Sep 29

Statism — Love It Or Leave It

For many years I’ve been seeing proposals for implementing
libertarian reforms that look superficially appealing and plausible,
but on closer examination run hard aground either on some pesky
reality of politics as it is or the extreme difficulty of waging a
successful revolution. Since I’m a libertarian,
you may well imagine that I find this annoying. How do we get there
from here?

For the first time, I think I’ve seen a path that is both
principled and practical. Not the whole path, but some firm steps
that both accomplish good in themselves and open up great
possibilities. And the best part is that it’s a path most statists
can’t object to, one that uses the premises of the existing federal
system to achieve a fair first test of libertarian ideas within that
system. Even opponents of libertarianism, if they are fair-minded,
should welcome this reality check. Libertarians should cheer it on
and join it.

I’ve had troubles with other libertarians recently. Too many have
retreated into isolationism in the face of a war with terrorism that I
do not believe we can or should evade. The isolationists judge that
empowering the State when we use it as an instrument of self-defense
has consequences for the long term that are more dangerous than
terrorists’ aims are in the short term. I sympathize with this view,
but when all is said and done, Al-Qaeda shahids with backpack nukes
from the ‘stans are more of a danger than John Ashcroft has ever been.
I have done my homework and if anything, I believe the U.S. Government
is understating the danger we face.

But the dangers of empowering the State to fight a necessary war
make it more, not less urgent that we pursue all possibilities for
libertarian reform at home. Now, I think I see a workable one. What
if, by perfectly legal and proper means, we could take over a small
American state and actually try out our ideas there?

Yes, I thought it was a crazy idea when I first heard it. An
entire state? How? But the Free State Project has
done the math. I’ve looked at their arguments and trend curves, and
I’m pretty much convinced. It can be done. We can do it. The
key is very simple; enough of us just have to move
there. Vote with our feet, and then vote in a bloc. And why
a state? Becausr that’s the only intermediate level of government
with enough autonomy to make a good laboratory.

The Free State Project identified ten small states where 20,000
active libertarians would be a critically large voting bloc. They are
signing up libertarians and like-minded people to vote on the target
state and to move there when the group passes 20,000. The winning
state will be announced on 1st October; they’ve signed up about 5400
people so far, on a classic exponential growth curve with a six-month
doubling time that should get them there in late 2004.

What could be more American than migrating to a thinly-settled area
to experiment with liberty? And this time we won’t have to kill off the
natives, because they’re not going to be organizing any scalping parties.
Most of the states under consideration have a strong local
libertarian tradition, and none of them are going to look askance at
the sort of bright, hardworking, highly-skilled people most likely to
be pro-freedom activists.

Some people won’t like this idea, though. The national media
establishment, which is statist down to its bones even in the few
crevices where it isn’t leftist, will inevitably try to portray the
Free State migrants as a bunch of racist conservative redneck gun-nuts
(all these terms being effectively synonymous in the national media)
intent on turning the poor victim state into one gigantic Aryan
Nations compound (especially if it’s Idaho, as it could be). Expect
network-news interviews with locals teary-eyed with worry that the
incomers will be hosting regular cross-burnings on the courthouse
lawn. Awkward little inconsistencies like the libertarian opposition
to drug laws, censorship, and theocracy will be ignored. This prospect
is especially ironic because, in most of the possible target states,
it is our lifestyle liberalism that is actually most likely to produce
a culture clash with the natives.

The more intelligent members of the political class won’t like this
either. The brighter and better-able one is to extrapolate
second-and-third-order effects, the more likely the potential success
of libertarianism at a state level is likely to scare them —
conservatives nearly as much as liberals, and conservatives perhaps
more so when we challenge them to emulate our success with
small-government policies that they speak but don’t really mean.

But I don’t think this will be easy to stop. Libertarian
demographics being what they are, 20,000 of us in a small state will
be a huge concentration of technical, creative and
entrepreneurial talent. We’ll found software businesses, studios,
innovative light-manufacturing shops and engineering companies
by the bucketload. We’ll create favorable regulatory conditions
for old-line businesses like financial-services houses and for
bleeding-edge ones like the private space-launch industry.
We’ll attract more people like us. The lucky state, especially
if it’s depressed and mostly rural like a lot of the candidates, will
experience a renaissance. And we’ll get to make the difference.

