Tag Archives: libertarianism

Heinlein and Beyond This Horizon

Robert A. Heinlein was a question-asker.

heinlein-beyond-horizonI consider Robert Heinlein’s most fascinating novel to be his prescriptive utopia Beyond This Horizon. (A prescriptive utopia is where an author “prescribes” what he or she believes a better civilization would look like.) While Heinlein did opine, extensively, about society in many books, from Starship Troopers to Glory Road, it is in Beyond This Horizon that you’ll find him clearly stating This Is The Way Things Ought To Be.

And it turns out to be a fascinating, surprisingly nuanced view of our potential future.

Like most Heinlein novels, Beyond This Horizon divides pretty evenly into two parts and it is only the second half that I hold in high regard. Heinlein wrote the first half at behest of the famed editor of Astounding Magazine, John W. Campbell, who was then holding forth on one of his favorite themes . . . that “an armed society is a polite society.”

anecdotes-historyIn pushing this strange notion, Campbell was behaving very much like his arch-nemesis, Karl Marx. A few anecdotes and a good just-so story outweigh a hundred historical counter-examples. But no matter. Heinlein did as good a job of conveying Campbell’s idea in fiction as anybody could. So much so that the first half of Beyond This Horizon has been cited by state legislators in both Texas and Florida, proposing that all citizens go around armed! Naturally, this leads (paradoxically) to a wild shoot-em-up, in the first half of Beyond This Horizon… which RAH suddenly veers away from at the midway point.

heinlein-star-beastThis division between halves is typical of Heinlein novels and it makes reading them an interesting, multi-phase experience. Generally, RAH was a master at starting his tales–in fact, I recommend that all neo writers study carefully the first few pages of any Heinlein tale, for his spectacularly effective scene-setting and establishment of point-of-view. (The opening scene of The Star Beast is the best example of show-don’t-tell that anyone can find.) Alas, most of his novels reach a vigorous climax, concluding part one… and then peter out disappointingly in the last half, amid a morass of garrulous talk.

But this is where Beyond This Horizon reverses all expectations. Sure, part one is action and part two is talk, as usual… only in this case, the action is silly and the talk is terrific! In fact, this is where Robert Heinlein displays how broad his intellectual reach can take us.

heinlein-libertarianHere we see the clearest ever expression of his political philosophy, which is demonstrably neither “fascist” nor anywhere near as conservative as some simple-minded critics might have us think.

Indeed, his famed libertarianism had limits, moderated and enriched by compassion, pragmatism and a profound faith that human beings can improve themselves, gradually, by their own diligence and goodwill.

heinlein-solutionI was amazed by many other aspects of this wonderful book-within-a-book, especially by Heinlein’s startlingly simple suggestion for how to deal with the moral quandaries of genetic engineering — what’s now called the “Heinlein Solution” — to allow couples to select which sperm and ova they want to combine into a child, but to forbid actually altering the natural human genome.

Thus, the resulting child, while “best” in many ways (free of any disease genes, etc), will still be one that the couple might have had naturally. Gradual human improvement, without any of the outrageously hubristic meddling that wise people rightfully fear. It is a proposal so insightful that biologists 40 years later are only now starting to discuss what may turn out to be Heinlein’s principal source of fame, centuries from now.

heinlein-biographyhWhen it comes to politics, his future society is, naturally, a descendant of the America Heinlein loved. But it has evolved in two directions at once. Anything having to do with human creativity, ambition or enterprise is wildly competitive and nearly unregulated. But where it comes to human needs, the situation is wholly socialistic. One character even says, in a shocked tone of voice: “Naturally food is free! What kind of people do you take us for?”

None of this fits into the dogma of Ayn Rand, whose followers have taken over the libertarian movement. If Robert Heinlein was a libertarian, it was clearly of a more subtle kind, less historically or anthropologically naive, more compassionate… and more interesting.

But here’s the crux. For the most part, with Robert Heinlein, you felt he wasn’t so much lecturing or preaching as offering to argue with you! His books let you fume and mutter and debate with this bright, cantankerous, truly American soul, long after his body expired.

writer-science-fictionAnd this joy in argument – in posing and chewing over thought experiments – is the very soul of what it means to be a writer or reader of science fiction.

Finally, for more about Heinlein, see the extensive new two-volume biography by William H. Patterson, Jr.:

Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Vol. 1 (1907 – 1948): Learning Curve., followed by volume two:

Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Vol. 2: The Man Who Learned Better, 1948 to 1988.

–David Brin



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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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Bringing back feudalism — is libertarianism an unwitting tool?

== Those helping feudalism return – unwittingly ==

ElevenQuestionR.J. Eskow – on Salon – offers “11 Questions to see if Libertarians are Hypocrites.”  And yes, most of Eskow’s posers certainly do set up some stark and thought-provoking contradictions – even hypocrisies – in the oft-touted positions held by many who today use the “L-word” to describe themselves. The article is well-worth reading and it does skewer especially those who bow in obeisance to Ayn Rand, the patron saint of resentful ingrates who want desperately to blame society for being  under-achievers. And yet…

…and yet Eskow wound up inciting the contrarian in me, with his blatant straw-manning — setting up the reader to assume that all “libertarians” are lapel-grabbing, solipsistic randians.  Moreover, indeed, he tells flagrant untruths even about randians. Elsewhere I have dissected the Cult of Ayn far more carefully, actually looking carefully at her messages on many levels. Eskow wants only a caricature and a punching bag.

