Are you optimistic? Because I sure am. That may sound like a ridiculous statement to make amid a pandemic, where lots of people are (still) in lockdown and many restrictions are in place, the economy is crumbling and the inflation rate is getting higher almost every month. As if that were not enough, political chaos and perplexity go hand in hand with all of that. How can I be optimistic in times like these? Let me tell you.
You and I are living in fascinating times. In times of permanent disruptions – socially, technologically, economically, politically. In times filled with opportunities for “the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in square holes – the ones who see things differently.” In the rare spots in history where people in retrospect will be amazed about the general blindness to the transformations happening before our eyes. In times of constant change. In short, in revolutionary times.
Just look at a few things that completely changed in the last 30 years – within a generation:
If you choose to, you can connect with almost any people within mere moments – via instant messengers, social networks, mobile phone calls, or e-mails.
You have access to the information of billions of people without ever having to make personal contact with them.
You have a smartphone that is probably vastly more powerful than supercomputers from a generation ago – and these supercomputers weighed over 2000 kilograms!
You can buy, watch and read almost anything online, whenever you choose to buy, watch or read.
You can encrypt your information with robust technology, protecting your information if and whenever you want to.
3D-Printing enables you to print almost everything you want and reduces the costs for many of the goods you wish to have.
You now live in a world where much fewer people live in extreme poverty – about 9% of the world population compared to 35% a generation ago.
You have much more effective and efficient healthcare technology at your disposal, leading to even longer (healthy) life spans.
Isn’t that mind-boggling? What is also amazing is that these were not changes that a government agency did plan. If anything, governments were in the business of preventing some of these changes. For example, governments tried and still try to hinder the usage of strong encryption. These changes were unintended consequences of enhancements and innovations by courageous individuals – enhancements and innovations often introduced without asking the government for permission beforehand. That drives the revolutions we are experiencing in many areas of our lives.
The main reason for all these dramatic improvements is apparent. To different degrees, the enhancements and innovations all abolish barriers, make it easier for individuals to act according to their preferences, and sometimes drastically raise the price of paternalism and violence. That is why even minor enhancements and innovations as a whole will be more transformative than most people expect.
One area where they will bring about radical change is the area of politics. You, I, and most other people live in a situation where politics seems to be all-encompassing. According to many people, there is no way to be un-political. At the same time, the cost of supporting governments and other political institutions has reached unsettling heights. I am not speaking just of monetary cost here. I am also speaking of moral and social costs. In other words, politics has become a burden – an unbearable one for many people. If that government that governs least is the best one, we live in an age of atrocious governments.
In some ways, this is not without precedent. At the end of the middle ages, religion was almost all-encompassing. And similar to politics today, religion at that time became an unbearable burden for many people. That led to opposition and revolutionary tendencies, damaged the support for and the credibility of religious institutions, and eventually led to less religious influence in people’s lives.
The decline of politics will happen similarly. To be exact, it is already happening. And it is happening much faster than the decline of religion: The decline of politics will, in all likelihood, not take place over a few centuries. You and I may live to see most of the effects of this revolution. We are already seeing the first ones: Free information flow on and decentralization of the internet, the Arab Spring, Cryptocurrencies, Wikileaks, digital black markets, resistance via hacktivism, perpetual travelers as well as digital nomads, the sharing economy, culture wars, and many more.
Insurgents, fringe political parties, innovative startups, hackers, loosely organized activists, upstart citizen media, leaderless young people in city squares, and charismatic individuals who seem to have “come from nowhere” are shaking up the old order. Not all are savory; but each is contributing to the decay of power of the navies and police forces, television networks, traditional political parties, and large banks.
Moisés Naím – The End of Power
All these events and structures have one thing in common: They manifest a cultural revolt against politics and majority opinion. They are symptoms of the liberation of individuals at the expense of politics and political institutions.
For most people, such an assessment sounds very pessimistic. I understand that, and I also understand that many people are scared of the possibility of a sudden, crash-like collapse of political institutions. After all, most of us grew accustomed to these institutions – they are sometimes even a source of comfort and safety in increasingly uncertain times. Also, is it any wonder if people are scared of the possibility of failure of institutions they are dependent on, even if they accept that the institutions work in a far-from-ideal way? Can you blame them for defending such an institution if they cannot see any alternative institutions?
My optimism stems from these alternative institutions and their evolution. Even though the decline of politics will be painful for many people in the short term, it is the ruins of this decline on which better institutions can evolve. Just look back at what effects the decline of religion had: It started an age of discovery, scientific breakthroughs, intellectual vigor, and wealth creation beyond the wildest imaginations of just a few generations prior. We are likely on the verge of another such age, provided we accept the short-term pain and ensure that institutions are in place to aid the transition.
These institutions will not happen by themselves. It is your responsibility, my responsibility, and the responsibility of everyone else to build them, to make them happen. Let us work for a free, prosperous, and cheerful society full of opportunities. Every single one of us is shaping our future. And from where I am standing, this future looks bright.
Arise, you have nothing to lose but your barbed wire fences!
The AEC’s fundamental goal is to promote a free, responsible and prosperous society. Through education and improving public understanding of key economic questions, the AEC promotes the idea of a free market economy and the ideal of a free society.