A Little Rebellion Now and Then Is a Good Thing

Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you.

- John Perry Barlow, “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”

When it comes to politics, the left-right dimension has become nearly unrecognizable. At one extreme, a mob shouts, loots, topples, and cancels. At the other extreme, reactionaries, theocrats, and trolls cheer a strongman as his agents toss protesters into unmarked vans. The rest—the bell of the curve—picks a team and watches from the bleachers.

That is, except for the liberals:

  • We liberals have always prized voice, but the air has become more toxic to discourse.
  • We liberals have always sought exit, but right now there’s really nowhere to go.
  • We liberals have always been loyal, but to a set of ideals rather than a patch of soil.

And we are in retreat.

It feels like we’re on the front cusp of a Dark Age. The relevant political axis is liberal-authoritarian, but too few care about this distinction, if they even know what it means. Politics has degenerated. Rival gangs war over mindshare, poised to seize control of a great protection racket. That means true liberals can no longer afford to be half-hearted. Instead we have to figure out how to harness the power of exit, voice, and loyalty, or things are going to get a hell of a lot more dystopian.

In the fifty years since the publication of Albert Hirschman’s masterwork, innovators have created new recipes that realize his tripartite human algorithm: Social media offered amateurs a new kind of megaphone; cryptocurrencies offered a monetary escape hatch; network effects create grudging-but-powerful loyalties. For all the marginal technological improvements, we still haven’t quite been able to self-organize in parallel with Leviathan.

But we have to.

The Jeffersonian Fire

Adam Thierer, in the lead essay for the fiftieth anniversary of Hirschman’s book, writes:

If technological innovation can help us check governments’ worst tendencies and improve the quality of our public policies and institutions—all without resorting to radical action—then there is a strong moral case for defending it.

Maybe Thierer and I have very different conceptions of “radical action,” but I think there is a far stronger moral case for liberal radicalism than mere checks and balances. If the unprecedented levels of spending and debt weren’t enough to justify it, maybe the disquieting expansion of the police and surveillance states is a reminder that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing.”

We need more of that Jeffersonian fire.

I don’t mean that we ought to “hoist the black flag and begin slitting throats.” Nor should we run into the streets to chant slogans during a pandemic. I mean we need to be constructive revolutionaries, accelerating those innovations most likely to undermine the apparatuses of state power. We can do this by developing protocols of subversion that will have a cumulative decentralizing effect. Because with every successive generation, federal power grows. And its growth seems to be inversely proportional to Americans’ belief in liberalism.

Thierer thinks innovation should be about keeping policy “fresh” and “sensible.” The apotheosis of Thierer’s “permissionless innovation,” then, is to:

help make public officials more responsive to the people by reining in the excesses of the administrative state, making government more transparent and accountable, and ensuring that our civil rights and economic liberties are respected.

Goodness, no.

The point is not to make public officials more responsive, it’s to make them redundant. The goal is not to rein in the excesses of the administrative state, it’s to obviate it. Nor is it just to make the government more transparent and accountable, but rather to establish protocols of self-organization that make Leviathan entirely obsolete.

As complexity scientist Yaneer Bar-Yam writes,

Why should governments fail? Because leaders, whether self-appointed dictators, or elected officials, are unable to identify what policies will be good for a complex society. The unintended consequences are beyond their comprehension. Regardless of values or objectives, the outcomes are far from what they intend.

There is a solution. It is not a form of government, no “ism” or “ocracy’’ will do. It begins with widespread individual action that transforms society—a metamorphosis of social organization in which leadership no longer serves the role it has over millennia. A different type of existence will emerge, affecting all of us as individuals and enabling us to live in a complex world.

Bar-Yam sees a complexity transition in which we leave political and organizational hierarchies behind in favor of systems of decentralized teamwork. In fact, as society becomes more complex, there are really two choices before us: decentralization or collapse. 

Even if we fall short of such ambitions in our lifetimes, we have to try. Threatening violence against innocents to realize your notion of the good not only doesn’t work very well, it’s wrong. And yet authoritarianism is back in fashion. So, I at least partly agree with erstwhile liberal Peter Thiel, who in these very pages wrote “we are in a deadly race between politics and technology.”

Maybe I’ve misunderstood permissionless innovation, I thought. It turns out I had. Here’s how Thierer explains it:

For innovation and growth to blossom, entrepreneurs need a clear green light from policymakers that signals a general acceptance of risk-taking, especially risk-taking that challenges existing business models and traditional ways of doing things. We can think of this disposition as permissionless innovation and if there was one thing every policymaker could do to help advance long-term growth, it is to first commit themselves to advancing this ethic and making it the lodestar for all their future policy pronouncements and decisions. (Emphasis mine.)

