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The Sovereign Individual

This is a compelling if overly enthusiastic Libertarian fantasia from 1997, replete with bold predictions about the impact of technology on politics. We can now review it with just over two decades hindsight. Boldness often fights nuance in the world of predictions (and stock advisory letters, like the authors ran) – but is their predicted future wrong, or is the onset just delayed?

The book’s central thesis: “Megapolitics” — the highest level consideration of the implication of violence and technology has for politics — is shifting. Gunpowder and the printing press did away with chivalry and the central role of the Church in at the end of the Middle Ages. So too are microprocessors and bandwidth are ending the run of the nation-state (b. 1789, d. 1989). They will make individuals, especially high net worth ones, venue shop for their loyalties as a citizen-customer, or even create their own. Hence the title.

The diagnosis that the nation-state is philosophically collapsing and the waves of backlash against globalism will ensue is compelling even if the timing was off. (It is more spot on that what the book is regularly credited for (the rise of cybercurrency, 12 years before bitcoin but a year after “eGold”.) That individuals should be economically enabled by information to shop for sovereignty also really is astute. In hindsight, why have so few done so? Only Eduardo Saverin comes to mind.

When all the theory is put to the page, why did not either author Davidson nor Rees-Mogg renounce their respective citizenships? Maybe when push came to shove Sao Tome didn’t look that appealing? Rees-Mogg passed away in 2012, too early to see his son take a leadership position in re-establishing the nation-statehood of their home country Great Britain.

But this almost catches them on a technicality. They’d likely reply they were inculcated with the values of the twentieth century and the next generation will be different. Perhaps.

Seeing the triumphant West as merely the “fraternal twin” of the defeated communists is a gutsy call in 1997. The authors believe the ever-more -socializing west with high marginal tax rates just did something better than the Soviets: they took their cut after instead of before production. Both had scale.

The predictive boldness and interesting anecdotes take a conspiratorial turn for the worse towards the end of the work. Bill Clinton is a drug lord, as bad as the prime minister of Columbia his administration had shunned, etc. etc. The lens becomes monomaniacal, seeing little difference between governments and mafia. We are not to worry about sovereign individuals unable to resist some superpower that doesn’t disintegrate because the logic of violence has changed everything.

Will the social welfare state, now with a far higher debt-to-GDP and ever more looming pension liability than when the authors wrote, finally come to a screetching halt? Is Trump, not Bill Clinton, the end game? Quibbles on errant predictions (Italy and Canada are still going strong as unified countries) don’t really diminish my view they may be directionally correct.

There is an attempted philosophical wrap on the importance of trust and traditional social virtues as necessary to the futuristic brief concatenations of individuals, but left off the table was one of those virtues: citizenship. Is a cyber world of contingent contracts, made by high net worth individuals living on various islands around the world, very appealing? So far, not to many. The book often cites the fascinating anomaly of the Knights of Malta as a historical example of the sort of confederation they could envision — and they were looking for renewed sovereignty at press time — but they appear mostly to be a charitable organization today.

If Satoshi Nakamoto reveals himself and mentions this work as inspiration I wouldn’t be surprised. If Nakamoto renounces his citizenship to live on a seastead in order to save on taxes, I would.

Three Stars

Published inBooksPolitics

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