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Monday, February 16, 2015

The Changing Face of American Radicalism

Libertarians have chosen to walk an unusual path in American political history, but one that perhaps by accident may see them become the defining political force of the 21st century.

Whereas previous radical movements saw themselves as passionate defenders of the disadvantaged or virulent nationalists, the reawakening of libertarianism over the last decade has occurred in  the context of political and economic stability and relative prosperity. Provoked by a serious recession and an overall frustration with mainstream political ideas, the radical impulse that arises every generation or two was channeled not into flag-burning protests or calls to hippie communes but in bookish philosophers who were more inspired by the nuts and bolts of economic efficiency than calls to arms.

It's a nerd's movement for sure. But it could hardly be anything else. Using the state as an agent of radical political change has become passe after killing 100 million people in the 20th century. Violence as a means to justify utopian ends has, for all intents, fallen out of favor. But seeking political change through a democratic system designed to resist major shakeups is likely a futile endeavor under all but the most unusual circumstances. With the intellectual frontiers of politics closed, modern radicals need new territory to conquer and leave their historical impression upon.

So where does someone who is interested in dramatic changes invest his energy? Technology. This is where revolutionary ideas in human governance are taking root and the most significant breakthroughs in human achievement are currently underway.

Among the most promising of the seemingly ever-accelerating technological achievements is the blockchain. The potential in this new network system to radically liberate human interaction from government and institutional control all over the world in the next few decades is unprecedented in the human experience. While some of the sharpest minds in the tech space are working to realize its potential, even the IMF is beginning to take notice.

Unfortunately, the potential for digital authoritarians to seize control of the web and define internet behavioral and security norms is equally enormous and a battle in courtrooms, cyberspace and the media  will be required to determine the freedom of individuals to interact beneficially without coercion or other interference.

If the bloody work of the 20th century was figuring out the best possible political systems to maintain political stability and prosperity for human civilization, the work of the 21st century could transcend this entirely, empowering individuals through technological democratization and challenging the presumption that underpinned the much of the work of the 20th century: that governments know what is best. This could mean that in terms of human empowerment, constitutional democracy was only a crude prototype; the job of decentralizing authority and information begun by lawyers can be completed by programmers as laws governing interpersonal transactions enforced by violence evolve into benign, but impregnable scripts written by coders and enforced by the laws of physics and principles of mathematics.

Computer technology has inherently egalitarian feature, empowering individuals with easy access to unfathomably vast amounts of data that at one time required expensive teams of researchers and archivists to locate and maintain. But the blockchain could be the ultimate equalizer, replacing authorities with networked consensus verification. How that develops remains to be seen, but with the enormous amount of talent and capital dedicated to realizing positive outcomes, a significant impact seems well assured.

Modern libertarianism is perhaps by happenstance perfectly tailored to push against digital authoritarianism and both defend online freedom in the halls of power and define cyberspace intellectually as a free and open anarchic world. Currently, radical libertarianism is the only major political philosophy in the U.S. to have built distrust of traditional institutions into its core philosophy.That distrust enables libertarianism to position itself as the sole enemy of state control and protector of flourishing new technologies as well as the guardians of privacy and freedom. Friedrich Hayek anticipated this need in his exhortation to keep new technological capabilities from being misused by authoritarians in his classic essay The Road to Serfdom:  "While it is true, of course, that inventions have given us tremendous power, it is absurd to suggest that we must use this power to destroy our most precious inheritance: liberty. It does mean, however, that if we want to preserve it, we must guard it more jealously than ever and that we must be prepared to make sacrifices for it."

There is a significant chance that libertarians are anticipating a change in how government itself functions, and the relationship between the government and governed may never be the same if the concepts that underpin projects like Ethereum, Namecoin, Codius, Counterparty, Factom and iNation succeed.

The broader acceptance of libertarianism may be dependent on this technological experiment--political libertarianism seems unlikely to be able to garner majorities in congress or even in the most conservative state legislatures any time soon. Actuating an anarchist economy, entirely outside of regulatory control and with all of the crowd-sourced information efficiencies we now enjoy, is a grand experiment in liberty in a new technological context that could radically change the human experience.

This is why the two movements-- political libertarianism and techno-libertarianism-- absolutely need each other. One provides the justification, philosophical underpinning and political muscle. The other provides the necessary economic laboratory. Libertarians will always have a hard time outflanking progressives as advocates of the poor and disadvantaged, a source of immense political power for the Left. But as the bookish and rational advocates of tech freedom, they can not only help humanity achieve new frontiers in communication, they can do it without betraying core principles, stumbling over their own values or trying to out-compete "statists" on their own political turf. They can do this because they are at the cusp of a new frontier that is already free from political control; they begin the battle from the castle ramparts, rather than the moat.

Libertarians will of course continue to remain active on many political fronts, but tech freedom offers a unique opportunity to distinguish themselves from status quo politics and adopt a core set of issues that neither major political group has whole-heartedly embraced and the public does not generally comprehend. Given the flouting of laws and lack of respect for privacy by intelligence organizations and the evidently poor congressional oversight, it is an issue that could merit a much more significant commitment to change than simply lobbying congressmen, marching or donating money.

An electronic guerrilla war has already begun. Leading the charge are whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Wikileaks. On the front lines are also innumerable hackers, journalists, bloggers, activists, government agents from all over the world, and even terrorist organizations like ISIS and al Qaeda. This is the battle that will shape the future of information technology and the winner will determine how free human communications will remain for future generations.

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