Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Largest Libertarian Society in History

While the near-disaster of SOPA and PIPA is still fresh on everyone's mind, it strikes this Tireless Agorist as an ideal opportunity to discuss the largest libertarian society in history. The society that brought the SOPA and PIPA legislation to a halt and that brought you to read this essay. The society of the Internet.

As an agorist, and consequentially a libertarian, one of the things I find most interesting is the myopia among some of the most active members of the Internet society. These are the people who surf effortlessly through the web in pursuit of arcane information, seek out their own voluntary associations among like-minded peers, purchase products from all corners of the globe, and immediately and voluntarily band together to protect their communities from damage or destruction by trolls, spammers and other lowlifes when they sense that the peace is threatened. Such activities are almost second-nature in the more civilized corners of the Net.

Indeed, when these Netizens saw their freedom under attack by a territorial government with no real understanding of the miraculous society they inhabit, they almost immediately swarmed together in an officially uncoordinated but massive protest against the very government that claimed it was working to protect them. And they resoundingly won the battle, if not yet the war.

Yet the same people who defeated the government's attack through voluntary action express doubt about the efficacy, fairness, and capability of the free market and the core concepts of a libertarian society. Immersed daily in the largest, most anonymous, most libertarian society ever to exist, they fail to recognize it for the miracle that it is, or to recognize the compelling forces that make it work.

Billions of people utilize trillions of dollars worth of unbelievably decentralized infrastructure to locate obscure information, share common interests, accomplish common goals, trade freely among themselves, select from a range of products that dwarfs those available in any other venue, and start and dissolve almost completely-unregulated businesses at a pace that is simply unprecedented in history. Innovation and the creative destruction of organizations based on failed concepts occur at a rate that was simply unimaginable just a few short years ago. Even the near-total destruction of several pre-Internet industries raised few eyebrows, given the tremendous increase in utility to the consumer. (Encyclopedia companies and travel agencies are examples that spring quickly to mind.)

Barriers of entry to those with dreams of a better way to do things are lower than in any physical location on earth. In response to the opportunities available there, we've seen a transformation of society that makes the gold rushes, wholesale migrations and expansion into uncharted territories that came before pale by comparison. And all of this happens within a framework maintained by perhaps the least powerful example ever of the centralized coercion that we recognize as government.

Millions of people cruelly oppressed in the physical realm have utilized this freest and most cooperative of societies to organize and strike back against their oppressors, ushering in a new era of freedom and democracy outside the Internet that strives to replicate the free society they have discovered online.

Even here in the relatively free United States, activists have organized movements against oppressive government activities that span the political spectrum from the Occupy movement to the raw milk movement, from gay rights to protests against foreign entanglements and other actions of an ever-expanding government. Such widespread activism was unheard of just a generation ago.

Yet many Netizens claim that there has never been a successful libertarian society in all of history, while living squarely in the middle of that which they swear has never existed. Indeed, this most libertarian of societies shows every sign of leading by example to unparalled freedom around the world for citizens of all territorial governments.

Younger Netizens who have grown up with the internet have no idea how difficult it was to stay informed and connected to others of like mind in the age of three major networks, local newspapers, and limited-distribution newsletters of special interest to only a small segment of society. Building a community of like-minded individuals to share writings, information and opinions was a slow, laborious process seldom undertaken by any but the most dedicated. Nor are they aware of how greatly the internet has expanded product choice, with music from indie bands and fresh steaks from Omaha accessible at the click of a link.

Granted, this society exists primarily in a virtual world. But access to this virtual world is proving to be the key to the rapidly increasing unlimited choice in all aspects of our lives. Non-profit organizations with feet in both the virtual and physical worlds are redefining the concepts of activism and charity in ways unimaginable before the advent of the Internet.

Many Netizens who are supporters of government intrusion into the physical realm also fail to recognize that the internet/tech business is one of the most vibrant sectors of a moribund economy, actively creating wealth and jobs, precisely because the governments of the world haven't yet figured out how to aggressively intervene in cyberspace the way they do in physical space. In the case of the devices used to utilize the Internet, the regulation is minimal, and as a result we have seen a huge expansion in the types of devices capable of connecting to the Internet over the last few years, a trend that shows no signs of stopping. The Internet is bringing about a transformation of the physical world everywhere they intersect.

As for the Internet itself, the involvement of territorial government, at least in the United States, is almost non-existent. Although the underlying infrastructure of the Internet is based on research and technology initially funded by government grants, parallel work was underway in other locations; robust networking between computers was an idea whose time had come. The interface most people think of as the Internet was initially developed as a simple mechanism to share scientific papers with colleagues. Even as the use of hypertext grew, only a handful of futurists had a glimmer of the transformation the world was about to undergo. That transformation resulted almost entirely from the efforts of free individuals pursuing their own self-interest, with only the tiniest whiff of central planning in the mix. Even today, the core functionality of the internet is directed and maintained, and the technical underpinnings and core protocols advanced, by non-profit organizations whose barriers to entry consist primarily of technical expertise.