He ignores, for example the randians’ admission that government should retain a monopoly on force and should be involved also in the enforcement of all contracts, not just copyright. Not entire-anarchism, indeed, it retains what’s necessary for the ultimate randian outcome — a return to feudalism — to have real teeth. Eskow should know his enemy better.

(Note that I use Eskow’s method of asking questions in what I hope is a much more neutral and thorough way, in my Questionnaire on Ideology, that encourages folks to re-examine many of their own underlying assumptions; take it if you dare!”)

In fact, Eskow ignores other strands to libertarianism that include the erudite versions of William F. Buckley and Friedrich Hayek, who denounced the randian obsession with demigods as a guaranteed route to feudalism.  Hayek, in particular, extolled a level playing field that maximizes the number of competitors and avoids a narrow ruling-owner caste. Indeed, there are some versions of libertarianism that I consider to be entirely justified  — the moderate versions offered to us by authors who range from Kurt Vonnegut to Adam Smith, from Robert Heinlein to Ray Bradbury, version under which one is willing to negotiate and see a successful State that does good and useful things by general consensus and assent, but always with an emphasis on doing good things that wind up empowering the individual to go his or her own, creative way. In other words, judging state actions (even skeptically) by a standard that is high, but allows us to work together on some valuable things that help us to then grow as we choose.

I could go on and on about that aspect of things; but instead I will simply offer a link to a far more cogent appraisal of this important thread of human political discourse, one that – alas – has been hijacked by oversimplifying fools who wind up parroting fox-fed nostrums and serve as tools for the very oligarchy that aims to tear down every remnant of freedom. (See: Maps, Models and Visions of Tomorrow.)

DefendingFreeEnterpriseIndeed, the name you’ll never hear randians mention… and alas the same holds true of the oversimplifying straw-manner Eskow… is Adam Smith, whose version of libertarianism adults still look to, from time to time.  A version that admires and promotes individualism and the stunning power of human competition, but also recognizes that competitive-creative markets and democracy and science only achieve their wondrous positive sum games when carefully regulated… the way soccer or football must be, lest the strongest just form one team and stomp every potential rival flat and then gouge out their eyes… which is exactly what winner-owner-oligarch-lords did in every human culture for 6000 years.  Till Adam Smith came along and described how to get the good outcomes without the bad.

The stealing of Adam Smith’s movement by fanatics and cynically manipulative oligarchs is not just a tragedy for the right, and for market capitalism.  It is tragic for civilization.

==  Those seeking feudalism KNOWINGLY —

Here is the fundamental political fact of our times, amid phase three of the American Civil War.  The gulf between the richest 1% of the USA and the rest of the country got to its widest level in history last year.

The top 1% of earners in the U.S. pulled in 19.3% of total household income in 2012, which is their biggest slice of total income in more than 100 years, according to a an analysis by economists at the University of California.

Also, the top 1% of earnings posted 86% real income growth between 1993 and 2000. Meanwhile, the real income growth of the bottom 99% of earnings rose 6.6%.One-Percent-Wealth

The richest Americans haven’t claimed this large of a slice of total wealth since 1927, when the group claimed 18.7%. Just before the Great Crash and Great Depression… so much for the notion that Oligarchy assures prosperity and good management.  In contrast, the flattest American society — just after FDR — featured the longest boom, the most vigorous startup entrepreneurship, the fastest-rising middle class… and all of it with labor unions and high marginal tax rates.

The penultimate irony?  That the ones complaining about this are called “anti-capitalists” when the fair and productive-creative, entrepreneurial capitalism prescribed by Adam Smith is the top VICTIM of wealth and income inequality. Across 6000 years of human history, the enemy of open markets and freedom was always owner-oligarchy. The blame for this can be spread widely! Those liberals who ignore the “first liberal” Adam Smith are almost as foolish as the dullard right wingers who are helping to restore feudalism.

Book-Review-The-Greatest-Generation-by-Tom-BrokawThe greatest irony?  The people who are bringing all of this about claim to adore the “Greatest Generation” – our parents and grandparents who overcame the Depression and crushed Hitler and contained communism and started a hugely successful worldwide boom under protection of the American Pax… and got us to the moon and invented so many cool things that we got rich enough to go on a buying spree that made every export driven nation prosperous.

Funny thing.  That Greatest Generation adored Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the flat-but-dynamically entrepreneurial society that he and they built together.  Oh, but they were the fools and Rupert Murdoch knows so… so much better.

== So what is to be done? ==

BringBackFeudalismLeft-wingers who blame “capitalism” for our recent messes should replace the word with “cheaters.”  At risk of belaboring a point that must be reiterated because people keep blinking past it: I consider healthy “Smithian” capitalism to be one of the top five VICTIMS of the malignantly incompetent rule of the recent US GOP.  There are no outcome metrics of national health under which the Republican Party’s tenure in command did not wreak harm on the people of the United States, especially upon the middle class, upon human civilization and upon healthy capitalism… and the spinning ghosts of Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley.

So let’s try some simple reforms.  Fierce measures to stop interlocking directorships and the circle-jerk of 5000 golf buddies appointing each other onto each others’ boards, then voting each other staggering “wages” –  it is a criminal conspiracy that not only has stolen billions but runs diametrically opposite to the entire notion of competitive enterprise.

1- If capitalism works, then these high CEO wages should be attracting brilliant talent from elsewhere, till demand meets supply and the wages fall.  They are in effect calling themselves irreplaceable “mutant geniuses” like NBA basketball players… only with this blatant rub. The top NBA players are fiercely measured by statistics!  The mutant-good CEOs are only “good” by the flimsiest of arm-waving by… their pals.

2- Critics of socialism cite Hayek and proclaim that, no matter how smart a set of top-down allocators are, they will be foolish simply because their numbers are few.  Now it happens that I agree! History does show that narrow castes of “allocators” do inevitably perform poorly. (The Chinese have done well… so far… but at spectacular environmental cost and corruption. And we know the inevitable end-game.)

So, how are 5,000 conniving, back-room-dealing, circle-jerking, self-interested golf buddies intrinsically better allocators than say 500,000 skilled, educated, closely-watched and reciprocally competitive civil servants?  Both groups suffer from delusional in-group-think.  But the smaller clade – more secretive, self-serving, inward-looking and uncriticized – is inherently more likely to fail.  Claiming that they are better allocators because they are “private” and secretively collusive is just religious litany, refuted by 6000 years of horrific oligarchic rule.

Return-To-CapitalismWe deserve and should demand a return to a capitalism that is more about creative-new goods and services than manipulation of imaginary financial “assets.” Colluding cartels, like the caste of 5,000 CEO-director golf buddies must be broken up.  If you are a senior officer of a company, you should be disallowed to sit on any boards, anywhere, for anything. And anti-trust laws that served our parents well should resume being enforced.

LawrenceLessigTEDThere are dozens of other possible reforms, especially Lawrence Lessig’s proposals to get the tsunamis of money out of politics and my own judo approaches to getting around gerrymandering.  But above all we need to MINISTER to our libertarian cousins, calmly drawing them away from Mad Ayn and back to Solid Adam, getting them to realise that capitalism is not being helped by the rising oligarchs. It is being killed by them. Libertarians should re-enlist in the League of Adam Smith, and help restore the system to health, lest socialism rise again.  As it surely will, if this goes on.

== The central battleground – the War on Science ==

Adam Frank, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester, offers a moving missive about  how his long career never prepared him for a 21st Century in which so many of his fellow citizens are actively hostile to science.  He winds up agreeing with my own conclusion, that his is not normal give and take, but something akin to civil war, and that pro-science part of our civilization must take on the responsibility of militancy against waves of roomy-cynical nostalgia… and not all of it from the mad right.

And… because this is the central battle field of culture war…

== Blues & Greens – waking up and getting active ==

UnknownNext Step in Climate Change Activism, a Cross Country March! Six months from now, 1,000 people will set out from Los Angeles to walk 2,980 miles across America to Washington, DC, on the Great March for Climate Action.  The march will inspire and motivate average people to pressure political and business leaders to act now to address the climate crisis. The GMCA will be the largest coast-to-coast march in U.S. history.

As we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom we are reminded that all movements must reach a moment of critical mass, when the call for change becomes powerful enough to shift public policy. We believe the size and scope of the Great March for Climate Action will be a vital next step. The March will start in Los Angeles on March 1, 2014, reach Phoenix in early April, Denver in early June, Omaha in late July, Chicago in early September, Pittsburgh in October and Washington DC on November 1. Marchers will walk 14-15 miles per day and camp in a mobile green village which will demonstrate sustainable technologies to feed and provide support services for the marchers.

Hey, we can only accomplish so much wrangling at this extreme intellectual end of things. There comes a point (as the French aristocrats learned after their dismal greed and obstinacy) when this goes down to the countryside.  To the streets.

                    Politics for the Twenty-first Century

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Santorum Part III: The ironic winners, if he prevails

Okay, we’ve had a brief survey of our generation’s would-be Nehemiah Scudder. Just last week’s short list  of recent “Santor-isms” was enough to give any modern or compassionate or sane person the creepy heebie-jeebies. Do you doubt that I could go on and on?

Scary?  Sure. Can one envision the outcome, if a guy like this who wants “fire in the sky” and an end to the United States (all of it implicit in his prayed-for Book of Revelation End Times) ever gets his hands on nukes? Does he distill the terrified, future-shocked rage of those imbibing Culture War, making clear that this truly is Phase Three of the American Civil War?

(See  a much more detailed, though somewhat more partisan, litany of Rick Santorum’s astonishing views: Agenda for the Dark Ages. I say “more partisan” because my complaints about Rick have very little to do with old-fashioned “left-vs-right.)

“Oh, don’t worry,” our sincere “moderate Republican” friends tell us.  “Romney will get the nomination. And Mitt doesn’t mean all the extremist, red-meat, never compromise, worship the rich crap he has to shout, in order to appease the base and get nominated.  As soon as he clinches it – the very second that he has the nomination locked-up – Mitt will charge for the center as quick as a cat!”

Yep, that is what they are saying. And it’s a measure of how deep the moderate GOP “ostriches” have to stick their heads into a pit of rationalizations, that all that sounds like a goooood thing to them.  In my last installment, I explained how they are right about this, because it fits the nominating pattern that the GOP follows perfectly. And it is still depressing as all get out.

But for the moment, let’s ponder a different path. What might be some unforeseen consequences if the True Conservative were to come out on top with the GOP nomination, handing it to Honest Rick Santorum.

== There would be silver linings! ==

Well, it could offer hope to guys like me  – (moderates with a strong Adam-Smithian streak, who dream of a return to Yankee-style pragmatic politics) – that a Santorum nomination might be the long awaited Last Straw.

Oh, what if! Suppose those millions of good, decent “ostrich” conservatives are capable – at long last – of recognizing and admitting how thoroughly their once-noble movement has been hijacked by cynical oligarchs and outright crazy-people. If anything could ever achieve that miraculous psychological breakthrough, then putting Santorum at the GOP helm ought to do it. At long last.

Some are calling it the GOP’s “McGovern Moment,”   but I look even farther back in time, to 1947, the year that democrats and liberals gathered the courage to separate from their own, in-house crazies. (And the left DOES contain those! In far smaller numbers now, than today’s right, but  lefty-loons do exist.) I call it the Miracle of ’47. You should look it up.

Oh, but will personality trump common sense yet again?  So far a single mantra has worked for conservative ostriches to keep them allied with monsters — “Yes, my side has gone nuts, but Democrats are just as bad or worse!”  Will that crazy, fact-free chant finally fall apart? Indeed, maybe those millions will start to remember adults like Buckley and Goldwater and finally decide — after November’s trouncing — to stand up and retake their movement. Reforging an adult conservatism that America needs, for balance.

From hard experience, I won’t hold my breath.

== The real winners in a Santorum nomination? Libertarians! ==

Oh, oh, but the GOP tent holds yet another group that’s exercising utter denial. I must now must turn and speak to my poor libertarian friends.

All right, your infatuation with Ron Paul has been fun.  And yes, I find him both admirable in some ways and spot-on when it comes to certain issues. But he has not been good for your movement.

Honestly. Do you expect Paul to change the GOP from within?  Or to affect at all the ongoing oligarchic putsch, combined with bedroom policing “social” hysteria?

The Paul Phenomenon only feeds a loony delusion that the GOP is somehow your “hold the nose” second-best choice. That somehow, in some twilight zone universe, the democrats are… worse?  A crazy idea if you actually list policies that might get negotiated with one major party or the other.

But here’s another thing that Libertarians ought to be pondering, right now: If, by some amazing twist, Rick Santorum actually gets the Republican nomination, then this will be the year that the Libertarian Party finally gets more than 1% of the national vote!

In fact, there will be a flood of liberty-minded refugees fleeing to the LP. A tsunami the likes of which you’ve never seen before. Who knows? If that surge waxed high enough in the polls, the LP candidate might even get in on a debate or two! Hey, it happened for Ross Perot in 92!

Am I off base here?  Just look at how many of Ron Paul’s supporters find they cannot stomach anyone else on the GOP side. “While other GOP presidential candidates have seen their fortunes wax and wane with voters, Ron Paul has enjoyed steadfast, if relatively low level, support from an obsessively loyal base of backers. But if his long-shot bid falls short, his supporters may balk at throwing their votes to a rival.”  

For that reason, ironically, it seems logical that libertarians in Michigan and Arizona should right now ponder voting Santorum! Forget nostalgia for Ron Paul. That love affair was sweet but it’s not gonna change anything if it leads to Romney and another 1% year for the LP. On the other hand, a GOP that finally ends the hypocrisy and confesses what it has become? A GOP that finally drives out freedom lovers?

That could transform everything. I salivate for the day when the Libertarian Party rises to replace the GOP as the main one opposing the democrats, arguing fairly and openly and sagaciously about market solutions as legitimate alternatives to state solutions.  The resulting discussions and arguments will finally contain substance!  They’ll be honest. And they won’t be about helping return us to feudal dark ages.

Think nationally. Think about the future of liberty-oriented politics.  Ron Paul has had his shot.  Now clear a path for Gary Johnson to actually get somewhere, in the fall.  Hold your nose one last time and vote… (heaven help us)… for Scudder.

== Late Addendum ==

I know this will crush some of my libertarian-romantic friends.  But have you noticed how – in the debates – Ron Paul never takes a swipe at Mitt Romney?  Always, always, he comes out swinging hard at whomever happens to be Romney’s top rival of the moment!  This is too consistent for it simply to be explained by “Mitt and Ron are friends.”

Now see this analyzed in a very very disturbing article.

Or google “Paul-Mitt Alliance”. It seems, my friends, that you may have been sold out.


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Is Libertarianism Fundamentally about Competition? Or About Property?

Some folks have heard me beat this drum. But it’s a fresh-enough thought – going to fundamentals that run deep beneath normal politics – so that I am moved to raise it yet again. In part because someone recently asked me, as author of The Transparent Society: “Can transparency and libertarianism complement each other?”

Now let’s have the simple answer first. Yes. A sane, better-focused libertarianism would be utterly compatible with transparency. In fact, it should be the very top priority.

Both Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek proclaimed that markets are healthy in direct proportion to the number of skilled and knowing player-participants. Indeed, one chief indictment against every  pre-modern economic system is that nearly all of them were based on “allocation” of resources by elites. Allocators are inherently knowledge limited and likely to be delusional, precisely because they are few.

201817627023582025_gCf0T29V_cJust to be doubly clear on that: almost all previous cultures used GAR – or Guided Allocation of Resources – as their guiding economic principle. Whether the allocation was done by kings, feudal lords, priests or communist nomenklatura, it was nearly always the same: decisions over how to invest society’s surplus, which endeavors to capitalize and which products to produce were made by a small clade of delusional elites, as wrong in their models as they were sure of them.

Starting with Adam Smith – and later fervently preached by others, including Hayek – the notion of FIBM, or Faith In Blind Markets, began to compete against GAR.  The core notion? That the mass wisdom of millions of buyers, sellers, voters and investors will tend to emphasize or reinforce better ideas and cancel or punish bad ones. Delusions – the greatest human tendency – will be quickly discovered because no longer will some narrow group be able to nurse them without question.  Hence, getting back to the original question: the more transparency – and the greater the number of participants – the more people can come up with relatively accurate models and act upon them… or acutely criticize flaws in the models of others.

But let’s extend that thought and ask an even more general question.

Isn’t libertarianism fundamentally an appreciation of competition?

CoreEnlightenmentThink about all the core enlightenment processes — entrepreneurial markets, science, democracy and justice. Each of these modern systems produce the modern miracle of positive-sum games… creating win-win scenarios for everybody. The famous rising tide that lifts all boats.

Now sure, there’s a lot more involved than just competition! There are many cooperative or consensus or even moral aspects… read Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments, to see that “competition” does not mean “cut-throat” or the brutal image of social darwinism. Many of today’s libertarians oversimplify, especially the followers of Ayn Rand.

Nevertheless, it is wholly right and proper for a libertarian to emphasize and focus on one main feature of these positive sum processes. The fact that they all arise by harnessing and encouraging fair rivalry among human beings. So let me reiterate.

Competition is the great creative force of the universe.

That’s proved. Competition produced all of nature’s evolutionary marvels… and us.  By far the most successful human enterprise – science – is an inherently competitive process and scientists tend, by personality, to be extremely assertive in going after rivals.  Moreover the arts, supposedly our “highest” endeavors, are inherently – often ferociously – competitive, even when they are lecturing us about cooperation!  And yes, in professing this vast generalization you can see the libertarian in me – (despite my deep disdain for Ayn Rand.)

But the sane libertarian also knows that competition – in nature and primitive human societies – contains an inherent contradiction. A runaway process of self-destruction that historically always led (and I do mean always) to calamity…

Wealth-of-Nations…to the winner turning around and cheating! Victors in ancient combat were never content with incremental or partial success in war. Can you picture the victorious helping their adversaries to their feet and welcoming them to come back to another equal fight the following year? It was human nature, rather, to destroy opponents. The battlefield may have made you great, but you do not want to return there again and again for an endless series of even matches!

Think. In order to have maximum creative output, competition has to go on and on, maximizing innovative aspects and minimizing blood. The clearest example of transforming destruction into endlessly vigorous competition may be the ritualized combat systems called rule-based sports.

Nor is this just about war. Adam Smith saw what had happened in markets and societies for 4000 years. Winners in capitalism tend not to be satisfied with success in the latest market battle, with a cool product or in achieving recent financial or political success. Human nature propels us to use our recent victory to ensure that competitors will fail in future struggles. To bias the next competition. Or to stomp our defeated competitors flat! To absorb their companies. Squat on patents. Create monopolies or cartels to divvy-up markets. Eliminate transparency. Spy on competitors but keep them – and consumers in the dark. Capture regulators and make them work for us. Capture politicians and make the laws favor us.

Suppose that I become rich and powerful. What will I do, if I am one of the 99% who let human nature play out? Then I’ll use wealth and power to game the system so new competitors won’t challenge me! If you deny this, you’re just being silly. It was the way of oligarchy, in 99% of human cultures. The top priority of the owner-lords in all those nations was one distilled goal – to prevent bright sons of the the peasant class from competing fairly with the children of the rich. Admit it. Go ahead, choose a random decade across the last 60 millennia, in some random locale that had metals. And tell me this wasn’t the pattern.

And it worked. It’s in our blood. We’re all descended from the harems of guys who pulled off that trick.

And here is where Adam Smith came in.  He looked around, saw all the cheating by owner-oligarchs destroying the creative effectiveness of markets.  And – in the seminal year 1776 – he called for something new.  A way to get the best, most creative-competitive juices flowing, in the largest possible variety of human beings, while preventing the old failure mode.  And it turned out there was a way.