Before reading the above passage, I thought surely permissionless innovation meant the kinds of innovations that geeks and dreamers could create, and the rest of us could adopt, without getting anyone’s permission. Can you imagine if Jefferson or John Perry Barlow had written “The Entreaty of Independence? If we are to sit around and wait for some authority, whose power depends on the status quo, to give us a “clear green light” to upend the status quo, there will never be meaningful, lasting social change.

The question for Thierer, then, is if there is no green light, what happens? So let’s get beyond “permissionless innovation.” What I have in mind is a little more radical.

Subversive Innovation

Maybe I’m just getting impatient in my old age, but whether one desires fresh, sensible policy or bold experiments in human self-organization, we’re getting too little of either. What we’re getting instead is an unhealthy excess of voice, too few opportunities to exit, and a whole lot of misguided loyalty to two parties who care only about having power. Our neglected liberal order has become dry kindling between two extremist groups—one with tiki torches and the other with Molotov cocktails. Staring down $24 trillion debt, and much more in unfunded liabilities, we could be less than a decade from either collapse or civil war.

We need a different kind of revolution.

We can no longer labor under the sentimental notions of “voice” such as voter enfranchisement and public service. We should all know our public choice by now. Even if most voters had a sense of history, restraint, or civic consciousness, representative government would still be a mirage. To the extent elections do reflect voter preferences, these amount to an incoherent blur. Too many voters now have a greater appetite for tribal domination. Which leads me to wonder why any liberal would want to “make public officials more responsive,” as if all we are talking about is fixing potholes or shortening the line at the DMV.

When it comes to subversive innovation, we seem to be stuck on the same old examples: Uber. Airbnb. Bitcoin. That was a good start, but we need a tidal wave of novelty. New tools. New rules. Simple, accessible and ready for mass adoption. These innovations will create new institutional forms and communities of practice into which millions of adopters can flow—especially if things keep going downhill. If a critical mass of constituencies adopt these innovations, we have a prayer of inverting the process of concentrated benefits, dispersed costs. We can’t forget voice or loyalty, of course. But we need to invest a lot more in exit.


The best way to honor Hirschman’s work, then, is to think of it more as a manual. Like the rest of our liberalism, we must take what is now perceived as a rather bloodless set of maxims and rules and transform these into active practices. We can’t afford to wait around for authoritarian mind viruses to recede with the electoral tides. We must engage not in overthrow, but in “underthrow,” which requires more than tut tutting on social media. Otherwise the thumbs under which we already live will become unbearably heavy, as they have for the people of Hong Kong.

Every innovation is an act of subversion”, I wrote in my book The Social Singularity:

Just before Satoshi Nakamoto published his 2008 white paper on the rudiments of Bitcoin, it must have been a bit like holding a lit match over dry forest underbrush. Did he linger for a moment before hitting enter?

Maybe in that moment he closed his eyes and saw flashes from the future: of a thousand pimply geeks becoming millionaires overnight. Of Ross Ulbricht, Silk Road’s Dread Pirate Roberts, being led away in handcuffs. Of mutant strains, copycats, forks, and tokens competing in an entire ecosystem of cryptocurrencies as in a digital coral reef. Of booms and busts and troughs of disillusionment.

We don’t know. But we do know one thing about Satoshi Nakamoto: he hit enter.

Satoshi Nakamoto was a radical. The bitcoin white paper is exit, voice, and loyalty in one: the blueprints to escape our imposed systems of central banking (exit); nine pages of pure cypherpunk expression that inspired an army of coders (voice), and an implicit commitment to liberalism, that cosmopolitan ideal enshrined in the Bill of Rights (loyalty).

We need more Satoshis.

Practice Liberalism

So how can we turn exit, voice, and loyalty into active practices?

Exit: It’s not enough to leave for Panama, Switzerland or Malta. It’s not enough to pay lip service to Amendments Nine and Ten. We must set about creating technologies that facilitate new markets in governance:

  • Let’s create special economic zones like Prospera, startup societies, even parallel jurisdictions of “cloud governance.”
  • Let’s build new systems of schooling, healthcare, and mutual aid, many of which will be decoupled from territory.
  • Let’s create new power-shifted systems of corporate management and governance like Holacracy, including dynamic equity shares and cooperative ownership structures.

In other words, we must innovate in both polycentric law and polyarchy. Because even if we cannot adopt these systems wholesale today, we want them to exist when the checks won’t cash, and a cup of coffee costs $100, and America’s own Cultural Revolution has run its course.

