So, What Should I Write About?


Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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62 Responses

  1. Avatar Jaybird says:

    If you wouldn’t find it depressing, perhaps a semi-official opinion on the various third party dynamics that you see roiling about this election season? (If any, of course.)

    (Checking the ‘tubes, the Libertarian Candidate for President wasn’t chosen until May of the year of the election the last couple of times… so this request may be premature.)Report

  2. Avatar James Hanley says:

    I haven’t seen one of your patented dialogues between great thinkers in a while–it’d be fun to see another of those.Report

  3. I don’t have a good topic for you, as I am going through a similar period at the moment.  But I just want to say that it freakin’ made my morning to read this post and see a three-year old picture of my dog autopopulate in the Related Posts section.Report

  4. Avatar E.C. Gach says:

    Binding arbitration clauses in digital terms of use agreements.  Can any contract be an objectively bad one (rather than just subjectively relative)?Report

    • Can any contract be an objectively bad one (rather than just subjectively relative)?

      I don’t know if you’re asking more for Jason’s feeling as to whether this is possible under libertarian theory, but at common law it is certainly possible, although fairly rare, under the unconscionability doctrine (and of course there are always contractual provisions that can be deemed illegal by operation of statute).   Binding arbitration clauses, however, would not ordinarily reach the level of unconscionability.


  5. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    I know that theory is often king here, bit I’d love to read about your own personal journey that led you to embrace the big L.Report

  6. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    I haven’t written much in a while either, mainly because I’m trying to make sense of this blogging thing, where we’re going with this one, and what I’d like to contribute to that. As tedious as it might be, maybe some of the other gentlemen are asking similar questions? That could be a possible discussion.Report

    • For me, I think a good chunk of it is that the disillusionment with politics that was a major factor in my 3 month hiatus from blogging has not lessened.  I can continue trying to write about other things, and I’m still slowly working on the 2009 portion of the planned anthology, but politics is sort of the topic that I’ve always felt most comfortable writing about, so the cupboard of other topics is a bit bare.  On top of that, Mr. Kelly is essentially writing the posts and making the exact points that I would write if I were to write on politics (at least outside of political theory, and even then, I’m not sure that I’ve got much different to say); IOW -dammit, Tod, stop writing such good posts!

      Also, my production historically decreases a bit in between the holidays, as does I suspect the overall level of production around here (though last year it may have seemingly increased due to the sudden injection of a boatload of people at once).Report

      • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

        On intermitant political disillusionment, as someone with an overreactive sense of righteousness, disgust for what I see as injustice, and intense interest in the dynamics of persuasion and public debate, I wanted to get into politics for a long time, either as someone on the frontlines of campaign canvassing or in a more specialized role doing policy research or analysis.

        But I’ve begun to realize how consistantly tortured the whole realm of politics leaves me feeling whenever I try to engage it with the seriousness that my interest and obssesivness compels.

        It’s rarely something that leaves me feeling good afterward, despite how much I enjoy discussing the subject.  Though it could just be the seemingly recent intractability.  The feeling that no one, whatever their views, will ever see them realized, and so things at least on the political front will remain relatively stagnant.

        In fairness, this isn’t a critique of any party currently, or any political association.  I’d rather even see those people’s views with whom I disagree get a chance to do what they advocate so we could move forward with things and see how it all unfolds.

        Perhaps its the impatience of youth.  This maliase is almost certainly also connected to the void left by 1.5 year long election cycles.


      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Disillusionment with politics is actually a rich topic to discuss, if for no other reason than to identify the root cause of that disillusionment. Is it at the front end retail level: that politicians pander to the base without any hope or intention of ever passing the policies enacted? Is it the intractable nature of politics as it plays out, where both major parties are inexorably in opposition to each other so stagnation and non-political forces actually drive policy? Is it at the meta level: that democracy in America is so hopelessly and irreparably flawed that participation is irrelevant? I think disillusionment with politics has a cause, and identifying that cause is a fruitful and necessary exercise wrt identifying exactly what we expect our political institutions to be doing/providing/allowing and the ways in which we are accurately or inaccurately assessing those putative institutional purposes or goals.

        For my part, I’ve never been persuaded by the libertarian argument justifying their retreat from retail retail politics. The argument seems to be circular in some sense: front end political engagement is what causes or permits governmental corruption and designed inefficiencies and overall badness, but getting involved in politics is hopeless because it causally won’t change anything. So the defeatism wrt to politics from the libertarian pov is interesting to me: it only makes sense (it seems to me) if you have an unrealistic idea of not only the purpose of politics, but what politics can ultimately achieve. I mean, political engagement can take place at the front end policy level (end the WoDs!), but also at the meta level (instant runoff voting) or the extra-political level (grass roots organizing, rallies/protests/etc).