As in rule-based sports, competition can only becoming self-sustaining… continuing to deliver its positive-sum outcomes… amid a network of transparent, fine-tuned, relentlessly scrutinized — and universally enforced — rules.

The vital importance – and difficult complexity – of “fairness”

Fair competition isn’t just a matter of morality. It is also the way to maximize competitive output, by ensuring that bright people and teams get second, third chances and so on. And creating ever-flowing opportunities for new competitors to keep arising from the population of savvy, educated and empowered folk. That kind of fairness requires rules and careful tending to ensure new competitors can and will always arise to challenge last year’s winners. And that earlier winners can’t cheat. Because… we’ve seen… they will.

the-theory-of-moral-sentimentsLet’s be plain here. The founder of both liberalism and libertarianism – Adam Smith – weighed in about both of these reasons for fairness, To him, they were equally important. All right, liberals and libertarians each emphasize different ones. Liberals talk about the moral reasons for fairness and libertarians the practical, competition-nurturing ones.  They tend to forget that – as followers of Smith – they actually want the same end result!

What they share is something deeper that both movements ought to recognize.  They want every child to hit age 21 ready and eager to join the rivalry of work, skill and ideas.

Liberals should recall that fair competition is the driver, the engine of our cornucopia. The source of the wealth that made social progress possible. And libertarians need to pause, amid their dogmatic, “FDR-was-Satan” incantations, and recall that the word “fair” is the only thing that can make competition last.

Ironically, government can play a role there, if carefully watched. e.g. by ensuring that all poor kids get the care and education needed to become adult competitors! By ensuring that social status – whether poor or hyper-privileged – is never the prime determinant of success or failure. In other words, a sane libertarian who loves competition does not scream “Socialism!” at every state intervention. Instead, that grownup libertarian calmly judges every intervention by one standard.

“Will this help to increase the number of skilled, vigorous competitors?”

And by that standard, suddenly, liberals and libertarians have something to discuss.  Without a scintilla of doubt, measures for civil rights, sanitation and public health, infrastructure, childhood health care  and… yes… the vast increases in literacy wrought by public education… vastly increased the number of citizens capable of independent engagement in markets and innovative goods and services.

Sure, we are finding flaws in our schools! But that judgment (let’s remember) is from the higher plateau of expectations and desires that public education created!  It is only because we achieved 99% literacy that – suddenly – 99% literacy is no longer anywhere near enough. Is it time to bring market tools and competition into education?  Sure. Probably. And I am willing to discuss the assertion that teachers’ unions have “become a cartel.”  Still, when criticism turns into willful dogmatism, a failure to acknowledge the accomplishments and effectiveness of mass society – brought into effect by government, exactly as demanded by Adam Smith(!) – well that’s churlish ingratitude and hardly a basis for saying “let’s move on to something better.”

And there are things government should not do!  Some well-intentioned things that stymie competitive creativity, instead of enhancing it.  “Equalizing all outcomes.  is socialism and I am not on that boat!  But maximizing the number of skilled and ready competitors is a different goal and I am here to hold that conversation. You may be surprised how many liberals and moderates will be willing to discuss it (and occasionally vote libertarian) if you make that the issue, instead of “FDR-was-Satan!”

A Movement based on LOVE of something, not HATE…

Sorry, but this needs to be hammered home, so let me repeat it. Screeching an incantation that government inherently suppresses competition is pure religious cant, disproved by countless counter-examples, from education and public health to the vast stimulative effect of public investments in science and technology and infrastructure. Again, look at 4000 years of history. Instead of simple-minded hatred of government, be more interested in pragmatic ways to enhance creative competition. Then the movement might have the subtlety of a surgeon or mechanic, instead of the sensibility of a berserk lumberjack.  Make it about love of something, not bilious blame and hate.

So… is libertarianism consistent with transparency?

By that standard, transparency is clearly one of the most vital things that libertarians could defend. Hayek himself said that markets (and democracy and science and justice) only work when all participants know as much as possible. Absence of light is death to all four positive-sum games.

Alas, today’s libertarians are (I grieve to say it) in-effect quite mad. They worship unlimited private property, even though it was precisely the failure mode that crushed freedom in 99% of human cultures. And they rage against a system that in general resulted in vastly more wealth, freedom and more libertarians than any other.

This is a quasi-religious idolatry. It makes them complicit allies of the enemies of competition. It makes them murderers of the thing that they should love.


Filed under economy

Seasteading: Some Problems on the way to Castle Sovereign

Inspired by Ayn Rand, PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, along with Patri Friedman and others, are helping the Seasteading Institute plan a floating ‘start-up country‘ off the coast of San Francisco — built on oil-rig like platforms in international waters. Here residents will be able to live by Libertarian ideals, free of regulation, laws, and the welfare state. 

A few thoughts? I’ve been pondering this and related concepts for a very long time (see below).  The seasteading model has many aspects that need to be decrypted, in a spirit of due diligence.

Look, I say all of this not out of unfriendliness… I know Peter Thiel and Patri Friedman and a lot of their cohorts. In fact, I quite like the guys, though I think they have a romantic view of history and human nature.  Nothing wrong with that! Frankly, I don’t mind the experiment.  Heck, if they ask (and they should), I’ll even advise them.

My next novel — EXISTENCE — portrays just such a seasteading colony, in some detail. Still, there are many things to consider.

1- The core aim is to escape meddling by any modern states – mostly advanced enlightenment democracies, with their heavy taxes and regulations, while seasteader owner members will still retain full, web-accessed control of their investment portfolios and dividend incomes from those societies. This anisotropy of flow in information, income and influence may be difficult to maintain. It will be necessary to exert great influence on those democracies (the current program) since they have big navies and they influence Law of the Sea jurisprudence. 

Taking a step-back, big history perspective, the model we’re talking about here is an age-old, classic one — using one’s current high status to maintain fat channels of influence and control in one direction and money flow in the other, while preventing influence and control from going inconvenient ways.  It used to be the uncontested human norm; indeed, this aim may be woven in our genes. But in the context of enlightenment liberal democracy, it may be quite a challenge, especially given the bad press that will inherently swarm over such a project. A substantial fraction of the top U.S. monied caste will have to buy into the concept and use its sway with the same fierce effectiveness that it has in the first decade of the century.

That first decade seems to suggest bright prospects.  In addition to altering U.S. law to make it top-friendly, many in the upper castes  are already engaged in different kinds of offshoring – e.g. distributing/caching profits in Swiss-style accounts and Patagonian mega ranches. If seasteading is viewed as a variation on this theme, one can see why these smart fellows are betting with good odds. There’s no doubt that other, much bigger players are watching and offering encouragement.

(Side note: Want irony? The rising oligarchies of non-democratic nations may become crucial allies, for two reasons. First, these clades have even greater influence over their home nations than western billionaires have in theirs, perhaps enough to cause those nations to apply their legal standing in international bodies in ways that help protect autonomy for the proposed neo-sovereignties. See more on the issue of legal standing, below.

(Reciprocally, seasteads may look like good places to build backup homes, in case the status situation ever changes, back home. For both reasons, we can expect substantial developing world involvement, even if the ideas and know-how start out as pure-yankee.)

2- This business plan has to compete with an older and more reliable one: when you want an “offshore” country of your own, simply buy one that already exists. One with built-in labor pools and reliable fresh water supplies.  Of course, this isn’t as easy as it was in other eras. Latin America used to be ripe for bought caudillos.  Nowadays, you can still purchase 10,000 acre ranches and whole villages… but rising education levels help make underclasses uppity, filling them with lawyers. There’s always Burma and Benin… still, one can see why “build-your-own” starts to have appeal.

3- Now, in fairness, this may not only be an option for the rich! In my 1989 novel EARTH I portray a floating nation, composed mostly of the poor and dispossessed, taking to international waters out of desperation, led by the “Swiss Navy.”  You’ll have to read to understand the why and how. (Pretty clever, some think!) In any event, such a rabble of “SeaStaters” might be of concern to the more elevated SeaSteaders, for reasons we’ll get to.

4- The ocean is a harsh and dangerous environment. Corrosive to metal and other parts. Your shiny paradise soon looks like Waterworld. This is non-trivial in so many ways. Especially in an era when most of the intellectual castes you need for solving the problem – from scientists to engineers to … well, every other professional clade… are turning hostile to the Randian message. (Name one of them that isn’t under relentless attack by the murdochian branch of the press. Name even one.) 

This new state must be high tech and relentlessly maintained by skilled labor, so finding a way to bridge the growing memic divide will be essential. Instead of offending or waging war on professional castes, getting the “boffins” to buy in will take subtle understanding, and psychology. Still, history suggests that it’s inevitable. For example, read up on how Machiavelli and Galileo — originally populist radicals — became willing servants of their oligarchs.  In EXISTENCE, I portray some of the advanced techniques, arguments and buy-ins that may solve the “boffin gap” in coming decades.

5- A related matter. When you are at sea, facing nature’s full brunt, including typhoons and corrosion and threats of all kinds, the daily details of running the place will be neither anarchic nor democratic.  There will be a captaincy… though it possibly might be AI-based in order to be neutral.  Nevertheless, if 6000 years of seafaring history is any judge, there’ll be a captain.

Now, there is potential compatibility with libertarian values! Commercial vessels have long distinguished between the policy authority of owners and the tactical supremacy of the captain. The former can fire the latter, any time they like. Under whatever covenant or constitution they set up, the owners of a SeaStead will have Locke’s recourse of rebellion against the authority they allocate. Still I wager it will wind up being more complicated, onerous and problematic than they now envision.

6- Clearly there is a shortcut through all the red tape and other dangers. I portray it in EXISTENCE. That trick is to forge alliances with already-existing small, island states. Places like Tonga, Vanuatu, etc are currently terrified of being literally wiped off the map by rising seas. What I show in the novel is an alliance with rich seasteaders that allows them to build their initial pillared paradises on land that is currently relatively dry and already sovereign.

What do the islanders get, in return? Why, the promise of participation – indeed, continued “existence” – as their reefs and beaches gradually drown! Buy the novel (coming in June) to see it illustrated.

7- But let’s return to the SeaSteads that start de novo, on some submerged sea mount or patch of open sea. Here’s a crucial question.

If you reject the democracies, then will you call them for help, when an armed gang comes to simply take over your sovereign land, by right of conquest?  Perhaps with the fig leaf excuse of a “revolution” of the proletariat of sub minimum wage servants? Or else rationalizing that strength, cunning and will are the only righteous justifications required? (Ayn Rand personally repudiated violence; but those who espouse her core principle don’t always agree with that part.) A Sea State of refugees is the least of many sources of such danger.  

Whatever defensive arrangements you’ve made – there is always some combination of force and cleverness and treachery that can overcome it.  So plan well! Then subject the plan to critique.

8- Otoh the whole thing might be done with superb skill. If all concerns, including environmental ones, are solved (these are clever fellows, after all) we might very well see not only the rise of several dozen unique sovereignties but also wondrous spinoffs — subsidized technological developments that could benefit us all — as I portray in that coming novel.

Piece of advice? Instead of emphasizing the tax-avoidance aspect (a meme which I predict will bite its promoters back, very hard, in the near future), I’d rather see the emphasis be on freedom to do social experiments.  Feminist enclaves?  Polygamous or polyamorous paradise? A haven for drug experimentation? For genetic self-mod or for bureaucracy-minimized space launch? A place of self-exile for sex-offenders? A MYOB festival? Hey, these things will resonate with public opinion, helping build support. Diversity is the thing, right?

I admit I am less keen on aspects that simply replicate the feudal castles that all our ancestors had to look up at, on the hill… and now at sea… where the lords got to evade all accountability while holding us to our many obligations to them. I asked Patri Friedman if he realized his aim was to re-create that feudal castle… still living off proceeds from the surrounding country. He changed the subject. But isn’t that what it boils down to?

There are design elements that can solve this. Positive-sum ways to both achieve their goals and retain fealty to the overall civilization that engendered their fine lives.  I hope these fellows intend to create something cool, that combines the best elements and prevents the worst. 

CODA: The Real Reason for this venture 

Remember, these are smart fellows and they can see what you cannot. The “totally autonomous separation” thing is (as we’ve seen) just polemic. But there’s another reason I think they are doing this. Indeed, the deep-down legal subtext is never mentioned. 

They’re are doing this not in order to escape government, but because we on Planet Earth appear to be heading, inexorably, toward a world government (WG). 

Um… Brin just said… what?

Yes, I said world government (WG).  Let me explain before you… oh, too late! Well, anybody who covers his eyes and ears at this point, shouting “nah!” is simply in denial.

Look at the charts. The rate by which the international civil service (the equivalent of government “departments”) is growing in size and reach. Next see how quickly nations are accepting the legally binding authority of international tribunals, such as the World Trade Court. 

Sure, the most blatant and visible parts of a WG are slow in coming, in part because American citizens would go into screaming heebie-jeebies if we saw executive and legislative branches coalescing at the same pace. But the other two branches – the bureaucracy and courts – are taking shape with startling speed.

Elsewhere, I may explain how I see the executive and legislative aspects of WG happening faster than anyone could presently expect. And no, I’m not talking about alien invasion or some “unifying threat from the outside” or any other cliche.  It is a really surprising scenario and one that cannot conceivably be stopped. Because it falls into place trivially, even organically, over the next 30 years. No matter what Americans say. 

(Hint: it has almost nothing to do with the UN! Indeed if Americans want to have a say in the design of the coming WG, we had better start thinking about it and speaking up, instead of staying in frantic denial! Disclaimer… as an American, I feel distaste toward what is forming. Believe me, nearly all Yanks – left or right – are totally creeped out by this notion. I just have the guts to look it in the eye.)

Okay, so how do I connect these dots back to the grand plan to create artificial sovereignties at sea?  How to reconcile the surficial Seasteader mantra of autonomy from all governments, with the  fact that smart guys like Peter Thiel and his colleagues can see WG looming on the horizon?  How will Seasteading help them, in such a world? 

The answer is to be found in a phrase I highlighted earlier. Legal Standing. Because of the way that WG is forming on Planet Earth… with the judiciary and bureaucracy first and the legislature last… the chief effect is to ensure that individual humans have no legal standing before international agencies. Only sovereign nations have standing, can file suit, negotiate treaties, assert rights and privileges.

There are many aspects to this situation. For example, it is what has allowed most people – especially Americans – to pretend in their minds that everything is still “international” and not planetary.  As I said, the psychology of all this is delicate, nervous and fraught.

But here’s the crux. If they can establish a dozen or so new, sea-based national entities, to stand alongside the 200 or so that already exist, then the SeaSteaders will be in the same position as the original founders of the New York or London Stock Exchanges.

They will have inheritable or negotiable “seats” — a grandfathered position of “standing” allowing them to step up before WG bodies representing the interests of millions of clients. Large and small.

Think this is about autonomy? Or feudal privilege? Or social experimentation? Naw. These guys are smarter than that.

It’s about getting in on the ground floor of the 21st century’s great new business frontier.*

*You heard/read about it here first.  Remember that, when it is common knowledge and the way of power, a generation from now.


Filed under economy, future, society