Today there is no territory left to settle, but human freedom is about to enjoy a renaissance.
Imagine we’re standing on a ridge. We look out on a valley awash in sunlight — surveyors contemplating a new city. We squint and ask: What will it look like? Will it have its own rules, culture, and commercial life? Will it be a bustling metropolis or a constellation of villages?
The Internet has only been with us for about 20 years. If the Northwest Ordinance and the Homestead Acts were legal sanction for expansion across the American continent, networking technologies are invitations for people both to spread out and to connect with others in novel ways. This opportunity has important implications.
For much of history, we have thought of the law and the land as being inseparable, particularly as the conquerors were so often the lawgivers. Not anymore. For the first time, jurisdiction and territory can be separated to a great degree thanks to innovation.
So many of the administrative functions of jurisdiction can increasingly be found in the cloud. It’s early, yes. The network is fragile. But we will soon be able to pass in and out of legal systems, selecting those that benefit us, employing true self-government. It is time to follow Thoreau, who in Civil Disobedience asked, “Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government?”
Already, we can buy and sell using cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin. We can take Lyft downtown, bypassing obsolete local ordinances on the way. Google and Apple are selling us privacy again. These are just the first brushfires of a new form of social coordination in which technology itself makes it possible to upgrade our social operating systems.
Peer-to-peer interaction means we’re a nation of joiners again — on steroids. It seemed for a while we had lost the republic to special interests. But the hopeless calculus of cronyism — concentrated benefits and dispersed costs — is being flipped on its head. Internetworking makes it so we’re enjoying the fruits of the sharing economy — quite rapidly, in fact. Cronies and officials are finding it hard to play catch up.
New constituencies are forming around these new benefits. Special interests that once squeaked to get oil are confronted by battalions bearing smart phones. Citizens are voting more with their dollars and their devices, fed up with leaving prayers in the voting booth. Free association is now ensured by design, not by statute.
Technology that changes the incentives can change the institutions. The rules and regulations we currently live under came out of our democratic operating system (DOS). It used to be that these institutions shaped our incentives to a great degree. Now we have ways of coordinating our activities that go right around state intermediaries, corporate parasites, and moribund laws.
The incentives for social change are strong, so strong that the gales of creative destruction can finally blow apart much of the state apparatus, which seemed impervious to reform. And that’s a good thing for a self-governing people.
That celebrated old historian Frederick Jackson Turner summed up his famous treatise on the American West, agreeing — perhaps despite himself — that the people of the frontier had been moving away from hierarchy:
In spite of environment, and in spite of custom, each frontier did indeed furnish a new field of opportunity, a gate of escape from the bondage of the past; and freshness, and confidence, and scorn of older society, impatience of its restraints and its ideas, and indifference to its lessons, have accompanied the frontier.
But in 1893, as Turner wrote that passage, the frontier had already closed.
Today, the seekers and strivers have reopened the frontier, no longer a peculiarly American terrain. It’s a space beyond nation or territory — without end and without the need for Caesar's imprimatur. As people start to gather there, there will be every form of vice, as in the past. But there will also be rapid advance and innovative wonders. Everything will be subject to continuous trial, error, and revision. And paradoxically, that infinite space in which we can spread out and try new things allows us to be closer than ever before.
We’re becoming cultural cosmopolitans, radical communitarians, and standard bearers for a right of exit. Most importantly, we’re freer than ever before. As my colleague Jeffrey Tucker writes on the workers' revolution, “This whole approach might be considered a very advanced stage of capitalism in which third parties exercise ever less power over who can and cannot participate.”
In this infinite space, there will be little room for political progressives with big plans. They’ll find it difficult to impose hierarchy on the new frontier folk who will run among network nodes. The progressive program, as such, will dwindle down to what Steven B. Johnson calls “peer progressivism.”
Rejecting the dirigisme of today’s progressives, Johnson writes:
We don’t think that everything in modern life should be re-engineered to follow the "logic of the Internet." We just think that society has long benefited from non-market forms of open collaboration, and that there aren’t enough voices in the current political conversation reminding us of those benefits.
Tocqueville couldn’t have said it any better. If such becomes the sum of tomorrow’s progressivism, we might all be headed for a great convergence, where once we were as stark and separate as red and blue.