106 – Why Intellectual Property Sucks, with Stephan Kinsella


Is intellectual property law the foundation of an innovative society? Or a racket set up to protect entrenched businesses from competition? Stephan Kinsella joins the show this week to break down intellectual property law.

Stephan is a practicing patent attorney, a libertarian writer and speaker, Director of the Center for the Study of Innovative Freedom (C4SIF), and Founding and Executive Editor of Libertarian Papers.

He is one of the clearest and most compelling thinkers on intellectual property law.

We cover the historical context of IP law, the modern day consequences of copyright and patent monopolies, the flaws in common arguments for intellectual property laws, and more.

Covered in this episode:

  • How did Stephan become interested in intellectual property?
  • His intellectual evolution on the topic of intellectual property
  • What are copyright, patent, trademarks, and trade secrets?
  • Where did the concept of intellectual property come from?
  • Which IP laws are the most harmful?
  • Fraud vs. Trademarks
  • Libertarian perspectives on IP
  • John Locke’s  errors on property that affect us today
  • Why Innovation is stronger without IP (fashion, food, football)
  • Problems with trade secret law
  • Copyright law that existed under common law
  • Why IP is wrong from a deontological and consequentialist point of view
  • How would J.K. Rowling make a living without IP?
  • How to be principled about IP as an entrepreneur while not harming your company


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Liberal Collectivism, Conservative Collectivism, and the Libertarian Answer

Liberalism and conservatism are simply two sides of a collectivist coin, minted with the dual airs of superiority and inferiority. To the extent that either are coherent political ideologies, they cohere around groupings, aggregation, and stereotypes. The only difference is how they respond to the various collectives into which they carve up society.

Collectivism inevitably leads to “less than” and “greater than” judgements and comparisons between groups. If I’m in group X, groups Y and Z are either less than or greater than my own.  

Liberals respond to those in groups they perceive as less than with pity. Conservatives respond with fear.

Liberals place the poor and those of different genders or races or religions or lifestyles on a kind of pedestal, because they pity them. Liberals fear in the open give and take of culture that individuals in these groups would suffer. It is not enough to defend the rights of outcasts, they must be lionized, praised, rewarded, and supported just for being a part of their collective.

Conservatives place similar groups on trial and consider them a threat to their way of life and culture. Guilty until proven innocent, they are dangerous, possibly terrorists, or radicals, or lowlifes who should be shunned, shamed, caged, or even killed. Conservatives fear in the open give and take of culture that these groups would overtake their own and push them into exclusion or extinction. It is not enough to disagree with the habits or disassociate with outcasts, they must be demonized, put down, and punished just for being a part of their collective.

Liberals respond to those in groups they see as greater than with envy, conservatives with idolatry.

Liberals place the rich and those in majority races or religions or with common lifestyles on trial and consider them a threat that may stifle all culture progress and diversity. Guilty until proven innocent, they are powerful, privileged, corrupt, and ready to smash everyone else. Liberals fear that individuals in these groups would persecute anyone different and must be called out, shamed, shunned, dispossessed, exiled, caged or even killed.

Conservatives place the rich and those in majority (or “traditional”) races or religions or with common lifestyles on pedestals and consider them the last defense against dangerous shifts in culture. Conservatives fear that individuals in these groups would be destroyed by the angry outcast mob, and must be praised, looked up to, protected, given power and a mandate to do whatever it takes to survive the winds of change.

Both outlooks are demeaning, condescending and small minded. Both feed the lowest human impulses. Both are anti-humanitarian. The fundamental fault is the same: the suffocation of the individual in a sea of collective biases.

The classical liberal, or libertarian tradition has an elegant and humanitarian solution to this ugly state of affairs. It offers a truly unique perspective that avoids the simplistic pity, fear, envy, and idolatry of both modern liberalism and conservatism. Individualism.

Individualism is not the belief that groups or communities are useless. It has nothing to do with dog-eat-dog, or relentless competition. It certainly doesn’t involved zero-sum games. Individualism is simply the belief that the fundamental, acting unit of any human society is the individual human.

Only individuals can act. Only individuals can dream. Only individuals can be morally or practically responsible (or irresponsible). In matters of broad institutions or systems like laws or civic norms, all individuals are equals.

Individualism does not pretend that everyone has the same biological makeup or cultural background. Quite the opposite. Only individualism allows each person’s unique characteristics, challenges, and advantages to be taken for what they are.

Individualism does not condescend to anyone and assume they are helpless unless propped up with false praise or support simply because of some characteristic they happen share with other individuals. Nor does it assume they are bad or threatening and must be held down for the same reason.

Individualism does away with the “less than”/”greater than” group distinction entirely. People may pursue what they wish. They ought to be afforded the respect and dignity of enjoying the rewards of their actions as well as bearing the responsibility. This does not rule out charity or kindness or sympathy. The individualist is just as caring as the next person, but in response to individual need or concern, not assumptions based on group identity. Nor does the individualist take a rosy view of humanity or rule out caution or the possibility that people can do bad things. The individualist is just as realistic as the next person, but in response to individual situation and behavior, not incidental commonalities with collectives.