As we discussed in detail in an earlier column, SOPA and PIPA are prime examples of the way crony legislation is used to maintain the power of the politically-connected at the expense of a free society. The attempt failed in this case only because those who would have been most affected were technologically savvy enough to realize what was about to happen to them, literate enough to be able to express those concerns, and competent enough to use the very tool that the special interests sought to cripple to spread the message widely enough to turn the tide.

The Battle of SOPA/PIPA served notice on those who hold the reins of power that the freedoms so common on the Internet and so rare among territorial governments will not be willfully or easily surrendered. Indeed, suppression may well be impossible. SOPA and PIPA are simply the most recent, most blatant and most nearly successful of many attempts to bring territorial control to this ethereal realm. Their failure portends the continued anarchy of the Internet, in the original sense of the word: no rulers.

Although common wisdom is that the guiding hand of the state is needed for the success of large, complex projects, the Internet is one of the most complex technological achievements of mankind, and it has evolved as rapidly as it has in large part because those involved have taken it upon themselves to form coalitions and work together on those aspects that most interested them, without waiting for a government-funded master plan to tell them what they could or could not do.

The dizzying array of standards that have evolved without government involvement themselves give lie to the concept that goverment is required as a standardizing body. Even fraudulent behavior, once thought the nemesis of the anonymous freedom of the Internet, has largely been defeated not by government regulation, but by education and voluntary changes in behavior by both businesses and consumers wishing to see the Internet mature from its early days as a playground to the location of trillions of dollars of real business transactions that we inhabit today.

Certainly, many of the physical products available on the Internet are regulated by some territorial government. But never in history has it been simpler to perform an end-run around one particular government and obtain products from some less-regulated locale. The explosive growth of the Internet gives lie to the criticism most often expressed against libertarian ideals -- that a society based on the freely-chosen activities of individuals must fail to provide for society's needs, and the most important aspects of civilization must be managed by those who work for higher ideals, not for profit.

The Internet is among the great human achievements; a shining example of the superiority of Mises' "Human Action" over centralized planning. Welcome to Libertopia.

...and that's all I have to say about that.


  1. Very good, Don.

    But I'll take issue with something: anonymity.

    I'd argue that acting with anonymity is antithetical to classical freedom, for it allows rules--even ones that are a product of common interests, not ordained by an authority--to be ignored, it allows and even promotes bad behavior, and it calls into question the reliability of exchanged information.

    Nameless,faceless thugs are the tools of the autocrat, after all.

    Otherwise, you make excellent points.

  2. Agreed. I think the availability of anonymity on the Internet illustrates that even though it's relatively easy to hide one's identity on the internet, even that anonymity is not enough to seriously undermine the operation of such a libertarian society. The less anonymous activity has become, the more "social" the Internet world has become.

    Thanks for the compliment.

  3. I'm apparently not following your anonymity argument, Rob.

    If I want to walk down the street, into almost any place of business, or recreate in public parks in any city in America, I don't have to wear my name on my shirt, nor must I stop at various checkpoints to present my identity papers -- although, should I want to fly somewhere, buy something by other means than cash, or operate a vehicle, those circumstances do require some identification and/or proof of competence.

    That's already very much how the internet operates.

    To push the analogy further, if someone cuts me off in traffic, I have no immediate way of knowing who she is -- but, given sufficient motivation (say they don't just cut me off, but actually hit my car then flee the scene) if I can provide their vehicle license number and description, and have a high likelihood of identifying the offender for purposes of redress. They aren't actually anonymous.

    Likewise, there's little-to-zero true anonymity on the internet, although few people actually realize they're much more identifiable than they think, and should their offense be egregious enough to justify the investment of time and energy to identify them and seek redress, then the supposed anonymity generally melts fairly quickly.

  4. If you're going to criticize someone or something, the way to do that is open and upfront, not from behind a curtain, even if the curtain can--with some level of effort--be peeled away.

    Don cited the anonymity as a positive feature, by my reading. And I don't think it is. It may be an unavoidable consequence, given the freedom of the 'net, but that doesn't mean it's a positive. Consider Anonymous. I see nothing good about what they do. It's every bit as detrimental to freedom as an autocratic government doing the same.

  5. Rob, it may be worth a re-read. I mentioned anonymity only twice, and I don't see either mention as positive, but simply as factual. My intent was to make the point that the option of anonymity for many activities has not significantly undermined the basic libertarian structure; it's more a commentary on the robustness of the model than anything else. Mac summed it up pretty well, from my perspective at least. "Papers please" is the mantra of authoritarian societies, not libertarian ones. Identification as necessary, never "just because."

  6. "Immersed daily in the largest, most anonymous, most libertarian society ever to exist, they fail to recognize it for the miracle that it is..."

    That suggests anonymity is an important, positive feature, one not incompatible with liberty, to me.

    And the "papers please" mantra is about control, not identification.

    Fukuyama follow up to The End of History is called The Great Disruption. He very wrongly ignores the potential problems cauced by increased anonymity, as he praises various changing institutions. Then there's Arendt and Heidegger...

  7. Check this, Don: