I hope you are all well. As you can tell from how I open these letters, this is something I believe should be of high priority to us all. Everything we do, it is for others and ourselves, to be well. We are often tempted to give up our wellness temporarily so that in the future we can feel even better — but that future isn’t guaranteed to come, let alone play out to our expectations.
All too often, when our efforts bear fruit, we are too quick to start busily sowing the seeds of our future success, and we never get the chance to finally let be and enjoy their taste.
We can’t predict the future, so it never goes precisely to plan. Problems are inevitable, so we will always have things to do. The key is to learn to relax in the midst of all this and enjoy it as it comes. We need to learn to relish in the problem-solving process and learn to enjoy this rollercoaster we call life. The happiness is from the process, not the outcome. It is from what it is, not where it leads.
The end goal for us all should be a world where we can all simply be ourselves and live in happiness. Problems may be inevitable, but suffering isn’t, and we can take joy in our efforts to solve our problems and improve our circumstance.
In this letter, I want to make the case for libertarian principles and introduce you to a problem I have been thinking about; how do we get everyone to cooperate without coercion?
The ideas I will touch upon here include:
- The implicit coercion we already have
- What libertarianism really is
- The "trade-off" between freedom and security
- The power that governments hold
- The problem of getting people to coordinate without force
- Why "soft power" and incremental change is key
The implied coercion that we live with
In my previous letter Taking Children Seriously II, I described the implicit coercion that we are all living with.
Recently, a dear friend of mine, introduced me to a YouTube channel called BitButter that explains this point well.
The above video, George Ought to Help, was posted in 2010, and the author still replies to the comments in it to clarify objections to the view.
In it, we imagine you are hanging out with your friend George, suddenly Oliver shows up, and he has been in trouble financially. He needs money to help pay tuition fees for his kids. Moved by compassion, you offer Oliver some of your money.
To your surprise, George isn’t interested in helping. This irritates you more than a little; after all, the three of you are supposed to friends.
But would it be okay for you to force George to help Oliver through any means necessary?
Happily, most of us would say no.
If there was a democratic process, and six out of ten in a group vote that it is okay to threaten George with violence for the money — is it now okay?
What if everyone voted a group in power and decided that there were allowed to seize the money from any means possible?
“The agents don’t explicitly threaten George at first, but like everyone else, George knows what will happen. He will get more letters demanding payment, and the bill will get bigger. Eventually, if he still doesn’t pay, agents will break into his house and take him away against his will.”
This is the way we run society at the moment. There are many things that you can do that are entirely non-violent — including not paying your taxes — that can result in people being violently coerced and even detained.
This is necessarily a problem.
What is Libertarianism?
“Peaceful, honest people should be left alone.”
“I think we should use government and this legal machine sparingly. The problem with having too many laws is that to enforce them, you need to back them up with the threat of violence.”
The essence of libertarianism is freedom from coercion—the freedom to do as we please so long as it is not harming anyone.
Anything a person does in the confines of one’s own home that does not affect anyone else, or anything consenting adults agree to should be none of the business of any authority.
This is all I wish to defend.
There are a lot of views regarding trade, competition, capitalism that libertarians talk about that I either do not agree with, do not know about or otherwise would not feel comfortable defending. I have also heard rather bad things about libertarian culture, that many extend their political values to interpersonal relations, as if friendship were like trade.
While I am uncomfortable with government coercion, I long for a culture change were we expand the circle of sentiments without limit and take care of one another to the best of our abilities. In such a culture, laws and bureaucracy would only get in the way.
As such, I do not call myself a libertarian, but then again, I do not subscribe to any labels for reasons outlined in my piece Insert Label Here.
In short, I want people to engage with my actual views and reasons for them and not the label “libertarianism” and whatever baggage comes with it from others that use it. I am not attached to words or labels, but I am interested in the flourishing of everyone and what the better and worse strategies of getting there are.
Freedom vs Security
I view it as unacceptable that we live in a society where we feel the need to coerce one another in this way. Does this mean that I would call for dismantling the government and police force as is today? Of course not.
It would be a disaster.
There is no contradiction in this view.