Only through the lens of individualism can genuine community emerge. Community based on voluntary association or disassociation, always accountable to the costs and benefits of both, and borne by those who practice them. One of the marks of a human growing from a child into a healthy adult is when they despise being treated as more praiseworthy or needy or dangerous or stupid than other adults. When we collectivise we infantilize everyone.

Don’t get caught up in heated arguments about whether the “less thans” and “greater thans” should be praised and propped up or criticized and brought down. Both outlooks are rooted in collectivism, both are uncivilized and uninformed, and both are very dangerous and have led to untold suffering and bloodshed when wielded by political powers. Libertarianism allows a simple change in perspective that lets us rise above both.

Ayn Rand famously said, “The smallest minority on earth is the individual.” Once we realize that we each belong first and foremost to a category of one, we are left no option but to judge an individual according to his or her actions and the outcomes they produce.

Milton Friedman on Risk, Choice, and Regulation

A while back I came across one of many video clips in which Milton Friedman insightfully responds to a tough question.  The question is about Ford making a car with a part that saved 13 dollars, when studies showed that using the more expensive part could reduce harm in the case of collision and potentially save 200 lives.  The questioner feels this is a clear example of the callous, money-grubbing nature of the free market, the implication being that some regulatory body should prevent Ford from making such calculations.

Friedman asks how much Ford should be willing to spend to reduce the risk of a single death.  The student refuses to answer.  Friedman’s point is that the question was not over any principle, but over what amount of money Ford should be willing to pay for a single life.  It’s about costs, benefits, and trade-offs.  The student doesn’t seem to follow, but Friedman is dead-on.

Let’s say Ford decides to install the more expensive part.  Their profit margin goes down, maybe some shareholders start selling shares.  How do they make-up the difference?  Maybe they lay off a few low-wage workers.  Maybe they raise the price of their cars, putting them out of the reach of a few low-wage consumers.  Is it worth it?  Maybe these consumers would have been happy to buy the cheaper car, even if it was less safe.  Aye, there’s the rub.

Friedman mentioned this, but in the short Q&A there wasn’t sufficient time to really hammer it home. This real discussion is not about what Ford should make and sell, or how much risk is too much. It’s about who should decide how much risk is acceptable.  That’s the principle worth debating.

Advocates of free-markets like Friedman believe that each individual is in the best position to decide how much risk they are willing to incur.  In every action, every purchase, and every sale, there are costs, benefits and risk involved.  You are the best person to decide whether you should buy a motorcycle, or not buy the most expensive dead-bolt, or produce and sell an extremely sharp cooking knife.  The principle Friedman was referring to is that of freedom to choose what decisions to make and what is in your own interest.

Those who favor regulatory intervention want such choices made once for all by bureaucratic bodies.  They want a set standard of tolerable risk to apply to every human in every situation, no matter how costly abiding by it may be, or how much poverty or even death may be the unintended result.  These regulatory bodies are in the perfect situation to be captured by the largest, most connected businesses who will get them to pass regulations that help them and hinder smaller competitors, with no concern for what it does to consumers.  These bureaucracies are also most attractive to the very kind of unscrupulous, greedy sociopaths that interventionists worry about in the marketplace.

If Ford sells a risky product it may be a bad move on a variety of counts, but no one has to buy it.  Government decisions are the only ones that every single person is forced to abide by, no matter how bad they may be.  Regulatory intervention not only falls far short of free-markets on moral grounds – coercing everyone to make choices set by elites – it dramatically reduces the benefits to all.  It destroys wealth and the incentive and space to innovate.  It rewards political gamesmanship over consumer service.  It interferes with valuable signals sent by and to all market participants about what level of risk people want, and what makes them happy.

There are trade-offs all around us.  The question is not which decisions are correct for other people – we have a hard enough time figuring out which are correct for ourselves.  The question is, where should these decisions be made, and by whom?

The Question Henry Ford Just Can’t Answer

It seems a safe, affordable vehicle, powered by an internal combustion engine, accessible to all would be wonderful. Except we’ve never seen it.

Horse and human powered transportation have their drawbacks, but they’ve been used the world over, and sometimes pretty effectively. We know it’s possible, even if occasionally slow, smelly, and costly. Automobiles, on the other hand, have never existed as more than dreams, fleeting playthings, useless hunks of metal, or dangerous death traps. The idea of a practical, functioning horseless carriage has been around for a while, and it’s appealing. But is this pipe-dream worth taking seriously or pursuing?

The Henry Ford’s of the world need to answer this one, glaring question: If the automobile is such a great idea, why hasn’t anyone tried it?

Interview with a Renaissance Man: Jeff Tucker

Jeffrey Tucker is a pioneer in the emerging world of digitally driven freedom.  He’s been ahead of the curve in online publishing, building virtual intellectual communities, and exploring the myriad ways technology lets us live outside the state.  He’s a challenger of the status quo, and one who welcomes risk, uncertainty, and new ideas.

