A Libertarian Theory of Revolution

Let us start with the Public Choice theory of Revolution. Gordan Tullock outlined the Public Choice problems with Revolution in his 1971 paper, The Paradox of Revolution. The gist is that revolutions suffer from a collective action problem, namely:

(i) that the risk of dying or punishment exceeds the expected benefits
(ii) an individual’s participation is unlikely to have much influence on a successful outcome
(iii) the individual can free ride off of whatever successful outcome without being an active participant

In the academic literature, this collective action problem is identified jointly as: (1) The Participation Problem (2) First-Mover Problem. For Simplicity, I will refer to this as the Tullock Paradox.

Now, “revolutions” do occur, but Public Choice would imply that most would merely be a type of intra-elite rivalry resulting in the “New Boss being the same as the Old Boss.” We can classify these as the “Palace Coups” or WGFA1 Revolutions.

But WGFA are not the only types of Revolutions. This is because the Tullock Paradox, like all collective action problems, can be potentially overcome by a change in institutional incentives. In particular, focus can be placed on the potential role of the “political entrepreneur”2 in changing institutional incentives, or the “rules of the game,” if you will. SEP is an actor who invests his/her own resources toward a personal preference that manages to coordinate the inputs of others in order to produce collective action or collective goods. This can change the “logic of collective action” with regard to participation in non-WGFA revolutions.

Lichbach’s paper, “Rethinking Rationality and Rebellion Theories of Collective Action and Problems of Collective Dissent,”3 outlined a typology of four institutional incentive models for classification of potential solutions to the Tullock Paradox:

(1) market: private benefits and “egoist motivations” can result in a collective action of a non-WGFA revolution
(2) contractual/public goods: mutual agreements can result in a type of “group decision making” that can spur a collective action of a non-WGFA revolution
(3) community: collective action rooted in common belief systems
(4) hierarchy: collective action rooted in authority structures

GMU professor Peter Leeson, author of the Invisible Hook, has relatively recent paper, “Rational Choice, Round Robin, and Rebellion: An Institutional Solution to the Problems of Revolution,” 4 that examines how a “market model” was used by 18th century mechant sailors to overcome the problem of predatory merchant ship captains.

WikiLeaks and Revolution
Libertarianism critiques liberalism vis a vis the State as Plutocracy. But now the problem is oligarchy. Oligarchy is Plutocracy with a unified political class. Here, we turn to Orwell. Orwell’s political theory revolves a ruling class whose objective is not necessarily wealth, but domination and a persistence of a world-view, a persistence of the hierarchical structures of the ruling class(it doesn’t matter who wields the power; as long as the institutions, the hierarchies remain unchanged). This achieved via permanent war and corruption of the language.

I don’t think there is any question that in relation to Empire and the National Security State, the US teeters on oligarchy. Politics has become largely immaterial at this point. It doesn’t matter who or what party wields the power, the hierarchical structures of US Imperialism and the Military Industrial/Intelligence remain unchanged. This is empirically undeniable. There should be no question that the US suffers from a Tullock Paradox. In part, this is reinforced by the cultural war that would brand any actual collective action on this matter an agent itself of oligarchy(this should be obvious by now: an agent of Soros; an agent of the “Koch’s”). The cultural war has successfully managed to create a political vocabulary that casts any threat to the Status Quo as itself an instrument of Oligarchy.

But there are weaknesses. And to me, Document-sourced journalism has the potential to be a monkey-wrench in an oligarchical world order. That’s because it drives schisms between any unity of a global political class. Imagine in Nineteen Eight Four if Winston Smith was a “leaker” instead of a “forgerer.” Would it make a difference? I think it does.

Document-sourced journalism borrows from all four models of the Lichbach topology. Does it matter if the leaker is motivated crass political gain(embarrassing a political rival) or a “higher” public good? Does it matter if Julian Assange was motivated in part by an insufferable ego and fame(as his critics claim). Frankly, the more his motives are impugned, the more his critics are inadvertently making the case for “crass egoism” as a catalyst for profound revolutionary collective action. I don’t think they quite get that implication.

Assange is an “entrepreneur,” in the best revolutionary meaning of that term. I put him up there with Thomas Paine. The genius of WikiLeaks, IMHO, is the entrepreneur exploit of (4) hierarchy in the Lichbach topology. First, the initial strategy of a political hack to manufacture “free speech protection” across legal jurisdictions. There may be some debate whether that was a legal or a political hack. But there shouldn’t be any debate about the second strategy. After receiving a treasure trove of source documents from an American government source regarding the American wars of occupation and American diplomacy, Assange ditched the wiki/Social Network Platform editorial model of distribution and partnered with traditional journalistic organizations. This editorial context maximized the public impact of the documents. It made him an enemy of the State and greatly maligned his reputation. But the trick is becoming a political enemy of the State while avoiding becoming a legal enemy of the State. Assange’s entrepreneurial relationship with traditional journalistic organizations immunized him from legal attack; that’s because he can’t be legally targeted without implicating his partners, which would be politically untenable. Let me repeat: there has to be a political hack behind any so-called legal hack, if you actually want the latter to stand up if you manage to draw blood.

