In the current Cato Unbound, Patri Friedman (grandson of Milton Friedman), argues that libertarians have failed in their efforts to promote a libertarian society through political activism, in large part because the system is stacked in favor of statism. Instead of seeking to reform existing states, he claims that libertarians should establish new states of their own. Such efforts have failed miserably in the past, but Friedman argues that the new technology of "seasteading" (establishing large, habitable platforms in the ocean) might make this strategy more viable. At the very least he claims that it's better than what he considers the hopeless task of trying to promote libertarianism within existing states:
I deeply yearn to live in an actual free society, not just to imagine a theoretical future utopia or achieve small incremental gains in freedom. For many years, I enthusiastically advocated for liberty under the vague assumption that advocacy would help our cause. However, I recently began trying to create free societies as my full-time job, and this has given me a dramatic perspective shift from my days of armchair philosophizing. My new perspective is that the advocacy approach which many libertarian individuals, groups, and think tanks follow (including me sometimes, sadly) is an utter waste of time.
Argument has refined our principles, and academic research has enlarged our understanding, but they have gotten us no closer to an actual libertarian state. Our debating springs not from calculated strategy, but from an intuitive “folk activism”: an instinct to seek political change through personal interaction, born in our hunter-gatherer days when all politics was personal. In the modern world, however, bad policies are the result of human action, not human design. To change them we must understand how they emerge from human interaction, and then alter the web of incentives that drives behavior. Attempts to directly influence people or ideas without changing incentives, such as the U.S. Libertarian Party, the Ron Paul campaign, and academic research, are thus useless for achieving real-world liberty.
I question Friedman's key assumption that promoting libertarianism in existing societies through research and activism is "an utter waste of time." It certainly has not been as effective as he and I would like. But it has nonetheless led to important victories for freedom. For example, as I discuss in my recent debate with Sandy Levinson, there were important reductions in the size and scope of government in the 1980s and 1990s, many of them traceable in part to advocacy by libertarian scholars and movements. Even more impressive reductions in government power were achieved in nations such as Ireland and New Zealand during the same period.
Ironically, Patri Friedman's grandfather Milton Friedman was one of the best examples of the impact of libertarian advocacy on policy. Among other things, Milton Friedman's efforts, combined with those of other libertarians, played a key role in ending the draft, one of the greatest infringements on individual liberty in modern American history. Friedman also helped influence many governments around the world in the direction of adopting relatively more free market economic policies.
To say this is in no way denies that we are still very far from achieving a truly libertarian society. And at the moment, we are obviously moving in the wrong direction. It does, however, suggest that libertarian political action can be effective, even in spite of the many ways in which the system is biased against it.
Does that mean that libertarians should reject Patri Friedman's "seasteading" proposal out of hand? I don't think so. If the technology is viable, the idea may deserve support. Although we can and should work to reform existing governments, Friedman is right to point out that we need more competition in the market for government. If seasteading begins to attract productive citizens away from existing states, it might pressure the latter to allow greater freedom.
A countervailing factor is that a libertarian "seasteading" state might not be as free of the power of existing governments as Friedman supposes. He claims that the latter cannot be reformed in a libertarian direction because of poor incentive structures. But those same perverse incentives might lead them to use force to eliminate seasteading projects - especially if the seasteads appear to be potential rivals. Existing states might suppress seasteads if the latter start attracting too many productive citizens and investment capital away from them. The Law of the Sea Treaty defines the ocean as a "common heritage of mankind" that cannot be claimed by any one nation or group. Existing governments or the United Nations could easily use this clause of the treaty to justify suppressing attempts to establish a libertarian state on the high seas. Friedman and his Seasteading Institute try to answer this objection on their website.They make some good points, but I am not entirely convinced. And they themselves concede that seasteads will be extremely vulnerable to naval attack, especially in their earlier stages.
In sum, Patri Friedman understates the utility of political action within existing states and perhaps underrates the likelihood that those same existing states might foil his attempt to establish a new one. But it is too early to conclude that his proposal is unworthy of support. I, for one, would like to see more analysis and evidence.