What would the Founding Fathers have thought about our libertarian crazies?

Modern-day libertarians fancy themselves freedom fighters. How would their fantasies strike our nation's founders?

Topics: Libertarianism, Founding Fathers, 4th of July, American Revolution, Peter Thiel, Editor's Picks, , , ,

What would the Founding Fathers have thought about our libertarian crazies?Ted Cruz, George Washington, Rand Paul (Credit: Reuters/Lucas Jackson/Wikimedia/AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta/Salon)

When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another…

Say whatever nasty things you want about those slave-owning white men that got the US-of-A up and running, but there is little question that the Declaration of Independence offers a compelling rationale for the selfishness of secession. Which raises a question: If the Founding Fathers were posting on Facebook and tweeting on Twitter in 2014, how would they assess the current discontents and escapist fantasies of contemporary techno-libertarianism? The timing seems right for an investigation. The rhetoric of liberty — so essential to the creation of the United States, so beloved by both Tea Party radicals and Silicon Valley startup entrepreneurs — is a Fourth of July weekend staple.

Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams… these men made a winning case for why the colonies should sever their ties to King George III. But what would they think of software engineer (and Milton Friedman grandson) Patri Friedman’s dream to create his own “startup country” afloat in international waters — a libertarian paradise that would “show what a society run by Silicon Valley would look like.” Would they approve of venture capitalist Balaji Srinivasan’s advocacy for virtual secession, his plan to “build an opt-in society, run by technology, outside the U.S.?” You can hardly go a day in Silicon Valley without hearing from a CEO restless to dissolve the political bonds that constrain his disruptive business plan. What could possibly be more American?

In pursuit of clarity on the American Dream, I reread the Declaration of Independence, for the first time in many years. And then I reread John Perry Barlow’s 18-year-old libertarian statement of founding principles for the Internet era, ” A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” And then, finally, there could be no avoiding the manifesto penned by Peter Thiel, Silicon Valley’s most prominent (and richest) despiser of all things governmental.



I confess, my working thesis when I started out was that the Founding Fathers wouldn’t be too thrilled with the selfishness of Silicon Valley. But my faith has been shaken. Yesterday’s King George has been replaced by today’s Congress, and the list of grievances is long in both cases. A great dissatisfaction with the status quo, coupled with the belief that we can do better with less onerous supervision, is as American as apple pie. Ben Franklin might cast a sour eye on how much Facebook paid for Whatsapp, but I’m not so sure he wouldn’t recognize a kindred spirit in freedom fighters of the new economy. All these guys want is independence. What could be more patriotic?

* * *

First let’s consider this passage from the Declaration of Independence:

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burned our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow citizens taken captive on the high seas to bear arms against their country, to become the executioners of their friends and brethren, or to fall themselves by their hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

When we think about the Declaration today, we are most likely to recall the famous passage that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” But the vast majority of the document is actually a long list of grievances. And, one must concede, judged as propaganda designed to rationalize the justice of revolution, it’s pretty effective stuff. Rabble-rousing to the max, one might even say.

But when you boil it all down, the substance is straightforward: We don’t like the way we are being treated, so we are opting out of the current arrangement. Every Silicon Valley engineer who has bolted his employer to form a new startup knows exactly how those proud Virginians felt. Our stock option grants were not generous enough — raise high the standard of revolution!

In contrast to Jefferson’s great screed, Barlow’s “Declaration of Independence for Cyberspace” is a more proactive, forward-looking document, less concerned with the injustices of the moment, more obsessed with the oppression that is certain to come. At the time of its writing, 1996, few would have argued that a latter-day King George was already oppressing the new settlers of the digital frontier. But Barlow was taking no chances:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear….

We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.

We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.

Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here…

These increasingly hostile and colonial measures place us in the same position as those previous lovers of freedom and self-determination who had to reject the authorities of distant, uninformed powers. [Emphasis mine.] We must declare our virtual selves immune to your sovereignty, even as we continue to consent to your rule over our bodies. We will spread ourselves across the Planet so that no one can arrest our thoughts.

Barlow could hardly be more direct in his implication: The citizens of cyberspace were 1996′s equivalent of the Founding Fathers. Their grievances were real, while his were imaginary, but the spirit is the same.

Barlow could also hardly be more wrong. The notion that legal concepts of property do not apply to cyberspace is laughable. (For example: Try asking a woman if she feels comfortable expressing her beliefs online “without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.”) But what’s most striking about this document, 18 years later, is how focused it is on the wrong threat. The control exerted by government in the digital domain is nothing compared to the free-market corporations that colonized the Matrix. What could possibly be more restrictive of “freedom” than the companies that are tracking our every mood or conducting experiments on our emotions or monopolizing our economic behavior. By asking government to stay out, Barlow invited the market to take over. It’s hard to see that as a win-win for freedom.

But even Barlow’s grandiloquence is weak tea compared to PayPal founder and early Facebook investor Peter Thiel. Thiel is a libertarian determined to back up his rhetoric with his unlimited cash. He’s also a major funder of the Seasteading Institute, the organization bankrolling Patri Friedman’s efforts to float his own libertarian sovereignty.

In his 2009 statement of principles, Thiel wrote:

I stand against confiscatory taxes, totalitarian collectives, and the ideology of the inevitability of the death of every individual. For all these reasons, I still call myself “libertarian.”

In our time, the great task for libertarians is to find an escape from politics in all its forms — from the totalitarian and fundamentalist catastrophes to the unthinking demos that guides so-called “social democracy.”

As an entrepreneur and investor, I have focused my efforts on the Internet. In the late 1990s, the founding vision of PayPal centered on the creation of a new world currency, free from all government control and dilution — the end of monetary sovereignty, as it were. In the 2000s, companies like Facebook create the space for new modes of dissent and new ways to form communities not bounded by historical nation-states. By starting a new Internet business, an entrepreneur may create a new world. The hope of the Internet is that these new worlds will impact and force change on the existing social and political order. The limitation of the Internet is that these new worlds are virtual and that any escape may be more imaginary than real. The open question, which will not be resolved for many years, centers on which of these accounts of the Internet proves true.

Thiel’s manifesto is most famous for blaming “the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women” for rendering “the notion of ‘capitalist democracy’ into an oxymoron.” It’s easy to get distracted by his views on suffrage (which, of course, would be quite familiar to what the Founding Fathers enjoyed). But in our get-out-the-vote zeal we should not miss just how how fundamentally radical Thiel’s position is. The Founding Fathers did not deny the authority of government — they just wanted to set up their own government. But Thiel and his brethren want to escape politics altogether!

It seems ridiculous, until you contemplate the possibility that the floating sovereign state to which Silicon Valley plans to emigrate might be populated only by a few guys and a bunch of robots. Suddenly, the great escape seems possible.

And really, what could be more American? The great lure of the founding story of the United States is its tale of successful escape. The Founding Fathers pulled it off — they acted in their self -interest, threw off a burdensome government and, well, made glorious history. It’s no myth. It actually happened. For anyone frustrated with their current circumstances, from 2-year-old toddlers denied that extra cupcake to Silicon Valley CEOs who can’t stand unions and income taxes, the successful pursuit of happiness in 1776 is an inspiration and a roadmap.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...