This is an open blog, owned by Carl Milsted, Jr.
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Originally published January 9, 2020
2020. A new year has arrived. A year with a zero on the end, so you know it’s important. Time to make some resolutions that count.
That means strategy. Political strategy, mainly, but the ideas herein can be used elsewhere. The insight I am about to reveal is simple, yet many activists fail to heed it. Indeed, some very famous political gurus have come up with elaborate mental constructs to prevent their followers from heeding what should be an obvious insight. Many a failure and quite a few outright disasters were the result.
Ignore those gurus! Heed the formula!
To plan, to strategize, is to determine which actions to take, and which not to take. You cannot do everything! The Simple Formula for Success is a rough rule for evaluating potential actions.
In English: Take the value, if successful, of an action, multiply by the probability of success, and then subtract the cost of action. The result is the net expected value of taking that action. If the net expected value is zero, DON’T DO IT!
Applying this simple formula won’t guarantee success in your endeavors. Estimating the probability of success and cost can be hard. And you might not even have the ability to pay the cost for bigger projects no matter how motivated. Probability of Success and Cost are coupled.
But failing to apply this formula is a near guarantee of many failures, including costly unnecessary failures.
When I was young and brash, I had the time for many failures. Now that I’m past the half century mark I have to be more small-c conservative. It’s time to apply lessons learned to the Formula. It’s time to win a few.
This is going to be at least a three part meditation. In Part 1, I shall review my career in the Libertarian Party (and why I left) in the light of this formula. In Part 2, I shall explore why people act irrationally in regard to strategy, especially when it comes to politics. Some of this irrationality is baked into our genes, and for good reason(!) In Part 3, I’ll look at ways to stay more rational in the face of uncertainty and positive feedback. I may give out some of my plans in this part, or save them for a future post. (TBD)
Back to the Formula. Figuring out what not to do is just a start. Resources are limited. So we need to ask which actions are the most promising, which have the most bang per buck. To do that, simply divide by the cost:
Now we have a formula for the Return on Effort, the Bang per Buck as it were. But do note that Cost in these formulae means more than just dollars spent. Cost also includes time, energy expended, and unpleasant experiences endured.
Once upon a time, joining the Libertarian Party was a rational act for me according to this formula. Back when I was younger and brasher, I was a full on anarchist. “Taxation is theft! War is murder! Conscription is slavery!…” Slashing or eliminating government was very, very important to me. was thus very high.
was more than infinitesimal as well. The Libertarian Party was growing quite fast during the 1970s, and party outreach materials trumpeted this fact. (Ed Crane did understand this formula!) As for cost, the cost of action was small compared to a future career living under burdensome taxation, regulation, and assorted violations of liberty.
So I joined. And I bugged everyone I could to join also. I could be quite obnoxious at the time.
Let’s dig deeper into the formula to find out why I was so unsuccessful.
In political activism there are several metrics of success. I focus here on the final two:
In college I was often calling for outright anarcho-capitalism. Most of my audience questioned the workability of my proposals. To eliminate government would indeed do away with the IRS, burdensome regulations, and a host of other injustices done by government. But what would happen next? Would we get an orderly market of private protection services? Or would we get ruled by gangs, warlords? Would protection services merge into monopoly government in all but name? Would we end up being conquered by a foreign power or suffer a civil war?
Even accepting liberty — reduction in the initiation of force — as the highest political value, the radical libertarian agenda I espoused was questionable. And because most people questioned the viability of my proposals, the probability of their implementation was reduced as well. The variables couple.
Eventually, wometime during my grad school days, I accepted the “grim” reality of . I dialed down my pitch for less government to those cuts that were not terrifying.
I even contemplated the need for a new, more realistic, libertarian party. But the party appeared to be growing up as well. LP News began downplaying the Zero Aggression Principle in favor of the Nolan Chart definition of the word “libertarian.” They appeared to be widening the tent. The Advocates for Self Government taught persuasion courses, selling a softer vision of liberty. So I stayed in.
Later, I got truly active in the party, and then pushed for doing a better job of broadening the tent. Quiz2D was born: a tool to better detect moderate libertarians. I was looking to increase both and .
But it wasn’t enough.
Politics is a group effort. When the system is democratic, we are talking very big groups, majorities even.
Not everyone shares my extreme distaste for red tape, mass incarceration, etc. They may share some of this distaste, but they hold other values more dear, and government at times serves those values.
So, starting in 2003, I diluted my libertarian extremism yet further: Holistic Politics was born. Here, I point out where increased liberty is compatible with other values such as helping the poor, Christian morality, preserving the environment, etc.
My ideas started getting traction…outside the Libertarian Party.
I also became more comfortable with my own positions. Much more compatible with my religion and my value set I held before I got the anarchist bug from reading The Moon is a Harsh Mistress in high school.
Within the party, pushback grew. After a few years and an attempt to take over the LP convention in 2006, I realized that changing the Libertarian Party to reflect my current political agenda is next to impossible, for reasons I will go into in the next part of this series.
Indeed, for over a decade I have been pretty much out of the game save for my web sites and some chatter on social media. Family and finance have taken precedence.
But with the political climate growing uglier by the month, the urge to get back into the game grows.
The formula presented here isn’t earthshaking. You probably apply it subconsciously, just as I did from time to time in the story above.
But note how long it took me to come to a rational conclusion: over two decades.
I turned off my rationality on this subject most of the time.
And I am not alone. This is par for the course in politics, especially fringe politics.
To attain audacious goals it can help to suspend rationality! The Simple Formula for Success can be very demotivating. History and great fortunes are often made by those who suspend prudence.
But the history books (and airplane books) fail to properly count the number of failures spawned by suspending rationality.
In Part 2 of this series I’ll show why people ofttimes fail to heed this Simple Formula, and the mind games used to suspend rationality.
In Part 3 I’ll explore ways to retain rationality without being paralyzed by uncertainty.
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