How to Spend a Million Dollars to Promote Liberty
Some time back, a successful libertarian of my acquaintance asked me to suggest ways of spending money to promote libertarianism. It's a harder problem than it might at first seem. Many, perhaps most, activities that promote liberty, such as writing a successful and persuasive book or starting a firm that provides a substitute for some government service, work without a subsidy if they work at all. And subsidizing a set of ideas creates what I described in a post some time ago as the rice Christian problem. If you make generous scholarships available to libertarian students, you risk attracting students whose commitment is more to the scholarship than to the ideas, increasing the number of professed libertarians at a cost, possibly substantial, to their quality.
I discussed the question, and some possible answers, in an earlier post. I have just thought of another one.
Most of my books are currently available for free online as well as in hardcopy from Amazon. I do it that way, almost whenever my publisher will let me, because I write books not primarily as a source of income but as a way of spreading ideas. Making a book available online not only means that anyone who wants to read it and is willing to do so off a screen can read it for free, it also means that people who do not know the book exists may find it while looking for something else. The web is a tolerable technology for selling information but a magnificent technology for giving it away. Making my books available for free online might increase my income, either because people find a book online and then buy a copy or in less direct ways, or decrease it. It surely increases the number of people who read them.
I have just finished reading Ethical Intuitionism by Michael Huemer, a libertarian philosopher. It's an interesting and important book, but not a libertarian book, since the subject is not what ethical views are correct but what the nature of ethical views is, what it means to say I should or should not do something and how one knows what one should or should not do. Its argument could be used by a socialist to defend socialist ethics as readily as by a libertarian to defend libertarian ethics.
The author has a more recent book of which that is not true, one that argues against the claim that the state has some special authority that we should respect. I have considered buying it—my university library does not have a copy—but have not so far done so. The book, in paperback or Kindle, costs more than thirty dollars. I am not sure it is worth the cost, in time and money, to read an argument for a conclusion I already agree with, even if written by an author I think well of.
Which gets me to my idea. Suppose a well-off libertarian compiles a list of a hundred books that do a good job of promoting libertarian ideas and are not currently available online, goes to the publishers and offers to buy the online rights. Most books, including most books about ideas, do not make all that much money, so my guess is that a publisher should be willing to sell the online rights for ten thousand dollars, perhaps less. A few will be books that were or are best sellers, and their rights might be expensive—but those are books that most curious readers can probably find in the local library, so although webbing them would be useful, it would not be as useful as webbing less successful books. Cross them off the list and replace them with a few less expensive ones. Total cost a million dollars.
The project also requires a libertarian lawyer willing to volunteer his time to negotiate the purchases and a libertarian web designer willing to web the books, perhaps with the assistance of a few more libertarians willing to scan them. Libertarian lawyers and libertarian web designers exist—I've even gotten offers from some of the latter to redesign my somewhat out of date web site for free. And putting a hundred such books on the web should significantly increase both the number of people who become convinced by libertarian arguments and the quality of the arguments of those already convinced.