Now we are seeing an explosion of document-sourced journalistic entrepreneurship. That’s because the political hack perhaps may hold up. And I would pay more attention to what the likes of Bill Keller are doing rather than what they are saying. And I regret to inform Michael Moynihan not to expect his Pulitzer Prize. If there is any triumphalism to be had, I would say it should be more along the lines of noting the half-hearted opposition of 60 Minutes; they more or less let Assange cast the “exceptionalism” of “free Speech” against the exceptionalism of the national Security state. Assange the radical came out looking sympathetic.

Revolution Against Oligarchy
The current prospect of a “revolutionary wave” in Northern Africa and the Middle East is a revolution against oligarchy. And it has everything to do with the resiliency of American Empire. Just how resilient is American Empire?

The punditry informs us that such things as “high food prices” lie at the root of the Egyptian rebellion. But this is an immaterial point even if true. The relevant point is that with loss of resiliency, any event can serve as a trigger, even the most mundane, trivially connected ones. There is an old saying, “What does that have to with the price of Tea in China.” Well, in the case of non-resilient regimes, the price of tea in China can have both nothing and everything to do with the implosion of non-resilient regimes.

Applying our “revolutionary model” to the current “revolutionary wave:”

I) Overcoming the Tullock Paradox.

(i) The Participation Problem

From Foreign Policy:

I asked our experts at Human Rights Watch to canvass their sources in the country, and the consensus was that while Tunisians didn’t need American diplomats to tell them how bad their government was, the cables did have an impact. The candid appraisal of Ben Ali by U.S. diplomats showed Tunisians that the rottenness of the regime was obvious not just to them but to the whole world — and that it was a source of shame for Tunisia on an international stage. The cables also contradicted the prevailing view among Tunisians that Washington would back Ben Ali to the bloody end, giving them added impetus to take to the streets. They further delegitimized the Tunisian leader and boosted the morale of his opponents at a pivotal moment in the drama that unfolded over the last few weeks.

Here the WikiLeaks Cables played a role in changing the expectations of the expected benefit of participation in revolution. With the revelation that the US would not back Ben Ali in a violent crackdown, the probability of his flight, in the face of rebellion, became likely.

(ii) First-Mover Problem
An act of self-immolation by a Tunisian fruit stand operator, which was an act of desperation, served as the trigger.

The deposition of Ben Ali in Tunisia then serves as an impetus for overcoming the Tullock Paradox for other connected, American-aligned Arab States. The Wikileaks cables document the degree of unity between the Intelligence Apparatus of the United States and the Intelligence apparatuses of these aligned client states. For example, this leaked cable documents the “strong and growing relationship” between the Egyptian Intelligence Service and the CIA and FBI. The Wikileaks cables makes it impossible for the US to feign “plausible deniability” in the event of a violent Egyptian government crackdown. This “act of illegitimacy” would reflect poorly on the so-called “moral authority” of the US Government. This thusly lowers the likelihood of the violent crackdown which therefore changes the expectations regarding the “participation problem.”

Instead, the US Government is busy trying to orchestrate an orderly transition from Mubarak to “Mubarakism without Mubarak.” The attempted maneuver to install Omar Suleiman into power is a comedy laid more slapstick by the Wikileaks cables which clearly document the claims against him: that he is a psychopathic torturer. This is the brutality of the “stability” of American Empire.

To the extent that the US is “successful” in thwarting the “revolutionary wave” and “preserving stability,” this stability will come at the price of a further loss of resiliency. This is a pernicious feedback loop where the US must become more totalitarian, particularly with respect to it’s Intelligence Apparatuses, to guard against even the most trivial of events from triggering large-scale perturbations. Domestically, the US is no longer disconnected from it’s sponsorship of authoritarianism abroad. It’s all becoming connected.

Tullock’s own Paradox
In closing, I would be remiss not to point out this essay by Gordon Tullock, “How I Didn’t Become a Libertarian.” Tullock, despite his pioneering work in Public Choice, nonetheless rejects libertarian civil society because in the end he is an intellectual product of the institutional thing he is critiquing. He urges “tolerance,” but I don’t think the rise of the secret police in liberal society has much to do with enforcing orthodoxy in “libertarian journals.”

1 Won’t Get Fooled Again(The Who)

2 The Political Entrepreneur refers to the “Schumpeterian” version of it, not the “Tullock Auction Rent-Seeker” version.

3 Mark I. Lichbach: Rethinking Rationality and Rebellion Theories of Collective Action and Problems of Collective Dissent, 1994.

4 Peter T. Leeson Rational Choice, Round Robin, and Rebellion: An Institutional Solution to the Problems of Revolution

5 thoughts on “A Libertarian Theory of Revolution

  1. Perhaps some Thomas Kuhn would also go some way towards explaining this phenomenon. That is, the government’s paradigm dictates what is and is not “evidence” in the discussion over morals and moral governance. Wikileaks is pushing for a paradigm shift by introducing new, contradictory evidence to the discussion.

    1. Thanx for the link; it seems to confirm:

      (i) document-source journalism was at the root of overcoming the Tullock Paradox
      (ii) SNP is a bit over-valued…

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