And left-libertarian Will Wilkinson, in a predictably indignant response, has coined this useful pejorative. Democraphobia! Is it worth embracing? Time alone will tell.
But it’s been too long since UR worked out on Will, so let’s slip a hook through his neck and use his face as a speed-bag. Then, we’ll talk about seasteading for a little bit.
The UR reader, hardened though she is to great torrents of text, can skip most of Will’s post. From our perspective, he spends most of his gas merely in proving his remarkable, if hardly unusual, inability to distinguish freedom from power. A sort of political colorblindness, as it were. (If colorblindness were transmissible.)
It may be pointless to explain the difference between red and green to any such congenital deuteranope. But 360 years ago, one greater than I tried anyway:
Truly I desire their liberty and freedom as much as anybody whomsoever; but I must tell you their liberty and freedom consists of having of government, those laws by which their life and their goods may be most their own. It is not for having a share in government, sir, that is nothing pertaining to them. A subject and sovereign are clear different things.
There’s an easy way to define democracy: every adult subject of the State is deputized, drafted or dragooned as a part-time government official. The sum of these petty officials constitutes a gigantic committee, holding the exact same formal authority as Charles Stuart.
(And much less actual authority. Though if Charles’ powers were so absolute as his murderers pretended—well, to quote Trent Lott, we wouldn’t have some of the problems we have now.)
And even supposing the formal were actual: by what right does Will hold his nanoslice of power? By what right did Charles hold his full slice? Certainly he insisted on that right, just as Will insists on his.
In both cases: by initial conquest and subsequent inheritance. Political power is a property right, however you slice it. It is owned, not deserved. It is not a natural or “human” right. And it has no more to do with freedom than brake fluid with fondue.
If you’ve ever lived in a foreign country, you know exactly what life is like without the nanoslice: pretty much what life is like with it. Except for the Zen of abandoning the constant, unrequited longing for control that is the cruel karma of the democratic citizen, and the breath of honest fresh air in exchanging a first-person government for a third-person one, not “we” but “they.”
Of course, power has consequences. Nanoslices add up. And so when Peter Thiel says that when women got their nanoslice, the competence of this gigantic committee deteriorated (from his perspective, in which good government equals libertarian government—which is also Will’s perspective, and also more or less mine), he is making a factual statement. His point is neither philosophical nor normative.
If one can say that Louis XIV was a more effective ruler than Louis XV, one can say that a gigantic committee of men was a more effective ruler than a gigantic committee of men and women. The point can be argued, of course. But it must be argued with facts, rather than gas.
All this is UR 101. We know it cold. So we return to Will, and his alternative:
If libertarians are going to shift the politics of the countries we live in, we’ve got to get it through our thick skulls that many people have considered libertarian ideas and have rejected them for all sorts of decent reasons. We’ve got to take those reasons, and those people, fully seriously and adequately address them.
Will, if you do happen to read this, I’m not just the Internet’s most notorious Jacobite blogger— I’m also an expert in narcotics and dangerous drugs. And no offense, but are you sure you’re loading your bong correctly? High-grade marijuana will often contain small, clear crystals of pure resin. But if the bowl contains a single large, white crystal or “rock,” be warned! You may not be smoking what you think you’re smoking.
Still, we must be grateful for this whiff of teh democrack. Many assume it; few think it; even fewer say it. To see it written, sincerely and without irony, is both refreshing and educational.
Dear Will: you mention IQ. Perhaps you’re aware that the average IQ is 100. Have you ever collaborated with, employed, or otherwise befriended anyone with an IQ of 100? If not, it’s never too late to moonlight in “food prep” at your local Hardee’s. You could also enlist in the Marines; train as a cosmetologist; or work as a telemarketer. Or why not all of the above? Don’t you want to connect with your good friends, the People?
After these learning experiences, you may be inspired to set up a special, simplified version of your blog, to explain the virtues of Rawlsekianism to voters in this bracket—who have, as you say, “considered libertarian ideas and rejected them for all sorts of reasons.” (An accessibility feature, as it were. One small step ahead of the ADA.)