The real fun will start when Americans elsewhere start asking “Why
can’t our state be more like this?”

Liberty in our lifetime? I think this might be how to get there.

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Sep 11

One year later…

One year ago today, the World Trade Center fell in flames. And that very day, just a few hours after the event, I wrote the following:

QUOTE BEGINS

Some friends have asked me to step outside my normal role as a technology evangelist today, to point out in public that a political panic reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attack could do a great deal more damage than the attack itself.

Today will not have been a victory for terrorism unless we make it one. If we reward in any way the Palestinians who are now celebrating this hideous crime in the streets of the West Bank, that will have been a victory for terrorism. If we accept “anti-terrorism” measures that do further damage to our Constitutional freedoms, that will have been a victory for terrorism. But if we learn the right lessons, if we make policies that preserve freedom and offer terrorists no result but a rapid and futile death, that will have been a victory for the rest of us.

We have learned today that airport security is not the answer. At least four separate terror teams were able to sail right past all the elaborate obstacles — the demand for IDs, the metal detectors, the video cameras, the X-ray machines, the gunpowder sniffers, the gate agents and security people trained to spot terrorists by profile. There have been no reports that any other terror units were successfully prevented from achieving their objectives by these measures. In fact, the early evidence is that all these police-state-like impositions on freedom were exactly useless — and in the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center lies the proof of their failure.

We have learned today that increased surveillance is not the answer. The FBI’s “Carnivore” tap on the U.S.’s Internet service providers didn’t spot or prevent this disaster; nor did the NSA’s illegal Echelon wiretaps on international telecommunications. Video monitoring of public areas could have accomplished exactly nothing against terrorists taking even elementary concealment measures. If we could somehow extend airport-level security to the entire U.S., it would be just as useless against any determined and even marginally competent enemy.

We have learned today that trying to keep civilian weapons out of airplanes and other areas vulnerable to terrorist attack is not the answer either — indeed, it is arguable that the lawmakers who disarmed all the non-terrorists on those four airplanes, leaving them no chance to stop the hijackers, bear part of the moral responsibility for this catastrophe.

I expect that in the next few months, far too many politicians and pundits will press for draconian “anti-terrorist” laws and regulations. Those who do so will be, whether intentionally or not, cooperating with the terrorists in their attempt to destroy our way of life — and we should all remember that fact come election time.

As an Internet technologist, I have learned that distributed problems require distributed solutions — that centralization of power, the first resort of politicians who feed on crisis, is actually worse than useless, because centralizers regard the more effective coping strategies as threats and act to thwart them.

Perhaps it is too much to hope that we will respond to this shattering tragedy as well as the Israelis, who have a long history of preventing similar atrocities by encouraging their civilians to carry concealed weapons and to shoot back at criminals and terrorists. But it is in that policy of a distributed response to a distributed threat, with every single citizen taking personal responsibility for the defense of life and freedom, that our best hope for preventing recurrences of today’s mass murders almost certainly lies.

If we learn that lesson, perhaps today’s deaths will not have been in vain.

END QUOTE

As I reread the above, it does not seem to me that we have yet learned our lesson. We have taken steps towards arming pilots, but not passengers. Tiger-team probes of airport security have shown that the rate at which weapons can be smuggled through remains 30% — unchanged since before 9/11. A year later, therefore, the frisk searches of little old ladies and the no-sharp-edges prohibitions have bought us no security at all.

The scorecard is not entirely bleak. Al-Qaeda has not been able to mount another successful mass murder. Post-9/11 legal changes through the Patriot Act and related legislation have been troubling, but not disastrous. And the war against the Taliban was a rather less complicated success than one might have expected — civilian casualties minimal, no uprising of the mythical “Arab Street”, and Al-Qaeda’s infrastructure smashed. Osama bin-Laden is probably dead.

Still, the war is far from over. Islamic terrorism has not been repudiated by the ulema, the college of elders who prescribe the interpretation of the Koran and the Hadith. The call to violent jihad wired into the foundations of Islam has not yet been broken or tamed into a form civilization can coexist with. Accomplishing that is the true challenge that faces us, one greater and more subtle than merely military victory.

(Yes, I wrote the above in 2002. Some glitch in the blog software gives it a 2003 date. I don’t know why.)

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