Sunday, November 16, 2008

A response from Patri Friedman

In a recent post about Congressman Paul Broun's comments comparing Barack Obama to Hitler, I made reference to "Seasteading" and linked to an interview with Patri Friedman, one of its main proponents. The reference was really just a way of intriducing the topic of politicians saying and doing rediculous things. However, Mr. Friedman posted a comment that takes issue with how I characterize Seasteading:
"Compared to other industries, government is huge, inefficient, and slow to change. There is very little competition and innovation. If it was a minor area of life, this might not matter, but its huge! Why are you skeptical of the idea of improving this area of life? Isn't it the *most* important are for progression?

If I thought things could be fixed on land, I would be proposing an easier solution. Sure, its a weird solution - but if the answer to such an old and huge problem was easy, we would have found it."
I did not intend to be quite so flippant about Mr. Friedman's ideas. In fact, I think everyone should listen to his discussion of Seasteading with Russ Roberts on EconTalk. Friedman outlines a very extreme approach to the problem of poor governance. I do not feel qualified to comment on the technical and engineering challenges involved with Seasteading, but I would like to open a discussion on the issue.

Friedman's basic point is that poor governance stems not from the particular people in power, but from the incentives they face. So it's not a matter of throwing the bums out of office, but rather having a system where the bums' self-interest alligns with that of the public. One possible answer to this problem is competitive government. Government is the ultimate monopoly: barriers to entry are extremely high (imagine trying to start your own government) and consumer choice is very limited. If you don't like a particular store you can shop at their competitor; if you don't like your government, it's a lot harder to "shop" elsewhere.

By lowering these barriers to entry and increasing consumer choice and mobilty, better incentives for those in power will develop. Governments will have to compete for citizens by providing better services at lower cost.

Seasteading is an interesting and provocative idea. But whether or not you think it could possibly work, the critique of government as a monopoly is a profound one. If Seasteading accomplishes nothing more than a real discussion of these issues, it should be regarded as a success.

1 comment:

Mike LP said...

I had not heard of this before your post here and it sounds like an incredibly interesting idea that I could support. Having said that, one concern that I would have is that, though our government often seems to disregard non-mainstream views, in principle, it still relies heavily on these views over periods of time. Our government is definitely too rubust and grossly inefficient, but it is the best we have. And, though ideologically I disagree with many aspects of our government and its respective framework, practically, I think that it is likely about as good as it can be given the diversity and size of our nation. Though providing alternatives is nice, lets not forget the importance of new ideology on the development of the government; though it is extremely slow to change, it is by no means completely stagnant (see President Elect, Barack Obama.) The framework of our government relies specifically on the opposite of the "if you don't like it go somewhere else" mentality.