THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 449, December 30, 2007
"Lives of Drudgery and Servitude"
Special to The Libertarian Enterprise
Optimism is a feeling or an emotional point of view, which is consistent with a positive outlook for the future. It is something that I've felt strongly at various times in my life.
It is strange to discuss reasons for an emotion. Emotions are not rational. However, if you are sometimes able to choose a mood, or set one, it might be reasonable to consider why optimism could be justified now. So, my task here is to set forth some reasons I see for feeling good about the future.
There are many topics to discuss here. Technology has been advancing since the application of the printing press to Western writings in 1450. Technology, or, the study of how to craft things, got an enormous boost when the scientific method was developed in the early 17th Century. Since then, the pace of technological progress has been accelerating. There are good reasons to believe the rate of acceleration is also increasing.
Now, of course, we humans craft a great many things. We craft all kinds of objects, all kinds of information, all kinds of media for exchanging ideas, and all kinds of special purpose fixtures from plumbing to transportation, from writing instruments to lights. So, I'll pick and choose a few technologies that make me especially hopeful.
One of the important philosophers of the 20th Century, Ayn Rand, once wrote, "Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage's whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men (The Fountainhead, 1943)." I believe that present technology empowers a society of privacy in ways never before possible. In particular, the art of cryptography has far out-stripped the art of cryptanalysis. In other words, we have technologies now that allow us to encode messages so that they cannot be decoded.
As Bruce Schneier recently wrote on the topic, public key cryptography allows the privacy seeker to increase his work arithmetically in ways which cause a geometric increase in work for the cryptanalyst. The math involved in cryptography, including the evidence for quantum computing, strongly suggests that cryptography is going to continue to outpace cryptanalysis for a very long time to come. Indeed, it seems inherent in the nature of our universe that it is easier and cheaper to encode information than to decode ciphertext.
Why is that important? The publisher of The Libertarian Enterprise has said that we shouldn't bother with encryption, because we ought not be cockroaches scurrying about in the woodwork. For the work of promoting individual liberty, I certainly agree. But, there is an entire class of activity which ought properly to be personal and private, at all times, and to the maximum extent possible. That class of activity is economic transactions.
Buyers and sellers now have available to them technology to allow for verifiable and completely private economic events. The technologies which have been developed in this area provide for finality of settlement, freedom from exchange risk, and total economic invisibility. Since I regard this area of technology as exceptionally important, let me elaborate on each of those points.
Finality of settlement is a real pain in the hindquarters for every merchant today. You accept credit cards? You deal with chargebacks. You accept checks? You deal with bounced checks, stopped payments, and reversed charges. You accept bank wires? Your bank may choose, entirely at their option, to reverse a wire you've received and send it back. Even e-gold, which its developer, Doug Jackson, specifically created to establish finality of settlement, not only may see payments reversed on a court order, but has recently experienced an enormous seizure and forced liquidation by that most evil of institutions, the USA feral gummint.
Freedom from exchange risk means that when you receive payment, it is in a form which retains value. Money has three key features that everyone wants. Money is a tool for storing value, it is a medium of exchange, and it is a unit of account. Gold, silver, platinum, and copper have long been used as money, and each has the features that Aristotle has long praised in any good money. They are consistent in value, unlike land. They are convenient, unlike lead. They are divisible, unlike fine works of art. They are durable, unlike wheat or cows. And, these metals have intrinsic value for electronics, jewelry, art, and many complex devices (e.g., catalytic converters), whereas paper with markings on it is only worth anything if the issuer of the paper has a longstanding pattern of self-control. And, of course, fiat paper money is issued by governments, which have shown themselves to be jealous of this power, and have also shown no signs of self-restraint. Or, as my buddy Clyde Harrison said, "Fiat currcies don't float. They sink at different rates."
Total economic invisibility means that the parties to the exchange know about the transaction, and nobody else has the ability to detect that it has taken place. Ever. Obviously, if economic events are invisible, they cannot be regulated, taxed, prohibited, nor ever be evidence of "criminal" wrongdoing of any sort. Total economic invisibility is a very powerful feature for private exchanges.
I believe that the technologies involved in eCache, the Onion Router (TOR), and Loom represent a major breakthrough in economic activity. Properly combined, with other features and protocols identified and now thoroughly developed, these systems allow for exchanges with finality of settlement, freedom from exchange risk, and total economic invisibility. Easily? No. Understanding them is complicated and time consuming, right now. Using them, however, may be facilitated with various additional layers of technology. Several developers are working on electronic wallet applications, kiosks, and other devices which make these tools much more accessible. Obviously, for them to have a significant impact on society, work has to be done to make them available, easier to use, and acceptable to merchants and consumers.