        If libertarianism somehow entails refraining from actively pressuring people into adopting other policies because doing so is a form of coercion or use of illegitimate force or whathaveyou (I’m not saying it is), then libertarians will continue to be disillusioned. But more important to the point at hand, this view is politically incoherent.

        You could write about all or some of that!Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        For my part, I feel like a front-pagey post is “speaking from the pulpit” while comments are merely “yelling from down here”. I rarely have something that I feel is worthy of being spoken from the pulpit. (I do try to participate in “everybody write something about X!” events.)Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. says:

          I think that’s probably right and what prevents me from posting more myself. My old blog had a readership that was only maybe larger than the three of us posting. So posting something was more like, “Hey, here’s something I was thinking about; whaddya all think?” Sometimes it’s like that here and I sort of expected the same thing on a larger scale. But, often, posting here feels like giving a class report. I’m not sure how to get around that.Report

          • I think it’s a lot easier if you think of a post as little more than just opening a discussion at a support group session or a book club or a family get together, etc. – basically any situation where there’s going to be group discussion.  Think of lulls in posting as those awkward pauses where everyone’s exhausted the topic(s) at hand and is looking for something new to discuss.Report

        • Avatar Chris says:

          I don’t mean this to apply only to you, but as someone who yells from down here exclusively, I don’t see the posts as pulpits (or as coming from them), but as conversation starters. In fact, the more preachy posts (and there are only a couple occasional contributors who are preachy in pretty much everything they write, while most of the front pagers appear, to me at least, to be preachy only occasionally). I suspect that such a view would make the pressure of front page posting subside a bit, as all you need to do is put an idea out there, even if it’s an unfinished or relatively mundane one, to get the conversational sparks flying.Report

        • Avatar James K says:

          I feel a bit the same, except for me a front page post is like writing a paper.  I spend over an hour on each of the front page posts I write, and often when I get home from work, that last thing I want to do is write a lot.Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

        Thank you, Mark!  Coming from you, this wee little comment made my whole day.Report

  7. Avatar E.C. Gach says:

    On a more constructive note, with the end of the year coming up, maybe diving into discussions about best of?  Books, movies, music, etc.  I liked Jaybirds “Unsolicited” buyer’s guide.  Pre-holiday recommendations from the rest of the Gentlmen would be interesting.Report

  8. (1) Why common law marriage is not the way to go for the U.S.

    (2) Seminar on Hobbes.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      2) Coincidentally, I just re-read Leviathan yesterday and was planning to post on it this week.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        That’s a nice topic. I’m very curious to hear your and especially Christopher Carr’s views on Hobbes, since his (at least) are quite a bit different than mine.Report

        • I’ll try to get my views on Hobbes out next week. I almost put it into my last post, actually, but I’m worried my topic-shifting and lede-burying is out-of-control enough already, so I thought better.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        I just re-read Leviathan yesterday

        All of it?  In one day?  Damn, that’s impressive.Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. says:

          Ah, I think it was the whole thing. It’s the Dover Philosophical Classics version. It says it was unabridged. It took about six hours. My mind probably wandered a bit during the third and fourth parts. I’m not as interested in false prophecy and the kingdom of darkness as the readers of 1651 would have been.Report

          • Avatar James Hanley says:

            Heh, I read Leviathan in at least three philosophy classes, and the latter bits were never required reading.  I think there’s some degree of interestingness in his theory of knowledge, but frankly all most of us are interested in is his state of nature theory and justification for government.  In today’s world he could have written a really good, tight, journal article and dispensed with all the rest.Report

            • Avatar Rufus F. says:

              Thanks for the encouragement folks!

              What I got out of those sections was that there are a ton of false prophets mentioned in the Bible, so if anyone is claiming prophet status we should assume they’re looking for the power associated with claiming the Word of God and place the dominant ruling power in the civil authority, which Hobbes thinks is consistent with the Bible given that Jesus says his Kingdom is not of this world. Oh, and also the hell with the Pope. In the context of the English Civil War, this was probably the most exciting part of the book, but yeah I’d imagine it’s not read much today.

              To be honest, I had to read Leviathan for my field exams and didn’t remember much at all of the thing afterwards. If I had, I would have just assigned parts of Book I and all of Book II to my students in the Enlightenment course. I figured I’d reread it and see how much I’d forgotten.Report

      • Avatar dexter says:

        I am truly impressed if you read Leviathon yesterday.Report

  9. Avatar greginak says:

    One of the weakest areas of Libertarian thinking, for me, has always been environmental policy. I think you once said something about how that could be dealt with through different property laws ( 0r something like that) which puzzled the heck out of me. Even assuming my really really vague recollection might be less then accurate ( and what are the chances of that) maybe you can explain Libertarian ideas about protecting the enviro ( preserving wild lands for recreation and wilderness, preventing overuse of resources like fishies, keeping toxic crap out of the air/water, etc.) I never see much discussion of this.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:

      Definitely an interesting topic.  It is a tough area for libertarians.  They’ll emphasize property rights–private ownership of resources–because that way someone (the owner) has both an incentive to bring a challenge in court to any damage, and legal standing to do so.  For example, in England some streams have private fishing rights, so any damage that harms the fish is a harm to the fishing rights owner (generally a club, rather than an individual).  So instead of someone having to try to stir up public opinion and persuade legislators, the rights owner just charges into court to protect the legal rights.

      But that leaves open two questions (at least).  Will privatization work effectively and appropriately with really large resources.  E.g., can we effectively privatize Lake Superior, and if we can, should we?  Two, let’s say we do, and then the owner pollutes it to hell and back, but puts a treatment plant at the outlet so he’s not polluting the (presumably also privately held) water of the other Great Lakes?  If the lake is public, we decry that pollution and environmental destruction–if the resource is private, does environmental damage become acceptable, no matter how large the scale, simply because the resource is private?  I’m a libertarian (and an environmentalist of sorts), and I find those two questions tremendously difficult.

      Sorry, didn’t mean to try to write the post for Jason–just emphasizing that it’s a good question that I’d love to see discussion of.Report

      • Avatar James K says:

        If Jason isn’t keen I might write something on it at some point.  After all I did study this stuff during my Master’s.Report

      • Avatar North says:

         Speaking personally I’d say environmentalism and libertarianism is an excellent topic.

        My witnessing firsthand the tragedy of the commons as a youth (the implosion of the North Atlantic Cod Fishery and the wave of economic devastation that swept away the communities of my childhood) was probably the singular event that put a stake through the heart of my most libertarian inclinations before I even knew what libertarianism was.

        Oh and I’ve not been round much. Work is a madhouse right now and the site seems to be loading slow for me. Odd. I’m sorry I mostly missed Jasons rip on the GOP. I’d have loved to have been involved in that scrum.Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

          The short answer is that libertarians, to the extent that we stand for anything, stand for property rights.

          We want people to have recognized property rights in all kinds of things, even things that others sometimes find objectionable:  We think you should be able to buy and sell kidneys.  And sea turtles.  And futures on how policy decisions will shake out.

          And cod?  Yep!   Tradable fishing rights work, and they might have worked here, too.

          Odd that we’re blamed for liking weird property rights, and also blamed when other people, who are not libertarians, refuse to implement weird property rights.  Even when they would have worked.Report

          • Avatar North says:

            Some things cannot be easily parceled out and owned Jason. Who owns the water table? Who owns the atmosphere? Who owns the North Atlantic Cod fishery? Mighty wars have been fought over epically smaller issues than questions such as those. It is a matter of unhappy (or arguably happy) fact some things are not practically possible to parcel out and own, at least not unless you involve the hand of the statists.

            It seems to go two ways; either a government or near governmental entity says “we on behalf of the people own this fishery or this commons and we’re gonna restrict its free market use (by a variety of ways including permit ownership in some cases) or, as happened with the cod in the North Atlantic and as is happening with the international commercial tuna fishery, the governments are kept out (usually by being at loggerheads with other governments rather than free market principals mind) and the free market very efficiently strips the commons bare.  

            Now the Icelandic’s have government with its heavy foot on the fisheries but they also have cod. Heck, they even have the free market to a degree since the system they use is owned and traded fishing permits. The lefties groan “the permits let big evul companies get most of the fish” and the righties groan “the gummint is oppressing the masses by putting its statist paws on the market” but at the end of the day they still have fish and that’s not a small thing. At the rate things are going it might end up a luxury item.

            My thirty two year old self remembers my nine year old self surveying a baked haddock captured by my Grandfather and prepared by my Grandmother, wrinkling up his little nose and groaning “we’re eating fish again?!?!” My thirty two year old self writhes at the recollection.Report

            • Avatar greginak says:

              We still have a viable fishing industry here in AK. There is a government body who listens to elitist scientists about how many fish can be taken. There are continual arguments between the various fishing and enviro groups about who is taking to much. But we still have a healthy fishing industry.

