In the aftermath of a pretty statist revolution and a major step back for individual freedom (read: the pandemic), it’s time for some optimism.
Many philosophers and historians have talked about the ‘Zeitgeist’ of an era – the idea that there’s something in the air of a time, something propelling history forward. In the realm of ideas, previously unthinkable ideas suddenly become inevitable: basic human decency and a matter of course – the collapse of the divine right of Kings, individual rights, abolished slavery, women’s suffrage, divorce, gay rights. Seen with the historian’s scope of centuries instead of the day-to-day grudging changes, most such ideas were radical yet were embraced in an unexpectedly fast manner.
In technology, countless instances of simultaneous innovations show us that at some point, the world’s economic and social structure was just ripe for a certain idea; had Edison not invented the lightbulb, someone else would have, roughly at the same time – and history as we knew it would have transpired pretty much the same.
An idea whose time has come is too powerful to be prevented by any countercultural move or any politician wielding the violent power of the state. If I may grossly simplify the last two centuries of the Western world, the nineteenth century was one of emerging global connections and expanding mass political franchises, the twentieth one of mass production and mass statism (with its accompanying mass killings), against which the twenty-first century looks like it could be a century of genuine liberty.
Plenty of people have said similar things about what they thought were the correct move for their times, and plenty of people have been wrong. Most likely, I am too – but hear me out.
A foundational value at the core of the free society is not only free speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of movement; it is also property rights – which is an extension of the broader principle of leaving people alone. You do you, and I do me. My consumption choices, or the choices I do with regards to the people with whom I surround myself, are not yours to meddle with. The basic idea is “to each his own.”
In most pop culture, the depiction of a liberty-loving person is either as a tax-hating and money-obsessed sociopath or a surveillance nutjob, delusionally wielding guns to protect against an ever-encroaching government (for good measure, we add pot, gold buried in the backyard, and stacked cans of tuna for the imminent collapse).
In reality, most people instinctively share basic morals: Matt Kibbe’s manifesto is called Don’t Hurt People and Don’t Take Their Stuff for a reason. Most people are onboard with these unobjectionable ideas, and embody those morals in their everyday actions. Your life and your choices are not mine to interfere with; our diverging values are not cause for conflict but for market-based cooperation or civic-based separation. We can both flourish if we specialize in what we’re relatively good at, and leave each other free to innovate and improve. In the long run, as the fantastic Deirdre McCloskey keeps pointing out, you’ll make me rich.
Among many other things, the left, intellectually following John Stuart Mill, wants others to stop judging, preventing, punishing, and banning actions, traits and behaviors that don’t harm others. They don’t want governments standing in the way of basic human liberties – to move, to associate, to marry.
The right, ultimately following Burke but with a lot of permutations, doesn’t want governments to mandate, to socially engineer, to interfere with the slow-moving process of old civic institutions.
Genuine liberty isn’t a mix of the dysfunctionally intolerant left and manically warmongering right, but at its core it still incorporates values cherished by both groups. And John Tamny has the analysis right in his They’re Both Wrong: A Policy Guide for America’s Frustrated Independent Thinkers: a more peaceful and just world allows both groups to live out their own ideological dreams.
So how is our current policy disaster an indication of a world with more liberty? In the beginning of the pandemic some easy jabs were directed at the very idea of liberty (“There are no libertarians in an epidemic”), to which the natural response was: “Perhaps not, but no statists coming out of one.”
Nothing in the last twelve months has indicated to us that Big Government is more efficient, more just, or better equipped to handle problems big or small. If anything, we’ve learned that when push comes to shove, you’re on your own – which means, you’re reliant on those with whom you trade, the family and friends with whom you surround yourself, and the cooperative civic relations of those with whom you interact.
It is plain as day that the centrally-planned mandates and the withdrawal of individual liberty – that in the last year often were portrayed as responsible and necessary – are having a bottom-up backlash. People, even the very ones issuing the mandates, ignore the rules left and right because those rules don’t work with how people live their lives. Those who aren’t political or intellectual elites (or make decent amounts of money) overwhelmingly report that the events of 2020 have made their lives worse. The anarchist growing in everyone’s minds is bound to come out; the infantilization of grown-up human beings will create a liberty-fueled backlash. Leave. Us. Be.
My idea of a century of liberty rests on much more than that – on megatrends that governments and statist ideologies are in no position to counter. The internet and its mass access to information. Cryptography and its mass ability to hide from view. And yes, the bitcoin and the mass ability to hold instantly-teleportable value (somewhat) outside the purview of Uncle Sam or banks censoring payments that they, or their regulations, don’t like.
On top of this, the pandemic has taught us to do our value-creating activities from afar, and that we’re not geographically bound to the places in which we work. It’s a foregone conclusion that remote work and freelancing will get its long-simmering upheaval, giving workers the tools to take responsibility for their own livelihoods, businesses to assemble and recruit from more than their immediate inner-city surroundings, and individuals to jurisdictionary arbitrage into areas that treat them better. Competition in the service of individual freedom.
Enter the Californian exodus.
The first time I heard about people flocking to Austin, Texas – an artistic blue city in a sea of “guns-and-bibles” – was in 2016, from a liberty-seeking couple relocating there. The wave hasn’t stopped since: hundreds of thousands of people every year have voted with their feet, escaped the onerous and unfree insanity of California for the less mad freedom of Texas. It was a year-and-a-half ago that The Economist featured the battle between two visions of America on their “Texafornia Dreaming” cover. Now everyone with even a shred of liberty to their name seems keen on Austin – Joe Rogan and Elon Musk being only the most vocal.
The values of young people (the “iGen”) also seems broadly indicative of a our future: they support pot, same-sex marriage, and abortion rights; they dislike death penalties and national health care: “How can iGen hold these seemingly contradictory beliefs?” asked Jean Twenge, psychology professor at San Diego State, already in 2017. Well, she continues:
“In short, because they’re libertarians (or at least more libertarian than their elders). iGen was raised in a highly individualistic culture favoring the self over the group; phrases such as ‘do what’s right for you’ and ‘believe in yourself and anything is possible’ echoed through their childhood.
Libertarianism is as close to cultural individualism as can be found in the political arena, favoring individual rights and fighting against government regulation.”
All successful ventures, including monetary commodities, benefit early-adopters over late arrivals. And for some of the grandest ventures of the last years, libertarians have long been on board. In this sense, bitcoin is a wealth transfer from statist boomers to individualist, anarchist, and liberty-friendly youngsters. If I could wage a guess, I’d say that the political leanings of Teslanaires are disproportionately pro-liberty.
As of course are the technologically savvy outcasts and others early to the bitcoin party: like how I first heard about the wonders of Austin from libertarians, it was libertarians who told me, showed me, and taught me about bitcoin over the last half-decade. (It is a neat coincidence – or is it? – that the bitcoin-financial services company Unchained Capital is located in Austin.)
Maybe I’m just the victim of an elaborate after-the-fact selection issue: maybe I just remember the precursors to what actually happened, and conveniently forgot the signs that indicated an outcome that didn’t come to pass. Most people who call flourishing futures for the ideas whose times have come are wrong.
Still, from where I’m standing, the corona madness and infantilizing political landscape aside, it does look like the twenty-first century might be the century of true freedom.