Scott Alexander of the Slate Star Codex blog wrote an insightful piece on liberalism’s big problem.
Basically, liberalism is letting people do whatever they want, so long as they don’t infringe on each other. What is infringement, though? Not every kind of trespass or annoyance can conceivably be banned, in any sense of the word. However, a lot of things that aren’t bannable do infringe on someone — in the sense that they are somewhat important (by tradition, common sense, rational arguments) for some people and yet somewhat unpleasant (against their tradition, common sense, rational arguments) for others. What can we do about it?
Please read Scott’s take on this; while longish, it’s well worth your time, as is almost everything he writes.
Of course the simplest answer is that we needn’t really do anything. Can’t we all simply promote tolerance and learn to be happy, regardless of how annoying others might be? To an extent, sure, this is the right way, even the only way. But only to an extent. At some level of annoyance — still below what can reasonably be regulated by law — it’s just too much, for some, to be tolerant about.
As everyone would attest, this is very much a problem in the present. But unlike many other problems of the present, this one is not going anywhere even in the most benign versions of the future. Because liberalism, in the long term, tends to make individuals and groups more diverse: more freedom means less uniformity, and less uniformity means more conflict — and less happiness.
Scott calls his answer to this problem Archipelago.
Admittedly it’s not a very realistic solution. More like a general approach that can, at times, be taken into account. But not very much — at least not at this time.
Archipelago is the ultimate liberalism plus unlimited space and unlimited mobility. The recipe is simple: if you don’t like your neighbors, move out.
Imagine there’s an unlimited supply of islands (they need not be literal islands — can be planets, virtual spaces, etc.) so that any group or individual can claim any free island for themselves to live on. And imagine that everyone can, for whatever reason, easily pack up and relocate wherever they wish. Won’t this be enough for everyone to live their lives in perfect contentedness — annoying no one and being annoyed by no one?
Kind of like Ray Bradbury’s reaction to American racism in Martian Chronicles (written in 1950):
“Did you hear about it?”
“The niggers, the niggers!”
“What about ’em?”
“Them leaving, pulling out, going away; did you hear?”
“What you mean, pulling out? How can they do that?”
“They can, they will, they are.”
“Just a couple?”
“Every single one here in the South!”
“I got to see that. I don’t believe it. Where they going — Africa?”
It’s not quite as simple as that, of course. Obviously, in the current day and age we don’t have unlimited islands or lands to colonize. Also, for all the recent progress in mobility, people are rooted, relocating is hard, and most can’t and won’t move to some faraway land simply because they dislike their neighbors.
Then, even if a peaceful agreement to separate two communities is achieved, there’s that deep-seated conviction that whoever leaves, loses. Why exactly should we go and not them? Only because we’re less numerous? But hey, let’s call in our friends from other islands to settle here and tip the population scales — so we get to inherit this nice land and drive the icky ones away.
And even if inhabitants of each island are happy with each other, islands may be very not happy with other islands. This means hostility and, potentially, violence.
Scott’s answer to that is simple. He imagines some kind of World Government with an authority over all the islands; whenever necessary, the government’s agents descend upon the trespassers, block any violence, and generally arbitrate. The government is assumedly elected by some kind of democratic process: not perfect but (according to Churchill) better than the alternatives.
Another problem is more insidious. Liberalism is worth little if it only provides freedom to groups and not to individuals. Even in the ideal Archipelago, moving away is much easier for a group than for a single person. It’s not just that an individual will have harder time settling on an inhabited island. More importantly, an individual or a small group are much easier to lock in — not necessarily by force but by propaganda, brainwashing, manipulation, social pressure. Few can fight their own group when they’re alone; but even fleeing, instead of fighting, takes courage that not everyone has.
It gets real bad when you think about the children. There’s nothing liberal about a society where children are assumed to always live like their parents. But for a child, emigrating to another island — which might better suit her — is much more difficult than for an adult. Children are physically weaker and psychologically dependent; worse, they may not even know that there are other islands and other communities — because almost everything a child knows, she knows from the adults around her.
