities and employments?  What is your goal?

LD: My goal is to find and implement ways for libertarian concepts to gain wider recognition and appreciation in society. And to have fun doing it. I’m not interested in drudgery, so I pursue that which I love in fun and interesting ways. Ideally, I would create and strategize and showboat and laugh through each liberty-advancing venture, but I have to do some less-interesting logistical and bureaucratic execution work. It would be nice to have staff to do the boring stuff.

IMM: You’ve been in and around the political game quite a bit, yet I know few people as dismissive of the importance of politicians and ready to downplay the role of politics in changing the world.  Is this a contradiction?

LD: I hope so. Oscar Wilde said, “The well bred contradict other people. The wise contradict themselves.” and I need all the advice about appearing wise that I can get. I do political work because I lack skills more useful to society. Before I learned how social change really happens, I thought political change was key. So I invested in learning political campaign skills: how to best utilize resources in election campaigns, how to target voters and hone messages, how to engage others in the political process, etc. Those are among my skills now, for better or for worse.

IMM: What are some common misconceptions about politics?  What would people be surprised to know?

LD: People think politicians matter – and to prove it, they point to one or two politicians they think have mattered. While there are exceptions, 95% of elected officials don’t matter and the world would hardly change had they never been elected. Politicians’ decisions are molded by many factors around them. If you learn to see the forces that create a politician, you can predict what they will do 95% of the time. If you learn to affect the factors influencing politicians, you can steer a great many politicians. This is far more effective than trying to elect “good” politicians one at a time. “Good” politicians will still do bad things if the incentives aren’t right. Change the incentives.

IMM: You have a habit of making light of everything. There never seems a bad time to joke for you. Is this a conscious approach to life, or just the way you’re wired?

LD: Life is too precious to be bored and humor, especially the absolute worst cringe-inducing humor, is rarely boring.

IMM: Most public figures work hard to keep up an unoffensive image. You love being in the public eye, yet you don’t really sugar coat your radical ideas and sometimes unserious approach to life. How have you been able to get away with it?

LD: Tell people what you really believe and, if it is unorthodox, use humor. Especially self-deprecating humor. People appreciate humility and the ability to recognize (and to put into approachable context or ‘frame’) one’s own relatively less popular positions on issues or ideas. People respect someone, and engage them on their ideas, if the person is consistent and fun and humble. Of course, I am the most humble person the world has ever seen…

IMM: Can you sum up your philosophy?

LD: Customize life to fit your values to the maximum extent possible. Love and exalt that which is truly beautiful. Die proud of the life you led.

IMM: Have you always seen the world this way, or was it a journey?  Did you come by your beliefs easily, or with some difficulty?

LD: Like everyone, I evolved. The most important step in that evolution was recognizing that discovering truth is the highest value, and that logic and reason are the most reliable avenues to discover truth. Being able to recognize my biases and accept responsibility and be aware of my many deep flaws are the most difficult parts of my journey.

IMM: What kind of legacy do you want to leave?

LD: I want society to be a freer place because I have lived on Earth. My ego demands that my life have mattered – that people will be better off than had I not been born. I want to be proud of my life and to have enjoyed it greatly.

The Timeless Way of Being

I am currently reading Christopher Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building on the recommendation of a friend.  It is one of those books that is so full of insight that it cannot be absorbed all at once, especially with the analytical part of the brain.  It is as intuitive as it is logical.  It’s the kind of thing that forces you to think outside of your paradigms, but in a way that is oddly comfortable.

Yesterday a section of the book stood out to me in particular.  It was about the patterns in building that are good at resolving conflicting forces, and those that are not.  Alexander maintains that there is near universal agreement on what patterns of, say, a window or a garden resolve conflicting forces.  He asks people how they feel in a certain window area vs. another, and 95% or more feel good in the same one.  It may seem outlandish to claim that there is so little disagreement about what makes for a good pattern in building, but the key for Alexander is the word feeling.

He does not ask what they think of flat windows vs. Bay windows.  He does not ask their opinion on window material or position.  He does not ask what a builder should do.  He does not ask anything that evokes a belief or idea or a connection to some overarching plan or policy.  These ought expressions get in the way of the is  of the forces at work within us.  It turns out it is incredibly hard to be honest with ourselves about what feels good.  It takes a lot of discovery, and shedding all the baggage and ideology we carry around.

It someone asked me what I thought of using locally grown ingredients in food, my mind would immediately leap to the idiotic and regressive political movements that seek to force economies into localism, drive up prices, drive down quality, get everyone too involved in everyone else’s business while self-righteously proclaiming the superiority of an absurd proximity bias.  In other words, my thoughts on the matter would probably be negative.

Because of this, it is possible that I would overlook an opportunity to bite into a delicious and juicy local fruit at a farmers market, for fear of giving credence to the food busybodies.  These thoughts – my view that no one ought to get preachy about local ingredients – might prohibit me from finding alignment with the genuine feelings within me.  It’s harder than it first seems to constantly stay in touch with what feels right – with who we actually are – in the face of all the things we think we should be and believe.

This is one of the reasons democracy is such a poor way of resolving collective action problems.  It not only seeks and allows our mere opinions, it rewards our proclamations of what we wish we thought, or what we pretend to want, instead of what actually make us fuller, happier people.  It rewards and glorifies the boring lies and spin we weave into our narratives, and vilifies our honesty about what really harmonizes with us.

It’s much more fruitful to dig down to the bottom and discover what you really do feel, and work with those forces rather than pretending they don’t exist.  This is why capitalism is such a powerful and beautiful system of social coordination; because it takes humans as they are, imperfect knowledge and motives and abilities, and the scarcity and difficulty the natural world presents, works with it, and channels it all in a harmonious and life-giving way.  Capitalism is honest.

This is why the economic way of thinking – the rational choice model – is so enlightening and useful in explaining human behavior and institutions.  It does not condone or condemn, it just accepts ends as a given and seeks to understand what means will and will not achieve them.

