In 2003, security analyst Bruce Schneier introduced the concept of security theater: “Security theater refers to security measures that make people feel more secure without doing anything to actually improve their security. An example: the photo ID checks that have sprung up in office buildings. No-one has ever explained why verifying that someone has a photo ID provides any actual security, but it looks like security to have a uniformed guard-for-hire looking at ID cards. Airport-security examples include the National Guard troops stationed at US airports in the months after 9/11 — their guns had no bullets. The US colour-coded system of threat levels, the pervasive harassment of photographers, and the metal detectors that are increasingly common in hotels and office buildings since the Mumbai terrorist attacks, are additional examples.”
Security theater is driven by political forces: the public demands that the government do something to provide more security. This demand is passed on to representatives, who rely on the the positive perception of voters to get re-elected. Naturally, when they are being judged on these grounds, they maximize the appearance of security rather than security itself.
Over the last few years, Keeniacs have witnessed the growth of a similar phenomenon– activism theater. Activism theater refers to activist measures that make people feel like government policy is being improved without doing anything to actually improve government policy. (Even if the goal is no government, that requires a change in government policy, from what we have today to the absence of any government action.) Examples of activism theater are the School Sucks Project “outreach” and City Hall drinking games. Both of these were billed as activism, and yet there’s no plausible mechanism through which they could have changed anything– their activism guns had no bullets.
Activism theater, like security theater, is also driven by political forces. Local libertarian activists want government policies that are more libertarian. One of the most effective ways to achieve this is to get more libertarians to move to New Hampshire.
Libertarians, in turn, are often motivated to move to New Hampshire when they recognize that serious activism is taking place here, on a scale impossible in their current state. But, like voters, they don’t have perfect information about this activism. As a result, New Hampshire activists, in many cases (whether consciously or not), promote the appearance of activism rather than its reality.
Yet, unlike security theater, activism theater has positive effects. If, like me, you would prefer a generally more libertarian government (I say this although I have plenty of disagreements with libertarians), then some level of activism theater is a good thing.
But there’s a tradeoff. While activism theater may fool some out-of-state libertarians, many New Hampshire residents recognize it for the silliness that it is. The libertarian movement thus loses credibility with each instance of theater.
The New Hampshire libertarian movement, therefore, faces the problem of finding the optimal amount of theater. Drawing on economic reasoning, the optimal amount is reached when the benefit from attracting more movers is balanced by the negative effects from lost credibility. Any more theater than this, and we can gain by cutting out some of the theater. If there’s less theater than this, creating more will improve our situation.
Though hard data is not available on these effects, for the record, I think much of the activism in 2010 took things too far. Events like the topless celebrations and School Sucks outreach damaged libertarian credibility far more than it could have helped via new movers. These events contributed to the petty and ridiculous opposition to Andrew Carroll’s run for state representative, as well as other obstacles preventing libertarian policies.
Many activists I talk to insist on seeing this issue in black and white– depending on who you ask, all theater is either the pinnacle or the scourge of New Hampshire activism. I would like to see the libertarian movement in New Hampshire embrace economic reasoning, and make an effort to find the happy optimum. Theater is good– up to a point.