Utopia - just in time.

phil osborn (philosborn@hotmail.com)
Tue, 03 Aug 1999 20:00:55 PDT

Some time ago - the late '70's, in fact - I realized that it might be possible to reorganize society along libertarian lines without directly confronting the state - at least until we were really ready. I drew up multiple sets of detailed plans based on the idea of local networking - people networking, not computer networking, although I assumed that computers would play a large and increasing role - ruled via arbitration contracts backed by bonds, escrow, insurance and the ultimate threat of exclusion (corresponding to the "outlawing" of the common law courts of ancient Ireland).

Such a network could, I felt, answer real immediate needs, and operate at a substantial profit. For example, the problems of service fraud, especially for consumers, but also for businesses, take a substantial bite out of general production. Auto service fraud runs at about 60%, according to the state investigators.

Similar levels exist for plumbing, roof repair and, in general, every area in which the consumers have little expertise in evaluationg performance.* The occasional law suits are paid off if necessary - usually with silence agreements protecting the service against loss of reputation, which is the only factor that could actually stop the crimes. In the vast majority of cases, however, the consumer never realizes that he - or, more often, she
(women doing 85% of the consumer purchasing today) - is being ripped off.
Every eight years or so the state busts some major players - eg., Firestone, Sears, in auto repair - and then the perps put on a big show of correcting things and everyone forgets until it gets hot enough for "60 Minutes" again.

(*The almost unbelievable waste in computer-related purchasing is another
perfect example of the danger of ignorance. We could easilly have computers today that would be ten times as fast and software a generation more advanced were it not for the total dominance by mass marketing, specifically targeted at ignorant consumers, over quality and substance.)

A 60% loss to service fraud implies a potential profit of the same order to solving the problem. A networking service which could substantially and demonstrably reduce the incidence of service fraud could make it on that alone, based on the figures.

However, a general network contract, which forced all disputes between members into binding arbitration could actually move us rapidly into a pure libertarian society. I envisioned a system in which prisons, punishment, and crime itself were virtually non-existent, as the networking systems would provide investments for education tools, etc., on a personal level to virtually anyone who wanted to be productive, including even basket cases like the orphaned children of central Africa.*

(*Since my original analysis in the '70's, the highly succesful microloans
program has thoroughly demonstrated the economic viability of such low-level investments, even through traditional banking mechanisms. As the internet becomes universally available over the next ten years with the worldwide satellite coverage, a distributed investment system could target world capital efficiently to individuals anywhere on the globe.)

Meanwhile, criminals would simply find themselves excluded to those areas in which they could afford to pay the costs associated with the risks of dealing with them. All communities, roads and services would effectively be gated, and, just as poor drivers pay high insurance premiums today, so access costs would directly reflect other destructive behavior. As the criminals learned how to reduce those risks, their insurance and bond rates would fall, their credit ratings would rise, and the areas where they were welcome would expand to attract their trade.

In the libertarian movement I found little support for these ideas. Most libertarians of that time were convinced that the state would soon self-destruct in a spectacular and violent way anyway and that the way to prepare was to accumulate stocks of food, guns and gold. Even those libertarians who were pioneers in the personal computer movement felt that the big brother state would maintain a monopoly on massive computer power and would use it against us very effectively.s.

Then there were the libertarians who thought that political action was the way to go, and the war between the anti-LP and pro-LP factions occupied enormous amounts of time and resources in the movement. The anti-LPers made destroying the LP via infiltration, sabotage or however a major priority, and, meanwhile, the LP sucked resources away from all the myriad of private libertarian projects that had bloomed in the late '60's, until they virtually disappeared.

(A further cost of the politicization of the movement was that the zeal of
every little libertarian sect to maintain ideological purity virtually ended any serious theoretical work, as any deviation from the politically correct line meant ostracism at minimum, leaving many crucial practical questions and disputes - such as original property claims or children's rights or intellectual - unanswered. This in turn undercut the credibility of libertarianism to the general public.)

Finally there were the networkers, although they were a tiny minority, as the anti-social, rugged individualism school saw little use in networking. I was in contact with a number of these pioneers and presented the idea of using the networking technology to bring about the revolution. They, however, opposed it on the grounds that any such network would, thru its power of exclusion, potentially become just as bad as the state. My argument that multiple competing private networks operating under a least common denominator umbrella of dispute resolution would offer options for people who, for example, wanted to maintain a Kosher social existence, or a traditional Muslim lifestyle, or voluntary socialism, etc., seemed of no avail.

NIH uber alles.

Now, however, it appears that utopia may actually be at hand, in spite of all of them. On the Digital Village radio show of July 31st (see digitalvillage.org for real audio and text summary), there was some major discussion of the problems associated with the conflict over control of domain name registration. More than one of the participants argued that ICAN's intention was to become a virtual government by establishing such things as universal contracts governing access to domain names.

This they (the guests on the program) strongly opposed. Of course, I got the impression that these were the typical Pacifica (KPFK) lefty types, supporting statist "multiculturalism" over the horrors of an implicitly one-worlder, agorist, capitalist information revolution. (I think that these people confuse themselves so much that if someone weren't opposing them they would of necessity fight themselves.)

Let us assume, for a moment, that they are actually in some measure correct about ICAN's direction and intentions. Let's say that ICAN actually does institute some kind of net contract, specifying certain basic rules for being allowed to keep a domain and methods of resolving disputes. There is nothing really to prevent this kind of universal social contract from expanding into exactly the kind of distributed social network that I originally envisioned, in which the states themselves are ultimately simply irrelevant.

I work in the marketing department of a Chinese multinational company and have observed the rapid growth in technologies that allow export/import businesses to control risk in transactions involving foreign partners over whom they have no real legal hold. Such things as letters of credit and dispute resolution agreements make it possible to function efficiently outside the state mechanisms. The internet now makes it possible to bring this to the individual level.


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