Certainly some goals or desires or feelings are better than others.  Certainly some are worth trying to change.  But playing pretend and building patterns around forces we wish existed in us and in others, instead of what’s actually there, doesn’t help.  There is no better way to express this insight than to quote The Timeless Way at length:

“But a pattern which is real makes no judgments about the legitimacy of the forces in the situation.

By seeming to be unethical, by making no judgments about individual opinions, or goals, pr values, the pattern rises to another level of morality.

The result is to allow things to be alive – and this is a higher good than the victory of any one artificial system of values.  The attempt to have a victory for a one-sided view of the world cannot work anyway, even for the people who seem to win their point of view.  The forces which are ignored do not go away just because they are ignored.  They lurk, frustrated, underground.  Sooner or later they erupt in violence: and the system which seems to win is then exposed to far more catastrophic dangers.

The only way a pattern can actually help to make a situation genuinely more alive is by recognizing all the forces which actually exist, and then finding a world in which these forces can slide past each other.

Then it becomes a piece of nature.”

Mr. Alexander is an architect and is here talking about patterns in rooms, gardens, buildings and towns.  He refers to things like the human desire to go towards the light in the room, and the desire for comfortable seating.  The patterns he seeks are those that bring into harmony such forces.  But read the above again, slowly, and consider how much broader this insight might apply; to institutions, to social coordination problems, and to our own lives.

A Few Quotes

On politics and government

“Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.” – C.S. Lewis

“I am really sorry to see my Countrymen trouble themselves about Politics. If Men were Wise the Most arbitrary Princes could not hurt them. If they are not Wise the Freest Government is compelled to be a Tyranny. Princes appear to me to be Fools. Houses of Commons & Houses of Lords appear to me to be fools, they seem to me to be something Else besides Human Life.” – William Blake

“Politics is a dirty business, a ruse, an ideological cul-de-sac, a vast looter of intellectual and financial resources, a lie that corrupts, a deceiver, a means of unleashing vast evil in the world of the most unexpected and undetected sort and the greatest diverter of human productivity ever concocted by those who do not believe in authentic social and economic progress.” – Jeffrey Tucker

“Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” – Juvenal

On tyranny

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.[…] those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth.” – C. S. Lewis

“The struggle for freedom is ultimately not resistance to autocrats or oligarchs but resistance to the despotism of public opinion.” – Ludwig von Mises

“As long as the public identifies order with law, it will believe that an orderly society is impossible without the law the state provides. And as long as the public believes this, it will continue to support the state almost without regard to how oppressive it may become.” – John Hasnas

“I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man” – Thomas Jefferson

On freedom

“And now that the legislators and do-gooders have so futilely inflicted so many systems upon society, may they finally end where they should have begun: May they reject all systems, and try liberty; for liberty is an acknowledgment of faith in God and His works.” – Frederic Bastiat

“Every man must have freedom, must have the scope to form, test, and act upon his own choices, for any sort of development of his own personality to take place. He must, in short, be free in order that he may be fully human.” – Murray Rothbard

“I freed thousands of slaves. I could have freed thousands more, if they had known they were slaves” – Harriet Tubman

“The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion” – Albert Camus

Voters are Liars

I recently heard a political commentator bemoan the results of surveys and elections.  He said the sad truth, whether libertarians wanted to hear it or not, is that Americans want big government.  They want handouts, high taxes, regulatory interference, and on and on.  They vote for people who talk about it.  They re-elect them when they deliver it.  On opinion surveys they favor entitlement programs and broad intervention.  I couldn’t help but laugh.

A person who studies only quarterbacks is likely to interpret an NFL game as the result of QB play.  A person who immerses themselves in politics is likely to interpret society as the result of political opinion and activity.  In the former case, there is at least plausible evidence that QB’s are a major factor.  In the latter, it is almost entirely an illusion that politics and political sentiment reveal the broader health of liberty.

Voters are liars.  They tell the truth about their opinion in the abstract, free from trade-offs and constraints, but this has little to no meaning when translated into the real world.  If I asked you to vote between a person who offered a better world, and one who offered a less bad world, and promised that your vote was guaranteed to not change the outcome either way, what would you do?  What could I conclude about your preferences from your vote?

If I polled you and asked whether or not you like the idea of someone giving you something for free, again promising that how you answered had no bearing on the real world, what would you say?  What could I learn from that about your values?

Voting and surveys are free ways to express a sentiment or indulge in a real or desired preference.  Not only that, the sentiments expressed are not about the real world.  Politics is a zero sum game, completely unlike nearly every other arena of life.  Imagine how different your preferences would be if everything were zero-sum like politics.  What if you had to choose once for all between brands of coffee, cars or clothing?  What if you could not go back, at least not for several years, and try another?  What if whatever a majority in your area voted on would be applied to everyone else?  Under this scenario we could poll people and ask which of three or four brands they prefer.  We’d get some data, but it would reveal nothing whatsoever about what people actually value if they were choosing in the non-zero-sum marketplace and bearing the full costs and benefits of their choices.

Back to society today.  Do people really favor less liberty and more government?  Elections and polls are a very poor measure.  Let’s not look at stated preferences about the artificial political world, but revealed preferences in the real world of win-wins, marginal decision making, internalized costs and benefits, and trade-offs.  If you examine the market, what would you say people are “voting” for?  Radically individualistic technology.  More and more choice.  Freedom from being lumped in with groups.  The ability to choose everything.  Private alternatives to government dominated services like transportation, information transmission, education, protection, rule-making  social norms and values, health maintenance, and on and on.

Don’t listen so much to what people say, look at what they reveal by their actions.  Nobody admits to loving Barry Manilow, but the guy sells a ton of records.  No one says they want to abolish public education, but they keep putting their resources into alternatives to it.

Frankly, I don’t care what people say in polls or who they vote for in the fairyland of politics.  What I see around me – the revealed preferences of billions of earth’s citizens – is a vote, indeed a mandate, for more freedom.

