DAVID BRIN's world of ideas

Essences, Orcs and Civilization: The Case for a Cheerful Libertarianism

By David Brin, Ph.D.

Thank you. It's an honor to be invited here to address a convention of fellow freedom-lovers, gathered in the American Heartland at the dawn of a new millennium.

I suppose the reason you invited me has to do with my role as an author of both novels and nonfiction works about the future. Which seems appropriate enough, just two days before the 95th birthday of Robert A. Heinlein. Libertarians are among those in our society who think most intensely about tomorrow: indeed, no demographic group appears to devour more science fiction, the literature of exploration and change.

Change is an important matter -- indeed, it's the salient feature of our age. How well do you deal with change?

All creatures live embedded in time, though only human beings seem to lift their heads to comment on this fact, perpetually lamenting the past or else worrying over what's to come.

Our brains are uniquely equipped to handle this temporal skepsis. Consider, for example, twin neural clusters that reside just above our eyes. The prefrontal lobes appear especially adapted for extrapolating ahead, performing thought experiments about the next minute, day, or century.

Meanwhile, swathes of older cortex can flood with vivid memories of yesterday, triggered by the merest sensory tickle, as when a single aromatic whiff sent Proust back to roam his mother's kitchen for eighty thousand words. (We'll return to neurons and the brain, later.)

"Scratch the surface of most cynics and you find a frustrated idealist -- someone who made the mistake of converting his ideals into expectations." -- Peter Senge

"Any comfortable American who is cynical of progress -- or the competent decency of modern civilization -- hasn't pondered how life was for our ancestors. Any day that cossacks haven't burned your home should start out a happy one, overflowing with optimism." -- M.N. Plano

Obsession with either past or future can almost define a civilization. Worldwide, most cultures believed in some lost golden age when people knew more, mused loftier thoughts and were closer to the gods -- but then fell from grace. The myth of loss and regret occurred so frequently, in so many nations and contexts, that we must assume it wells up from something basic in our natures.

Under this dour but recurrent "look-back" worldview, men and women of a later, coarser era can only look back with envy to that better, happier time. Our best recourse is to study ancient lore, hoping to live up to remnants of ancient wisdom.

Just a few societies dared contradict this standard dogma of nostalgia. Our own Scientific West, with its impudent notion of progress, brashly relocated any 'golden age' to the future, something to work toward: a human construct that our grandchildren may achieve with craft, sweat and good will -- assuming we manage to prepare them. Implicit is a postulate that our offspring can and should be better than us, a glimmering hope that is nurtured (a bit) by two generations of steadily rising IQ scores.

Which brings up the Questionnaire on Ideology that each of you found awaiting you today. For some years I've circulated a set of provocative queries that aim to shake up things we take for granted. These puzzlers provoke some lively discussions! Try them out on friends.

Question #1 regards the temporal skepsis we were just now discussing -- The Time Flow Of Wisdom. A person's attitude in this area is important because it colors every other assumption, including whether you believe progress is possible, or an illusion.

Was there a past golden age when humans knew more and lived more natural lives, from which we fell because of unwise choices? This is the Look-Back View.

Or is wisdom cumulative? The Look-Forward View holds that anything resembling a human utopia can only be achieved in the future, through incremental improvements in knowledge or merit.

Consider: Americans are notoriously ill-educated about history, and equally notorious for believing that they know a lot! For example, if you were exiled to almost any past era, which elite group would be most likely to oppress you? Elected officials and bureaucrats? Or those who manipulated society's rules to minimize social mobility and to maximize the close-holding of inherited wealth? In other words, aristocrats and kings.

In the Old South, would you have fought the slaveholders? In the France of Louis XIV, would you have sided with serfs, whose lives and bodies were legally owned by the rich?

Today, freedom faces subtler threats, and you are right to see government bureaucracy as one of them. But remember how coercive authority manifested for 99% of human history! Have we made completely obsolete the potential for abuse that was always inherent when status and wealth were automatically inherited?

Oh, perspective can be disconcerting, all right!

But let's return to the Look-Back and Look-Forward views. Raise hands. Which view do you hold? Are we fallen from a "golden age"? From a natural, mystically-pure and noble state, held down by some lingering mistake? Or are we striving away from our original grinding ignorance, rising through hard work and cumulative accomplishment toward a more enlightened age that lies in our childrens' future? One we'll build with our own hands?

Which attitude more closely describes the way folks perceived the time flow of wisdom in cultures of the past? Which one encourages effective action to promote change?

....but hold on; I notice that not all of you raised your hands. Is it because you're shy? Or because you don't think reality breaks down into simple either-or dichotomies -- (one of the things I want to discuss today)?

Or did you sniff the aroma of a trap? Oh, you are a smart bunch all right.

