Libertarianism, Creativity and Silicon Valley

== Can Silicon Valley lead us to “exit” the nation state? =

SrinivasanIn this video, techno-utopian Balaji Srinivasan, the co-founder of Counsyl, a genetic company that does DNA testing, cites Silicon Valley’s disruptive effects on newspapers and the music industry and compares this to the creation of new nations out of the husks of older states. His talk about how to “exit” from the stifling world of “paper” politics and business — centered in red tape-hampered cities like New York, Boston and Washington DC (and pay-entertainment-plexes like Hollywood) — is certainly interesting and thought provoking.  Though perhaps not in exactly the ways that he intended.

No, I’ll not counter Srinivasan with an offended rant, like this one.  I’ll merely point out that Mr. Srinivasan weaves a smugly self-congratulatory fantasy that strokes the egos of his Silicon Valley audience, bestowing upon them a deeply flattering implicit destiny as fathers of whole nations!  How convenient.  It’s called cheap-applause.

Alas, he does this without taking up his inherent burden of proof that:

– Western Enlightenment legacy nations are finished performing their historical function — defending individuals and small enterprises from the predatory savagery that the powerful always (and I mean always) used to crush and eliminate competition from those below them.  It happened in 99% of generations across 6000 years.  Adam Smith knew, described, and denounced the oligarchic-monopolistic attractor state as our worst failure mode (often called feudalism).

enablerAnd in recommending counterbalancing forces, Adam Smith pretty much invented an entirely new role for the nation state, which had formerly been merely a power tool of oligarchy. It was his basic idea of the state as enabler of the individual that the American Founders implemented — imperfectly, but well enough for the dream to stay alive and take root.

From the Founders’ first act of radicalism — the breakup and redistribution of British lordly estates — to the populism of Jackson, to the shattering of slavery to the freedom of movement engendered by railroads… all the way to anti-trust enforcement and civil rights… there have been vastly more uses of government tools that removed shackles from average folk than those that today’s libertarians obsess upon and denounce as limiting. And if they disagree? Fine… then show us how things were better under feudalism and tribalism.

Alas, the recent generation of libertarians — like Mr. Srinivasan — though blatantly sure of their erudition, clearly know nothing of any of this. They have never read Smith.  They actually believe that, without the legacy state that coddled them, they would bestride the freed-anarchic world like collossi! Like Howard Roark and John Galt. Instead of quickly becoming cannon fodder for lordly wars. Or eunuchs. Or nerd-flavored dog food.

==  And further burdens of proof … ==

– While implying that his goal is the romantic-transcendentalist dream of escaping obligations to any legacy state (in this case the USA, which he compares amid peals of derisive laughter to Microsoft — (a severe calumny in Silicon Valley!) — Mr. Srinivasan then describes a series of micro “exit” tactics that do not constitute “exit” from America at all!  All of his examples boil down to no more than exercises in the kind of freedom that Srinivasan and his peers already have, sheltered and nurtured and encouraged by the legacy nation that he — like an ungrateful, neotenous teenager — openly reviles.  A freedom to experiment that MADE Silicon Valley in the first place….

– … and that drew his parents and my grandparents and so many other immigrants to these continental shores, in the first place.  Um, what would Occam’s Razor make of all this?

libertariansOh, don’t get me wrong.  I am all in favor of experiments in decentralization! Along with ever-rising individual and small-endeavor autonomy! I said as much in critiquing and appraising (60% favorably) Peter Thiel’s eagerness to create new nation-state entities at sea. (Alas, he got miffed that I – in a helpful spirit – pointed out some inconvenient complexities that would need solving. Sigh.)

As anyone can read in my main libertarianism tract, I too yearn for a gradual but steady movement toward the dreamt-of era that both libertarians and Karl Marx deemed their common goal — a future wherein states and paternalistic institutions have withered to mere nubs because they are no longer needed, and because all children become skilled, capable and serenely sovereign adults, ready, should they choose, to creatively compete on a level playing field. The natural outcome — ironically — if you blend Adam Smith and Gandhi with Ben Franklin and John Muir.

Hey, I want all that too!  It is the distant goal of all of my endeavors.