In his blog post, Scott acknowledges these problems. He’s got some solutions, too. Suppose Archipelago has freedom of movement enshrined as Article 1 of its Constitution, and the world government enforces this freedom just as it enforces non-violence — coming to the rescue of anyone who is locked in against their wishes. As for children, Scott proposes that at certain age, every child on every island attends a “class taught by a UniGov representative” that would enlighten her about the existence of other communities and other ways of life — even if the adults she lives with won’t own up to it.
Don’t get me wrong. With freedom of relocation and universal knowledge of the alternatives, Archipelago may be not just livable — it’s arguably better (less oppressive, more diverse, more happy overall) than any society that has existed so far. I’m just not sure about Scott’s methods of upholding these rights and freedoms. I think they will be much too easy to subvert and abuse.
For example, what if a community gives birth in secret and hides its kids from the government? What if they teach their kids, years before the government lesson, some purposefully distorted dialect of their language in which the words to be used by the UniGov person will have different meanings? What if they just refuse to teach their kids any universal language at all, and keep their own language secret? You can’t fix that with a single lesson — or even a dozen.
I don’t know, to be honest, if these problems are solvable. But I can, without too much effort, imagine them solved.
I started writing my book in 2008, long before I found Scott’s blog. But there’s uncanny similarity between my Everday and his Archipelago. Though distinct in tone and style, they are both visions of a centerless, amorphous, sparsened world — the two utopias of the ultimate freedom of association and freedom of movement.
And yet Everday is different. It is, should I say, less legalistic. It goes much farther in its utopianness: it is a society without any central government, armed police, or universal laws.
Everday takes a different approach to Archipelago’s vulnerabilities. Let’s take a closer look.
- Preventing violence: Here, I have a rather conventional utopian answer. War breeds war; violence is dependent on culture — which, for all its diversity, has been suppressing violence for millenia. A history of peace and having most violence-breeding mental diseases fixed at the genetic level (Change) make war in Everday unthinkable. There are no governmental peacekeepers: if violence flares anywhere for any reason, it is put out by whoever happens to be near.
- Ease of relocation: The great majority of people and social groupings in Everday are habitually nomadic. The humankind is demographically smaller than it is now; more importantly, its resource footprint on Earth is orders of magnitude lower. With mobile homes and eatfree lifestyles, you don’t need land to settle upon or live off: you are free to roam wherever you like, visiting your favorite spots and seasons but, always, leaving. You don’t need roads: you fly; and you don’t need to be alone to be a wanderer: in Everday, your whole collective (project, fandom) may occupy a castle which never ever lands.
- Enough islands for everyone: For the same reasons, Earth, which seems so small to us with our jet travel, appears much bigger to the people of Everday. The planet is, by and large, a wilderness, used only sparingly for settlement and never for anything ugly and big; if you want to do something of large scale or large energy, just do it up in space (or down in Innerwald). Everday cares for Earth, is always working on making its landscapes more complex and diverse — so that there’s enough room (psychological even when not physical) for everyone to be in.
- The leave/stay arguments: Everday has a whole culture of joyfully leaving, of not staying in the same place for too long, of cultivated nostalgia for the places you’ve been to in the past. Also, not being attached to land, the only material substance that a splitting community needs to divide — Arf — is itself perfectly movable. Uncharitably, one could say that Everday has degraded its foundational freedom into fleedom.
- Preventing lock-in of children: Everday upholds a tradition of open childhood which “exerts a consensus force of a written law” and which treats a community’s children as pretty much public figures — that anyone can, reasonably, get access to. “The point is simply not choosing for those as yet unable to choose for themselves: open childhood affirms it a parental responsibility to go with your child even where you wouldn’t go yourself, experience together as many as different environments, lores, lives as may be practical, play not-your games and tell not-your stories — not unjudgingly but without prejudgement.” There are no government-mandated diversity lessons but anyone can be, and most would want to be, a teacher of the world to a curious child — for a minute or for a lifetime.
It’s not only about kids.
Let’s be real. No matter where the overall society stands, diversity means that some communities will rot — slide into isolationism, cult-like messianism, aggressive delusions. They will try to lure people in and block them from leaving with all kinds of distortion and indoctrination.
The world of Everday has no designated police to deal with those outliers. You know what? It takes liberalism seriously.