Voice: Voting in national elections is like yelling at two bad teams from the nosebleeds at Madison Square Garden. That is not a system worth preserving, even with blockchain voting. We are living in the era of memetic warfare, and liberalism is losing. So:

  • We have to get more creative, artful, and ennobling with our messages—not only so we can capture more mindshare, but so we can offer a spiritual home to those who are more interested in human progress than meme wars.
  • We have to bring about a great media hard fork—such as the decentralized web and social media—so that liberal voices can’t be deplatformed by government functionaries or private censors. We will have to tolerate conspiracies and offensive speech, but we can train ourselves to be more discerning and filter out the nonsense.
  • We have to insist on liberal rules of inquiry, including standards of rationality and evidence that work against authoritarian assertions—whether from critical theorists or political hacks. Otherwise, voice will continue to serve power.

There may come a day, though, when the time for talk is over.

Loyalty: July 4th is to Americans what Christmas is to Americans: an excuse to eat a lot and forget why you’re celebrating. So, we have to recommit to the ideas that animated the American founding—and build on them. This isn’t empty patriotism. It is thoughtful reflection and the cultivation of liberal virtue. Our mantra is and must always be Libertas perfundet omnia luce. (Freedom will flood all things with light.) And we have to turn this form of loyalty into new expressions of civil disobedience, nonviolent resistance, and organizational transformation. If we don’t hasten a liberal renaissance, we will find ourselves reduced to an inscription on Ozymandias’s pedestal.

A liberal renaissance is also going to require us to improve upon liberalism itself. One big reason liberalism is in decline is that it has become a rather lifeless collection of rules, some of which were written down in what used to be our social operating system. To the American Founders, these ideas had been a secular religion. Over time, though, fewer and fewer Americans venerate them. So maybe it’s time we took an Eastern turn.

Fear is the Enemy

Maybe you’ve heard the term ahimsa from the Vedic traditions. Ahimsa is the practice of nonviolence in thought, word, and deed. It requires discipline and patience. Libertarian adherents to Mill’s Harm Principle or the homelier Non-Aggression Principle will do well to look to the Buddhists and Jains who practice ahimsa because practice goes deeper than principle. Practice, after all, is a conscious and continuous commitment to right action, which can be infectious to those around you.

Though it seems contradictory, we need civility and civil disobedience at the same time. It is through such practice that we make good trouble. Ahimsa first, then satyagraha (truth force), animated Gandhi in his courageous struggles against the British Empire in India. It animated James Morris Lawson, Jr. and Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights era. And it can animate every coder, legal scholar, and organizational innovator who dares to compete with the state by offering new governance products. So by Jeffersonian fire we don’t mean refreshing the tree of liberty “with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” We mean that “Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent than the one derived from fear of punishment.”

A lot of liberals think that government is the enemy. It’s no wonder, as writer Jamie Bartlett puts it, “Nation-states rely on control.” And fear is control’s lever. But Bartlett adds:

If they can’t control information, crime, businesses, borders or the money supply, then they will cease to deliver what citizens demand of them. In the end, nation-states are nothing but agreed-upon myths: we give up certain freedoms in order to secure others.But if that transaction no longer works, and we stop agreeing on the myth, it ceases to have power over us.

Maybe our true enemy, then, is fear. It’s fear that causes us humbly to request a green light. It’s fear that keeps us from trying new things. And it’s fear that makes us submit to the urge to control. The more we lock arms in solidarity, the less afraid we’ll be. It’s time for liberals to go from being passive adherents to an abstract doctrine to being active practitioners recreating society. Our three fundamental paths are exit, voice, and loyalty.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Adam Thierer argues that innovation can help dissatisfied customers—or citizens—in two ways. First, it offers an “exit” from unsatisfactory services in either the private or public sector. And second, this strengthened form of “exit” lends its power to individuals’ “voice” as well; when disgruntled consumers can easily leave, their threats to do so mean a lot more.

Response Essays

  • Mikayla Novak uses Albert O. Hirschman’s concepts of exit, voice, and loyalty to analyze Black Lives Matter as a social movement. She finds it a productive tool for thinking about current events and argues that Hirschman’s book holds up well even in an era of digital discontent, one quite different from the book’s own time.

  • Ilya Somin acknowledges that the digital ability to “exit” a bad governance or consumer situation is good as far as it goes, but that for some cases, it’s never going to be enough. A political or religious refugee commonly gains safety only through physically fleeing their oppressors, who control the government where they live. And even those who leave an area merely for better economic opportunities elsewhere exercise a kind of exit that can’t generally be replicated through digital substitutes.

  • Max Borders laments that liberalism is in retreat as nationalists and socialists have come to dominate American political discourse. Radical remedies are called for, and so Borders takes issue with Thierer’s concept of permissionless innovation. The point, he says, is not to make leaders more accountable; it is to make top-down leadership obsolete as a form of social organization. When that happens, the ideologies that rely on it will wither.