When Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted out a link to Murray Rothbard’s Anatomy of the State, freedom lovers took notice. Despite the want of context or commentary, some took the tweet as Dorsey’s way of saying I’m currently under enormous pressure from state actors, but bitcoin has shown me the future.
But what is that future?
We have been living in DOS (democratic operating system) for so long it’s hard for most people to imagine anything other than the Red App and the Blue App. Or, to mix metaphors, we see Team Blue on one end of the rope and Team Red on the other. Then we’re told to pick a team to see which side gets dragged through the mud. Fail to play this game and you’re shirking your duty: If you don’t vote you have no right to complain, they’ll say.
Americans have been fattened on a steady diet of civic lore about democracy, but that system now locks partisans in perpetual warfare. Each ‘side’ holds out hope that one day, they’ll get to shove their One True Way down the others’ throats. But decentralists see things very differently.
Though sentimental attachment to voting and elections seems indomitable, more people are beginning to see a new way to organize. It’s true that day by day civic consciousness is being replaced by animus. So it rarely occurs to anyone that there could be another way.
I’d like to make the case that the only way to win is to play a different game.
Let’s start by defining our terms. In a separate article on the subject, I define decentralism more or less as follows:
The [decentralist] way of seeing is a general skepticism of all claims to political authority. Indeed, [decentralists] in the liberal tradition are not only skeptical of political authority, but they think any right conception of justice ought to originate in consent. In other words, one should be able to choose one’s governance system. Such a philosophy lies in stark contrast to conceptions that evoke a hypothetical social contract or a General Will. To think like an [decentralist], then, is to advocate for consent‐based governance systems and to reject compulsion‐based systems.
I realize that even the most idealistic among us are under no illusions when it comes to making their case to the powerful.
[Decentralists] understand that political authorities are not likely to tolerate any form of peaceful association that challenges their power. And those who benefit from state transfers are not likely to withdraw their support from entities promising those transfers. So, both state proxies and their supplicants have every incentive to fight for incumbency.
To live in the world as a decentralist, then, is to struggle against the fact of power. But that struggle should sound familiar. All decentralists are insisting on is what the American founders promised — that we the governed grant our consent.
We make no determinations about the mode and manner of governance. The rulesets we choose could be like those of the Israeli kibbutz or the Kyoto Prefecture. The key is having the choice. Making such choices means moving, inch by inch, towards a decentralized, consent-based order.
Authoritarianism is on the rise. More and more people think that society can and ought to be ordered administratively. All it takes to fix a social issue or help some group is to pass a law, fund a program, and grow a bureaucracy. The left/right distinction matters less.
Each side doubles down on illiberal, social control measures whenever it suits them. The left has cast its lot with identity politics, which includes moralistic crusades, crocodile tears, and shaming mobs. The right has become merely reactionary, pushed along by crude nationalism, imperial military aspirations, or nostalgia for a time that never was. Both sides seem willing to discard the idea that freedom and free inquiry light our world. And neither side seems interested in addressing the brute fact that U.S. federal debt now stands at 135 percent of GDP.
Because each side fancies theirs is the one true way, they leave no room for other perspectives, much less other ways of organizing society. Their titanic warfare has become an ongoing spectacle, which distracts the rest of us from the promise of humane cooperation within a liberal, pluralistic order. So, it is time for us to seize that promise before it’s lost to us indefinitely.
Given such enormous power, how are we to play a different game?
Political scientist James C. Scott reminds us that more “regimes have been brought, piecemeal, to their knees by what was once called “Irish democracy,” the silent, dogged resistance, withdrawal, and truculence of millions of ordinary people, than by revolutionary vanguards or rioting mobs.”
So first, we have to adopt that mien of silent, dogged resistance. Wherever possible, we have to drag our feet, refuse to comply, and make the costs of enforcement too high for authorities.
Next, we have to practice satyagraha. This Sanskrit word means roughly “truth force,” and Mahatma Gandhi taught his followers to use satyagraha against the British Raj. The Freedom Riders and Civil Rights activists used similar tactics in the Jim Crow South. Satyagraha is thus a nonviolent means, even as it exerts enormous pressure against powerful hierarchies.
Today we have technological tools that Gandhi or MLK never had. So in practicing satyagraha, we must do so through the best available means–coordinating both asynchronously and in real time. Such includes discovering new opportunities for “exit.” But I’m not just talking about voting with your feet, though that can be a fruitful approach as those fleeing California will tell you. I’m also talking about ‘voting’ with your money, which includes voting for new money. I’m talking about entering new systems, too, the net effect of which will be the creation of new markets in governance.
Let’s get into some examples of exit, which can be understood as an extension of satyagraha. Consider:
The above list is certainly not exhaustive. I offer these examples with the hope that they will catalyze a commitment to what writer Michael P. Gibson calls “underthrow.”
Indeed, Gibson thinks underthrow will lead to a pluralistic market in governance. He writes “all laws must be strictly opt-in. Lawmakers could be saints, devils or monkeys on typewriters — doesn’t matter. The opt-out/opt-in system lets only good laws survive. Bad laws are driven out of production.” (See also Balaji Srinivasan’s The Network State.)
And that, folks, is what the consent of the governed truly means. And it is also how one takes steps towards decentralization. Whether or not humanity ever arrives at it is another question altogether, but one that is mostly a useless distraction right now.
Decentralization is more a process than an ideal and is likely to involve decades of churn against powers arrayed to protect the interests of hierarchy and its supplicants.
So let’s not waste our time arguing about ideal justice when we should be figuring out ways to practice satyagraha now. Such includes creating more niches for people to escape to. Every opportunity for exit we create is an opportunity to contribute to a thriving market in governance. With markets in governance, people are more likely to find systems that serve their needs.
The goal is to make room for human freedom amid overwhelming-but-foundering Westphalian powers. It’s time to unleash a thousand experiments in underthrow. Even if only a few of those experiments take hold, these niches represent the promise that you find a system that more closely resembles your ideals.
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