How we can Make 2018 a Libertarian Year

In 2016, the Overton window of British politics became unjammed. The window is now free to move. How can libertarians best capitalise on the new opportunities presented? Where are we now, who and what are we, and what are these opportunities? What are the threats?

I don’t presume to say who is and is not a libertarian, if that is even a useful question. It is easy to get diverted by attempts to draw a precise boundary around a definition rather than identifying what clearly lies within the boundary. You could say we are people who believe in the Non-Aggression Principle or those holding a general presumption in favour of individual freedom. Perhaps we are followers of Hayek, Rand or whoever. In contrast with socialism and communism, libertarianism is not dogmatic: there’s no defined set of policies such as ‘total nationalisation’ or ‘abolish private property’. Instead, it is more like conservatism: a set of habits of mind and attitudes about policy, rather than a set of policies themselves.

It is therefore perfectly possible for libertarians passionately and sincerely to disagree about important policy matters (e.g., Brexit, anti-trust) as well as more fundamental philosophical questions (e.g., natural rights, which were controversial even as early as Benjamin Tucker and Max Stirner). In the long term, there are threats to one of the primary units of analysis in libertarian thought: the autonomous, law-abiding individual.

There is no reason to suppose, a priori, that the rule of law will continue to exist. The first steps towards privatising quasi-legislative power in favour of machines were made in the 1990s in relation to copyright enforcement technologies. If you can implement a restriction on someone’s behaviour via software, anticircumvention laws will protect the behaviour of your software against their hacking. Even if your software’s behaviour violates their most fundamental rights such as freedom of speech. It is not hard to imagine an unregulatable world of software, robots, and drones which enforce the will of their owners, or their hackers, in a broad range of public and private areas of life. The prospects that the owners will all have libertarian views are slim.

Deeper than the attack on law, our concept of what is a human individual and our confidence that we have free will are both coming under more sustained scrutiny due to advances in medical science and philosophy. Advancing the notion that we lack free will in some important sense is the project of John Brockman, an influential literary agent who has drawn to himself many famous scientist authors, or authors whom he has made famous, and many authors of whom libertarians would tend to approve.

The best example of libertarian democratic success today is Senator David Leyonhjelm, recently re-elected a libertarian to the Australian federal parliament, where he has shared the balance of power in the upper house with various other minor parties. This necessarily entails compromise: he has the ability in limited cases to trade off his support for one measure against another. There is no room in such calculations for purism; all that is available is some of what libertarians want, or none of it. Not all of it.

It is my belief that it is worthwhile focusing both on theoretical goals and practical goals. We should know where we’d like to go, and the direction in which we should take our next step towards that destination. How we got where we are should matter less to us than that we are on the same journey.

Politics of Jeff Bezos

When I heard that Jeff Bezos had purchased the Washington post I, like many, thought “hang on, isn’t he one if those libertarian techy types?”, so on Tuesday I posted, to the effect that indeed he might be, and earned myself the a place in the esteemed “Samizdata Quote of The Day” series. It seems Brian agreed the question was important, and it was Brian that once said to me “an interesting question is sometimes as interesting as an interesting conclusion”, especially if readers might have an answer to leave in the comments. In this case however, all the comments (and they were good comments) happened over at Samizdata.

Unfortunately, in tacking a speculative conclusion on the end of the post I’m in the position of now having been proved wrong on Samizdata. Oops. Okay, the mainstream media (and Wikipedia) got it wrong as well, but we’re supposed to be better than them, aren’t we?

In the hope of offering something more valuable to you, dear readers, than a mea culpa I thought it would be interesting to draw together some the evidence that Jeff Bezos is or is not, as I now suspect, the right wing Dangerous Libertarian I hoped he was.

© Jez S via Wikipedia

© Jez S via Wikipedia

First, I’ll skip straight to this from trusty Reason magazine, which offers it’s diagnosis of where Bezos comes from (the links are from the original):

The great media columnist Jack Shafer suggested yesterday that Bezos could be classified as a “beyondist,” which he described as “David Brooks’s clever term for people whose politics appear to be centrist but strive to occupy a political space beyond left and right.” I think this is more true than certainly Brooks and maybe even Shafer intended.

In his original 1995 Weekly Standard essay, Brooks used “beyondist” to rightfully mock the above-it-all centrist pretensions of heavily political (and almost always left-of-center) action figures such as Bill Clinton, Bill Bradley, and E.J. Dionne, then busy trying to rebrand deservedly exhausted political coalitions and ideas. (It is an interesting irony that Brooks would eventually come to represent the gormless middle he once skewered.) Shafer in 2012 grafted that term—and appropriately so—onto the man he thought would buy the Washington Post, Michael Bloomberg.

