When I wrote part 1 of my review of Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch’s new book, The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong with America, I ended up quoting a lot from it, which worried me a little because authors sometimes get cranky when you steal their writing without permission. As it turned out, however, Matt Welch had some very nice things to say about my review. Which is why it’s probably a bit rude of me to start this review of Part 2 with another quote from Part 1.
The very last paragraph of Part 1 serves as an introduction to Part 2:
The politicians and the increasingly small-in-number but shrill-in-tone dead-enders in both parties fail to understand that we are moving far beyond them and their cramped vision of a world in which politics is the limit of human potential. More and more of us understand, to a degree almost never discussed in day-to-day political and policy discourse, that the driving force behind many of the advancements we most enjoy stems from an unsung, three-pronged source: The democratizers, who through sheer crazed determination have brought new tools and possibilities to a broad swath of the public; the enablers, those few heroic men and women in government who identified, then helped remove, obstacles to the democratizers’ progress; and the theoreticians, who dreamed up these possibilities long before sane men thought them possible. Each one of the stories in the next five chapters shows how these unusual trifectas form in nature to produce unalloyed goods, most of which we’re happy to use without the slightest bit of knowledge about the oftentimes brutal fights to make them legal, let alone operational. They provide the source code for what the twenty-first century should be looking like, but so far isn’t.
(As with my previous review, I also have some nit-picking to do. It’s that last sentence: “They provide the source code for what the twenty-first century should be looking like, but so far isn’t.” I don’t know what Nick and Matt think the phrase “source code” means — they seem to be using it as a cyber-hip replacement for “template” or “blueprint.” Maybe it’s picked up a popular meaning I’m unaware of, but I’ve been writing software for thirty years and source code just doesn’t work that way.)
Part 2 of Declaration of Independents is titled “The Democratization of Just About Everything, or Case Studies in Making Life Richer, Weirder, and Better,” and it tells five stories of how people became more free. It’s like reading five long Reason magazine feature articles in a row. If you’re like me, that’s a good thing.
The first chapter tells the story of the revolution that overthrew the communist government of Czechoslovakia in 1989. You see, it all began with Lou Reed. Yeah, that Lou Reed: The former front man for Velvet Underground. There’s a reason the Czhechoslovakian uprising is called the “Velvet Revolution.”
There’s a long and complicated chain of events that led from British punk rock to Czech punk rock to a Czech poet who stood up to the government and became the first president of a free Czechoslovakia. Why is it that we’ve had two recent movies about that murderous thug Che Guevara and nobody has made a movie about about Vaclav Havel and the Velvet Revolution?
The second story of freedom is about Southwest Airlines and the deregulation of the airline industry. You might not realize it now, but when the first commercial jets started flying, the government stepped in to regulate the industry. You know, to protect it and allow it to grow. As often happens, the regulatory regime grew to protect the major airlines from cheaper competition. By the time Southwest Airlines was trying to start up, it was nearly impossible for a new airline to enter the industry. In order to begin flying even a single route, a new airline would have to prove to the government that there was a need, i.e. that it would be flying people who were unable to fly any other way, rather than stealing customers away from another airline by offering cheaper fares. Naturally, the big airlines became fat and lazy.
Somehow this was supposed to protect the flying public from turmoil in the industry or something. I know it sounds stupid now, but just a few years ago I blogged about this very thing because of a pundit who missed the old days when airlines were grand and profitable.
One of the consequences of deregulation is that competition for passengers pushed down the cost of air travel so much that people can now afford to fly three times as much as before deregulation. Now here’s a thought that should haunt you: At about the time this country was deregulating the airlines (and other transportation industries) we started passing new laws that applied the old airline-style regulations to our hospitals. These laws still exist today. Before a new hospital is allowed to open up (or an existing hospital allowed to expand) the operators have to prove that there is a demand for patient care which is not met by the existing facilities. So you’ve got to wonder, if we didn’t have these hospital regulations for the last thirty years, would Americans now be able to afford three times as much hospital-based medical care?