But 100 is just for average white people! Alas, as you may know, not everyone is white. You also mention cranial thickness. A fascinating topic, much neglected. Consider the problem of transmitting “Rawlsekianism” through this cranium (est. IQ, 65; number of votes, 1), or this one (est. IQ, 75; number of votes, 1). (Compare.) If your dream of democratic libertarianism seems just as practical in Papua New Guinea or Haiti as it is in Montgomery County—and why wouldn’t it be?—we’ll have to hope your auger is just as sharp as your tongue.
Of course, there are not a lot of Australian aboriginals roaming Montgomery County. But not to fear! Supposing your IQ=100 demolibertarian blog, which explains why Rawls and Hayek kick ass in words of no more than three syllables, takes off, goes triple viral squared, and starts to threaten the Powers that Be—what, oh what, shall they do?
Well, import some Australian aboriginals, perhaps. No shortage of those. And if there is, why not just breed more? As long as they can be taught to recognize the “D” line on the ballot, refrain from masturbating in public, and endorse their welfare checks, TPTB are home free. Remember, Will—no person is illegal. I believe Brecht had some thoughts on the matter.
But all this badinage is quite unfair. There is an easy and devastating answer. Our punching-bag may not punch back—but that’s no reason to let our dukes down.
Consider the case of Marxism. No one could possibly argue that Marxism is simple. Indeed, while a true understanding of Rawlsekianism may demand both a gigantic brain and a fully enlarged mind, I myself special-order my millinery and am one of only twelve men ever awarded the title of Space Admiral Emeritus—outranking Baba Ram Dass himself. And I have no hope of understanding Das Kapital, either because these qualifications are inadequate, or just because it makes no sense at all.
Nonetheless, you’ll note that Marxism in its day attracted the sincere adherence of billions of people, including quite a few whose skulls could smash Zinedine Zidane’s like an eggshell. And if Marx could do it, why not Rawlsek? Or—gasp—Will himself?
No one with an IQ of 90 can possibly understand Marx. Nor can anyone with an IQ of 190. Both, however, can learn to parrot Marx. (Indeed, with the right ASL translation, so can a chimp.) And since both (unlike the chimp, or Carlyle’s Dobbin—so far) has and of course deserves exactly one vote, they can elect Marxism just as easily as they can squawk it.
Ergo: cannot libertarianism, Rawlsekian or otherwise, succeed in exactly the same manner? Is it necessary to actually explain the matter? Must every man be a philosopher, or need he only fancy himself one? For he votes the same in either case.
We now arrive at the fundamental comedy of democratic libertarianism—a proposition no less grimly hilarious for its infinite boneheadedness. At the start of the 20th century, “classical liberalism” was conventional common sense, and Marxism and its relatives were on the fringe. Now, Marxism and its progeny are as ubiquitous as cytomegalovirus, and the lineage of John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer and Thomas Jefferson infects only a few nerds, stoners and other freaks. (And the world, of course, has gone to hell in a handbasket.) Is this just a coincidence?
Um, no, duh. It’s not just a coincidence. Because if you and your friends can parrot Marxism and get it together to capture the State, Marxism gives you: (a) money; (b) power; and probably (c) women. Whereas if you and your friends can parrot Rawlsekianism and get it together to capture the State, Rawlsekianism gives you—what? Philosophical satisfaction? So: which of these creeds would you expect to be more popular with the masses?
So what we’d expect, just from rational first principles, is that if you start with a libertarian democracy, it will eventually become socialist. Socialism, as a theology of vote-buying and worse, is perfectly preadapted for Darwinian success in a democracy. If democracy is like cancer, socialism is like terminal cancer—the natural, entropic endpoint of the process.
