Is Steven Johnson a Libertarian, or am I a Peer Progressive?

Future Perfect1
As a self-proclaimed libertarian and a Millennial raised in the age of information, there have always been certain aspects of Libertarianism that I found most compelling. I believe in the power of capitalism because free markets enable the flow of information, and information abundance leads to innovation and progress. I get excited about decentralized power structures and self-organizing systems because I distrust the experts and authority figures who presume to know better than the collective knowledge of a large system of individual agents. I grew up on the Internet, where I quickly learned that the millions of contributors to Wikipedia knew more about most subjects than my teachers, and networked social media users without central leadership proved to have a louder voice than authoritarian regimes around the world. As a digital native, I take it for granted that, if a product I see at the store seems a bit expensive, I can probably find it on Amazon for a better price, thanks to a more dynamic and competitive system. Now, if I don’t want to use a centralized currency to shop online, I can use Bitcoin, or any number of other digital currencies.

So when, in his 2012 book Future Perfect, author Steven Johnson makes his case for decentralized community planning, distributed funding platforms, and peer-to-peer information sharing inspired by the foundations of the Internet itself, I often found myself convinced that I was listening to a fellow libertarian. However, Johnson makes a clear distinction between Libertarianism and what he calls the “Peer Progressive” movement. “Unlike traditional libertarians, peer progressives do not believe that markets are capable of satisfying all of our human needs,” he explains. “This is where the experience of the Internet has been particularly instructive. When it came time to satisfy, on a global scale, that basic need for communication and the sharing of knowledge, the best solution turned out to emerge from open collaborative networks, not from private competition.” Johnson argues that “market failures” are the rule, not the exception, and the best solution is to build distributed networks like Wikipedia and Kickstarter to address the areas that traditional markets miss.

In fact, Johnson seems rather nervous about being associated with the term libertarian, and quite frequently throughout the book he is careful to remind us that Peer Progressivism is “as different from the state-centralized solutions of the old Left as it is from the libertarian market religion of the Right.” These intermittent reminders served to keep me from getting too excited, yet at the same time made me wonder whether the distinction was really as clear he made it out to be. For one, many of the particularly progressive aspects that Johnson provides as proof don’t really seem so anti-libertarian to me. Sure, Kickstarter does not provide any chance of a return on one’s investment, relying instead on a graduated “perk” system, but it is nonetheless a marketplace, in which consenting individuals enter into a mutually-beneficial transaction. Johnson asserts that not all incentives need be monetary, and I agree. I would ague that, while the monetary incentives involved in a Kickstarter contribution don’t seem balanced (the perk is rarely worth as much as the contribution), the personal value of contributing to a cause makes up for the lack of monetary incentive. In essence, the parties involved trade some monetary sum for a gift and the feeling of supporting a personal interest.

Another area of contention is intellectual property. “Patents – and intellectual property law in general – turn out to be one of the places where the distinction between libertarian and peer-progressive values is most conspicuous.” Johnson quotes Ayn Rand, who defends patent law as the “base of all property rights”. He acknowledges, albeit in parentheses, that “a more radical subset of libertarian philosophy actually opposes intellectual property law”, but I think Johnson is mistaking a general trend for an exception to the rule. If anything, those libertarians who oppose intellectual property are the least radical subset of libertarian, and the one most likely to appeal to younger, tech-savvy voters. And there’s reason to believe that this anti-patent attitude is the norm among libertarians. Stephan Kinsella at reported back in 2010 that “today, most libertarians, especially the young, are very aware of the IP issue and are adamantly opposed to it; they see it as clearly unlibertarian.” “Real property is scarce. The subjects of IP are not scarce,” Jeffrey Tucker explains in his essay “Is Intellectual Property the Key to Success?” Contrary to the Randian defense, “Images, ideas, sounds, arrangements of letters on a page: these can be reproduced infinitely. For that reason, they can’t be considered to be owned.” I have a feeling that Johnson would agree with the common libertarian argument that to impose artificial scarcity through copyright law restricts the free market rather than protecting it.

On other issues, Johnson seems to almost embrace his libertarian leanings, yet there always seems to be a caveat meant to distance himself from the label. For instance, Johnson is frustrated by the state of political campaign funding, which he argues is run by a “handful of tyrannical nobles, exercising their oppressions by a delegation of their powers,” to quote James Madison’s Federalist #39. He argues that, while in theory politicians should cater to their constituents for financial as well as political favor, “in practice, politicians have to focus on the big donors, and the big donors represent a tiny fraction of the wider electorate.” This approach, like the role of angel investors in backing start up businesses, seems increasingly dated in the wake of crowdfunding models such as Kickstarter. Johnson’s solution, taken from the research of Harvard’s Lawrence Lessig, is to adapt this distributed financing approach with what Lessig calls “democracy vouchers,” which would allow voters to contribute a portion of their tax dollars to a campaign of their choice. This system, like the school vouchers favored by libertarian critics of the public education system, aims to leverage the power of free markets by facilitating more participation in the competition for campaign funding. Politicians could still accept donations from big corporations and special interest groups, but they would have to forego the contributions of the general public. Rather than restricting campaign spending, the proposal would allow everybody to put their money where their mouth is.

Speaking of the education system, Johnson also shares the libertarian distaste for teachers’ unions, but makes a point of noting that “the peer progressive doesn’t want to turn our education system over to the private markets, because private markets are not omnipotent.” However, Johnson’s ideal school reform system is modeled after employee-owned businesses, in which employees have a monetary incentive to help their business succeed. This is proposed as an alternative to performance-based pay for individual teachers, which the unions resist because it discourages collaboration between faculty members. “The libertarians,” he argues, “are wrong that public schools should be turned into mini-corporations, driven exclusively by self-interest.” Yet I see very little in this scheme that conflicts with the libertarian desire to establish market-driven incentives for schools to succeed, “where teachers are shareholders in an enterprise that grows more valuable as it reaches its goal.” My only gripe is that Johnson insists that the state must provide the rewards and determine what constitutes successful teaching, though a voucher system seems more consistent with the preference for free markets he expressed in the chapter on campaign financing. Free markets may not be omnipotent, but they know a lot more than the state, and I think Johnson knows this.

Ultimately, I think the peer progressives have a lot more in common with libertarians than they realize. Johnson seems to deliberately avoid being labeled as libertarian because of the term’s association with the Right, which I find unfortunate. Though libertarians tend to see more opportunities to affect mainstream politics by working through the GOP, most of us feel equally at odds with both parties, just as Johnson says of peer-progressives. Libertarian free market capitalism is hardly the “religion of the Right,” and the current pattern of corporate cronyism in no way resembles a truly free market. Certainly, there are still some important distinctions between classical libertarianism and peer-progressivism, but often the significance of these differences is a matter of semantics. My dad used to tell me that there are two kinds of libertarians: big L and small l. “Big L” Libertarians, he said, are concerned more with philosophy, with individual sovereignty and property rights, while “small l” libertarians are more pragmatic, preferring laissez-faire capitalism and limited government because they work better than central planning. I tend not to capitalize my Ls, which is most likely why I related so well to Johnson’s argument for a peer society. Whether Johnson is a libertarian in disguise or I am just a confused peer-progressive, it is clear that there is a growing need for a prominent political party that operates outside of the traditional two party system. Perhaps a coalition of libertarians and peer-progressives is exactly what we need to bridge the gap between Left and Right and make some real progress toward a more perfect future.


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