Happily, I believe we are about to experience an enormous crisis in confidence in the mainstream monetary systems and structures. While that is going to have tragic consequences for the great many unprepared individuals affected by collapsing banks and failing currencies, it is going to be an enormous opportunity to convert people who have relied, foolishly, on government to issue money, to other more wholesome approaches. Like the hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, on a vaster scale, the coming economic catastrophe is going to have a huge number of unforeseen consequences. Katrina illustrated how foolish it is to rely on government for drainage. However, Katrina was manipulated by the powers that be into an enormous project for government contractors, especially those of the military industrial complex. The coming economic cataclysm is going to be similarly twisted to the purposes of those in power, but is also going to have the unforeseen consequence of freeing an enormous multitude from reliance on gernment-issued money and government-licensed financial institutions.
Another critical area of technological success is the Internet. It is now possible for people to exchange information rapidly and easily through e-mail, discussion groups, web sites, web logs (blogs), instant messaging, Internet relay chat, voice over Internet protocol (VOIP) phone calls, encrypted VOIP calling, and with cell phone interfaces to the same. These technologies have added enormously to the extent that society is open and government secrets are exposed. While a society of privacy is extremely desirable for individuals in their own activities, especially their economic affairs, a society of openness is desirable wherever humans interact with one another in a public way. Government in particular needs to be inspected, detected, rejected, and selected very thoroughly, whether it is self-government (as I prefer) or any more collective approach. Indeed, the more collective, the more transparency and awareness is needed.
So, I am optimistic about the future because there are these two key areas of technologycryptography and the Internetthat have really come into existence since 1969. I believe they represent a whole new sort of culture, one in which individuals are excelling, and before which collectivism is retreating.
Why don't I mention technologies for transportation, such as satellite launch vehicles? I don't mention them because they have long been at a very high level of development. There's nothing to say about how we launch rockets today that hasn't been known and understood since the 1930s. There is nothing about any of the new fuels or composite materials or guidance systems that weren't known decades ago. The impediments in space transportation have long been legal and bureaucratic, not technical. Certainly not economic. The main obstacle to a hugely successful space tourism industry, today, is direct and vehement opposition from government.
The culture of racist Progressivism, communistic collectivism, and pseudo-scientific socialism was profoundly important in the period from about 1896 to 1969. It had been an outlier of little interest until 1848 when some books (the Communist Manifesto, e.g.) and events (the Paris Commune, e.g.) brought it to wider attention. The War for Southern Independence was fought by many European soldiers of the defeated socialist groups who had lost out during the conflicts of 1848 and thereafter. The success of some socialist policies under Lincoln was seen as a major opportunity to apply collectivism elsewhere. And, I believe, the culture which rose up under various Roosevelts, Rockefellers, and other collectivists, reached its peak in 1969.
Men walked on the Moon. They were put there by an enormous governmental undertaking. Passenger aircraft flew supersonic for the first time. They were built by two major world governments in an enormous social welfare program. A whole lot of armies moved around between 1896 and 1969, in wars between the American Empire and the Spanish Empire, between the German Empire and the British Empire, and involving Russian, Italian, Portuguese, Belgian, Japanese, and Dutch imperial interests. Possibly of greatest significance, by 1969, the cryptography and Internet technologies which completely undermine collectivism had been developed.
Since 1969, the ability of the groups that first steal money and then use it to undertake various adventures has decreased. Since 1972, men no longer walk on the Moon. Since 2003, airlines no longer fly passengers at supersonic speeds. Technologies for defense have advanced dramatically, and far outstrip the ability of world-spanning empires to effectively project force. The lessons of the Vietnam War, the crisis in Cambodia, the Cuban intervention in Grenada, the first Persian Gulf crisis, the Afghanistan intervention by the Soviet empire, the Afghanistan intervention by the American empire, and the current events in Somalia and Iraq all point toward the success of local defense over foreign occupation. Moreover, the number of countries has been increasing all this time, and has vastly accelerated since 1989.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, there were about 113 countries, including the aforementioned huge British, French, Russian, American, Japanese, Portuguese, Belgian, Italian, and Dutch empires. At the end of the 20th Century, all of these empires had been dissolved into numerous separate countries, so that there are, today, well over 250 identifiable nations, and nearly 10,000 identifiable ethnic territories which could easily become countries unto themselves. The collectivists who have pouted about the need for world government have been able to defraud a few groups of countries into forming super states, most notably the European Union. They have not been able to do anything effective to resist the tied of secession and independence.
So, I'm very optimistic about the future.
2. Political Philosophy
Political philosophy has been developing rapidly since the time of the French Enlightenment. I believe that the philosophical contributions of Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, and Lew Rockwell, to name a few, in the 20th and 21st Centuries, have far outstripped the earlier important work of Locke, Jefferson, and Madison. Moreover, these more nearly contemporary philosophers have poked enormous holes in the work of the various collectivists, whose time has clearly passed.
People are now able, in ways that guys like Henry David Thoreau could only imagine, but not thoroughly articulate, to govern their own affairs. Thoreau once talked of an ethical society in which those capable of self-government were left alone, and as quickly as such fruit ripened and dropped off, it was left to its own devices. He actually talked about these ideas, in a speech he gave in 1848, which became the text, On Civil Disobedience. It is a powerful bit of work, but it not only reveals many ideas about self-government, it also exposes a lot of limitations to political philosophy in his day. We've come a long, long way since then.
It happens that there is now a highly reputable individual who is campaigning for president who is deeply steeped in these advanced political ideas. Ron Paul is a major contributor to the philosophical papers collected by Lew Rockwell at his eponymous web site, LewRockwell.com. He is a frequent speaker at anarcho-capitalist conferences, such as those of Doug Casey's Eris Society, and the Ludwig von Mises Institute. His reputation for constitutional rigor is so high that he has attracted hundreds of thousands of contributors and volunteers to his banner. Just yesterday, as I compose this essay, he raised over $6 million in 24 hours. This calendar quarter, he has raised over $25 million. Evidently, his supporters are not just a "flash in the pan," having not once, but now twice raised over four million dollars in a single day.
Now, the success of a new political philosophy is not dependent on the political success of an individual candidate. I believe that Ron Paul would make a fine president, and that if he were elected, he could do a number of extremely useful things.
He could set up a factory to generate presidential pardons for victimless crimes, such as tax evasion, tax avoidance, gun ownership, drug possession, drug selling, or possession of other contraband items and information. He could remove encumbrances on the liberty of tens of millions of Americans who have previously been convicted of felonies, or are now imprisoned, by signing pardons non-stop for four years. If he did nothing else, his presidency would be an enormous boon to individual liberty, private property, and an incredible tool to bring down the prison industry.
Dr. Paul is a strong advocate for ending many unnecessary and undesirable national government agencies, including the department of education, the bureau of alcohol, tobacco, firearms, and explosives, the federal reserveless sytem, the infernal revenue service, the USA mission to the United Nations, and the department of energy, to name a few. If he were successful in ending even one of those agencies, that would be an enormous blessing for liberty.
Most importantly, as commander in chief, Ron Paul would bring troops home from Korea, from Europe, from the Mideast, from Africa, from the Caribbean, and from Latin America, to name a few locations. He would stand for peace, free trade, an end to torture, and an end to foreign wars of occupation. His opponents in the current political race stand for war, managed trade, torture, and endless wars, as well as conscription in several instances. Any accomplishments in this area would be great.
But, he might not win the Republican nomination. At this stage, it seems certain that he'll win some delegates. So, he's likely to affect Republican party politics. He should be able to demand time at the convention to speak at some length. If he does win the Republican nomination, the party is very likely to split. The neo-conservatives won't stand for it, and are likely to form their own party. Taking over a major American political party would be good for libertarians. It would potentially help them in obtaining political control over the thousands of counties where all electoral politics are actually controlled.
Right now, he very likely won't win the general election to become president. The oddsmakers at online gambling sites set his odds at one in twelve. So, less than ten percent. Of course, they don't know everything. But, a Ron Paul candidacy, even if he doesn't win his party's nomination, is an extraordinary opportunity.
He is putting a real face on the need for more freedom. His fans and enthusiasts are organizing all over the country in ways, and using the above mentioned technologies, never before seen. The lasting impact of organizing hundreds of thousands of Americans for liberty is going to be felt in many ways I cannot even predict.
So, these developments in political philosophy, and in practical politics, make me very optimistic.
Another thing which has been making me very optimistic lately is the awareness of facts, issues, technologies, and political philosophy that I've encountered all over the world. People seem to be more able to get good information now than previously. More people seem more aware of how government affects their freedom. A lot more people than before are willing to speak up about freedom.
While that isn't necessarily reflected in, say, the number of people making donations to support this particular fine publication, it is clearly reflected in, say, the number of new writers sending letters to the editor here. And, I have seen it reflected in a great many other ways.
Part of it is new tools, such as social networking web sites. The reason Trevor Lyman became aware of Ron Paul's campaign is because he saw all sorts of people changing their profile pictures to show Ron Paul's name and face on the MySpace.com web site. Why is that significant? Well, Trevor is the master of viral marketing who organized not only the $4 million 5th of November, but also the $500,000 30th of November, and the $6 million Boston Tea Party celebration of 16 December. I think he also had a hand in at least one of the $100K bumps in October, and he helped the developers of the Veteran's Day $300K money bomblet. Tote that all up, and Lyman's work on bringing donations to the Ron Paul campaign amounts to about $11 million out of the $18 million raised so far this quarter. In addition, he's raised about a quarter million for a Ron Paul blimp to tour the country. Alone? Certainly not. He's done his part in an enormously successful effort to rally people behind Ron Paul's cause.