If you take a heroin addict, and suddenly strip them of their supply, they will most likely face painful withdrawal symptoms. It’s even possible they would die.
Does this make heroin actually good?
Of course not.
The coercion that our society is rife with is clearly a bad thing, yet this doesn’t mean we should want to tear down all our institutions overnight.
The reason we sacrifice our freedom in the first place is for another value we hold dear; security.
We sacrifice the freedom to kill and maim others, so that we ourselves may not be killed and maimed. We sacrifice our freedom to steal, so that we ourselves may not be stolen from.
What we truly care about is happiness, and all our other values, both freedom and security included are subservient to this. Safeguarding these is really a way of safeguarding our well-being.
It seems there is a fundamental trade-off we need to make here.
I am not sure this is actually so.
Libertarianism is about living free from coercion, from force, from violence.
If we are killed, we lose all freedom.
It could be said that, by agreeing to sacrifice our freedom to kill, we increase our collective freedom to prosper.
This game is then about sacrificing specific freedoms — that we are not interested in having anyway — to increase the freedom of all.
The Leviathan’s Power
Every law is a threat; it is backed up by implicit violence. Why do we have them in the first place?
This is a simple question; we utilised this violence in order to suppress a greater one.
The violence we dealt to one another on our own.
One of the longest books I have read in the last few years has been Steven Pinker ’s 800 page 2011 best-seller: The Better Angels of Our Nature where he chronicles the events through human history that have led to the massive decline in violence over time.
In the state of nature, conflict was the norm, and peace was a rarified circumstance a lull in between the tides of war.
A plethora of forces have come in to play to facilitate this shift, both political and cultural. One of them was described by the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes as The Leviathan. A powerful force that would keep all men awe, and by threatening punishment on those that engage in violence it would maintain the peace. An entity that would effectively have a monopoly on all violence that would relieve all from having to take justice into their own hands and offer a sense of security that they will be looked after.
We call this force; the government.
It worked. It may not have been the only way to achieve this. In the future, we may live a culture where we no longer need to be forced in this way, but in the time and place it was conceived it undoubtedly pacified the violent tendencies of the people.
But I believe we stepped too far.
Violence may be a necessary measure to curtail the threat of greater violence, but in these times, we may have become far too quick to summoning the leviathan...
With every law we legislate, we declare a new offence worthy of dragging a person away from the normal course of their lives and incarcerating them, should they be insistent enough in their failure to comply.
The force of government has succeeded in causing many a reckless individual to shy away from violence, but should we be using it to insist that George ought to help?
Is building a public library an acceptable use of this power? If many people enthusiastically want one but a few do not, is it justified for the leviathan to bare its fangs?
With taxes, every item we decide it is worth spending them, we have decided that it is worth taking money from everyone by force.
“I will gladly help you build a library. I will not use a gun to get someone else to join us.”
Penn Jillette, Mistrust of Government is a Beautiful Thing
I, for one, would not advocate the tearing down of all of our institution and the disbanding of our laws and taxes overnight, but you can see how this is not ideal right?
You can see that we should be slower to use the leviathan’s awesome power?
I am not sure if there are no problems that aren’t worth threatening others with violence, but I hope you can see why we should see this a last resort.
The Coordination Problem
There is one thing I have been thinking of is what I call the coordination problem.
Right now, we are in a global pandemic. The deaths we suffer as a civilisation depends on how we all play our cards.
Do we all get checked when symptoms arise? Do we take the necessary steps to social distance? Do we avoid large gatherings? Do we wear masks as recommended?
The number of us that die depends on this.
We need everyone to do their best.
There are seven billion of us spread out across the world. We are divided into different nations, demographics, cultures and ideologies, and all have different ways of gathering information and different sources that we trust.
How do we determine what our best ideas for dealing with a common threat and coordinate ourselves to be best respond to it?
How do we get everyone on board?
The default answer to this appears to be through enforced lockdowns.
By threat of violence, we have been limiting people’s movement, and it has been working.
Is this the only way to cooperate?
That can’t be the case; if there are good reasons to behave a certain way, there must be a way to communicate them to everyone.
It is just that we don’t know how.