And indeed, not only does the experience of American democracy demonstrate this effect—so does the accumulated wisdom of both Greco-Roman antiquity and classical Europe, both of which regarded democracy and socialism as (a) contemptible and (b) synonymous. You’ll note that the Greeks, in particular, saw upward of five zillion independent city-states over the course of about half a millennium, so their experience is by no means to be taken lightly. (“Aristotle! Plato! Socrates! Morons…”)
Therefore, what the left-libertarian has the courage and forthrightness to propose is not just that a libertarian democracy can remain libertarian—contrary to history, reason, and wisdom alike—but that a socialist democracy can become libertarian! Through the same democratic process that sent it in the other direction! Time reverses, water runs uphill, dogs meow, and old women become young and beautiful. Will, this is why I wonder what your dealer’s selling you.
The truth about “libertarianism” is that, in general, although sovereignty is sovereignty, the sovereign whether man, woman or committee is above the law by definition, and there is no formula or science of government, libertarian policies tend to be good ones. Nor did we need Hayek to tell us this. It was known to my namesake, over two millennia ago.
Wu wei—for this is its true name—is a public policy for a virtuous prince, not a gigantic committee. The virtuous prince should practice wu wei, and will; that is his nature. Men will flock to his kingdom and prosper there. The evil prince will commit atrocities; that is his nature. Men will flee his kingdom, and should do so ASAP before he gets the minefields in.
And the gigantic committee should practice wu wei. But will it? Can it? Has it ever? It, too, has a nature. Before you tell us what it you’re going to make it do, you might want to consider what it is.
Anyway. Enough with poor Will. Please visit his blog, comment on it, say only nice things, and contribute to his face-transplant fund. Now, let’s talk about seasteading.
Sadly, reason compels me to believe that seasteading is basically a crazy idea. I mean this in the good sense of the word as well as the bad. Of all things that the endeavor reminds me of, it reminds me most of Shaw’s epigram that all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
I’m glad that smart people are crazy enough to do crazy things like this, and I’m glad that billionaires are crazy enough to put their money where their mouth is. What will come of it? We’ll see. Or our children will, at least.
But in the cold light of reason, let’s take a couple of sharp and serious looks at the project.
First, we need to look a little more closely at this word freedom. From my perspective, which is of course both reactionary and correct, freedom is not an abstraction. The extent of your freedom is the extent of your own practical control over your own mind, body, and property.
For example, I don’t think the conversion of Southern slaves into Southern sharecroppers made anyone much freer, because it created few practical options for the people involved. Before, you were an agricultural laborer who worked on the same farm for your entire life; after, ditto.
Defined in these terms, when you move onto a floating pole somewhere in the ocean, the first effect on your freedom is a massive decline. You have sworn fealty to King Neptune. Neptune accepts your service, as he has accepted so many before you. His court is glorious, his riches are infinite, his territory is vast. But Neptune is a stern and capricious lord.
To live at sea, you need not just love liberty. You need to love the sea. Spend a little time with Moitessier, Slocum, and the like; read this fine collection, and possibly this (pretty much all of Jonathan Raban’s books are good); etc., etc. Yes, I’m aware that seasteading is not yachting. I’m aware that no one intends to take their floating poles around Cape Horn. But you are still at sea, and a subject of Neptune you remain.
For example, until they can form a large enough seastead colony to support regular seaplane service (let alone floating runways, etc.), the subjects of Neptune are isolated, in an way that no one on Earth now is. Perhaps the closest equivalents are the small spots of humanity dotted across Alaska. Would you move to Alaska? (Why New Hampshire? Why not Alaska?) Life at sea is likely to be no freer than life in the Alaskan bush. If this is the lifestyle you want, it is as free as anything. If not, it might as well be a jail.
I would be slightly more confident in the seasteading project if I had the sense that the people behind it were true lovers of the sea. I don’t really get that impression. Perhaps I am wrong. They clearly are lovers of technology, and perhaps once the technology is there the sea-lovers will come out of the woodwork. Again: the unreasonable man. Praise him! But emulate him only if you know what you’re doing.
