Balaji S. Srinivasan recently posted an interesting essay entitled How to Start a New Country. Then, he offered a prize of up to $100 for the best reviews of his post. Do I want $100? Yes, a little. Do I want $100 from Balaji S. Srinivasan? Yes, a lot. Well, enough to motivate me to write a blog post about a topic I am already interested in.
Ok, so let’s get to it.
My understanding of the main point of the original post:
We can start a new country by organizing people online .
My main criticism of the original post:
We should be organizing micro-communities, not nations.
First, let’s talk about what a nation is. Here are a few possible definitions:
List 1: Some Things Nations Do
- Land — A nation holds ultimate authority over a piece of land, and is capable of defending that control (i.e., using diplomacy or military)
- Law — A nation holds ultimate authority over a legal system
- Services — A nation collects taxes and provides services like law enforcement, public education, retirement income, health insurance, etc.
- Representation —A nation identifies and organizes the will of a people (i.e., elections or authoritarian control)
I think the main reason Balaji wants a new country is that he isn’t satisfied with his representation. That is, the US does a good job of holding land, enforcing law, providing services, etc. for the most part, it just has inefficient or ineffective or un-representative politics. Alternatively, he just doesn’t think he is getting a good return on his taxes.
But let’s just assume for a moment that Balaji is mainly concerned about how to organize and represent the will of the people. Why would we want such a thing? Let me provide three possible reasons:
List 2: Some Reasons to Organize People
- Achieving the Will of the People (or alternatively for paternalists, the Good of the People) is meaningful in an of itself, like achieving the Will of God
- Organizing a lot of people effectively can lead to really amazing and utilitarian outcomes that we find interesting, like colonizing mars, solving poverty, stopping global warming, or preventing a pandemic
- Organizing people is fun (i.e., LARPing)
#1 is a bit facetious, but this kind of thinking does seep into our political discourse. Also, on some level I think every nation needs a kind of spiritual attachment to their form of organization, a civic religion if you will. Anyway, I am not going to spend too much time on #1, but it’s there.
I think Balaji is mostly interested in #2. Basically, if we could solve politics we could solve every other problem we face. Now, let me differentiate item #2 from list 2 from item #3 from list 1. Balaji doesn’t just want to organize people to do the same old thing that we always understood nations to do a little more efficiently. I think he thinks that organizing people better will lead to a bunch of amazing new things that the current forms of organization are incapable of doing.
Maybe this is true. In fact, I will grant that this is probably true. The world needs bigger and more efficient organizations to solve bigger problems. However, there is one really big problem that bigger and more efficient organizations can’t solve and this is that big, efficient things destroy our soul.
If you haven’t read Scott Alexander’s Meditations on Moloch, go read it now. Basically, the idea is that new and inefficient things tend to make tradeoffs available that undermine our ultimate happiness.
Consider the two main technological revolutions in human history: agriculture and the industrial revolution. There is reason to believe that while agriculture made organizations bigger, it made individuals worse off. Then, the industrial revolution made organizations even bigger and more powerful (i.e., the modern nation state), it made humans anxious and insane.
So what can we do about it? Turn back the clock? No, but we can LARP!
That’s right. Historically, new forms of organizing people generally lead to terrible new ways of living for individuals. But organizing people is still fun. In fact, in my view one of the main reasons that large organizations end up destroying our soul is because they deprive us of some of the social nutrients that were freely available to our primitive ancestors. They deprive us of the ability (or make it economically infeasible) to organize ourselves on a small scale and LARP our own solutions to our own problems.
That is, the more problems we try to solve with huge, efficient organizations, the less sense it makes to organize ourselves on a small scale (i.e., at a scale where most people can actually have a noticeable impact on the outcome) to solve those same problems. Why get together with your buddies to hunt when you can go to the grocery store and buy factory farmed chicken?
But this does lead to a potential new use for a new form of organizing large groups of people. Perhaps a new online nation could be more mindful of letting small groups of people build their own bubbles and solve their own problems than the current nation.
Of course, we wouldn’t be the first people to try something like this. Thomas Jefferson’s concept of Agrarian Democracy was based on the supremacy of independent family farms (although the name is somewhat ironic given what we now know about the history of agriculture).
In conclusion, in my view item #3 on list #2 is actually the most important reason to seek new ways of organizing people. It’s not just that organizing is fun, it’s that organizing people in the context of Dunbar-sized (aka human scale) groups is essential for our psychological well being. And large scale organizations tend to eliminate the physical need for smaller groups, and thus meaningful opportunities for people to engage in this kind of hyper-local politics.
So, unless the new online nation provides a convincing model for how to revitalize micro-communities, I will take a pass and focus on LARPing with friends and family.