But that, of course, can only ever work where everyone is, or at least is willing to be, volunteer “police.” Where, instead of written laws and constitutions, there are some simple universal notions that span all community lores. And where, alongside the close-knit island communities, there’s a substantial demography of free agents — the at-large Stream that washes all the community cells.
Ungrounded, curious, perceptive, the Stream is those who come and go but are always trying to engage you: not necessarily to start (or win) an argument but to probe you, to shake you up, to seed different perspectives in you — and to pick up yours to be seeded elsewhere. Constant bombardment by the Stream minds, their quick gatherings at the troubled spots, their discovery, publicizing, never-ending debating of real and potential aberrations: that’s how Everday cures itself.
It doesn’t work quickly but, given time, Stream erosion flattens the ugliest of Angbands that pop up.
There’s also the Message: a collaborative, slowly evolving, always-on broadcast of the most basic and hopeful truths about the world and its intelligent inhabitants. It’s an eternal and eternally changing song that permeates the world: a call which anyone can hear on multiple wavelengths and modalities — which anyone, no matter how remote or locked-in, can receive and decipher with minimal equipment.
There is no quick and easy solution. There’s certainly no guaranteed solution that can be legislated once and for all. If solvable at all, it is only solvable as a dynamic equilibrium between the disease and the immune reaction of society.
No doubt, both the Archipelago and (especially) the Everday tend to seem extremely counterintuitive — almost absurd. We’re conditioned, by our entire social evolution, to see power in numbers, in uniformity, in solidarity: “divided we fall” and all that.
Geeks and roleplayers taking over the world? And tearing it to shreds? You wish!
Also, how is this not regress if what this kind of society looks most similar to is pre-state, pre-city hunter-gatherer tribes? (Well… minus violence/wars, if you’re willing to buy that claim. And, assumedly, plus some advanced culture and technology — but how long will those last if any tribal chief can easily turn them off?)
Again, I have no final and fool-proof answers to that.
I also see other dangers. Forking is freedom but it’s also death: a well-timed fork may revitalize a project — but more often, too much forking for petty reasons may kill it. If not counterbalanced, runaway splitting may grind society to a halt: when communities become too small, the motivation to actually do something evaporates. Death by atomization is real.
Then, if splitting off becomes really easy, people may be choosing their islands for all the wrong reasons. Human mind has exploitable vulnerabilities; I’m sure future humans will patch some of them, but more and worse ones may well be discovered — or even constructed. Would Jesus have had even that small bunch of apostles he attracted if not for the core of his message: that the time is near, that the Judgement is coming any day? If not for — to put it simply — blatant fear-mongering which, for most of his followers, obscured whatever he had to say about morals? Did he even have any moral teachings not reducible to “these being the last days, we must all double down on being good”?
And yet — and yet! — I do consider some kind of Archipelago or Everday to be not just a future worth working towards: I think it’s also the most likely version of our future. It’s just the general direction we’re all heading already. It’s a future that is natural — unstrained: not a belabored utopia or dystopia but simply the most probable eventual outcome, given where we’re now. “Just let everyone do what they want already.”
It may be a stable attractor — that final shore in the shining West that every civilization, after all the pain and stupidity and apocalypse, is bound to reach.
What does this imply about our historical present? Do we already observe signs of archipelagization — “balcanization”? Does it do us any good? For example, we’ve just created a virtual space of the Internet where it’s already free and effortless to make any number of islands for virtual communities. Did that make us more diverse, more peaceful, more content? Opinions vary but I rather side with those who say that yes, it did, overall.
I also think that, outside the Internet, the world is on the cusp of becoming more accepting towards separatist movements. Because, you know, fighting those who want to peacefully divide a country has precious little rational or moral justification. A breakup may be an inconvenience, but we are probably rich enough and safe enough, by now, to afford it — if only it makes someone happier.
In the end, sure, no one has ever predicted distant future with any believability. The kind of utopia you prefer depends more on your personal predispositions than on anything else. Perhaps Scott and I are deluding ourselves by imagining just the kind of society we would love to be in.
Wisest men can’t foresee the future. But even the most deluded can change it.