It would just be nice if winsome libertarian utopian transcendentalists like Mr. Srinivasan were to show even glimmering awareness of the historical struggles and innovations that led to him standing upon the convenient and lavish launching platform for his dreams.  I might then have more confidence in the credibility of his vision, and the plausibility of his design.

== Transparency Miscellany ==

Three years ago, the United Kingdom government established the so-called  “nudge unit” – also known as the Behavioural Insight Team — to apply behavioral economics to alter people’s habits without BigTransparencyregulation. Now it will take its first step to becoming a profit-making joint venture. The nudge unit has become an internationally recognized source of ideas on how to change voters’ behavior without legislation, relying upon techniques drawn from psychology and advertising, as well as common sense.  It’s not quite as Orwellian as it sounds… well, so they assure us.

As you surf, you are being tracked and that tracking data can become woven in a large web of connected sites. Now Mozilla has released a new add-on for its Firefox browser that will visualize this process as it happens, logging sites that are tracking you and how those entities are connected to other services/tools. I hope some of you will try it and report back to the comments community (below).

== Some redolent miscellany ==

And now, just because there is room, I’ll slip in some controversial-politically redolent items I had stored up.

36% of Americans ages 18 to 31 who still live with their parents. That’s the highest percentage in four decades, according to the Pew Research Institute.

Here’s a wise rumination on the famous wager that Paul Ehrlich lost to Julian Simon, regarding commodities prices in the 1990s… but in fact over two extreme positions on managing our planet.  Two positions that have both proved to be simplistic and just as wrong as they were right.  This essay suggests that pragmatic concern, investment in science and a loose but urgent set of overall goals may be key to our progress toward being world-savers.

Now that the Boy Scouts have changed their policy to welcome openly gay scouts, a new faith-based attempt to create “Trail Scouts” – with a heavy base of religious teaching – is underway.  Go thou and do your thing, says this father of two Eagles.  You could have done nothing that would help to make the Boy Scouts healthier than by the gift of your loony absence.

== More Transparency news ==

Legislation introduced by Senator Al Franken would — among other transparency measures — eliminate the gag orders that prevent phone and Internet companies from divulging the number of orders they receive demanding customer data and the number of requests with which they comply.  This is exactly the kind of reform that is needed, increasing our powers of supervision, and there is need for much more, such as making the secret, star-chamber FISA court truly adversarial, with security-cleared but skeptical advocates appointed not just by the court itself, or the security services, but by outside groups, as well.

What these bills should not do is try to actually blind the NSA and other security services.  That is a futile and self-defeating direction that will only set up reassuring fig leaves, while chasing surveillance to go find even darker, more secret places from which to operate… a game of whack-a-mole that we cannot win.

Someone has to say “we care less about what you see than what you might DO with that knowledge, if you can get away with looking at us unsupervised.  We know we will be looked-at. Let’s keep that activity in a known agency and fill that agency with our deputized “sousveillance” emissaries, who will look over your shoulders reminding you that you are watch-dogs, and not wolves.

== Ah-ooooooooh! ==

Politics-ZombiesReuters did a nice writeup on my young artist friend John Powers’s hypothesis that zombie apocalypse films are all about our middle class fears of sinking into proletarian status… but also anticipation of the sense of liberation we might feel if that proletariate then rose up and wiped out the masters. Yes, even as zombies.  I have before and elsewhere made the point that zombies are the “prop-monsters.” (Vampires are the aristocrats and lycanthrope-wolfmen are the mortgage-holding angst-ridden bourgeois, middle class monsters… or they were, before recent flicks betrayed the whole idea.)  Powers’s variant on the theme is a bit too crypto-marxist for me to avow completely.  But the notion that we have mixed feelings about the zombie metaphor, and that we’ll identify more and more with them if the oligarchic putch continues?  Yeah.  I guess that’s right.

Oh, but lest you imagine I am one of those blinkered, dogmatic fools who casts his ire in just one direction, blind to the faults of any side but those he blames for everything…  here is just another reminder that the (far) left, too, can at times be jibbering loony.  School board calls peanut butter and jelly sandwiches “racist.” Hey, dopes.

We are better than this left-right baloney. Just as transcendentalist silicon valley geeks need to be able to look down upon the foundation that their dreams were built upon.

Let’s all incrementally grow up.


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