No Man is an Island

Silly, unAmerican Idealists have found their Ringmaster

“What Jefferson was saying was: we left this England place because it was bogus. So if we don’t get some cool rules ourselves, and pronto, we’ll just be bogus too.”

Spicoli to Mr. Hand, Fast Times at Ridgemont High

There’s a 16-minute video from 2013 that’s become popular with libertarian fantasists that argues that history has a series of “exits,” and, therefore, the most viable solution to systemic problems is “exit.” The alternative is “voice,” which eventually devolves into yelling at a monolith while suffering ever-greater injustices. The U.S. is compared to Microsoft, a company that supposedly collects rents from its consumer monopolies while remaining disengaged from the daily tribulations of common PowerPoint users. Famous “exits” include the Puritans leaving England and Google “exiting” the Microsoft ecosystem.

The video is by exitist Balaji Srinivasan, who has become the Tom Friedman of self-anointed disruptive libertarians. (Friedman is the kid who always raised his hand in class to offer an answer to every question, and who thrives in the intellectual mirk between darkness and dawn so that he’s never really wrong while never being right.)

Rhetorically Corrupt

Let’s ignore all of the smaller problems with Srinivasan’s argument. (And there are many. For example, it’s a middle-school textbook inaccuracy to claim that the Puritans left Europe to escape religious persecution; most didn’t. It’s further inaccurate to claim that the Puritans “exited”; they would have been baffled by such a claim. The Puritans didn’t emigrate; they moved. They separated to reform. And how the “Paper Belt” analogy applies to Hollywood — a fundamentally post-paper industry — is substantively unimportant but otherwise characteristic of Srinivasan’s penchant for promoting middle-school locker-room thoughts as grand ideas.)

Srinivasan begins with the premise that Silicon Valley doesn’t have aircraft carriers. The crowd chuckles and moves on without realizing that if one rejects this unexplored and rhetorically disingenuous statement, then the remainder of the argument (which is all of it) is moot.

The Second Amendment is never mentioned; that same right that the Puritans established not for home defense or in response to car-jackings but rather to tame their government, is nowhere to be found. A discussion about systemic “exit” cannot be serious if takes as premise an ignorance of the most common tool of exit. It becomes obvious at this point that Srinivasan likely is victim of his own rhetorical limitations; he never actually means “exit.” He means “existential threat.” (More on that later.)

UnAmerican

America is not an intentional country; America is the intentional country.[1] It was not created by a series of accidents that one is born into, the problems of which one spends one’s energy navigating resignation and bartering agency for security; rather, America was, quite literally, carefully crafted by a group of people. To fail to consider this intentionality is to miss the enormous impact of agency on the decision matrix available to Americans as Americans. Many Americans do not view the Puritans as an historical curiosity; the Puritans are their forebears. These are the people (along with others) who risked everything to intentionally create a government by, of and for the people. “The people” literally exist — as antecedent and precedent. Their descendants literally exist.

For them, “exit” is not the corollary option to voice/reform/submission but rather unAmerican cowardice. Exit is profoundly foreign. (And now you know what American exceptionalism means.)

Of course, the response is that “exit” isn’t meant literally or isn’t intended to imply concession.

First, for Srinivasan, exit is often literal. Second, exitists obsess about exit in order to obfuscate the genuinely difficult challenge: creating new institutions (and new authorities).

Third, for those who argue that exit means to exit a system in order to create a competing system (of governance, finance, education, etc.) must respond to the observation that such “exits” most commonly build new systems that replicate the perceived defects of the old systems. Historically, “exit” is a change in power; the competition is entirely in authority. The new system otherwise replicates the old system and often catalyzes no change or threat to the old system — hence, no competition. “Exit” may contribute to collapsing an old system, but it does not necessarily contribute anything to building a new one. In the final analysis, most “exits” simply shift power.

At this point, the libertarian fantasist insists that their exits involve distributed and/or algorithmic authority. Such arguments have credibility only insofar as they are criticisms of current systems and authorities; but they are also revelations that the libertarians have not actually considered the problem. When one actually attempts to build such solutions, one finds that authority cannot be rigorously outsourced to robots unless one first assumes prophetic authority (yes, that’s ironic). And outsourcing trust to a foreign algorithm (e.g. other) is the same as solving domestic manufacturing costs by sending the work to China; it is a cheap near-term disruption that will prove to be long-term failure. And key to any such solution is rebuilding trust. (Fun fact: robust money systems are built on trust, not algos or gold. Trust is more durable and dynamic than either. The Chinese did not invent paper money; they attempted to invent paper money but failed because of a lack of adequate social trust. The return to gold stifled their economy for the next six centuries. Bitcoin does not build trust; it outsources it. That’s not a socially scalable solution.)