This radical, open-minded approach has greatly benefited me personally.  Some of the very first articles I ever wrote were published by Jeff.  I had no idea if my thoughts were any good.  I was a little embarrassed to share them, but I wanted to try.  I knew some other outlets that would never consider publishing articles by some kid with no credentials or reputation.  I emailed an article to this Jeff Tucker guy, knowing nothing about him.  He responded in minutes with a simple, “This is great.  I’ll post it tomorrow.”  That changed my life more than I could have realized at the time.

You’d think this forward-thinking convention-buster would be on the fringes of every social convention, yet Jeff sports a bow-tie, cuff-links, and a panache for gilded-age foppishness.  He’s an advocate of timeless ideas and traditions, and a fan of ancient religious music.  It’s not about newness or oldness with Jeff; it’s about what’s good, true, beautiful, and what allows humans to reach their potential and find fulfillment.

IMM: Would you say you have a mission in life?  What is it?

JT: Probably that is true. I’m constantly dazzled by the capacity of society to manage itself and constantly annoyed by the impulse to control it, an impulse that results in denying people access to life-improving material goods and services. I suppose I’ve made it something of a personal mission to draw attention to the great battle between society, on the one hand, and the forces of power on the other. This is also the theme of great literature, music, poetry, film, and this is the great lesson of economic science too. There are seemingly infinite ways to apply it, and I’ll never find them all so long as I live and write. But I’m going to keep trying.

IMM: Are you the same Jeff Tucker, in terms of core beliefs, as you’ve always been, or have you changed over time?  In other words, has your journey been a process of learning and realizing what new ideas are more in harmony with who you are, or has it been a process of changing who you are?

JT: I suppose we all have moments when we think back to what we were like as a teenager or a young college student. Sometimes we recognize that person and other times we think: “how could I have been so stupid?” There are certain traits I’ve always had. I love music. Even my elementary school teachers called me “chipmunk” because I never stopped making little musical sounds. Another theme is that I’ve never fit in well with regimented systems of social management. For example, I was in the marching band and hated its strictures. One day I just walked off the field in the middle of rehearsal, knowing for sure that I would never go back. That was a liberating moment for me because I realized, maybe for the first time, that it was possible to shape my own world through my own choices. I realized that the network effects in my own life didn’t have to be determinative.

Discovering economics was a big moment for me at the age of 18. And there are times when I look back at some of my old writings and wince because it is really clear that I was trying to sound like someone else, trying to affect a way that was not really mine. Not that there is anything wrong with imitation but it can be tricky to sort out what is valuable and needs repurposing from outright appropriation of attitudes and styles. I think this comes with maturity really. As with any skill, the key to thinking and writing is to gain as much broad exposure as possible, and then finally just forget all that and do the thing. This can be hard, though, because it means have trust and confidence in the product of your own mind. Also, I think this is why most people don’t write well: they are always looking over their shoulder, worried about revealing their ignorance. You have to get over that.

IMM: There’s a lot of talk these days about managing our personal brand.  You’re branded as a libertarian thinker and communicator.  Do you ever feel hemmed in by that brand?  Do you work to broaden it?

JT: I never really sought out this brand. I think I would struggle with any brand for fear that you sort of end up sustaining something others pin on your rather than enjoying the opportunity to change and adapt over time. Actually, when I started using social media, I did have something a problem that I dealt with. On the one hand, many people knew me as an anarchist radical and defender of free-market economic theory. On the other hand, there was also this huge sector out there that only knew me as an apologist for Gregorian chant in Roman Rite liturgy. I didn’t know which identity to choose. Finally, I just decided that I wouldn’t worry about it, and now I just post on both topics or any topics. This can lead to some curious engagement between diverse communities on threads!

IMM: Does being “out there” in the public eye ever bother you?  Do you segment your life between your public persona and your family and other hobbies, or do see it as a unified whole?

JT: Yes, I’m bugged by the public personality thing, because I’m most happy working alone in a tiny space and I’m happy to go days on end without contact with others. The truth is that I’m rather shy and internal. But eventually I came to realize that being a public person is something that just happens and you finally just embrace it. At the same time, I do try to maintain a private sphere, and I do actually work to maintain this. If I screw up or become the source of some calamitous public controversy, that is something I want to bear myself without dragging others in. Also, separating public and private allows me to have normal conversations with people without constantly being asked: what is the anarchist point of view on this subject?

IMM: You’re a relentless optimist.  What’s one recent development that’s most challenged your positive, progressive prognosis?

JT: Here again, I don’t really think of myself as exclusively occupying the optimist sector. It’s striking to me that people say this because vast amounts of my writing have consisted of kvetching about the terrible effects of government — material which can be very dreary actually! At the same time, I’m profoundly aware that in the great struggle between liberty and power, liberty enjoys the upper hand so long as we see any evidence of progress around us. Every advance that we see in civilization I treat as a sign that freedom is not dead but instead still thrives, and this thrills me. I love to see data about the decline of violence, malnutrition, infant mortality, and disease because these are all signs that liberty is on the march.

