It may strike some people as opportunistic of me that I started this site, Contours of Liberty, a little over a week after Tyler Cowen announced that his Emergent Ventures would award $100,000 to a recent or new blog exploring “ideas relevant to liberty, prosperity, progress, and the foundations of a free society,” and possibly five additional awards up to the same amount. So I wanted to explain my aims and motivations here.
Cowen is an economist; I studied economics as an undergraduate (and at various free-market seminars); and an essential insight of economics is that incentives matter. Well, why shouldn’t they?
The top Google result for the term “opportunistic” is from Oxford Languages: “Exploiting chances offered by immediate circumstances without reference to a general plan or moral principle.” In starting this web site, I’m taking advantage of an opportunity but not being opportunistic in the sense indicated.
For years I have intended to take up this project, and indeed much of my present work contributes to it. What Cowen did is give me a little push to change the timeline and format of my project. For years I have intended to write a book called “Contours of Liberty” (and I still might). Now, instead of starting a formal book in two or three years (to come out two or three years after that), I’m covering much of the same ground starting now in a less-formal blog format. An obvious difference is that, with a blog, I’m doing the research as I go, making suggestions that are more tentative than I’d allow in a book, and giving myself the chance to refine my thinking and change my mind about things as I go.
I don’t expect to win a prize, although I think I have a non-trivial (better than one in a thousand) chance of winning one. If I multiply out the prize award times my expected odds of winning, then Cowen is tempting me with something like a few hundred dollars. Obviously that’s not enough, by itself, to prompt me to start the site.
The overriding reason I’m starting this site is that I am terrified for the future especially of the United States (I live in Colorado), and if I can at all contribute toward righting the ship and restoring America’s (broadly) liberal orientation, I want to do that. I’ve written more along these lines in my lead essay.
In starting Contours of Liberty, I am putting several other projects on the back burner. And I’m okay with that. I am most of the way through (around 30,000 words) drafting another book critical of religion. (I am currently in a chapter about the so-called “god gene.”) But I paused that project with the pandemic. I was just too worried about things, too preoccupied reading about epidemiology, and too busy helping my family reorient to the altered landscape to seriously work on a book. Interestingly, the very week that Cowen announced his challenge, I was working toward reorganizing my life such that I could restart work on the book. The pandemic “is what it is,” and I just don’t need to spend as much of my time worrying about it. (I will continue to advocate Paul Romer’s idea for mass-testing however I can.) So, schedule-wise, it was no big trick for me to divert the time I had planned to spend on the other book to instead working on Contours of Liberty. I’m moving the project on politics and culture to the front of the line. I’m not basically changing my plans for the next few years, I’m just shuffling the time tables.
I do have some other things going on that will compete for my time. I have a five-year-old child, and my family has decided to go the homeschooling route, so that will help keep me busy. Indeed, I also recently started the IndySchooler.com web site to discuss this homeschooling journey. I still plan to regularly post to that site. However, I will scale back that project somewhat. I had planned to “front load” that site with a lot of content at the same time that I geared back up to get back to the other book project. Now I’ll take a minimalist approach to the education web site so I can spend more hours with this site.
All of my various projects do add up to something: Religion, education, politics, and culture interrelate in profound ways. So, although it might seem superficially that I’m just working on a bunch of disparate projects, I do have something like a master plan. (Readers are welcome to check out my “about” page at AriArmstrong.com for more information about my work.)
I expect I’m in for some tough competition with respect to Cowen’s prize. I sincerely hope that Cowen finds dozens of other sites more worthy of an award, as that will mean that the “Liberalism 2.0” project is off to a good start. I’d love to have the hundred grand, sure; it would make a big difference to my family. But we’re doing well enough—indeed, I feel extremely fortunate that we’ve been able to weather the pandemic fairly well. Many people have lost their jobs, their businesses, their homes this year. What really matters to me is that my son is able to grow up in an increasingly free, peaceful, and prosperous world. I appreciate Cowen for pushing hard toward that world. And I want to be able to explain to my son, when he’s older, what I did to try to help.
I’m not sure who’s putting in for the prize. I think 200-Proof Liberals is recent enough to qualify. I suspect the Works in Progress crew may want to be in the running.
A few thoughts about Cowen’s challenge: Quite a few people posted negative comments to his post, such as this one: “The rationalist blogosphere [which Cowen referenced] is overrated, overblown hype.” I do think there’s a question about whether Cowen’s efforts actually will bring more quality people into the mix. After all, aren’t the best people to work on this already busy doing it? But I think Cowen’s prize might give some people just a little extra motivation to get going. It is, after all, a marginal revolution. Really it’s the idea that matters more than the money. Once I asked the question, “Given I’m so worried about the future of the country, why shouldn’t I swap my schedule around to work more squarely on cultural and political matters?”—I found I didn’t have a very good answer to it. So I shifted gears. I think Cowen’s challenge probably will have a similar effect on others. And I do think that Cowen was clever to guarantee $100,000 but offer as much as $600,000; he is hedging his bets.
Reading the comments on Cowen’s post convinced me that I definitely don’t want to allow standard web comments here. Sure, some of the comments were interesting. But some of the people leaving comments were, bluntly, just being assholes. And that is typical of web comments nearly wherever I look. I do welcome comments. If you have something serious to add, and you’re willing to be civil about it, please email me, and I’ll publish your comment manually. I wish more people would moderate comments more tightly.
So what are the sorts of things I want to write about here? I’ve already given some indication of where I see some of the interesting debates. Basically, I want to explore both the theoretical basis of liberalism and practical problems of the day. So, for example, even before I saw Diana Fleischman’s new article on veganism, I had been planning to write up more about animal welfare (and now I’ll discuss her article too). My list of topics includes the politics of Donald Trump, the government’s pandemic response, the fuzzy boundaries of property rights, Marxism, nationalism, “public reason,” and more.
A brief aside: Recently I learned that back in 1991 George H. W. Bush used the phrase “contours of liberty” in reference to Hayek’s work. It’s a cool phrase. As I’ve said, I’ve had it in my back pocket for years.
I hope you’ll join my email list for updates and check back for new articles.
I believe that “we,” those who value human liberty and prosperity, have a lot of work ahead of us—and that we can help move the world in a better direction. So I welcome Cowen’s push.