              The various Tragedies of the Commons as shown by the many fishing grounds that have been destroyed is the kind of thing many liberals types think about when we are told about the miracle of the free market. The kind of free market that destroyed so many fish and jobs is certainly not the kind of set up Jason or most libertarians would ever approve of. However that kind of free market is much closer to what many R’s are pushing and what we are likely to get. A “free market”, like every other human thing can be great or a clusterfish depending on how it is arranged.Report

            • Avatar James Hanley says:


              Let me begin by agreeing that commons problems pose particular difficulties for libertarians.  Libertarians who deny that are fools.  But by the same token, because not all problems are commons problems, and because there are some not-too-terribly statist solutions to many commons problems, they’re also not a death knell for libertarianism.

              Sticking just to fisheries, for the moment (ignoring the, I think, tougher issue of ground water), there is a solution between the government ownership or free-for-all options you mention, which is to essentially privatize fishing rights–not the fish themselves, but the rights to catch them.  In practice this normally takes the place of Individual Tradeable Quotas (ITQs), which is a right to a certain catch.  Those rights can be bought, sold, given away, gambled away, willed, just as any other property right.  This gives the fishermen financial stake in long-term sustainibility of the fishing stock.

              The problem in the old style systems was lack of property rights–it was totally open-access (which is not a libertarian ideal), so fishermen couldn’t be sure that fishing sustainably would actually pa off, because anyone could come in and take all that was left.

              There actually are a number of fisheries that avoided this problem by effectively enforcing limited access through private measures.  The Maine crab fishery is one example, and the traditional village-based fisheries in Spain are another.  But without secure property rights, anyone willing to put up with the hostility and outright violence directed toward them could easily wipe out the fishery.  (In Spain, the problem now is that the EU won’t allow the traditional village-level discrimination, so fisheries that have been sustainably fished for centuries are now threatened by government-mandated open access–precisely the wrong way to go).

              So, in a nutshell, the third way, secure property rights in the fishery, in practice seem to have worked best–certainly better than open access, and generally better than government regulations like limited fishing seasons and limited total catch w/o ITQs.  I can’t say all libertarians will agree with that (because it does require government), but I can point you here, to a book that says all this and is being promoted by a libertarian thinktank.Report

              • Avatar North says:

                James, I wouldn’t say that commons are the death knell of libertarianism certainly, but on a personal level it was the death knell of the emotional sympathy I have for libertarian purists which relegated it for me to the status a valuable critique of existing systems rather than an ends in of itself.

                Also while intellectually libertarianism can see generally a possible commons solution (or if not solution mitigation) path I’d submit that when applied to the masses it dumbs very well down to “keep yur guberment hands outta mah fishin boat/trawler/factory trawler/drag netting ecology smashing refridgerated factory trawler). In fairness I acknowledge liberalism dumbs down to “ya wanna kill poor people” and conservatism dumbs down to “God/your country hates you unless you do what I say.” as well.  

                Also, of course, the solution requires force, either by government or some impartial quasi-governmental agent indistinguishable from government in my mind. You don’t keep non-compliant trawlers off the Grand Banks in mid December with signed paper but rather with very determined ships and people.

                I’m not trying to snark mind, I deeply value libertarianism intellectually but it just can’t, ya know, hook the heartstrings on this fisherman’s grandson. Have there been any international fishing stocks that are being successfully managed by libertarian based solutions? I only have heard in passing about tuna which migrate in international waters and thus inhabit what’d be considered one of the great libertarian frontiers (seasteading!) and are being fished to commercial extinction. But then I don’t follow international fish matters very closely anymore, it’s painfully depressing.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                Also, of course, the solution requires force, either by government or some impartial quasi-governmental agent indistinguishable from government in my mind.

                Yep, property rights generally do.  That’s why most of us libertarians aren’t actually anarchists (except for the anarcho ones, I guess).

                on a personal level it was the death knell of the emotional sympathy I have for libertarian purists

                I don’t blame you one bit.  You might be a bit inhuman if that experience didn’t affect you that way.

                Have there been any international fishing stocks that are being successfully managed by libertarian based solutions?

                I don’t think so.  I think it’s necessary either to have a commons small enough to manage through local coordination or a government that encompasses the whole territory of the commons.  International fisheries don’t fit either category.