There’s No Such Thing as a ‘Public-Private Partnership’

It’s long been a trend for local and state governments to create agencies and entities that are supposed to enhance commercial activity in their area.  There are myriad legal and logistical arrangements, but they all have some common features.  They’re all reliant on government in structure and law, they all use taxpayer funds to accomplish their projects, and they all love to use newspeak phrases like, “public-private partnership” to describe their activities.

An online dictionary definition of partnership is useful:

“A legal contract entered into by two or more persons in which each agrees to furnish a part of the capital and labor for a business enterprise, and by which each shares a fixed proportion of profits and losses.”


“A relationship between individuals or groups that is characterized by mutual cooperation and responsibility, as for the achievement of a specified goal.”

Clearly, government economic meddling projects do not fit either of these definitions.  How can “the public” enter into a partnership?  How can “the public” share in profit or loss?  In reality, governments take money from people in their vicinity by force, then they give some of it to suits in an agency who give it to favored businesses and investors.  “The Public” never agrees to anything.  There is no mutual cooperation and certainly no responsibility or profit/loss sharing.

The absurdity of calling it a partnership can be illustrated with the following thought experiment.  Imagine your friend took some money from your wallet, deposited it in his checking account, kept most of it for himself and gave the rest to another guy to start a business.  No strings attached, just a gift of start-up capital.  Then your friend started publicly talking about how this was a partnership between you and startup guy.  After getting over your initial anger that he took your money and didn’t even consult with you before throwing it after some business venture, you try to consider the possible upsides of this unjust act.  You ask him if that means you will own shares in the company.  No.  Does it mean you get some percentage of any profit?  No.  Do you get an interest payment on your stolen and loaned money?  No.  He assures you it’s OK though, because neither are you on the hook for any losses (besides of course the loss of the money he already took, which you’ll never see again.)  In other words, this is nothing like a partnership.

What you get is money taken from you, spent on middle-men who are paid to give the rest to whatever business they want to.  You are not a partner, you are a victim.  Partnership implies consent.  Partnership implies shared benefit and responsibility   Partnership implies choice.  There is no such thing as a public-private partnership.

But Who Would Bilk the Roads?

But who would create the long lines in which to wait to be told you have the wrong documents?  Who would build the bridges to nowhere?  Who would pay $300 for a toilet seat?  Who would lose your important items in the mail?  Who would force you to turn off your cell phone while taxiing on the runway?  Who would pay a horseshoer to not shoe horses?  Who would pay a farmer to not grow crops?

Who would encourage the poor to buy education and housing they can’t afford?  Who would encourage workers not to work?  Who would encourage the generous not to give?  Who would encourage the productive to stop producing?

Who would punish the innocent for doing what makes them happy?  Who would subsidize some chemicals and plants and ban others?  Who would perpetuate gang wars across the globe?  Who would encourage and prop up organized crime?  Who would jail sickly grandmothers for seeking natural pain-relief remedies?

Who would incentivise healers not to heal?  Who would force entrepreneurs to become legal experts rather than creators?  Who would create laws sufficient to make everyone a criminal?  Who would artificially raise the price of health care?  Who would artificially lower the price of waste?

Who would prevent people from seeking damages when another pollutes the water?  Who would fail to maintain the forests?  Who would squander the resources?

Who would help well-heeled businesses crush their competition with laws and regulations?  Who would steal half of the production and spend it on stifling the other half?  Who would pay thousands of agents to create thousand of rules to penalize millions of people for making a living and not properly filling out paperwork to classify and justify it all?

Who would force the children into factory schools?  Who would cram bad ideas into their heads?  Who would drive them to near madness with tedium and tyranny controlling their every waking minute?  Who would call it bullying or a disorder when they reacted?  Who would cram pills down their throats when they thought divergently?  Who would lie to them about the value of schooling?  Who would teach them to obey arbitrary authority instead of their own consciences?

Who would force the peaceful to pay for war?  Who would encourage the violent to aggress and call it honorable?  Who would give sanction to racist, hateful tendencies and call it security?  Who would attack the innocent?  Who would build the drones?  Who would man the concentration camps?

Indeed, who would carry out the genocide?  Who would massacre the millions?  Who would force famines?  Who would torture?

Review: Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers

Any book that uses an Oxford comma in the title is immediately in my good graces. Add the nicely designed cover, the slim size, and the intriguing topic, and Edward Lopez and Wayne Leighton would have had to commit heinous rhetorical or logical crimes to turn me off of their new book, Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers. Fortunately, they commit no such crimes but present a sweeping and readable examination of the forces that generate social change.

I have long been obsessed with the question of how to change the world. In my personal life, this question took me from humanitarian mission trips, to politics, to policy advocacy, to education, to developing educators, to raising support to develop educators. To borrow the old adage, I found I could do more in teaching a man to fish than giving a man a fish…then I took it further: Now I raise the capital to build the factories to make the rope to produce the nets to give the teachers to teach people to catch millions of fish.

This doesn’t mean I’ve discovered once for all the secret of changing the world; far from it. Every day my approach changes as I gain experience and learn new ideas. Madmen is, in many ways, a clear articulation of many of the ideas I’ve come to hold about social change. It details how Public Choice Theory reveals that governments have all the wrong incentives for positive change. It discusses the role of ideas, and how they are able to overcome the vested interests that Public Choice makes seem so insurmountable. It lays out Hayek’s description of social change coming from intellectuals, and spreading through the general public. But Madmen adds a new dimension, one I have not been able to integrate into my worldview until recently: the bottom-up role of culture, and the circumstance of time and place.

It is not only coherent, conscious ideology that determines what institutions will be tolerated, and therefore what incentives exist and what outcomes result. The conscious beliefs of individuals in society do play a major role, and are something we focus on perhaps because we feel capable of altering them through education and persuasion. But there is also a role for bottom-up, experiential, subconscious or tacit knowledge. The kind of knowledge that culture carries from generation to generation, passing on when it produces better outcomes.

