Having “ideas that are lying around”

There is enormous inertia—a tyranny of the status quo—in private and especially governmental arrangements. Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.1

The quote above by Milton Friedman was first brought to my attention by Vipul Naik, who posted to the Libertarian Effective Altruists Facebook group the quote, and added:

I think one of the goals of libertarian(-ish) policy advocacy, such as free trade, ending the drug war, open borders, deregulation, etc. is to create such ideas that are lying around, so that followers of more mainstream political ideologies can pick them up when a crisis (real or perceived) strikes.

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I think of sites like http://openborders.info (started by me, but with many other active participants), http://www.policemisconduct.net (no involvement from me), and the forthcoming Free Drugs website as creating that base of “ideas lying around.”

Sebastian Nickel quotes “The Idea Trap” by Bryan Caplan, which puts forth the opposite idea: that progress happens not when a crisis occurs, but when things are already going well. As Caplan concludes:

The voice of reason […] gets its most sympathetic hearing when things are running smoothly, so the public is calm enough to think rationally about how to improve on the status quo

It would be interesting to ask which of these is right, but we won’t do that here. Instead, I want to explore whether Friedman’s quote has any merit in the realm of content creation.

Some more thoughts:

This quote by Fabio Rojas:

For Open Borders, I suggest the following. There are incidents that can erode the public’s views on migration restrictions and they can be useful, but do not expect them to transform the movement. Instead, use them as short term opportunities to build a movement. Use them to bring people together who might not otherwise interact. They can also be used to gather the resources needed for more systematic action. When incidents occur, Open Borders advocates may provide the intellectual heft that can be used to bolster and support a sustained reform effort in specific places.

Here is a more defensive take from Mike Perry:

It is possible for the law and even for public opinion to turn against technology quickly, especially during a crisis where people do not have time to fully understand the effects of a particular policy on technology.

The technology industry should be prepared to counter bad policy recommendations with coherent arguments as soon as the crisis hits. This means spending time and devoting resources to testing the public’s reaction to statements and arguments about policy in focus groups, with lobbyists, and in other demographic testing scenarios, so that we know what arguments will appeal to which audiences ahead of time. It also means having media outlets, talk show hosts, and other influential people ready to back up our position. It is critical to prepare early. When a situation becomes urgent, bad policy often gets implemented quickly, simply because “something must be done”.

In other words it’s not “we should have ideas that we can force on people during a crisis” but rather “we should have ideas ready so that people don’t reach the wrong conclusions in response to a crisis”.


  1. Milton Friedman. Capitalism and Freedom: Fortieth Anniversary Edition.