                There is some potential for market-based solutions if we can persuade consumers not to buy products of open fisheries (along the lines of buying only dolphin-safe tuna).  But that’s likely to work only for  species with lots of aesthetic appeal, like dolphins or sea turtles (“Disney” species, as some say).  And I suppose we could push for a boycott of, say, Gorton’s fish sticks or McDonald’s fish filets, if they were made from those products.  But that’s not necessarily going to be wholly successful, and it’s least likely to work for species that are not attractive and that aren’t sold under their specific species name but get added as filler to other products.  I support that type of effort, of course, but at least at present, international treaties seem to be necessary.  Which, alas, isn’t the same as them necessarily being effective.  But we go with the best we’ve got at any point in time, right?Report

              • Avatar Renee says:

                First, I scrolled to fast in this thread and missed the intro to the environmental part.  So when I read ‘international fishing stocks’, I thought fishing was being used as the standard euphemism.  And I was very confused.

                Second,Christopher Costello has some good stuff about catch shares (essentially what I think you are talking about).



              • Avatar James Hanley says:


                That’s pretty funny.

                Catch-shares is a broader term than ITQ; ITQ is one type of catch-share.  So definitely what we’re talking about, but includes methods other than ITQs as well.Report

              • Avatar James K says:

                I find it somewhat amusing that scientists have suddenly got all exited about catch shares. Economists have been discussing them for decades. Hell, New Zealand’s ITQ system has been running since the 1990s.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                I think the economist are finally starting to get through to scientists.  Like most people without any economics or policy training, they tended to naturally gravitate toward command-and-control solution, but being scientific they eventually recognized that the results of those empirical experiments did not achieve the predicted results.Report

              • Avatar North says:

                Thanks James, I thought as much. Yes, we do what we can with what we have.Report

            • I believe Elinor Ostrom has done some good work on this, how protecting the resources in question is in the interest of those who derive their incomes from the resources and not necessarily in the interest of the government. We have countless examples of this: Maine lobster fisheries, rice-growing in Asia.

              Then again, there were once moa.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                Elinor Ostrom (and her many, many associates in commons research) is who I learned it all from.  I had the privilege of a post-doc at her research institute.

                Then again, there were once moa.

                And passenger pigeons, and Carolina parakeets, and on and on.  The trick, I guess, is to compare the failures to the successes and learn what promotes one vs. the other.  The number of failures is discouraging, of course.Report

              • Are there any studies like that out there (besides my rejected 2006 Fulbright grant proposal)?Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:


                Follow Elinor Ostrom and her global connection of colleagues; that really is the mainstream of research on this issue. Governing the Commons is her most prominent work, probably.  The Drama of the Commons and Rules, Games and Common Pool Resources are also good, although a bit denser.  She has a new co-authored one, Working Together: Collective Action, the Commons, and Multiple Methods in Practice.  I haven’t read it yet, so can’t really recommend or discourage it.  I would advise avoiding her co-authored book, The Global Commons: An Introduction; I found it disappointing.

                You might also peruse her institute’s Digital Library of the Commons. A wealth of articles there (some of them scanned and posted by my wife while were there).

                My only beef with Ostrom (who is truly the nicest person in the world) and her colleagues is that they resist writing things that are very accessible to intelligent laypersons, so some of the stuff is a bit dense, and there aren’t enough examples of pieces that are good thorough accessible overviews.

                John Baden’s Managing the Commons might be good, too.  I haven’t read it, but I’ve met him and liked him a lot, and he normally tries to be accessible.  I’m not sure he’s as up-to-date on the latest research, but you can still learn a lot from him.Report

              • Thanks, James. I’ll check that stuff out over the holidays.Report

          • Avatar North says:

            Incidentally, for the record, I’m a rabid supporter in (statist regulated!!) mostly open organ markets.Report

            • Me too as long as no one wakes up in a bathtub full of ice.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                I think that’s where North’s statist regulations might come into play.

                Or should I just say “property rights”? /utterly predictable libertarian responseReport

              • Avatar North says:

                Possibly James but I’d go a step further and as James K below notes be very much for regulatory intervention that required very very clear “chain of title” if you will of the organ in question in order for it to be accepted. Property rights, yes, but the idea of organ theft is admissably hair raising.

                But as my kiwi cousin below notes, of course, a market for organs would probably plummet their value to the level where stealing them was not generally rewarding enough.Report

              • Avatar James K says:

                Like regulations about organs requiring provenance to be accepted.

                In fact a market for organs would probably lower incentives for organ theft by lowering their market price.Report