A crucial test for any form of “escape” is its ability to attract normal, sensible people whose interest in the project is not especially romantic, religious, “ideological,” or otherwise crazed. The English colonies in North America, whose history most of us know, are excellent examples. Neptune had his way with the colonists for a month or two, but after that they were on dry land—and pretty good land, too. And there was no shortage of pure economic emigrants. And still, getting to this level of bootstrap was not at all easy.
My second criticism is that I feel the seasteading project, as is all too common these days, has mistaken a political appearance for a political reality. The Roman Empire was not the Roman Republic. It pretended, in every possible way, to be the Roman Republic—but woe be to those who could not see the difference.
Before the 20th century, Planet Three was divided among a number of independent powers. Some of these powers were strong and others were weak, and they behaved accordingly. Since we’re speaking of the sea, see under: Admiral Semmes. A work worth reading for many reasons, but not least the completely unexpected (at least to me) amount of paper devoted to the laws of the sea. Even in the 19th century, it turns out, the pretense of maritime neutrality was quite a bit thinner than the reality.
Since 1945, the government of Planet Three has consisted of (a) USG; and (b) USG’s enemies. (For various complicated reasons familiar to all UR readers, the enormous decaying hulk that is USG is particularly good at nourishing its own enemies.) As USG decays, we are starting to see a new class of state, the “post-anti-American” regimes of Russia and China, whose relations with USG are starting to vaguely approach the 17th-century ideal of Westphalian neutrality. They have a long way to go, though; they remain exceptions; they are not exactly noted for their libertarianism; and, while they need not always knuckle under to Washington, neither do they have any desire to offend it. As alternate protectors they seem quite unsatisfactory.
For the rest, the “new international order” consists of USG and its satellites. There are no true international institutions. (Indeed, the concept is a contradiction in terms.) There are only American institutions, which pretend to be a partnership of equals. So did the Warsaw Pact. Unlike the Warsaw Pact, the United Nations order does not of course serve the interests of Americans or report to American officials. Its personnel are indeed genuinely international. But all its ideas are American, both in origin, in the flow of new thoughts (to the extent that it has any new thoughts), and in the structure of prestige. This is quite sufficient.
Thus you have a basic problem: you’re trying to escape from a planetary government, by moving somewhere else on the planet. At least if you move to, say, Costa Rica, you are sheltered by the pretense that Costa Rica, which is actually a satellite or external province of USG, is (as it appears to be) a sovereign country.
If you really wanted to escape from USG, you wouldn’t seastead. You’d space-stead, or possibly star-stead. Ideally, there would be some vast, opaque nebula between you and the New York Times. Then, you might have a chance. Best not to tell anyone where you’re going, though.
The seasteaders have a page on this problem. It strikes me as inadequate, because I’m not sure it’s fully informed by an understanding of the historical and political dynamics. The take reminds me too much of the attempts to create digital gold currencies and other alternative financial systems, which have not been conspicuous in their success.
Basically, USG has two kinds of enemies: pretend enemies to its left, and real enemies to its right. It is not possible to conceal the basically hostile intention of the seasteading movement, which makes it an enemy; and its political alignment (libertarian is a subset of conservative) makes it an enemy to the right. Toward right enemies, USG is incredibly dangerous.
The pretend enemies (such as the Communist countries in the Cold War, other Third World nationalist thugs, revolutionary Islamists, etc., etc.) are actually best defined as partial clients. Unlike full clients such as the OECD democracies, their friendship is only with one side of the American political system (the left side, duh). If their “anti-Americanism” actually reaches the level of military combat, the war is a limited war and essentially a civil one.