Often no one is aware the valuable function of such cultural trends or norms. Economist Peter Leeson has done research on a variety of bizarre superstitions and practices embedded in various cultures; memes that seem to have no value. If you asked the members of that culture what the purpose was, they would likely provide an answer steeped in their religion or mythology. Yet time and again, the practices have proven efficient means of achieving desirable ends, at least compared with the known alternatives. Such cultural norms needn’t be recognized for what they are even by the people that benefit from them in order to have influence over institutions, incentives, and outcomes – good or bad.

I’ve come to believe that, when it comes to bringing about a better world, valuing freedom because we’ve experienced it and consider it normal is just as important as valuing freedom because it makes sense in the moral or utilitarian abstract. A generation that believes in the power of voluntary cooperation because they take part in it every day is no less valuable than one that reads libertarian theory.

Madmen integrates the top-down flow of ideas from intellectuals to the general public with the bottom up influence of learned cultural memes, and uses the combined forces to explain where the ideas come from that shape the institutions in which (as Public Choice reveals) incentives will lead to predictable outcomes. To create this integrated view of social change, Leighton and Lopez ask and answer three questions:

1. Why do democracies generate policies that are wasteful and unjust?

2. Why do failed policies persist over long periods, even when they are known to be socially wasteful and even when better alternatives exist?

3. Why do some wasteful policies get repealed (airline and telephone regulations) while others endure (sugar subsidies, tariffs)?

They offer answers in less than 200 pages, yet somehow manage to work in an expansive history of economic and political thought, beginning with the earliest philosophers and ending with the most current economists. This is an excellent tour of political economy as a discipline: what questions it asks, what personalities populate the field, and what competing and complimentary theories they present. There is enough detail to satisfy the wannabe economist in me, and enough colorful storytelling to sate my inner layman.

The book opens with a story of the shot-clock that saved basketball, and closes with a story of hybrid wheat that saved millions of lives. It is full of examples of social change, both good and bad, and the authors’ thoughts on why it happened when and how it did. If you are interested in how the world works from a ten thousand foot vantage point, I cannot recommend Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers enough.

How the World Will Change

(Originally posted here.)

When the world becomes free it will not be by the creation of new laws, or the removal of old, or new political leaders or any election result. It will not be because of a change in government, but because of a change in attitude toward government. It will not be because of legislation, but because of disregard for legislation.

Genuine change will come when the state is ignored, not reformed. It will come not when politicians are better, but when they are irrelevant.

When state-made law is no longer deemed necessary or important it will not be respected. When it is not respected it will not be enforced because it will not be enforceable.

This is how the world will change.

Evidence in the Face of Disbelief

The world can become free of the barbarous relic called the state. The state is a dangerous fiction whose power rests entirely on people’s belief in its necessity, or inevitability. Belief in the state is not insurmountable. It is not hard-wired into the human mind. It is not a given that a state must or will always exist. The state, like so many other superstitions now thought to be outrageous, inhumane and inefficient, can be left in the ash heap of history.

Many once laughed at the notion that an institution as old as humanity itself, the institution of slavery, would or could ever be removed. The prevailing wisdom for centuries, even among those who had discovered the moral repugnance of slavery, was that it was just a part of human nature. Reformers argued the best thing was to work for a more humane version of slavery.

Slavery was an institution that, however evil it may sometimes be and however utopians might imagine a more perfect world without it, was here to stay. Some embarked on efforts to improve the institution, to teach masters to be “good” to their slaves. Some setup rules and mores designed to limit the nastiest outcomes of the institution. But the institution itself was as unavoidable as scarcity and death.

The fatal flaw in this thinking is that slavery and government, unlike scarcity and death, are human institutions. They are, above all, mental constructs. Their physical manifestations are not physical realities humans simply encounter in nature, but realities we create, and humans only create by first imagining. An idea does not become an action unless the individual actor believes that the idea is worth acting on. To subjugate another human being, or to condone or allow the subjugation of one by another, one must first have the idea of subjugation and must believe that acting on it is preferable to ignoring or condemning it. Scarcity and natural death need no such human consent. The old saying about death and taxes turns out to be only half true.

If the state, like slavery, is the result of the ideas held by people it is not inevitable. Some day humanity could look back on the institution called the state with the same sense of shame and wonder that we now have about slavery. How could so many people – many of them good people – live their lives day in and day out surrounded by an institution so inhumane, so nakedly violent and demeaning? Did they really think it was necessary? Did they not understand how degrading it was? It will be hard to understand how so many humans thought the state was inevitable, tolerable and even good. As sure as slavery became a hated relic, so can the state.

How It Happens

When slavery ended it was not by changes in rules or laws or political leaders. Such changes often quickly follow changes in belief and mistakenly receive the credit, but they are never the cause. Slavery ended as people’s ideas about it changed. People began to believe it was not only an evil, but an unnecessary one. People began to believe it so evil that they were willing to tolerate the short-term sacrifices of ending it in order to reap the long-term improvement in the human condition.

The calculation of cost and benefit changed as people’s sense of morality trumped their sense of conservative institutional stability. The unknown outcome of ending slavery became an acceptable risk when considered against the known evil of the institution, which became an unacceptable reality.

Political Reform

Political reform can never bring about liberty. It can on rare occasion expand a bit of liberty for a few, but as long as that expansion occurs via political methods, it means bargaining that often takes away freedom in some other arena, or the long-term furtherance of trust in the state. The political game is about reshuffling and re-enforcing the necessity of the state.

The political game attracts great attention, and as such many suggest using it as a means of educating people about the power of liberty. Politics as education is only valuable in the long term to the extent that it educates people that politics is at bottom bad and government cannot ever be good. If it merely inspires people to advocate that the state do to things better, it is not, in the end, going to make society more free. It is disbelief in politics and in the state that leads to freedom.

