Stoking the Fire

It appears our response essays have been able to rekindle a little more of the revolutionary fire in Adam Thierer. This is most welcome. The world needs that fire, and needs it to spread quickly. Still, Mr. Thierer takes issue with my position, so I’m obliged to defend myself a little and offer clarification.

First, Thierer writes:

As I noted in my opening essay, “repeated revolutionary acts… would be difficult to accomplish and certainly highly disruptive to society and economy alike.”

It depends on what sort of repeated revolutionary acts one means. Innovators disrupting industries is creative destruction. Should rideshare customers worry about the economy of taxi drivers? Should tomorrow’s creative opt-out innovations in the healthcare sector prompt concern about the supplicants of the Care-tel? Should we be worried that people moving to Prospera for a better business climate are traitors to America?

Indeed, if we could develop effective, voluntary solutions to help the poor, keep the peace, and collaborate at scale—wouldn’t we want to?

Permissionless Creative Destruction

Maybe Thierer and I aren’t quite aligned on what we mean when we say “revolutionary,” but I can think of nothing more destructive to society and the economy than the status quo. As the U.S. federal government continues to drop unprecedented sums of largesse from the sky, we are supposed to be loyal, according to Thierer. We are supposed to oblige policy makers to tinker around the edges as the government wields more dangerous, unconstitutional powers. But most importantly, we’re supposed to take the matter upstairs, as it were.

I suspect Thierer at least partially misunderstands what I meant by my challenge. I’m not taking him to task due to some failure to “swing for the fences.” Not per se. My concern is with his suggested avenue of change. Specifically, Thierer puts the locus of change on legislators and voters. I put the locus of change on innovators and adopters. Thierer thinks my innovators need to get permission from his legislators. I simply don’t agree.

It’s also not clear that the sort of “revolutionary acts” that I’m referring to would be detrimental to either the society or the economy. Barring some edge cases, most innovations are created to make life better for people along some dimension. Subversive innovation is no different. It just disrupts goods and services normally supplied by (or approved by) government officials.

Just as Uber made life better for transportation, the next wave of subversive innovations will make life better in any number of sectors, especially those currently operating as regulatory cartels. Maybe Thierer is worried that some digital healthcare co-op would gain market share and challenge ACA-compliant, subsidized health insurance plans. Maybe he worries cryptocurrencies will challenge the Federal Reserve. But if such uncomfortable transitions liberated people from cronyism, wouldn’t that be worth it?

At the end of the day, Thierer is worried that what I mean by revolution is the wholesale dismantling of the federal government, which he calls “slash and burn” thinking. I don’t see things this way. I see innovators creating thousands of opportunities for alternative systems to emerge and compete with the federal government in many different ways. If people adopt those systems en masse, the people have spoken.

It’s revolution by evolution.

Constitutional Loyalty

Thierer continues:

Borders prefers we go further, so much so that his essay raises the question whether we should have any loyalty whatsoever to our current constitutional order.

What constitutional order is that? Is it the one in which the president waits for Congress to go to war? Or the one in which all those “powers” are “delegated to the states and to the people?” Is the one in which spooks are forbidden to access your webcam or files without a warrant? Or the one in which dogs determine whether a cop is justified in executing a warrantless search of your property? Is it the constitutional order where people can be imprisoned indefinitely once they’re designated a “terrorist?” Or is it the one where the executive branch can do pretty much anything it damn well pleases with a pen and a phone?

We haven’t been disloyal to the constitutional order. The constitutional order has been disloyal to us. And the degree to which that order becomes illiberal is the degree we owe it our disloyalty as conscientious liberals.

The purpose of writing a Constitution had been to keep power in check, that is, to tell agents of the state what they have legal permission to do. As of 2020, I don’t consider it to be wildly successful in this regard. I suspect most readers of this publication don’t either. It doesn’t mean we don’t respect the ideals, it means we expect more.

Amendments Nine and Ten are enshrined rights of exit. When is the last time anyone has seen the federal government respect those Amendments? The only power the states and the people have gotten of significance in the last twenty years is legal pot. What evidence can Thierer or anyone else find that Barnett’s “Lost Constitution” is likely to be restored through ordinary means?

As for my loyalty to the Constitution, it’s exactly why I am a radical liberal. The profound want of any loyalty to the Constitution by partisans and politicos is precisely why I encourage subversive innovation. We liberals can either choose to be a shrinking remnant or a potent vanguard. Because either way, our fundamental rights are being eroded with each passing year. We are staring down a tsunami of red ink that threatens total economic and social collapse. And nobody seems to care as long as Congress keeps cutting checks.

Without being animated by the people’s sentiments, the Constitution is just a document. People have to believe in it as secular scripture or any liberal constitutional order will eventually be lost. With each passing year, I see people losing faith. The society that was meant to flow from the Constitution is moribund.

Jefferson vs. Conservatism

Notwithstanding his nod to Jefferson, Thierer’s position is ultimately conservative. This conservatism is defined as fidelity to fundamental institutions. But what if those institutions no longer serve us? What is the limiting principle for circumventing the current system? What special knowledge or insight do those in power have that we require their imprimatur? Why is it wrong or misguided to replace obsolete machinations of the state with something better?