Right enemies include: Nazis and other fascists, of course; apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia; the Portuguese Estado Novo and Franquista Spain; the Greek colonels; and, of course, Israel. You might notice a property shared by all but one of the regimes on this list, which is that they don’t exist anymore. Sometimes there will be patron-client relationships on the right side of the equation, but they are always tenuous. Even in the last case, the “Israel lobby” is a piece of dental floss compared to the arm-thick steel cable that is the Palestine lobby. (You’ll notice that USG’s policy is that the war should end by Israel giving money and land to the Palestinians, not the other way around.)
To its left USG uses proxy forces to prey on itself. To its right, it uses its own forces to prey on others. To its left, it finds excuses not to act. To its right, it creates excuses to attack. To its left, it never takes no for an answer—the olive branch is always extended. To its right, it never takes yes for an answer—feed it an arm, and it comes back and demands your leg. This is how it ended up ruling the world.
So here is what I suspect USG’s reaction to seasteading will be: ignoring it, until or unless it shows some tendency to actually succeed. At that point, the fangs will emerge.
Again, when you seastead, you have acquired a sort of dual citizenship: you are a serf of both USG (satellites included) and Neptune. Neptune takes away quite a bit of your freedom, and offers no protection at all against USG. So what freedom, exactly, have you gained?
Not the freedom to violate USG’s laws, for USG will enforce its laws against you wherever you live. Perhaps you can smoke a joint, out there in the Pacific. Can’t you do that already? Really? And it’s actually a lot easier for USG to seize your seastead for a rock of Will Wilkinson’s finest, than for USG to seize your backyard because one of its dogs found a roach there.
But can you perform unlicensed economic activities? Can you, for example, run a free-market hospital that lets doctors and patients choose any treatment they think might work? Can you escape from tax laws, labor laws, patent laws, copyright laws, or any other laws? Not a freakin’ chance. You’re bending over and mooning about twelve government agencies, all of which would be very happy to eat your life and devour your soul, to the tune of thunderous applause from the New York Times. And your political protection? Ron Paul?
So again: what precisely does this freedom mean? Freedom to do what? I don’t see an answer. If there is one, I’d like to hear it.
My best guess at an answer is that seasteading, to the great credit of its proponents, does not pretend to be anything but a long-term project—and I mean very long. Generations. It can surely absorb a considerable quantity of human effort in tasks which are rewarding solely on account of their difficulty. Men climb mountains, explore the Arctic, sail around Cape Horn, etc. So why not? I can think of many far more boring and pointless endeavors—most notably, democratic libertarianism.
And the timeframe brings up an old joke which I believe is due to Robert Heinlein. Apparently, a long time ago a thief was caught in the king’s treasury. This king was quite strict about such matters. But he was a king, so he brought the thief before him and asked: “Why should I spare your life?”
The thief, thinking fast, said: “Simple. I’ve fallen on evil times, I admit, but once I was the world’s greatest animal-speech instructor. Give me a year, and I can teach your favorite horse to talk. What do you have to lose? If I’m lying, you can just hang me anyway.”
The king agreed. And every day thereafter, the thief was in the stable, teaching the horse to talk. He flapped its lips, he whispered in its ears, he pulled its tongue, he did everything.
One day a stableboy came up to him and said: “Look, you seem like a sensible fellow. You know that horses don’t talk. So why are you doing all this?”
The thief said: “Yes, I know that horses don’t talk. But, you know, I have a year. In that year, a lot could happen. The king could die. The horse could die. Or the horse could learn to talk.”
Thus with seasteading. In a project with a multidecade time horizon, many things can change. The sea will always be the sea—but technology changes, and more importantly, so does USG. For better or for worse, no empire is forever. As USG decays, it will probably not become easier to reform, but it may well become easier to resist. We can only hope.
So my official stance on seasteading: cool to lukewarm. At least from what I’ve heard so far. Enthusiasts should feel free to try to change my mind, if they care.
Some may ask: do I have an alternative? Yes, I have an alternative. I’ll discuss it in my next post. But for now, suffice it to say that when the impossible is ruled out, we are forced to consider the improbable. If it is impossible to reform USG, and impossible to escape USG—what other option is there?