Yes, I came today to play the role of trickster. Like the mythical coyote, I'm here to poke and upset many of the very things that make you comfortable. It's a duty! As we charge into an uncertain future, assumptions are like blinders or hobble-chains around our feet. Smart, confident people should be willing to question even things they thought they knew.


[image from Wikipedia]

Why Question Assumptions?

Virginia Postrel, lately of REASON Magazine, speaks to this in her book, The Future and Its Enemies, where she distinguishes between two ways of dealing with change: anticipation and resiliency.

Peering ahead with those vaunted prefrontal lobes, we try to anticipate problems -- and we've grown better at it! But ultimately, a civil society must also be strong and resilient enough to deal successfully with unexpected surprises. The shocks that we didn't anticipate.

This is an important distinction, for it offers Libertarians a way out of the bind they find themselves in after September 11, 2001 -- with a nation turning to rally around those who portray themselves as our sole protection against a dangerously hostile world. So bear with me.

Anticipation makes up a surprisingly large fraction of our economy, including many services practiced by specialists and professionals -- intelligence officers, stock market analysts, business managers, and so on. Their efforts to peer ahead -- betting, allocating, managing, gambling, investing, hedging -- play a large role in the success of markets, for instance.

Resiliency is less focused and depends much less on specialization. Rather, it is grounded upon the quick reactions of countless individuals and generalists, responding to events as they happen, whether it's the arrival of a new product... or news of a hijacked plane crashing into a skyscraper. (Naturally, a person can be a specialist in one area and a generalist in many others.)

The problem is this: It is in the best interests of the professional class -- all of them, whatever their superficial political differences -- to emphasize anticipation over resiliency.

Take, for example, the tragic events of September 11, 2001. A central fact that's been overlooked ever since, by nearly every fashionable pundit, is this: every truly effective action that was taken on that awful day -- to palliate the harm and thwart our enemies -- was performed by private individuals. Citizens who proved themselves to be far more agile, imaginative and resourceful than any of society's elites picture them to be!

  • Most of the useful video footage was taken by private parties, armed with the new equalizers -- cameras -- a potentially crucial element in future emergencies.

  • Private cell phones spread word quicker than official media, including crucial calls for evacuation and rebellion. So did email and instant messaging, when the phone system got swamped.

  • Potentially harmful rumors were swiftly debunked by independent "urban legend" or hoax-busting web sites, taking on a role that government can never be trusted with. A role unsuitable for any highly-vested class.

  • Swarms of volunteers descended on the disaster sites, as local officials quickly dropped their everyday concerns about liability or professional status in order to use all willing hands.

  • Finally, the sole immediate action that effectively thwarted terrorist plans was taken aboard United Flight 93, by individuals armed with intelligence and communication tools -- and a mandate -- completely outside official channels.

Let me emphasize this point. That day, when the professionals' powers of anticipation broke down, nearly every truly effective measure of resiliency was taken by a society of tenacious private citizens, reacting with uncanny alacrity and initiative, armed and empowered by the very same technologies that the pundits keep saying will enslave us!

What does all of this suggest about the coming era?

Consider that the 20th Century saw a monotonic and relentless increase in the degree to which common men and women relied on specialists -- to grow food, to protect us from villains, to make and repair roads, school the children, doctor the sick and keep watch against danger from other tribes. Some professionals serve us through markets and some through government. As libertarians, you in this room often rage and fume over this distinction -- preferring one over the other -- without stepping back to notice the larger, macro-context. The salient macro-trend of the last hundred years.

Aided by prodigious increases in technical knowledge and education, the professional classes have taken over a vast number of tasks people used to handle for themselves. Indeed, specialists have mostly kept up with our demands for more, ever more and better services. They seem likely to keep on getting better...

... and it won't be enough. Despite their assurances, it is demonstrably impossible for anticipatory professionals to foresee and neutralize all threats. Whether they are in government or private enterprise. No matter how many "emergency powers" we grant them. The events of 9/11 demonstrated this.

Without ingratitude for their sincere and skilled services, we must nevertheless be prepared for their occasional failure, and to roll with the blow when it comes.

Resiliency demands something quite different than specialization and diligent professionalism. Resiliency calls for an equally amazing and profound rise in competence on the part of citizens, consumers, eccentrics, dissenters, minorities... in other words, the generalist talents of amateurs. In The Transparent Society I speak about how many tools of accountability may help save us in coming years, by empowering citizens in an ever-rising Age of Amateurs.

This should make libertarians happy, validating your oft-proclaimed faith in the creative agility of the common man and woman. Yet, far more typical among libertarian commentators were cries like the following polemic, netcast by that inimitable net-jacobin, John Perry Barlow, one of the most American human beings I have ever met and one of our era's true champions of liberty. What he says below, with typical eloquence, should be heard and heeded!

