Sunday, October 4, 2009

Ephemerisle Ends for Now, Utopia Endures

I said yesterday that Jeffrey Friedman thinks a great danger of regulation is that it increases the risk of system-wide failure by ensuring that everyone is doing things the same standardized way.  To Patri Friedman (no relation — though he is the grandson of Milton and Rose Friedman and the son of David Friedman), the radical solution to homogeneity is to start as many experimental countries as possible (an idea that I, as a “panarchy” sympathizer, must admire).

This weekend, Patri held a conference called Ephemerisle in San Francisco Bay, in a bunch of lashed-together boats, to discuss how new countries might be created on the high seas — “seasteading,” as they call it.  At least one intrepid young wonk I know attended (perhaps not coincidentally, the only wonk I’ve ever heard cite the polar kraken from Magic the Gathering in a political debate).

Nowadays, calling any scheme “utopian” is almost a kiss of death (and as something of a conservative, I think that’s mostly a healthy thing — you don’t want people retooling society at the drop of a hat and screwing everything up).  Seasteading, however — even if it proves infeasible for mundane engineering, legal, or financial reasons — is “utopian” in a good way, I think, that is, in the fashion of nineteenth-century American experimental communities, which is to say: providing people with concrete examples of how you want things to be (on a very localized scale) rather than just philosophizing about it or, worse, imposing the model on everyone even without working it all out as either philosophy or small-scale experiment (e.g., the USSR, etc.).

The classic, familiar utopian schemes, which I’ll start looking at tomorrow, tend to have the frightening characteristic of being quasi-totalitarian plans that their authors seemed prepared to impose on everyone simply because they worked so well in their own imaginations.  But little experimental utopias that actually turn out to work well — or at least contain a few good ideas others could adapt without wrecking civilization — are of course a good thing, and we should take care to make that distinction (it might be even better if we had completely different words for these global vs. local sorts of schemes, though historically they have often gone together, of course, with the local experiment intended as a tiny foothold in the real world for the global scheme to come).

Though Patri Friedman sparred online a bit with my Arkansas legislator friend Dan Greenberg — who wishes market ideologues would devote more time to our existing political institutions — there is one attitude (aside from an admiration for markets) that they have in common (and which they share with the aforementioned Jeffrey Friedman, whose Critical Review journal boasts Greenberg as its senior editor): the view that simply philosophizing and arguing with people is virtually useless.

•Patri Friedman recognizes that it’s probably better to just secede and do your own thing when faced with the impossible task of persuading 300 million fellow citizens to try doing things your way.

•Dan Greenberg (like me, a former Brown philosophy major) recognizes that most people pay so little attention to philosophy and logical argumentation that you’re better off just legislating and getting things done instead of waiting for them to agree with you.

•Jeffrey Friedman thinks one of the best arguments for the market is the fact that you as an individual can simply drop products or organizations that dissatisfy you and patronize ones that work rather than having to convene the whole society to argue about, say, what the best way is to run a car company, which is the sort of complex topic on which there will never be a shortage of plausible-sounding — but utterly contradictory — arguments.

Likewise, there are some very pretty-sounding (but often tragically wrong or overly simplistic) models out there for structuring society as a whole — and, starting tomorrow, perhaps we can learn something from a sympathetic look at some of the classic ones, even with their flaws, and even if we have no intention of adopting them (at least not on my boat, not while I’m mayor).

1 comment:

Jason Bontrager said...

One Utopian society I’d like to see tried is Heinlein’s _Starship Troopers_ Federation (from the book, not the *spit*movie*spit*). No one is enfranchised by right, but anyone can earn the franchise via Federal Service (often, but not always, military service).

Safeguards would have to be put in place to prevent selectively washing out members of particular groups, or allowing the enfranchised to oppress the un-enfranchised, but a society where everyone who could vote or hold public office had put his life on the line to earn that right would be interesting.