The Chinese army fired on their fellow citizens in Tiananmen Square. This massacre was not caused by political leaders and generals saying, “Shoot”; but by men in the Chinese army deciding to shoot. It was not caused ultimately by bad leadership, but by a belief in the necessity of obeying orders. There will always be people with a will to power; a desire to control. Only when the rest don’t believe that power to be necessary and therefore do not obey does freedom reign.

Shift Focus

Humans want to solve problems in the most immediate and direct way possible. We want to know where the problem of restricted liberty begins. We discover the source in a gradual progression. First the focus is on people – the wrong political leaders. This quickly generalizes to political parties or groups, then to policies or laws, then to agencies and institutions, and finally to the state itself.

Here it seems we’re at the core of the problem: the state itself. Not any of the personalities or parties or bureaus or laws under its aegis. But a further shift in focus is required. The state is not the root of the problem. The real problem is not an institution, but an idea. It is the idea that government is necessary. That’s the culprit and final basis for every bad thing the state has ever done.

To a small degree, a shift in focus is happening now. A great many people don’t believe that a particular politician will solve the problems created by the state. An increasing number don’t believe one party is more likely than another to do so. It is more common to hear institutions or the incentives built into the system of government blamed. This is progress. It is, however, still rare to hear the existence of the state itself blamed, and rarer still to hear blame placed on the idea that a state is necessary.

The belief in its necessity gives rise to the state, which by definition is full of bad incentives that attract and nurture bad people in bad parties. To say the people, parties, or policies are the problem would be like blaming the sidewalk for breaking your leg after you walked off a tall building because you were ignorant of the staircase and elevator. Frustration with the sidewalk is useless and ignorant. The proper response would be to question the necessity of walking off the building; perhaps in so doing you would discover other less painful methods of achieving your goal and reaching the ground floor.

There is no form or arrangement of a state that can guarantee liberty. The answer is always peace, markets, and voluntarism. The ring of power cannot be wielded for good, but must be thrown into the fire before it uses good for evil.

Changing Lives and Changing Life

I do not wish to downplay the possible outcomes of attempts to reform the state. By such efforts lives can be changed. A court decision can save an individual or a whole neighborhood from being bulldozed by the state. The removal of a regulation can change the life of an entrepreneur and allow her to pursue her dream. These activities are analogous to disaster relief or soup kitchens; they can genuinely change lives and offer welcome relief. They can change lives, but they cannot change life.

Disasters will still come and go. The conditions that brought about hunger are not ameliorated with the appetite of the person receiving soup. The liberty-crushing actions of the state do not cease when it ceases to crush one neighborhood or regulate one industry for some period of time. The state will – must – continue to seek its own expansion, and it will push at every weak point it finds to do so, ensuring that an endless stream of lives will remain to be helped, but that the conditions of life itself will not be fundamentally altered. Treating disease is noble, but it is different than eradicating disease.

Changing lives is good and fulfilling work. But for those courageous enough to dream, changing life itself is bliss, and can only be done by undermining, not improving the state.

What to Do?

The only tactic worth pursuing is enlightenment. Enlightenment of self and of others, and both continuously. This does not mean telling people what to believe or what to do. It is more akin to discovery than education. A teacher may help you discover truth by providing information, but the discoverer has to have curiosity and openness. It is the discoverer himself who chooses to discover.

Become a free person, and your freedom will be a beacon to others who are searching. Create liberty in your own life, exchange ideas, be open to the power of human creativity. Free your own mind and you will begin to help others to free theirs not by telling them what to believe, but by demonstration and discussion.

The market does not produce new innovations and technologies because smart people tell others what to design; instead it is a constant dynamic give and take, show and tell, creation and imitation, trial and error, the greatest ongoing play of economic exchange.

The building of a free-society needn’t wait until the state is limited or absent; indeed the state will not wither until the free society is first built to replace it. The explosive power of ideas will destroy the foundations of the state as free people continue to live and breath those ideas and demonstrate the life, energy, fun, progress and fulfillment in freedom.

This does not mean everyone who wants liberty must do the same thing. Demonstrating and discussion the ideas of a free society is such a broad and evolutionary task that it opens endless doors. The differences we have in ability and interest lead to numerous efforts, and enlightenment leaves ample room for differentiation.

Our differences will manifest in which “others” we exchange with, and what methods and mediums we use. But it must be an exchange of ideas and the building of a free society. It cannot mean deceiving, cajoling, “nudging”, forcing, bribing, or dictating. These, in the end, will only lead to less freedom.

Liberty not inevitable, but it is possible. A state that does not trample liberty is not possible. So long as the state is deemed necessary it will exist, and the state will always grow beyond its originally desired limits. The state will prey upon society until it destroys it, and then destroys itself. But if the belief in the necessity of the state remains, the deposed state will soon be replaced by a new one and the process will begin again.

The only foundation that society can be built on without collapse is a belief in statelessness.

It must be belief. Consequential (practical) and deontological (moral) arguments against the state miss the point. People will accept an inefficient and immoral system if they believe it necessary. Once they find it unnecessary, they will abandon it and give moral or practical reasons for doing so, but the belief in the necessity of the state must go first.

Imagine Liberty

Ludwig von Mises described three preconditions to human action. An individual must have dissatisfaction with his current condition, a vision of something better, and a belief in the ability to achieve that vision.

Everyone has dissatisfaction with government. Almost no one has a vision of something better. People have visions of a differently structured “necessary evil”, but their lack of imagination makes them keep the modifier, “necessary”. The Proverb says that for lack of vision people perish.

If we open up our imagination there is abundant evidence of order without the state. Non-state norms and institutions produce the majority of the world we see around us. Historically, society precedes the state, and there is ample evidence of stateless solutions to problems we are taught to believe only the state can solve.

Beyond past or present evidence, an application of our knowledge of human potential can also help us envision what could be. Science fiction writers imagine unheard of technologies by looking at technological advances in the here and now. They extrapolate and predict where human ingenuity, if it continues on its present course, may go. The best social thinkers do the same with society.