"As most of you know, I believe that the United States has gradually, subtly, invisibly to most of us, become a police state over the last 30 years. This morning's events are roughly equivalent to the Reichstag fire that provided the social opportunity for the Nazi takeover of Germany.... I am not suggesting that, like the Nazis, the authoritarian forces in America actually had a direct role in perpetrating this mind-blistering tragedy.... Nevertheless, nothing could serve those who believe that American "safety" is more important than American liberty better than something like this. Control freaks will dine on this day for the rest of our lives." -- JPB

Wasn't that grand writing? Thomas Paine lives!

Naturally, I agree with Barlow far more than with the security mavens he opposes! If forced to choose between snug despotism and risky freedom, I'll fight for the latter, right beside him. Indeed, I'm helping to circulate Barlow's warning because it could come true. Some of our leaders make it quite imaginable.

But is this dichotomy real? Or just an excuse for smug disdain toward the hoi polloi?

Did any of you notice the phrase "...invisibly to most of us..."? What is Barlow saying? That only he and a few pals see something crucial, while the rest of his fellow citizens are hapless sheep. In other words, like every other pundit -- including all the right-wingers, left-wingers and libertarians -- Barlow remains light years from being able to notice how well those "sheep" reacted on 9/11. His assumption -- one that runs deeper than libertarianism -- prevents him from even acknowledging the possibility.

We've seen it again and again, since 9/11. A clash on TV between the obligatory "security expert" and a civil liberties activist. The first one claims that we must "sacrifice some traditional freedoms in order to enhance public safety." The other lashes back indignantly that we must "bravely endure an increase in danger for the sake of sacred freedom!"

Fists clench. Spittle droplets fly between them, like pro-wrestlers. Great theater! Alas, we never see what happens when the camera light goes off... as they give each other high-fives for the clever cross-riff they just pulled off, drawing lots of new consultancy gigs! Producers are happy because it's great entertainment. Bring on the ratings!

Meanwhile, they are spreading a poison. A noxious assumption -- completely without basis -- that we must decide between two fundamentals of modern life.

Let me reduce it to a deeply personal loathing.

Nobody makes me choose between freedom for my children and their safety!

This is abhorrent. A complete non-starter that demonstrates nothing but mental rigidity and lack of imagination by fools trying to foist an odious dilemma on the American people. The rigidity of zero-sum, inside-the-box thinking. It is completely unworthy of a civilization that has grown accustomed to positive sum games -- having our cake, eating it, watching the cake grow larger, while aggressively sharing slices with the poor!

I refuse to accept this vile "devil's dichotomy," and so should you.

In The Transparent Society I talk about how the very notion of a tradeoff is disproved every day by this very society that we live in. One in which people are simultaneously both safer and more free than any of their ancestors ever were. Indeed, these two desiderata appear to go hand in hand.

They had better. For I do not intend to live without either.

Where do these horrible clichés come from? I plan on attacking dozens of them during this speech, so hold on tight. Some will be sacred cows that my fellow civil libertarians have been worshipping for decades -- baseless assumptions, catechisms, and sacred ideological incantations that feel good, but that have actually hampered your effectiveness at being agents for freedom and change.


[image from Libertarian Party of Texas]

Truth In Advertising

First, a disclaimer: I get confused looks from some libertarian pals when I say that I'm one of them. Oh sure, I send money to the LP and routinely vote Libertarian in primary elections. I appeared as a keynote speaker at the California LP Convention, in 1998, and here at the national convention in July 2002.

On the other hand, I admit turning around and often voting for Democrats in general elections! I send cash to Greenpeace and the ACLU and support my local public schools. So what the hell am I?

After serious thought, I can only conclude that I must be a... (shudder)... pragmatist.

Horrors. No word is better guaranteed to offend those who love the memic pleasures of ideology.

According to the philosophical tradition first expressed by Plato, our world is made up of "essences" or quasi-linguistic elements that are more fundamental than the murky world of complex physical people and objects. Belief in these essences retarded the arrival of Galilean science for 2,000 years, because it was so widely assumed that a real thinker would prefer to spend time pondering pure thoughts, than getting dirty with experiments.

To a religious person these essences are articles of faith. To men of reason, they can be logical syllogisms or well-wrought ideological principles. (Ain't it odd that faith and reason are so often viewed as polar opposites? To a pragmatist, they look like very close cousins, operating under the same very questionable assumption -- that words can somehow over-rule gritty reality.)

Some essences may be right and others wrong, but Plato's tradition holds that any person worthy of respect must believe in some essential "truth," some law or model of human nature -- whether it's the labor theory of value or an absolute right of property. Men of the True Right and True Left often respect each other, but they cannot bear those wishy-washy 'practical' types who say "whatever works."