Maybe Thierer understands my position as being too literally Jeffersonian, as in calling for some sort of armed rebellion. I made it clear that what I’m calling for is not only peaceful, but involves people developing new waves of innovation (whether legal or technological) that could fundamentally transform the way we organize ourselves relative to one another. These new institutions would not be imposed, but chosen in freedom. Such a shift in power can occur when we lateralize our relationships, dismantle our hierarchies, and otherwise create pockets of liberal order that Jefferson might have praised.

Are we to continue to labor under the illusion that a few people doing politics, policy, and punditry is the way to bring about a truly liberal order? Or are we going to be the change we want to see in the world? I for one am tired of outsourcing my hopes to Washington. If we’re going to liberate ourselves, we’ve got to get creative. Voting, picketing, and passing whitepapers to hill staffers has gotten us very little. And it’s not likely to yield much more in the future.

“Just as millions of anthozoan polyps create, willy-nilly, a coral reef,” writes political scientist James C. Scott, “so do thousands upon thousands of individual acts of insubordination and evasion create a political or economic barrier reef of their own.”

In the twenty-first century, a new liberal order will only constitute itself if we offer people the ability to lateralize their relationships, collaborate, and self-organize. So let’s not get lost in Washington’s collective failure of imagination. We can develop new protocols to live by, whether or not means restoring the lost Constitution. And then we must live by those protocols so as to create new network effects.

Otherwise, we’ll go another 100 years singing Hamilton but ignoring Robert Yates.

Divergent Paths

On the precise mechanisms of change, it appears Thierer’s and my views are incommensurable:

  1. Thierer’s prescription is more or less to wave from the nosebleed seats at partisans in hopes that they’ll give us permission to check their excesses. We must be loyal to the “constitutional order,” such as it is. Change must come from the top down.
  2. My prescription is to create parallel institutions and disruptive technologies that have the potential to compete with much of the old hierarchical order. These innovations will offer people the means to peacefully self-organize in parallel, eventually to thrive in a world of increasing complexity. Change can come from the bottom up.

Does it matter? Must we decide today which path is the best? Or can we take divergent paths? If policy analysts and lobbyists can get a green light from authorities, I certainly have no objection.

One of the basic questions of “good” law is whether people actually follow it. In fact, the better the laws within a system, the more likely people are going to try to migrate to that system and follow that set of laws. In that sense, it really doesn’t matter what anyone considers the right and the good. We’re entering an era of radical social experimentation carried out on far smaller scales than the revolutionary experiments of past centuries—whether Bolshevism or a “shot heard round the world.” People will be able to opt in and opt out of systems as it suits them. Weak or sclerotic systems may die. This is not ideology. It’s evolution. We’ll come back to this idea in a moment.

The “Neo-Anarchist”

Still, Thierer takes issue with my preferred avenue of change. Strangely, he accuses me of shying away from “discussing just how far we should go,” but then quotes me as saying the point “is not to make public officials more responsive, it’s to make them redundant” and to “make Leviathan entirely obsolete.” Somehow this is both shying away from explaining how far I would go, but going too far at the same time!

Then comes the label:

Neo-anarchist calls for “subversion” probably aren’t going to help us accomplish [gaining more mindshare]. That approach will just scare away potential converts and lead to more of the same sort of ridicule heaped on May and Barlow for their eloquent but edgy and unrealistic manifestos.

With scarequotes around “subversion,” the reader is prompted to conclude that anything beyond traditional politics is going to scare the bejeezus out of people. Perhaps. But that’s only if you think that voice and exit require the same strategic approach.

I certainly don’t.

With voice, we experiment with all the ways we can make liberalism great again in the minds of more people. With exit, we create new rules and new tools that allow people to opt in to new systems with minimal talk talk, and a little “sweet talk”. And both dimensions require multiple iteration cycles to see what works.

Let’s use one of Thierer’s favorite examples in Uber: People didn’t read ads saying they should use a new-anarchist tool of subversion designed to destroy the taxi medallion regime. They got an ad on Facebook saying “Ride in style.” Then by word of mouth, customers told each other they could safely and cheaply take a ride in a clean car owned and driven by a friendly person. The whole rating thing is really effective, too.

And so it is with all manner of disruptive innovations, including those Clayton Christiansen would have identified. They are inherently subversive. Even if you don’t think we need a little bit of cyberpunk flavor to get the hacker kids building cool stuff, the most profound transformations aren’t going to come from Washington think tanks contributing to the policy paper-industrial complex. They’re going to come from the fringe.

Evolutionary Fitness Landscape

At the end of the day, the recipes of social change exist within an evolutionary fitness landscape. That means debates like this one, while interesting, are more spectacle than substance. One of my favorite mantras is “criticize by creating.” Policy analysts’ efforts to bend the knee before authorities and humbly request change might or might not work. Subversive innovators’ efforts to circumvent regulatory and taxing authorities might or might not work. Some combination of both might or might not work. Such is the binary nature of Darwin’s great algorithm. How persuasive we are about our different approaches might help us succeed at the margins, but over time, the real question is whether change gets made and by what means. I’ll leave Mr. Thierer to his preferred path. And I’ll take my own.

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.