But Bezosian Beyondism does not at all resemble the vain, meddlesome noodling of Nanny Bloomberg or even outgoing Post CEO Donald Graham. Where those types of centrists make a show of constantly exercising power to correct the public’s mistakes, Bezos quietly sells people stuff they want for a price they like, and leaves the political branding where it belongs: far removed from the wonderful scrum of everyday life. It’s no wonder that even libertarian-haters are having a hard time working up outrage at his new toy.

Will all of this add up to a significant recalibration of American political identity? Of course not. The importance of media deals is always overstated by self-interested journalists; legacy institutions are leaking power and relevance, and it’s unclear at this writing whether Bezos will be more than a distant presence in the lesser of the two Washingtons. Social evolution is infinitely complex and unpredictable.

So far so good, but the statement that Bezos “quietly sells people stuff they want for a price they like”, as if he was a simple saintly man, does clash somewhat with his repeated support of rent seeking Democrat Patty Murray, and 4 other Democrats. Paul Marks suggested this is Danegeld – a bribe to keep anti-wealth Democrats off his wealthy back. Bezos certainly has a political fight on his hands over sales tax reforms that would criple his business model, and as Michael Jennings wrote, over the regulatory environment for space projects. The Danegeld theory is also supported by the fact he tends to back the winner. No use backing the looser is there? Not in a fight. His donations to Republicans were smaller and were made to loosing candidates.

So what evidence is there that Jeff Bezos is a libertarian? Is it just, as Perry de Havilland put it, the case that “these days if you are not in favour of a state CCTV in every room and near total regulation of all social and economic interaction between people, you are a Dangerous Libertarian”? That is, does the authoritarian mainstream make Democrat supporters look like us?

Well no. There are specific ideas that make one’s beliefs libertarian or not, and one criteria that is often applied in “I’m more libertarian than you” type conversations is consistency, in particular consistency between attitudes to personal and economic freedom. Returning to the earlier article, not only did a friend of Bezos say quite clearly that said friend thinks Bezos is libertarian but the friend was quoted enthusiastically describing just how sure he was that Bezos was ecomonically a libertarian, in the sense that he was surely the type to oppose an income tax.

Also, the amount spent by Bezos to support candidates in all parties comes to under $20,000, yet he gave $2.5 million to support gay marriage proposals, and $100,000 to defeat a tax. In other words his direct policy interventions are a 130 times greater in size and are intriguely both socially and economically liberal. This was why I got excited originally.

Some of the commentators on Samizdata were skeptical that a new editor could move a publication like the Washington Post ideologically. One even likened it to “Bill Gates [buying a] snake and it training it to become vegan” but Gene posted a suggestion about how it might be done. I have no idea if “Gene” is in the newspaper business but it is nevertheless interesting:

Bezos will allow them to stay the course and run the content side as they see fit and in keeping with their historical orientation. But …

The editor must add additional reporters and other staff as necessary to indirectly add a libertarian flavor to the newspaper. Those additional reporters will have as their exclusive “beats”: 1) unintended consequences of laws and regulations at the national, state and local level, 2) laws and regulations that have clearly passed their sell-by dates and may be in need of repeal, 3) the achievements of voluntary, non-governmental, non-publicly-funded associations of humans, and 4) any other such beats that I haven’t had enough coffee to think of this early in the day. Apart from the requirement that all of those beats must be covered, full-time, and in good faith, by the new personnel given to the editor, the editor will be in charge of managing those people.

Any chagrin on the part of the current editorial management over these requirements will no doubt be mollified by the fact that the new owner is not eliminating any of the editor’s existing resources, nor is he interfering in the editor’s existing ideological priorities. He is in fact giving the editor additional staff…

Of course, if he is not a libertarian then he will do no such thing, but the idea is worth logging for future reference.

© Tyler Merbler

© Tyler Merbler

One contribution Bezos has already made is to rattle the Washington media establishment over his libertarian beliefs. The danger, in their eyes, is that someone with political ideas they find “visibly objectionable” might have actually beeen in charge, and in charge of them. This is unlikely to draw them in thundering herds to a political philosophy that puts nobody in charge of anyone, but it does one thing: it changes the window of what feels probable in terms of policy change.

A newspaper editor – an establishment figure – who opposed a tax and supported gay marriage, who is undoutedly slightly libertarian moves the Overton Window in a really useful way, by making the real libertarians sound a little bit less like fringe lunatics. Regardless of how inscrutible Bezos is, we could help the window move by expressing our own honest opinion of Jeff “Libertarian, My Arse” Bezos, or Jeff “Libertarian Maybe” Bezos or Jeff “Libertarian but not like me” Bezos, and doing it often.