If the world is not the way they like it -- if it stubbornly refuses to match the ideal essence -- then something must be wrong with the world! We must have fallen from that natural state of grace. Moreover, somebody must be to blame. This is the core of the Look-Back Worldview -- a romantic fixation that dominated most cultural systems of the past.

Want specific examples that strike close to home? In the Libertarian community, essentialists are typified by Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard, who were admired for making grand generalized derivations or propounding idealized truths. While Rand often spoke in praise of objective reality -- and was cogent in her demolition of postmodern relativism -- her works seldom proposed falsifiable experiments that might enable skeptical parties to verify or reject particular statements, one at a time. This is the litmus that real scientists live by, as elucidated in the works of Karl Popper. Rather than deal in gritty tests and iterative experimentation, Rand used "objective reality" as a mantric phrase -- an incantatory touchstone that served as a rock, an unquestionable axiomatic foundation. In effect, an article of faith.

Around this she would go on to weave cajoling and persuading rhythms, almost identical in form to the Plato's Socratic dialogues, such as Phaedrus -- and, indeed, similar to much of the Marxist dialectic -- though to see this you must strip away the specifics and details. Viewed from outside this tradition -- from the pragmatic perspective of Galileo and Franklin -- the commonalities leap out.

Central to this zeitgeist is the implied and desired assumption of mental superiority. Over those who came before. Over contemporaries. And yes, over future generations! This is implicit, because belief in human improvability makes any ideology or belief system automatically contingent and tentative. If our children will be smarter than us, and their children smarter still, then none of us -- no matter how bright -- can ever offer up a "TRUTH" all in capital letters. We can at best nudge knowledge forward a bit, offering a slightly higher platform for our heirs to work upon.

This humbler attitude is typical of real science. Galileo's laws were improved and superseded by Newton's, and Newton by Einstein, in a process that does not demean those earlier sages, even though each newer model replaces the old. We scientists have learned to be cheerful about this... or at least pretend to be.

Among libertarians, Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises, and F.A. Hayek are the central pragmatists, willing to make falsifiable predictions and live by them. Hayek in particular recognized the contingency of his own fresh perspective, avowing that it depended upon the highly variable landscape of human knowledge. Finding exactly the right mix of market laxity and regulation might be a variable thing, Hayek mused. Some regulation is surely needed in order to overcome the human propensity to cheat, though Hayek comes down favoring a general rule that less is better. That the urge to regulate should always face a steep and constantly renewed burden of proof.

Also in the pragmatist camp we find Robert Heinlein, whose famed works emphasized the desired future outcome -- people who are increasingly smart and capable and, above all, more free. Such people will be able to think for themselves. In other words, our formidable descendants will probably be libertarians -- (and environmentalists and non-racists) -- not because of ornate philosophical incantations but because that is how anyone with more than a gram of sanity and sense would want to live.

Moreover, according to pragmatists like Heinlein, it doesn't matter very much how pure the path to that better era turns out to be. Even if (shudder) the state winds up playing a useful role, helping to pave the way.

This gulf between pragmatists and idealists is one of the widest and least understood in human nature! It blows orthogonally across almost every boundary of politics, religion and ideology.

So let me establish my credentials right now. I do not believe that any "Golden Age" lies in our past. The story of the last six thousand years was almost unrelenting misery, bullying and woe. I wake up encouraged every day that barbarians have not burned my house and that some king has not taken my daughter. So encouraged that I have to admit that my fellow citizens simply cannot be as stupid as they look!

So encouraged that I peer forward to a day when coercion has become a faint memory. To a time when all children are equipped with the skills and tools to be formidable beings, fully capable of making all decisions for themselves, aided by a mere wisp of residual government that continues to wither gradually as sovereign adults wean themselves of its services, not through rancor or ingratitude, but by the simple, revolutionary step of learning to treat each other like grownups.

Not only will I bend the efforts of my life toward helping bring about that era -- I won't let anybody's doctrinaire litmus test categorize me as "not libertarian," just because I see a nonstandard route to getting there! A route that is considerably more optimistic and cheerful.

A route that seems more likely of achieving success.


AN ASIDE: An Allegory About Essences

Plato to Galileo: "Our senses are defective, therefore we cannot discover truth through experience. That chair, for instance. Despite all your gritty 'experiments' you will never determine what it is. Not perfectly. Empiricism is useless. Therefore give up! Seek the essence of truth through pure reason."

Galileo to Plato: "You're right. My eyesight is poor. My touch is flawed. I will never know with utter perfection what this chair is. Nevertheless, I can carve away untruths and wrong theories. I can demolish fancy 'essences' and epicycles, and disprove self-hypnotizing incantations. With good experiments -- and the helpful criticism of my peers -- I can find out what the chair is not."


Next... what's wrong with libertarian politics?