It’s interesting that you ask about recent developments that challenge optimism. This weekend I was seriously vexed by two recent developments. First, libertarian broadcaster Adam Kokesh was arrested and jailed for, so far as I can tell, just speaking at a rally. Adam and I are very different people but I respect his intelligence and his courage. I went online to see what people were saying about this. I bumped into a conservative forum in which the posters were cheering the police. Then I bumped into a white nationalist forum in which these proto-Nazis were saying that the arrest was great because Adam is Jewish. I nearly became sick reading those comments.

The second thing that bugged me this weekend was seeing how an emergent establishment within the sector of digital currencies is calling and lobbying for government regulation as a means of achieving some measure of legitimacy. I kept thinking: we wonder how it is that great things get destroyed. This is how. We are watching this in real time. Fortuntely Bitcoin can survive this.

IMM: What do you see as some of the common pitfalls those who want to make the world a freer place should avoid?

JT: Many people are tempted by the belief the answer rests with political activism, that is, by getting the right people in public office. This proposed solution can end up with a vast waste of resources. Nothing comes of it. Also, this approach fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the state itself. It does not really consist of elected officials. They are mostly the veneer, and their focus is their specialization: getting in office and staying there. They are the state’s iconography in effect. They are there for us to look at and communicate with, and they are happy to play that appointed role as a career builder. But the real machine consists of the permanent bureaucracy in charge of enforcing a century-old legacy of bad laws, regulations, and legislation. This machinery prides itself in ignoring elections and political controversies.

I’m actually far more hopeful about the capacity of commerce and technology to change the world than for political forces to do good for the world.

Another common error was identified very well by Leonard Read, and that is the tendency to think of ourselves as teachers and everyone else as our obedient students. Our job is to pass on our great knowledge and their job is to listen and be enlightened. This can create a condescending environment that is no longer plausible or compelling in a digital age in which ideas come from everywhere and are constantly remixed and repurposed. A better approach, Read said, is to think of yourself as a co-learner who contributes special insight due to a familiarity with the liberal tradition. Inviting others to explore and understand that tradition — because it is underrepresented in official institutions — is a more successful approach. Of course this always requires some humility. You know how old people always say that the more you know, the more you realize how little you know? It sounds like a cliche doesn’t it? Well, it’s true.

In terms of writing and research, I would like to see fewer attempts to re-write Human Action and more applied histories and analysis of contemporary events, and I would like to see more attempts to solve the practical problems that come with living under leviathan.. Sometimes as libertarians we make it too easy on ourselves by presuming that our only audience is other libertarians. We should imagine that we are competing with all existing ideas around out there, and make sure that everything we write stands on its own terms without ideological preconditions. We all need to be harder and more critical of ourselves and our work in that sense. It’s long past time for liberty-minded writers to come out of hiding and expose our stuff to the hardest criticism we can find. Every critic is a benefactor. We can stand the scrutiny.

IMM: How has your approach to advancing liberty changed over the years and why?

JT: I’ve always been driven by the desire to get as much information out there as possible through whatever way I can. This is one reason I like to write about presumably petty topics like gas cans, showerheads, and silly putty. These are topics that interest people, and if we can engage people on them, we can get our ideas out there. In fact, I don’t regard any aspect of life as beyond liberty-minded analytics. Nor do I think anyone is beyond persuasion. The longing for liberty is universal. It is just a matter of finding that aspect of each human personality that long to be free and working from there.

Has my approach changed over time? Maybe I’m less puffed up than I once was. I do look at some of my past writing and wonder why I wrote what I did. There are some book reviews extant in which I picked mercilessly on an author for one slipup, for one deviation. There is nothing wrong and everything right about challenging people’s ideas. But it is also possible to cross the line and do it with a desire to harm. As critics, we need to be careful to not create strawmen or attempt to whip up people in frenzies of hate against someone because of a disagreement. This strikes me as essentially uncivilized and unproductive. I now try my best to crawl into the thinking of my interlocutors and try to make points that they would find challenging and compelling. In other words, it is not enough just to presume the right point of view and attack those who deviate. You have to actually make the case in a way in which your opponent would understand — and this is a point I owe to Sheldon Richman. He inadvertently trained me to see this.

Liberal intellectuals should be the model here. And this is for a specific reason: we’ve all be treated very unfairly in the past. I read a book review recently of an excellent defense of markets and it was clear to me that the critic had either not read the book or had no interest in taking the author on directly. Instead, the critic just caricatured and smeared. We should not be part of such a game. The ideas of liberty are robust enough to stand on their own without having to resort to such tactics. In fact, it is a measure of how confident you are in your position that you can state your points calmly, clearly, and coherently — and apply them to anything and everything — without resorting to name calling, sarcasm, or accusations of malice.

Mises offers some words at the end of Liberalism that have haunted me since I first read them. He says that liberty will win the day through reasoned argument, not through parades, songs, uniforms, and personality cults. Was he naive? I don’t think so.

IMM: I’ve heard that major intellectual celebrities are a thing of the past because we’re in an age where fame is less centralized.  Instead of one Milton Friedman, you have dozens or hundreds of podcasters, bloggers, and other public intellectuals with smaller individual market share, but a more robust presence overall.  What’s your take on the way the marketplace for ideas has developed?

JT: I agree with this. The struggle to disseminate information and the struggle to shine the light of liberty are the same struggle. In the past, there were fewer opportunities to do this and fewer transmission sources for information. The progress toward where we are today goes back some one thousand years, which only the elites could reach others with ideas. Now they are everywhere. It’s like a sandstorm that never stops.

Ideas are not like physical goods. They are infinitely reproducible in that there is no need for a contest over the right to consume them.. They are malleable in that they never leave our minds in the same shape they enter. They are immortal in that they long outlast our physical lives. We are just today discovering the potential here in this digital age. None of this means that we won’t continue to have heroes and that is a great thing. But it does mean that we need not rally around  one person’s ideas as the only basis for belief or as the sole litmus test. The body of ideas called liberalism is naturally destined to have as many permutations as the free society itself.

IMM: You are a big advocate of information sharing.  Tell me a bit about your views on intellectual property and how you came to them.

JT: When I first heard the idea that intellectual property should be abolished, I thought it was crazy. I didn’t think it was really untrue in some strict doctrinal sense but I seriously doubted the merit of talking about it. I thought this was a bit like one of those weird libertarian puzzles like “what happens if you fall out of a window and grab someone else’s flag pole on the way down?” I just didn’t think it mattered, and I found the whole subject a bit embarrassing.

But once the US government made IP a centerpiece of its attack on the Internet and even its trade and foreign policy, I knew that I had overlooked something important. I read Stephan Kinsella and some applied work and I eventually came around completely. I think the process took me six years in total. It is a hard subject, one that reaches the the root of subject we all think we understand but probably we really do not.

Gradually, I came to realize something. Ideas are the most important commodity in the world. To control them is to control people. IP is nothing but a mercantilist leftover. But it is even more profound than that. Within the sector of ideas, we find something that evades the requirements of normal property. Ideas are non-scarce goods. They can be owned socialistically so to speak. You see the first notions of this possibility in the works of the Austrians but needed fleshing out more. In other words, this is a huge area with massive implications for economic theory and the future of liberty. The subject of IP opened up new vistas of thought. Actually, the subject changed my life and represented a fundamental expansion of the way the world looks through my eyes. We see in the world of ideas a beautiful anarchy and a vision of what can be for the whole world.

IMM: What gets you up in the morning?

JT: I wake because I can’t wait to be surprised by what the day will bring.

IMM: Thank you Jeff!

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.

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

The Seduction of Guarantees

We want guarantees in life.  We are risk-reducing creatures who want to plan and plot and know as much in advance as possible.  We want tight and definite parameters around the possible outcomes of our actions and our world.  Whether we like it or not, they don’t exist.  Still, we persist in fabricating them and acting offended when people acknowledge the impossibility of our desired guarantees.

I recently heard two libertarian philosophers discussing social justice.  One made the case that social justice is a good goal, and that it is congruent with liberty because a truly free society results in the best-case scenario for the least well-off; something even John Rawls would approve of.  He said free-marketers should proudly fight for social justice and remind the world that a free economy will improve the absolute conditions of the poor more than anything else.

The other philosopher responded by saying the world is awash in guarantees   We are not suffering for want of guarantees, but for want of opportunity.  He said guarantees create expectations; when these are not met, they result in complaints, frustration, blame and disillusionment.  We needn’t coddle the unrealistic desire for a sure thing, but encourage an embrace of the risk and uncertainty in life and the courage to create and try even when the end results are unknown.

Even if it is true that free-markets result in better lives for the poor, is it really helpful to make the case for freedom to specific individuals as one that promises this?  To say that freedom will make you better off is appealing to everyone, because everyone wants a guarantee.  And it is correct in a general sense.  But the truth is no system – not a free society or a totalitarian one – can guarantee a specific outcome to specific individuals.  Will markets produce better results than interventionism?  You bet.  But can either system promise what will happen to each individual?  No way.  To hinge the case for liberty on guarantees is to utilize the same false advertising tyrants have been using since time immemorial.

Liberty is beautiful.  It promises nothing but the freedom to be, to act, to try, to create, to produce.  It does not promise what effects will follow cause, only that cause will be unimpeded so long as it does not impede anyone else.  The desire for a guarantee is the very desire that causes people to tolerate and advocate their own enslavement.  This desire itself is dangerous.  Better to disabuse oneself of the myth of a guarantee.

Anyone who’s done sales knows the danger of relying on expected results instead of actual results.  Don’t count the money until the check clears.  If you cultivate a guarantee loving mindset, you’ll find yourself bitter at all the unrealized expectations in life.  You will feel as though everyone, society, the system, or reality itself is your enemy.  Really, by choosing to accept the unreality of guarantees, it is you who have made yourself the enemy of what is.  Why?  It accomplishes nothing but to stunt your own creative and cooperative capacity and replace it with an adversarial outlook towards your fellow man.

The world is uncertain.  We seek to make the most out of it and eliminate hardships, but every course of action only brings probabilities of success, not guarantees.  That’s OK.  In fact, it’s wonderful once we make our peace with it.  Stop debating which ideas can guarantee what, and embrace the fact that guarantees are a serum that slows us down from acting to achieve our ends.  After all, it is the process of seeking just as much as the ends we seek that brings fulfillment   Guarantees put all the emphasis on the sought, and none on the seeking.  Even if our ends are realized, this mindset deprives us of half the joy.

I am not making the case that freedom ought only to be embraced because it’s “right”; far from it.  Freedom will produce better outcomes than statism, and this is the best reason to advocate it.  But what those outcomes are specifically, and how the manifest in each individual’s life is unknown, just as the results of statisms deprivations and favors are unknown.  What is knowable is the fact that freedom produces an outcome for every individual that no system of control and dependency ever could; but it is not an external or material outcome.  It is a sense of pride, of life, of self-worth that is impossible in a system built on false guarantees and dispensations from authorities.  The freedom to experience the effects of one’s cause, regardless of whether it is for good or ill, produces a sturdiness and fullness that humans need to be fully human.  The dignity of uncertain freedom is orders of magnitude greater for the human soul than the patronizing promises of central planning.

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.

Redistribution and Time Travel: A Thought Experiment

A means of effective time travel has been invented. People can freely traverse time, travelling from the present to any point in the past and vice-versa. Access to time travel is pretty universal, and due to this, knowledge of conditions at all points in time is acute.

For those who believe there is a moral obligation on the part of the better-off to help the less well-off, and who believe in redistributive policies to do this, play along and consider the situation.

People in the present are outrageously wealthy compared to people in the past. Even the poorest Americans today have access to abundant clean water, hot and cold water, heated shelter, air conditioning, an overabundance of cheap, calorie-rich food, more clothing than they need, refrigeration, telephony, transport by internal-combustion engine, laundry facilities, bathing facilities, vaccinations, pharmaceuticals, emergency care, and on and on. These present poor are better off by almost any measure than even the wealthy a thousand years ago.

Do people in the present have an obligation to give some of their wealth to those in the past? Is there some minimum standard of living that we need to keep the ancients up to? Do the poor among the rich (present day poor Americans) have an obligation to the rich among the poor (the well-off a millennium ago)?

What kind of redistributive policies should be enacted? Would they work? What might some side-effects be? Is it required to fulfill a moral duty? Is it wrong for someone born in the present to enjoy the relative luxury and wealth they are inheriting from their era, by no merit on their part? Should they pay an inheritance tax to support people in the poorer past?

What about future generations. What if the future is also poorer; does the present owe them a chunk of our wealth? What would be the result of efforts to redistribute from the present to the future? What if the future was wealthier; do they owe the past a portion of their bounty? What would happen if resources flowed to us from the future, in order to ease our relatively lower condition?

Spanning all of human history, would we have a moral obligation to attempt to make all people across all eras more equal? Would we be obligated to narrow the gap between the caveman and the flying-car-owning future woman? How big could we let the gap be? Would narrowing it be possible? Would there be any side-effects of efforts to try?

What is the difference, morally and practically, between redistribution across time and that across space?

Inequality vs. Favoritism

Inequality is inescapable and morally neutral.  There is no virtue in trying to eradicate it, and it makes no sense to talk of reducing it.

My children were born unequal.  They will remain unequal as they learn, achieve and acquire.  Any efforts to make them equal do harm to all parties involved.  Many people agree that I could never make them equal, but maybe I should try to make them more equal.  Equality is not a more or less concept, it is either or.

3 is not equal to 2.  Neither is 4 equal to 2.  It is meaningless to call one more equal to 2 than the other.  We could say that 3 is more equal to 2, because it is only one whole integer removed from 2.  We could say 4 is more equal to 2 because it is divisible by 2, and only one even number removed.  It is entirely dependent on our frame of reference.  Equality between individuals is as impossible as equality between 2 and 3, and degrees of inequality are entirely subjective; a matter of perception, different for all observers and participants.

It is fruitless to attempt to lessen inequality or increase equality.  In fact, it’s worse than fruitless, it is destructive.  Not only does it produce arbitrary and unpredictable results which disillusion and demotivate the targets, it fuels strife, envy, and limiting one’s potential to the achievements of their perceived betters.

Still, there is something to the desire to create equality.  I would be a terrible parent if I lavished gifts and affirmation, or insult and condemnation, on one child far more than the others.  Not because it would make them more unequal; they are and will always be unequal.  But because my deliberate action of applying the family rules, mores and norms selectively and unfairly would break trust and breed conflict.  I would be engaging in favoritism, either negative or positive.

I will not try to clearly define favoritism, because I think putting it into words actually makes it less understandable than if we stick with our intuitive and tacit understanding of the term.  It is not merely acting differently towards different people.  If I speak Spanish to a Spanish speaking person and English to an English speaking person I am not acting uniformly towards them, but I am not showing favoritism.  Interacting with my unequal children in ways that best resonate with their unique “language” is not favoritism either.  Favoritism is when the spoken or unspoken rules of the house are not consistently applied.