Some advocates for liberty do have a vision of something better. They can imagine multifarious social arrangements without the state. But most still lack the third condition of human action; a belief in the ability to get there. After so many vein attempts at revolution and political activism it seems there is no answer. But in some ways, the second condition of action is the answer to the third. If enough people can imagine a better solution, they will cease to support an inferior one (even in the face of the unknown, if they believe it to hold promise) and cease to prohibit new experiments. People with imagination too small to envision an automobile may very well accept restrictions on road building. But people who can’t envision the specific manifestation of the automobile, but can imagine human progress and invention capable of surprising them will be reticent to restrict the construction of something with unknown promise.

This is why we needn’t all share the same, or even a very specific, vision of a stateless world. We must, however, be brave and broad-minded enough to see in human relations the potential of order without the state.

For those who can imagine such a world, the task is to open others up to the same possibility. Show them, intrigue them, inspire them. Where imagination is wanting, so is liberty.

When It Happens

Perhaps the beginning of the end of the state will be gradual. Maybe state efforts to restrict minor activities will be increasingly ignored. Bans on food and drink may be laughed at and become unenforceable. Perhaps it will slowly extend to ignoring bigger and bigger restrictions.
Perhaps it will start with a bang. The prohibition of drugs may simply come to an abrupt end, and sooner than anyone expects. Public schooling may suddenly become so little used and so uncompetitive in the face of educational innovation that it disappears.

It may happen without a big production. The visage of the state may not even die with its function. The royalty of England still exist, but they are longer relevant in regulating daily life. They exist as reflection or memory of what was once believed. Some Native American tribes perform rain dances not because they believe, as they once did, that they will bring rain, but as an homage to their past. The state may transform similarly. It may never “go away”, but it may cease to have meaning except as a tradition. Parades and pomp may remain while power over our lives withers.

Fast or slow, big or small, conscious or unconscious as it may be, the world will change. The state can be a relic of the past, harder to understand as time moves on, like slavery in America today. In so many ways the trend is well underway and we are already in a mostly stateless world, though it is little appreciated or understood. It may be a matter of merely realizing what is already true: the state is not, and never has been necessary.

Realistic and Radical

The dissolution of the state doesn’t rely on people to become better or morality to change, or for the next step in evolution. It is a fallacy that government is inevitable and necessary. It could wither away in no time. It is only a matter of us changing our beliefs, paradigms, and theories of world. It only requires that we realize that it is not necessary. I say only, but the power of imagination necessary to see that the state is not is no small thing. Opening our minds to this possibility is the greatest and most promising intellectual and practical adventure.

The Worst Protection

You feel safe in your neighborhood, but worry about the small chance of a break-in or act of vandalism. To protect yourself from these risks, you pay a security company to look after your house. It costs a little more than you’d like, but you determine it’s worth it.

They put an unarmed guard in front of your house at night, just to keep an eye out. It seems a bit unnecessary, but you rest easier knowing he might deter would be thieves. The guards start coming earlier and staying longer. It seems silly to have them there before sundown, but you ignore it. Soon, they’ve got someone there almost around the clock. Then they send you a bill with a new higher rate for their services. You suggest going back to night only guards, but they assure you this is necessary to protect you, and also tell you the neighborhood is getting a bit more dangerous. You pay.

The next week, not only do they have a guard around the clock, but he’s armed. Then there’s two or three patrolling at a time. Rates go up again. You’ve been hearing more stories about how dangerous the neighborhood is, so you pay. Before long, they have a constant cadre of armed guards patrolling not just your sidewalk, but the whole neighborhood. They start randomly knocking on your neighbors’ doors and searching their houses for anything they might use against you. They set up permanent stations throughout the area, manned 24/7. Guards constantly patrol and conduct random searches, without permission, and occasionally they cage or kill someone. They assure you; there was reason to believe these neighbors had it in for you. It’s a jungle out there. They raise their rates.

Some of your neighbors object. Some devise ways to protect from being searched or bullied. All become suspicious of you, and a little angry. After all, the guards are invoking your name when they do this. The more the neighbors resist or lash out at the guards, the more the company explains just how unsafe you are unless you purchase the latest upgrade. You do. They deploy more street walkers. They pre-emptively kill and cage more neighbors. It seems a fight breaks out every day. Bands of neighbors form for the sole purpose of combatting you and your security team. Their children grow up afraid of you and they hate you, and your children, for it.

The company says more is needed; threats can come from anywhere. Now guards are groping your guests and your children each day before they enter or exit your house. They search your house on occasion, just to be sure your conspiring neighbors don’t have an inside man. They treat you like a suspect on your own property. You pay the new fee with the only credit card you haven’t yet maxed out.

Every day you wake up scared of your neighbors, suspicious of your guests, leery of your own children, and irritated by the guards who may or may not rummage through your belongings. You juggle money around just to keep the lights on, meanwhile the guards roll around in tanks, thanks to your borrowed money. You remind yourself that they’re here to protect you from an increasingly dangerous neighborhood. It’s worth it. Sure, they could cut some costs, but it’s a struggle to convince them of anything, and it’s a little intimidating to try. Besides, what’s a few dollars overspent compared to the imminent danger you’d face if they scaled back too far?

One day it hits you: you’re not safer. You’re paying a lot of money, not to insure you against unlikely violence, but to stir it up. You’re paying to create enemies, not defend against vandalism. You’re paying to be treated not like a customer, but a criminal in your own home. You’ve been ripped off. You have fewer options when it comes to social circles, since you’ve made a lot of enemies. You can’t travel down certain streets, because there your name has become a byword. You’ve learned to fear your neighbors and you’re not really sure why, or what threat they pose except to the guards that harass them.

You fire the company and begin the long task of putting your life back together.

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy in the real world. You can’t fire those that provide supposed security. You have to pay, and you have to obey, or else. Don’t be mistaken: just because it’s done on a grander scale and wrapped in a lot of fuzzy feelings and national myths, doesn’t make it different from the neighborhood story above. States are supposed to provide protection; instead they poke people with sticks and incite them to violence.

