Peer Progressivism vs. Network Libertarianism

Max Borders

Steven Johnson's new book is out. You may know the writer from his work on innovation and emergence. (I’m a big fan, myself.) Johnson has now produced something of a manifesto on what he calls "peer progressivism” in a book titled Future Perfect. The idea of peer progressivism is that peer networks will accelerate our civic engagement, especially at the local level. So far so good.

Recently, however, I came across Oliver Burkeman’s review of Future Perfect for The Guardian, which Johnson himself (in a tweet) called "nuanced." To be fair, I haven't read Future Perfectnot yet, anyway. So unfortunately you’re getting something rather "meta" with this column, a review of a review. As we’ll see, the Guardian review is nuanced to the extent that its libertarian caricatures are rich and its straw men are stitched up tightly with plausible misunderstandings about our worldview.

I never thought Johnson was a libertarian. But I thought he might lean that way. After all, once you appreciate the idea of self-organization in the natural world, it's a short step to appreciating emergent order in society. Johnson gets self-organization. But what he fails to appreciate, I think, is the extent to which such orders emerge and thrive without central authority. Progressivism, after all, is an authoritarian doctrine at root due to its reliance on State power. Does sprinkling in technology or adding “peer” to the front end fundamentally change that? My goal for this column is not to review Johnson’s book, but to clarify what we might call “network libertarianism.”

From Burkeman’s review:

But this identification of progress with free-market libertarianism, the technology writer Steven Johnson contends, is as mistaken as Legrand-style central planning. Real progress, he argues in Future Perfect, emerges from "peer networks" such as the internet because they're open and collaborative, not because of private, profit-motivated competition. His book is a call to support what he presents as a new kind of politics, based neither on traditional left-wing ideas of big government nor traditional right-wing ideas of big markets. "We believe in social progress, and we believe the most powerful tool to advance the cause of progress is the peer network," he writes, describing himself and his fellow-thinkers. "We are peer progressives."

That passage makes me want to channel Bugs Bunny: He don't know us very well, do he?

Before going into my concerns about Burkeman’s review, I'm reminded of what Milton Friedman said after finding himself chatting in New York’s intellectual salon:

[W]hen they heard real arguments instead of caricatures, they had no answers, only amazement that such views could be expressed by someone who had the external characteristics of being a member of the intellectual community, and that such views could be defended with apparent cogency. Never have I been more impressed with the advice I once received: "You cannot be sure that you are right unless you understand the arguments against your views better than your opponents do.”

New York-based Burkeman does not understand our arguments better than we do. And, I fear, neither does Steven Johnson.

“Peer progressivism” seems to be built either on one big misunderstanding about markets, or one big philosophical difference about authority. Consider Burkeman’s claim that "collaborative peer networks outperform free-market arrangements all the time." Well, maybe. The trouble is, by libertarian lights a collaborative peer network is a species of market. I claimed as much in a tweeted reply to Steven Johnson himself. In his response to me (which I was honored to get), Johnson wrote: "@maxborders I think it's the reverse: markets are peer networks, as I say in the book; but not all peer networks are markets." Hmmm. Are we talking past each other?

Maybe Johnson is right to point out the trouble with our libertarian shorthand. It’s true that when network libertarians say “market,” people sometimes hear “big business.” What Johnson may not realize, however, is that we libertarian types have quite a liberal definition of markets. Indeed, most of us would define a market as any system in which a participant in said system can pursue some value through voluntary interaction. Is that definition too broad? Or should we libertarians lose all the “markets” talk? Because when it comes right down to it, we are more interested in the voluntary nature of interaction and not whether the interactions are transactional per se. We have come use the term "markets" in contrast to "mandates."

I suppose one could define market narrowly, as Johnson and Burkeman do. And we would not want to throw out all market prices or private property with the bathwater. But we network libertarians are far more interested in rules that reduce “transaction costs” in the Coase/North sense. And of course we want to preserve the human dignity that comes with freedom, not to mention the true communitarianism that arises when communities actually self-organize. I suppose we could restrict the term “market” to transactions for immediate profit. But then we’d just have to stop using the term “market” for what we actually mean. We would not have to change our position.

Or we could keep our liberal definition that includes interactions among peers and value systems that arise from communities of cooperation. To us, markets are big enough to include peer networks because the latter are also just systems of value creation. These peer networks are libertarian to the extent that joining is voluntary and exiting is fairly low cost. I cannot, for example, exit the U.S. healthcare system or tax code without significant cost to me. But I can exit a mutual-aid society or Facebook group at fairly low cost. Indeed, lowering the cost of exit and experimenting with new social operating systems are the central ideas behind seasteading (which unfortunately, Burkeman characterizes rather crudely.)

So markets may include direct one-to-one exchanges, resource pools, crowdsourcing, micro-donation, co-ops, favor exchanges, reputation systems, communities, mutual aid associations, few-to-many exchanges and even online commons (like wikis). Because a market, under a network-libertarian construal, is just a system of voluntary association, we see no conflict with many of the goals of the peer progressives. Even if you wanted to let "peer networks" be the umbrella term and "markets" fall under it, that’s fine too—as long as participation is not compelled. Again, maybe our definition of “market” is too liberal. But I think Johnson’s “nuanced” reviewer would have a hard time stuffing any libertarian straw men if he had to reckon with all such voluntary systems—whatever you want to call them.

It may be that the critical difference between network libertarians and peer progressives is that the latter really do have a soft spot for authority and authoritarian democracy. It may be that, while peer progressives talk a big game about equal relationships, in their hearts they share old progressivism’s fetish for power and planning—dynamics that can only work by subordinating some people to others. You might want the digital hive to bestow power, but is that a future perfect? Not by our lights. At least peer progressives and network libertarians agree about one thing: most government is too powerful and many corporations are too powerful. Now if we could just agree that each form of organization gets its power from the other in a perverse corporate-state mutualism we call crony capitalism.

Vincent Ostrom wrote that “the most radical source of inequalities in human societies is the ‘ruler-ruled’ relationship. The fashioning of a truly free world depends upon building the fundamental infrastructures that enable different peoples to become self-governing.” Progressivism, past or peer, originates in that ruler-ruled relationship—even if your peers have more say about who rules you.

Max Borders is editor of The Freeman and author of Superwealth: Why we should stop worrying about the gap between rich and poor.