If it is known that doing X chores will get you Y payment, or that treating Dad’s iPad carelessly will result in less access to the iPad, these norms must be applied in a uniform way.  I may communicate the norms and remind my children of them in different ways based on their individuality and inequality, but if one kid gets paid more for the same work, or one gets access to the iPad despite throwing it against the wall and the others don’t, I’m engaging in favoritism that damages everyone.

Uniform application of the family norms will result in inequality, as is inevitable with unequal children.  Some will get more chores done and earn more money.  Some will have a hard time controlling emotions and end up throwing the iPad and losing access to it.  Their nature and choices will produce unequal results.  There is no evil in this.  To aim at equality puts the focus on outcomes; the relative positions resulting from individual actions within an institutional context.  This is a meaningless point of reference, and incredibly poisonous when chosen as the basis by which to judge institutions.  It devolves into, “Anything that rubs me the wrong way, or anything you excel at must be curbed.”  It’s a sentiment that coddles and nurtures our least civil and humane and most barbaric and short-sighted tendencies, usually in the name of the opposite.  It is the uniformity of treatment in relation to the understood rules and norms that matters, not the inequality that results.

The attempt to make my children equal, or more equal, or even treat them equally is futile and destructive.  It is enlightening and beneficial to keep an eye out for favoritism and uniform application of the rules.  I have to check my tendency to selectively apply the mostly unspoken institutional arrangements of the family, and it’s healthy to audit myself in this way.  But the minute I make equality the goal, confusion and frustration take hold, and the rules become more, not less, arbitrary.

Of course society is not a mirror of the family, but the lessons still apply.  To seek equality, or more equality, or less inequality, is an unproductive pursuit, and typically a mask for other frustrations we’re trying to ameliorate where we want the moral sanction of our peers to do so.  Drop it.  Inequality is morally neutral and needn’t be resisted or defended.  Focus on reliable and fair institutions that don’t systematize and reward favoritism, but make it harder and more costly.

Creating Disequilibrium is Good

Originally posted here.

There is no denying that our economy is undergoing dramatic changes. That brings not just difficulty, but also opportunity for entrepreneurs. In fact, the “creative destruction” of the market is part of what drives economic growth.

Putting aside the causes of our current economic troubles (except to say free markets are not the culprit), we can’t forget that, though massive bubbles are not necessary, markets are by nature dynamic even in the most stable of times. This dynamism is not an evil to be avoided at all costs but the very thing that makes free economies so productive.

Classical economists often treated economic growth as a mechanistic operation that happened at a stable rate as a result of unchanging levels of investment and production — as if economies simply grew on their own as long as production was steady and inputs were not disrupted. The problem with this view is that, quite simply, the real world doesn’t work that way. In 1911, economist Joseph Schumpeter’s Theory of Economic Development radically changed this view, and his insights are still relevant today.

Schumpeter stressed the role of the entrepreneur in economic growth and argued that, far from a static maintenance of equilibrium in production, it was the entrepreneurial ability to causedisequilibrium that created wealth. The constant innovation of these economic actors shakes the economy up, breaking down old methods and building up newer and better ones.

It’s not just increases in production that create wealth but a radical reforming of the way production itself is done. Think Henry Ford’s assembly line. Such entrepreneurial innovations disrupt the unrealistic ideal of a stationary economy. They do destroy the old order — like the classic example of buggy makers losing their jobs when the automobile took hold — but they cause growth because what they create is more valuable than what they replace. Can you imagine halting the progress of the automobile in order to preserve buggy makers?

Schumpeter argued that the role of the entrepreneur was different from that of the inventor, manager, laborer, or capitalist. Entrepreneurs need not be wealthy or even especially intelligent. They may be all or some of these things, but that’s not what makes them entrepreneurs. Schumpeter said the entrepreneur was the person who creates new combinations in production.

The creation of a new good or service — a new way to produce the same good or service, a new market for the good or service, a new source of supply, a new organization of the industry — these are the entrepreneurial functions. Such innovation does not necessarily require new invention, just a different utilization of available knowledge and technology.

As Schumpeter said in a 1928 edition of the Economic Journal,

“[I]t is not the knowledge that matters, but the successful solution of the task … of putting an untried method into practice.”

The entrepreneur, by seeing and acting on different combinations of existing knowledge, products, and services, disrupts the economic order and creates growth. There is evidence of this “creative destruction” all around us: every year millions of jobs are created and destroyed, yet the overall long-term trend is continued economic growth.

The growth could not happen without both creation and destruction; it is the driver of growth, not a problem to be solved. If the economy were static — if jobs were never lost, prices never shifted up or down, investments never enjoyed large profits or major losses — we would not live in a stable utopia but a stagnant subsistence economy.

Don’t be afraid to disrupt the economy. Look for ways that things can be done differently — goods, services, and production methods that can be rearranged, new technologies that can be better used. Right now, as the economy reshuffles, there are more opportunities to generate change than ever — the kind of dynamic change that we need to grow out of this slump.