In part, his enthusiasm for and awareness of Ron Paul is an effect of all those MySpace enthusiasts who changed their profiles to call attention to Ron Paul. And that is exactly the sort of unforeseen technique for spreading information that is implicit in the Internet technology. People have vastly more tools at their disposal than ever before to connect in vastly more ways, and spread information much, much more rapidly.
This ability to become aware of information, and bring that awareness to others, is accelerating in many ways. As the speed of information flow increases, the number and types of opportunity also increase. There are plenty of reasons to be extremely optimistic here.
Ray Kurzweil, Vernor Vinge, and others have spoken and written at length of a coming singularity in human affairs. The rate at which the acceleration of technological developments is increasing, and the coming together of many exponential trend lines, suggests that we are approaching some critical event.
What is this singularity? It could be global thermonuclear war. It could be economic collapse of previously unimagined proportions. It could involve the development of artificial intelligence that displaces humanity in some way. It could be the Biblical Second Coming. We are on the wrong side of the singularity to know.
What is a singularity like? Well, one of the concepts in physics is a type of singularity called a black hole. Black holes were probably formed at the beginning of our universe in the Big Bang. There are good reasons to think that many of those early black holes have dissolved since then. But, black holes are also formed when a large star of many times our Sun's mass reaches the end of its life cycle, leaves the Main Sequence of the Hertzsprung Russell diagram, and goes nova or supernova. Its remaining mass then collapses into a space where matter cannot exist, even in a highly condensed form, such as we find in neutron stars. Rather, it collapses into a singularity, so that not even light can escape beyond the "event horizon."
Gosh, that paragraph sounds dense. Really, if you aren't familiar with all those terms, it wouldn't hurt to visit Wikipedia and look them up. If you want to understand singularities, you can begin by visiting the Wikipedia page on technological singularity.
A black hole is a physical singularity. Light goes in, but does not come out. There are reasons to believe that black holes emit radiation, or appear to do so, and thereby decay over time. However, there is an event horizon beyond which you cannot readily get information. The metaphor for a technological singularity puts us on the wrong side of that even horizon. We can see that there is something odd coming along in the next few decades, or perhaps as soon as the next few years, but we cannot see beyond it, nor into it. It is, like a black hole, sucking in information and not emitting much that we can understand.
Vinge is the guy who coined the term "technological singularity." He was following the work of Jack Good, a statistician, who importantly wrote in 1965, "Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an 'intelligence explosion,' and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make."
Of course, there are reasons to suppose that artificial intelligence hasn't happened yet, because it is meeting impediments that make it unlikely. Many in the field have even begun to give up on the term "artifical intelligence," and instead use terms like "expert systems."
But, as I've mentioned above, AI is not the only source of a potential singularity. There are madmen with nuclear arsenals. There are morons in charge of central banks (and you can say what you please about Greenspan and Bernanke, but take a look at the central bank of Zimbabwe for a contemporary lesson in hyperinflation).
We are facing a crisis. There is no way around it, and it isn't clear that all of us are going to get through it. But, a crisis is not without merits. Doug Casey has long pointed out that the Chinese ideogram for crisis is the combination of the ideograms for "danger" and "opportunity."
Danger doesn't bother me. I've been beaten by cops. I've traveled in Africa. I've been thoroughly vaccinated. I've had severe allergic reactions. I've been shot at. I've climbed mountains and rapelled off buildings. I've been very close to rockets before they went off, and in several cases, when they were going off. Dangers terrify me, but they don't incapacitate me. Perhaps I'm quite a bit weird that way. Many others are, too.
Opportunity intrigues me. We seem to be fast approaching a number of sequential and contemporaneous crises of amazing proportions. There are good reasons for fear, because there are real dangers before us. Some have even suggested we need to organize some very good lifeboats. http://lifeboat.com
But there are enormous opportunities. The future, as Doug Casey has written, is not a smooth function upward. There are going to be difficult times. He has written extensively of a "Greater Depression" of far greater difficulty than the 1930s. But, he believes, as I do, that the future is not only going to be better than anything we've imagined, it is going to be better than anything we can imagine.
New technologies such as nanotechnology, space manufacturing, space mining, and biological research present plenty of possibilities for terrifying futures. But, they also present enormous bounty, vast resources, the wealth of Croesus for every individual. I believe that all the dangers are surmountable, all the problems are convertible to opportunities, and all the things we've dreamed about can, and should come true.
Are you optimistic, yet?