Capitalism and More

One must, I think, move in fairly rarefied libertarian circles to think that capitalism is over-defended. I also think that pleas of poverty on behalf of academics are overstated. Academics make less than people who make a lot, but they make more than most Americans, for work that is pleasant, interesting, and largely free from annoying, Dilbertesque crap.

That said, I think it’s worth looking at where we’re going instead of arguing about capitalism, something that seems unnecessary when blogging under the aegis of Cato.

Indeed, one of the themes of my forthcoming book, An Army of Davids, is that technology and markets are blurring the old distinctions: We’re likely to achieve worker control of the means of production not because of anti-capitalists, but because capitalism has made many tools so cheap that anyone can afford them. Right now we’re seeing that effect mostly in areas dominated by information — music, journalism, video, etc. — but as Neal Gershenfeld notes, we’re heading toward a revolution in personal manufacturing, too. (Developments like nanotechnology are likely to accelerate that.)

The Internet will accelerate this change, of course, as it has accelerated the earlier ones. With rapid collaboration and near-instant prototyping, we’ll see learning curves grow much steeper, with global wealth accelerating dramatically. Unless, that is, efforts to channelize the Internet, or tools for censorship developed by U.S. corporations in cooperation with the Chinese government come into wider play.

Indeed, this whole discussion reminds me of this statement:

Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded—here and there, now and then—are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.

This is known as “bad luck.”

With the Internet explosion, the minority—though still a minority—is no longer “tiny.” This may turn out to be very significant. Or I may turn out to be too optimistic.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In our techno-Utopian dreams, the advance of the internet is “a little like a cross between Adam Smith and Albert Einstein; the Invisible Hand accelerating toward the speed of light,” says tech visionary Jaron Lanier in this month’s big-thinking lead essay. Yet, according to Lanier, we chug along saddled by the illusion that the Internet is mainly a technological rather than a cultural phenomenon. Software, Lanier argues, is “brittle” and can continue to function only when backed by what he calls “Antigoras”– “privately owned digital meeting arenas made rich by unpaid or marginally paid labor … tweaking the global system of digital devices so that the bits in the various pieces of software remain functional and meaningful.” Antigoras are indispensable, but “if software stays brittle,” Lanier says, “there will be a huge dampening effect on any hyper-speed takeoff plans of the digital elite.” Takeoff velocity requires a reorientation that acknowledges that the “the Net is precisely the generosity and warmth of humanity connecting with itself.”

Response Essays

  • Open source software guru Eric S. Raymond takes issue with Lanier’s characterization of “lock-in,” his antipathy to the command line, and his discussion of ambiguity. Raymond claims that if Lanier’s point was just that the Internet is “a conduit of expression between people,” then he would stop in agreement. But, he writes, “the actual point seems to be to maintain an opposition between capitalism and (gift) culture that I think is … mistaken.”

  • Glenn Reynolds — taking pieces from both Lanier and Raymond — argues that small proprietary zones within the big open Internet — “semigoras” in Lanier’s terms — might prove “very fertile places for innovation and growth on the Internet” with the potential to empower individuals and small groups to “achieve the worker’s paradise” through technology and markets.

  • Ten years after his “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” John Perry Barlow insists that “the Internet continues to be an anti-sovereign social space, endowing billions with capacities for free expression that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.” A liberating future is still ahead, Barlow argues, but we must be on guard against a deep fact of both biology and markets: “New success inspires creativity. Old success tries to kill it.”