The United States has enemies. I do not have enemies. There is no one in a far flung place in the world looking at a map and saying, “Here, on the Atlantic coast where the Cooper and Wando rivers come together. The people who have chosen to live on this bit of land are terrible. Let’s invade them. Let’s kill them.” Every international threat to me is a threat to me because I am associated, whether I like it or not, with the United States government.

Acts of terrorism and war are strategic acts. They are intended to pressure the state into changing its policies, or to make it pay for previous policies. Attackers know that the state ultimately responds to the views of its people and the interests that form around it. They attack civilians because they believe it creates impetus for the state to do what they want. We are the pawns in the game of states. We are at risk because we are seen as leverage with which to manipulate the political class.

The state is often defended as necessary to secure individuals against foreign aggression. Yet foreign aggression has no target if there is no state. The state does not make us safer, it makes us less safe. It kills in our name, with our money. It harasses us in our own country in the name of protecting us. It makes us suspicious of people we’d otherwise never know, or know only through Tweets or peaceful commercial interactions. It makes us hated.

The sooner we can forge an identity separate from the states that claim to protect us, the safer we will be. If the state is a kind of security provider, or insurance against international aggression, it’s the worst form of protection I can imagine. You wouldn’t stand for a company that marauded through the neighborhood in your name; you shouldn’t stand for a nation that does either.

Old, New, Borrowed, Blue


An imaginative and captivating read, Screwtape Proposes a Toast was C.S. Lewis’s follow-up published in the Saturday Evening Post to his popular book, the Screwtape Letters.  Screwtape is a fictitious correspondence between a senior and junior devil about how to damn men’s souls.  In the follow-up, Lewis has poignant insights into the nature of modern society, and in particular the way in which equality and democracy can corrode all that is good and sturdy in humans.

The text is posted here.  You can also read a PDF version of the original magazine publication here.

“Now, this useful phenomenon is in itself by no means new. Under the name of Envy it has been known to humans for thousands of years. But hitherto they always regarded it as the most odious, and also the most comical, of vices. Those who were aware of feeling it felt it with shame; those who were not gave it no quarter in others. The delightful novelty of the present situation is that you can sanction it — make it respectable and even laudable — by the incantatory use of the word democratic.”


Jeffrey Tucker absolutely nails it in this piece for The Freeman.  Jeff is one of those guys that gets freedom on a real gut, rubber-meets-the-road level.  He also gets it on an intellectual level.  He can pull from a treasure trove of work done by great thinkers on why liberty trumps central control, and he can also pull from keen insights on every day life and apply it all to present ideas for living free, here and now, and fighting to free the future.  Tucker talks first of the intellectual journey to anarchism, then the practical journey; the part that really transforms your outlook on life.

“[L]et me admit that my anarchism is probably more practical than ideological—which is the reverse of what it is for the most well-known anarchist thinkers in history. I see the orderliness of human volition and action all around me. I find it inspiring. It frees my mind to understand what is truly important in life. I can see reality for what it is. It is not some far-flung ideology that makes me long for a world without the State but rather the practical realities of the human struggle to make something of this world though our own efforts. Only human beings can overcome the great curse of scarcity the world has imposed on us. So far as I can tell, the State is, at best, the great annoyance that slows down the mighty project of building civilization.”


I borrowed this story from a friend’s Facebook feed.   She rightly pointed out that this research has pretty significant implications for the social sciences and might alter the current direction of sociology, psychology, and behavioral economics.  What I find interesting is how common-sensical the findings are.  The fact that this work will shake up these disciplines reveals just how silly and prone to trendiness academia can be.  I’m also willing to wager that, should this and similar work start a new trend in the social sciences towards more context-dependent theories, the pendulum will swing absurdly far and another counter-revolution will happen a few decades later reminding us that, yes, some elements of the human mind are universal.  The paper posits, in short, that institutions matter, a lot.  They shape our worldview and affect everything from how our brain processes spacial relations, to our sense of fairness.

“The potential implications of the unexpected results were quickly apparent to Henrich. He knew that a vast amount of scholarly literature in the social sciences—particularly in economics and psychology—relied on the ultimatum game and similar experiments. At the heart of most of that research was the implicit assumption that the results revealed evolved psychological traits common to all humans, never mind that the test subjects were nearly always from the industrialized West. Henrich realized that if the Machiguenga results stood up, and if similar differences could be measured across other populations, this assumption of universality would have to be challenged.”


This excellent book review by Anthony Gregory is depressing, or “blue”, upon first reading, especially if you’re new to revisionism.  The patriotic myths of war heroes and cunning statesmen are shattered, and with them a sense of American identity.  It takes some time.  You have to stand back and look at the facts and alternative narratives free from nationalistic impulse.  Then you grasp that most history books are little more than propaganda favoring the powerful status quo.  It hurts at first. With time, it is liberating.  This book review is an excellent appetizer for this way of examining the past.  Open your mind and give the revisionist view a try.  Let it sink in before you reject it.  See what happens.  I’m willing to bet you’ll develop lingering suspicions about mainstream histories.  That’s a good thing.

“The Founding Fathers are the first official heroes targeted, appropriate in both chronological terms and in considering the civic mythology of the United States. And so who were the true heroes? According to Russell, it was the rabble. John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Sam Adams, John Jay and the rest of them looked upon the common American people, populating Philadelphia where they were holding their conspiratorial meetings, as “vicious,” “vile” and otherwise unsavory folk. “But what the Founding Fathers called corruption, depravity, viciousness, and vice, many of us would call freedom”

Why Corporations Don’t Support Freedom

There is a common assumption that advocacy of free-market ideas is funded in large part by big corporations.  As much as I wish the many great organizations and projects that are educating in liberty received financial support from large corporations, almost none of them do, and when they do it is in very small amounts when compared to the other things such firms support.

