Libertarian Social Engineering and Solving the Public Good Problem

At Cato Unbound I argue for libertarian social engineering:

The better markets work, the less the demand for the state. By improving markets and other voluntary organizations, libertarians can make their political vision more attractive while at the same time making people better off.

Modern libertarianism began after many of the market institutions that we take for granted had already been developed. Fee simple property, for example, dates to 1290. Could we have a libertarian society without fee simple property? In theory, yes. In practice, the free society is attractive because it generates wealth. Without fee simple property it is, at the very least, more difficult to create a rich, industrialized society. The limited liability company dates much later than fee simple property, to the 19th century.  Without the limited liability company, it would probably have been much more difficult to raise large amounts of capital. As a result, without limited liability, markets would be at a great disadvantage compared to the state in conducting economic activity on a large scale. Thus fee simple property and the limited liability company are among the technological/legal institutions that have made a free society possible, not because they are constitutive of a free society, but because they make a free society work better and compete better against statist alternatives.

So how can we improve markets? Public goods are one of the biggest challenges to markets and it was long thought that because of the free rider problem markets could not produce public goods. In Tabarrok (1998) I showed that such reasoning was wrong; a large class of public goods can be produced voluntarily using what today would be called a crowdfunding contract with a refund bonus or what I called at the time, the dominant assurance contract (DAC). My piece at Cato Unbound describes the DAC and also some other ideas for libertarian social engineering in more detail.

What’s important about dominant assurance contracts is not simply that they solve the public good problem but that:

Dominant assurance contracts open the provision of public goods to entrepreneurship, innovation, and the market discovery process.


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