The third tale of revolution in Declaration of Independents is about how our jobs and workspaces have become more dynamic. The comfort of the old ways — thirty years for the same company, then retirement on a pension — is gone, but that was never really as great as nostalgic pundits would like us to think. Such working arrangements were only available in highly regulated and cartelized industries. I.e. those that could afford inefficient employment practices because they were protected from competition and so could squeeze their customers for profits.
I’m pretty much living this story. About ten years ago, I got laid off from a job with a government contractor when the grant we were working on ran out. I looked for full-time work for a while, but I eventually decided to do consulting work from home, in part so I could take care of my parents as they approached their 80’s. They passed away a couple years ago, and now I’m back to full-time work as a software engineer. Except I still work from home, as do all the other developers on the team. It’s not just some fancy Gen-Y job perq either, the team started with a few people working out of their homes, and as they’ve grown, they’ve just never seen a compelling reason to spend the bucks for office space and limit their recruiting to people within commuting distance of an arbitrary and meaningless location.
The fourth chapter is title “Rise of the Mutants” and it’s about the incredible variety of us. The most obvious changes have come from the remarkable advances of African-Americans. I’m not a fan of Barack Obama’s policies, but I was still pleased and proud when millions of white Americans voted for him in 2008. It wasn’t the end of racism, but the forces of racism certainly got their asses kicked.
The traditional dividing lines between races and ethnicities just don’t matter as much as they used to. In part that’s because we’re getting them all mixed up. Consider Tiger Woods, a black superstar in the traditionally somewhat racist game of golf, who’s actually not just black but also Caucasian, Asian, and Native American. There are a lot of people like that these days, with more to come as the rate of interracial marriage keeps increasing.
More than that, however, new communications technologies have made it easier than ever for us to form our own communities, bound together not by random chance of genetics or geography, but by our common interests and concerns. I may live in the Jefferson Park neighborhood of Chicago, but I’m not an active member of the Jefferson Park community. My communities are libertarian bloggers, computer programmers, amateur photographers, and science fiction fans.
Many people today are members of entirely virtual communities such as Second Life or massive multi-player online games like World of Warcraft. I sometimes play an MMOG called EVE Online, in which you get to fly spaceships around a world of several thousand solar systems. EVE is one of my communities, but EVE is large enough to have subcommunities within itself. Some players group together to form mining companies, plundering the asteroid belts for minerals. Other players form manufacturing companies that buy those minerals, refine them, and manufacture spaceships and weapons and sensor systems. And some people make their living as pirates, attacking and plundering (or ransoming) other ships foolish enough to leave the more secure areas of space.
I’m a member of EVE University, an educational corporation that teaches new players how to thrive and survive in the harsh world of EVE. At any given time there are between 1500 and 2000 players in E-UNI, mostly students, and we teach them everything from mining to warfare. We’ve got a forum, a wiki, and (because it’s EVE) a list of everyone we’ve killed.
These virtual communities probably seem silly to people who aren’t familiar with them, but to those of us who participate in them, they’re as meaningful as any of the thousands of other communities people have formed, from British gentleman’s clubs to the Shriners to fans of major and minor league sports, not to mention ballroom dancers, rodeo fans, churches and bowling leagues. Remember, it was music fans who started the revolution in Czechoslovakia, and Twitter communities who organized the uprising that began the Arab Spring.
The fifth and final chapter of Part 2 is about the media. And also about beer. (There’s a media angle to the beer story, but I suspect it’s really in this chapter because Nick and Matt liked it too much to cut it.) The media story is the by-now-familiar one where bloggers and other web media kick the crap out of traditional newspapers. I tend to shy away from blogger triumphalism, but Gillespie and Welch make the argument that traditional media is truly losing this battle, and they are losing it because they suck at reporting the news. And they suck at reporting the news, because people are no longer willing to listen to just the major media corporations’ version of it. In their search for the Big Important Stories, mainstream media tends to miss a lot.
For example, Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch have a great new book out, and the major media aren’t talking about it at all. To be fair, that’s not big important news to most people. But it matters to me, and it’s probably more important to me than whatever the Chicago Tribune is yammering about today. Which is why I wrote this and why you’re here instead of reading a newspaper.
Update: Part 3 is up.
Mark is a computer programmer, website builder, photographer, and sometimes journalist in Chicago, where he also writes the long-running Windypundit blog.