Individual as Totem

The most significant issue with the libertarian fantasy is that it is predicated on a fetishized understanding of the individual. The modern individual is an Enlightenment promise that an elevated, actuated individual is the catalyst for human flourishing, for progress, for happiness.

For the fantasists, the optimal catalyst and product of modern society is the fetishized individual. Such a concept is foreign to most of Western history (the core of Western civilization is the friction created by the presence of the individual soul in the context of meaning created by community. Libertarians think the issue is individual vs. community; if this is your decision matrix, you’ll always make the wrong decision.[2] Meaning can only be created in communities; individuals can only be actuated by and through communities. The modern “liberated” individual isn’t elevated but debased, which is something of the major theme of early modern Russian literature.)

If one rejects the individual as prime mover, then the libertarian fantasy goes nowhere fast. The question for so many of those exits that Srinivasan seems to admire was never elevation of the individual but rather re/creation of the community. And if there’s friction between the individual and the community, the individual always loses (ask Anne Hutchinson).

It is in this context that, starting in the 19th century, we had to rewrite Puritan history. Despite what many moderns have been instructed to think, drinking, premarital-sex, and divorce were all permitted in Puritan society. Such actions (or vices) were not judged by their individual morality (as an individual operating socially) but rather on their communal impact. Generally, Puritan virtue was a judgement of the individual soul whereas vice was a judgement on communal impact. The rewriting of history flipped this such that virtue was an external act (virtue signaling) whereas vice was an internal act (and thus a private matter). As marriage was a civil contract for Puritans, divorce was permitted; but if you got divorced, the judgement wasn’t one of individual failure but communal impact. The question was not “why did you get divorced?” but rather “how will this impact the community?”

Divorce wasn’t a transgression against the self (or the soul) since marriage wasn’t a sacrament; rather, divorce was a possible transgression against the community. (Is there a single English teacher who teaches The Scarlet Letter correctly? Probably not.) These pre-individualists had vices that affect the soul and vices that affect the community; noticeably absent are vices that effect the individual person. It’s a problem-set that is fundamentally foreign to modern individual fetishists.

The libertarian atomization of individuals (sold to you as “liberty”) may enable non-participation in corrupted institutions and thus contribute to institutional enervation, but it contributes nothing to creating culture or civilization. To argue that such liberated individuals then can contribute more is to argue that they learn, persist, create, thrive without frameworks. Those frameworks are the culture. The primacy of culture is inescapable, not fungible and not globalizable. Individual fetishization without cultural framework does more harm than good for public discourse.

Knowing that the West was on the precipice of this new individual in 1623, John Donne wrote

No man is an island,

Entire of itself;

Every man is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less,

As well as if a promontory were:

As well as if a manor of thy friend’s

Or of thine own were.

Any man’s death diminishes me,

Because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;

It tolls for thee.[3]

Ironically, Donne was in large part addressing the Puritans, who he felt were tempted to leap into the abyss of radical individualism through separation. The Puritans, of course, rejected this claim. Their’s was not exit but threat.

Existential Threat

Ultimately, the goal is not ‘exit’ but existential threat. It’s not to replace with robot authority and algorithmized institution but appropriate authority and renewed institutions. It is to compete; but competition itself does not cause innovation, only existential threat does (reform or die). Such a threat is only a product of another institution of similar function and equal or greater credibility. In the end, such existential threat is derived from creating co-equal institutions.

The primacy of culture and the resulting institutions and authorities is easy to miss for those raised in weak cultures and corrupted institutions. If you don’t have a heritage of building civilizations and their institutions, then the process and value will oft seem elusive despite the personal success you derived from it.

Labeling Srinivasan a libertarian Tom Friedman is probably inadequate. Friedman is a just a standard-issue globalist grifter, already fading into the graveyard of forgotten fads, always parasitic, never creative, the bearded lady at the circus.

In contrast, Srinivasan feeds off the lowest paranoid fears, stirs the cauldron of greed, and tempts the destruction of civilizational knowledge. The core of that knowledge is not in any textbook but rather is the knowledge of the value of right authority, right community, and right institutions. That knowledge lives in the culture, and its destruction is the same objective as the Marxists’. Srinivasan is no Tom Friedman; he’s a P.T. Barnum at the end of a few centuries of that long march, and without constructive energy directed at creating new institutions, he’ll just be bogus too.

Related

Institutional Competition

Politics of Negation

[1] Singapore is a country to the same degree that Disney World is.

[2] The “individual vs. community” question is a modern question designed to promote the legitimacy of the modern individual. Historically, such a question is largely moot as such tension is largely non-existent.

[3] Meditation 17. Worth reading it in its entirety. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Meditation_XVII

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