Don’t just sit there, create some disequilibrium!

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.

Institutions Can Improve Even If People Don’t

Originally posted here.

Airlines are loaded with passengers who surf the Internet while soaring through the air, chatting in real-time to anyone else on the globe, posting in social media, shopping, and downloading and reading books on a wide variety of readers. Such a scene would have astonished a person living 50 years ago, to say nothing of a person living 500 years ago.

How do we account for this? A person born five centuries ago is probably just as smart as someone born today. The raw material of the human brain has not changed much during this span of time. Yet people are today infinitely more capable of accomplishing almost any task imaginable than people in 1512.

The greatest navigator of centuries past would have found it a monumental task to leave from one destination and arrive at a precise latitude and longitude halfway across the globe, and it would have taken months. Today, a half-witted teenager can use Google Maps and modern transportation to accomplish the same feat in a single day.

The greatest communicators in the past were unlikely to reach 1 million people with their ideas in a lifetime. Today, the most-incoherent celebrities can reach millions in minutes on Twitter. Conversely, if the greatest scientists today were sent back in time, they would be able to achieve almost nothing absent computers and modern lab equipment.

A weak and feeble worker today can move more tons of earth than the strongest shovel-wielding excavator of the past. Given the inherited technological progress of humanity, even an average Joe can do amazing things with ease. It does not take a superior human to achieve superior results.

Economically speaking, the marginal productivity of workers increases with the capital and technology available to them.

But let’s broaden the point to issues of morality. How can we become better people — more peaceful, cooperative, and creative — in the same spirit in which we have become more effective and productive with better technology? We need better moral “capital” and moral “technology” that enables morally superior outcomes even without morally superior people.

The moral technology I am speaking of is social and political institutions. A person born today is no more or less likely to be moral than a person born 500 years ago, but they can be more or less likely to act morally based on the institutions around them.

Moral institutions change and evolve just like technology. They can reduce or expand not only the morality of individuals on the inside, but the harm or good caused by their actions on the outside. The most saintly person born into a world where slavery was the norm would have very limited ability to stop the practice, though she could abstain from participating in it at great personal cost.

A horrendously evil person born into a world where slavery is considered abhorrent would be unable to lord over slaves, without tremendous personal cost. It is entirely possible that many people living today have it in them to be on par with the worst slave masters in history — only the opportunity for their evil does not present itself, given the progress in this area of our social and political institutions.

This does not mean that individual choices are meaningless. Far from it. A moral person can always do good within their institutional framework, and a good framework can exponentially enhance the good one can do. Individual choices are vastly important.

But in order for the world to be free of oppression by states, for example, it does not require that every individual be an angel or that the average morality of the population be better than it currently is.

How can institutions improve if morality does not? Institutions are ultimately the result of our beliefs. Better beliefs will result in better institutions, but better beliefs do not require morally superior people any more than beliefs in a heliocentric solar system require more-intelligent people.

Many people believe the Earth revolves around the sun not because they are smarter than ancient peoples, but because they grew up in a world where that was accepted. Many people believe slavery is wrong not because they are morally superior to all people from ages past, but because they grew up in a world where slavery was condemned.

The broader social narrative creates the institution. But where does this narrative come from? Here’s where individuals come in again.

Progress typically begins with iconoclasts and radicals espousing and experimenting with ideas that challenge the status quo. This is true of technological, intellectual and moral progress. The few who advance these radical ideas attract small, but influential followers, and some minds are changed by argument alone. But the real change comes when discussion turns into demonstration.

When the Wright brothers got off the ground, when slavery ended in some countries and the economy did not collapse — these occasions did more to change the prevailing beliefs about manned flight and slavery than did the necessary intellectual work that preceded them.

People do not have to possess superpowers to learn and adapt. All humans do it. Learning even to reject foundational and dearly held beliefs is possible and frequent in history, especially because the change typically takes place over several generations, so that each generation has to learn to give up only a part of the cherished belief. When it is understood that a new belief will result in better outcomes, it can be adopted with relative speed and ease, sometimes without any conscious “a ha!” moment at all.

Neither technological nor institutional progress is inevitable. History is replete with times of retrogression and collapse. When there are no radicals challenging the status quo, innovating and demonstrating new and better beliefs, it is not long before the prevailing institutions stagnate or advocates of a romanticized past win the day and drag humanity backward.

Progress is not inevitable, but progress is entirely possible even with flawed humans like us. Our beliefs can change as we learn better ways of doing things, and with our beliefs will change our institutions. Better institutions — free institutions, rather than coercive ones — will result in a better world.

We ought to continue to discuss and demonstrate the fact that states — their oppressions, confiscations, impositions, kidnapping, counterfeiting, and war — are not necessary or beneficial. Better morality is always better, but if we change the prevailing narrative about states, we can live in a stateless world even without a saintly populace.

It is a false and arrogant belief that only angelic geniuses are capable of believing that statelessness is possible and desirable. If a bunch of idiots can live in a world of technological wonder, so too can a bunch of jerks live in a world of freedom.

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.