It’s a problem of communication, we need a culture where we can work together toward common interests, and I am confident we can do this without the threat of violence.
Soft power and incrementalism
We know that people can change their attitudes and behaviours without physical compulsion, it has happened many times before, and it can happen again. This is the puzzle piece we need; how do we address our shared problems together peacefully?
In his 2009 TED Talk, the international diplomat Shashi Tharoor makes the case for why nations should pursue what he calls “soft power”.
If military might, bargaining power and controlling resources, then the spread of ideas through stories, art, literature, philosophy and science is soft power.
In the talk, Shashi references the soft power India held over Afghanistan despite not engaging in a single military campaign there.
Clearly, there is a way here to influence and coordinate behaviour that has nothing to do with the conventions of coercion or even incentives. The spread of ideas really does work.
When I talk about not being able to simply let go of all the coercion in society overnight, but rather needing a culture change to enable it — this is what I mean.
To break our dependence on the leviathan, we need to outgrow our culture of conflict and create a culture of conversation.
It is not more coercion that will take us to the world beyond coercion. It is exactly the kind of soft power that Shashi talks about that will take us to where we want to go.
When we change our systems, when we change our institutions, we are bound to disrupt the lives of the many. We are also prone to run into mistakes and unintended consequences, which we will have to deal with in the future.
Is this the case to remain perfectly conservative and be skeptical of the project of social change? Of course not.
But it is a case; to not dive into it as if from a high cliff into the ocean.
Instead we should wade into the shallows one-step at a time and test the waters.
This attitude towards social change is known as incrementalism and was advocated by the philosopher Karl Popper who I’ve come to know and love in recent years.
In his 1945 book The Open Society and its Enemies, he makes the distinction between two different types of social engineering; Utopian and Piecemeal.
- Utopian: We have a vision of what the ideal society would look like, and we work towards it
- Piecemeal: We find problems in our current society and incrementally try to fix them
The problem with Utopian engineering is quite simple, as Karl Popper put it:
“It is very hard to learn from very big mistakes.”
We are fallible beings and prone to making errors, so we need a way of going forward that allows us to make mistakes and learn from them. In piecemeal social engineering, incrementalism is key. We pick a problem in society, and try to address it in such a way that we can reverse the changes we make if they lead to any unexpected outcomes.
If we are solving one specific problem at a time, when we err, we will be able to get a better grasp on why we failed and learn from our mistake. As we only changed one thing, it is evident that it was the cause for the mess we made.
If we tried the utopian approach and made many large changes to the way we run society all at once, when we make a mess we won’t know which of the changes we made caused it.
In utopian engineering, mistakes tend to be very big, very costly and very mysterious. Conversely, in the piecemeal model, they become a means to learn more about running society. The marvel here is that in this method, the mistakes leave us stronger, not weaker — and being mistake-prone humans; this is precisely what we need.
We live in a world rife with coercion; the way we coordinate our collective behaviour is rife with the implicit threat of violence. This is necessarily a bad thing, yet it does not follow that we should slay the leviathan overnight. We can identify problems with the way we are running the show and take measured and reasonable steps to address them.
I do not claim to have a neat solution to the coordination problem, that is; how do we get everyone to cooperate in the absence of force.
But all problems are solvable, and I believe this one will need a change in our culture through what Shashi Tharoor calls soft power, followed by piecemeal changes to dismantle the coercion in our systems.
It is my hope that one day we wake up in a world where words really are enough to facilitate our peaceful coexistence, and we all are free to live as we please.
Thank you for reading until the end of yet another letter, I hope you have enjoyed it immensely.
This one is four days late and somehow reached over three thousand words. I was experiencing writer’s block more than usual this week, and I have actually half-written two other drafts on entirely different topics before starting this one.
I don’t honestly know how this happened, I always intend to finish writing the letter in a single day and I have the intention to keep everything short and sweet so people will be more likely to read and share it. It seems like there is a lot I want to say.
Before I let you go, I want to remind you that these are not no-reply emails. There is a real person behind them. If any part of the letter has sparked your curiosity, or if there is anything you would like to criticise or seek clarification on, please feel free to reply — I would love to hear from you.
And with that I will bid you adieu.