But why?  Businesses are constantly hampered and harassed by government regulation, taxation, and the uncertainty of the legal landscape one day to the next.  Don’t they stand to gain from laissez faire?  Well, yes, businesses stand to gain tremendously from market freedom.  Entrepreneurs, owners, employees, consumers, and every other market participant stands to gain.  Businesses of all sizes stand to gain, provided they can produce what consumers demand.

Aye, there’s the rub.

You see, while business stands to gain from free exchange, nobody knows which specific businesses will be most successful in a competitive environment.  Consumers are a tough bunch to please.  It takes a lot of work, and there’s a lot of uncertainty.  The creative destruction of the market is a little daunting to a businessperson who dwells on it for long.  It’s easier, for those who can afford it, to cozy up to the state and ensure that it’s restrictions and interventions hurt you a little less than they harm your competitors.  If you have resources enough and play your cards right, you might even be able to get policies that make you more profitable or put your competitors out of business entirely.

The result?  Bigger businesses tend to support state intervention, because they have the lawyers and money and can hire the guns of government.  It is entirely possible that some of these very businesses would fare better under economic freedom, but they don’t know for sure, so they go the somewhat safer route of state cronyism.  Smaller businesses typically aren’t organized enough and lack the resources to manipulate policy in their favor.  Worse still, the unimaginable number of new ventures that would have been created were it not for government impediments have no voice at all; we don’t even know who would have created them.

In short, freedom is good for business, but scary to businesses.

Democracy is Not Our Savior

(Originally posted here, but I remain bewildered by the religious devotion to democracy, so I’m reposting.)

Imagine if your local grocer used mass voting to determine what to stock on the shelves. Everyone in a 30-mile radius of the store would get a ballot every few years, and you could vote on what items they should sell. Think long and hard about what people would vote for. Do you think this would result in better selection and quality than the current system of letting markets decide?

Voting is an incredibly inefficient mode of social organization. It rewards irrationality, selfishness, ignorance and greed. It makes peaceful coordination and cooperation incredibly difficult. It is divisive and hopelessly, systemically flawed. All the incentives are wrong. We should not see voting or democracy as a solution to social or political problems, but one of the primary causes.

Perhaps my example of voting on groceries is unfair. In most political systems we don’t vote on each and every issue. Instead, imagine that residents within 30 miles of the grocer don’t vote on the store’s stock and policies, but rather vote on who should manage the store. Let’s go a little further and say they vote on the manager, CFO, board members and a handful of other middle-management roles. What would be the result?

For starters, those seeking to hold management positions at the grocery store should forget about any skills except the skill of convincing all the voters to vote for them. Marketing themselves as better than the other would-be managers would be the only thing that would get them the job; not their expertise at running a store or their knowledge of stocking procedures, management or the industry. Would people’s votes provide better and clearer information about who should manage the store than the profits, losses, operations and happiness of employees? Of course not.

At first glance, voting may seem similar to a market. After all, when people buy or don’t buy from the grocer, it sends price signals telling management what shoppers value. It’s like a vote, with a crucial difference: It costs the buyer. Market exchanges reveal what people want when they face trade-offs. Voting reveals what people want when it’s “free.” Lots of people might vote for the store manager who promises not to import anything from other countries because it makes them feel good to support local farmers. These same people, when faced with higher priced and lower quality local food in the open market might very well choose to purchase imported produce. Voters support candidates who promise to restrict cheap imported goods, then on the way home from the polls they stop and buy cheap, imported goods. Voting irrationally is costless, while shopping that way hurts your pocketbook.

Voting also turns friends into enemies. I have neighbors that support different products and services and businesses than I do, but this doesn’t cause any tension in our relationships. But if we were forced to vote on which products, services and businesses were available to us, how much they should cost and who would pay for it, in a zero-sum election, you’d better believe tension would arise.

The fact that no grocery stores select products or managers by popular vote should clue us in to something: Democracy is a far worse way of coordinating and managing complex processes than markets.

It’s easy to see how disastrously inferior democracy is to the market in providing groceries. The provision of food is the most fundamental and important service to any society; if the market can handle food provision so much better than democratic processes, why not the provision of less fundamental services like health care, education, protection and all kinds of lesser services? In truth, the incentives built in to the democratic process create massive inefficiencies in all these government services, as well as allow for corruption and all manner of moral transgression.Government failure is an inescapable part of government.

In civil society, voting is a rarely used mechanism. We vote on inconsequential things like where to eat or what movie to see with a small group of indecisive friends. Voting is used in religious or civic organizations to select board members or decide on some major issues. Not only are these relatively small, homogenous groups, but they are groups of people who have voluntarily come together around a shared vision. They can also freely enter and exit; shopping for a church or denomination may sound off-putting, but the freedom to do so is crucial to the health of individuals and churches.

Even in these smaller, voluntary institutions, voting has important incentive and information problems that most organizations try to curb in some way. The more populous the group, the more complex the decision—and the more costly or important the outcome, the worse voting is as a coordinating mechanism. When you’re dealing with hundreds of millions of people and a cross-section of highly complex policies with life-and-death consequences and millions in potential gains or losses, voting becomes an absurd mechanism of coordination. Governments may try to supplement voting with all kinds of irritating and invasive data collection like censuses, but these do not solve the problem in any way—and can make it worse. Does your grocery store need to conduct a census to supplement the anonymous information you provide them with your purchasing behavior?

Most advocates of limited government understand why tyranny and central planning are dangerous. But too often they assume more or better democracy will improve things. We hear about turning backward countries around by making them more democratic. We hear about turning our own country around by convincing people to vote for better candidates or policies. None of these will ultimately address the problem. The grocery store that is managed by vote would not be much better off if the residents selected a “better” manager; the manager would face the same lack of vital information, and the voters and manager would face the same bad incentives.

The way to make the world a freer, better and more prosperous place is not to enhance and expand democracy or to elect better people through the democratic process. It is instead to reduce to a minimum the number of things decided through the democratic process, and to allow more peaceful and emergent institutions for social and economic coordination to take its place. This can only happen when enough people understand and believe in the power of peaceful, voluntary interactions over the power of coercive political methods.