The last section of this article “Libertarianism on the Net” is not my own, but is built from ideas communicated by other Kuro5hin participants. I took this article out of the voting queue last time around because there were so many good counterpoints and suggestions in response to it. I have incorporated them where possible. While I cannot shoulder credit for most of the ideas in the last section, I have reworked all of them enough that any blame for imperfections of logic or evidence should be my own.
A meme is a viral unit of cultural transmission. Its host is the popular consciousness. It survives by attacking, infecting, assimilating, and reproducing in its victim's psyches.
Mike Godwin was world's first conscious meme warrior.
In Meme, Counter-meme, he refers to Godwin's Law as “a project in memetic engineering.” He writes:
“Not everyone saw the comparison to Nazis as a 'meme'—most people on the Net, as elsewhere, had never heard of 'memes' or 'memetics.' But now that we're living in an increasingly information-aware culture, it's time for that to change. And it's time for net.dwellers to make a conscious effort to control the kinds of memes they create or circulate.”
Godwin recognized that on-line discussions invariably bog down in useless Hitler or Nazi comparisons whenever any serious topic is discussed. Memetics caused him to identify this phenomenon with a “Nazi-comparison meme.” To combat it, he developed a counter-meme, Godwin's Law. The counter-meme spread successfully and the evil Nazis were banished. Or something like that.
Godwin's keys to success were thinking of Nazi comparisons as a meme, and then understanding how any counter-strategy also needed to function as a meme.
The advent of Rationalism during the Enlightenment has opened up human consciousness to infection by a whole host of new attackers.
There are certain types of rationalist thought-memes that thrive on the Western political process. It is very easy to analyze any economic problem from Marxist principles. Or from libertarian principles. Or from liberal principles. Or from conservative principles. These memes provide a method of thinking that guarantees that you will sound convincing. Being right is another matter.
Most real world problems do not have completely rational solutions. Human nature possesses too much complexity for rationalism to ever succeed in correctly framing the world. This makes tradition and existing social structures—generally formed through a combination of both reason and generations of trial and error—the first targets of rationalist ideologies.
Ideologies work through bypassing the complexity of real life that prevents easy answers. If a normal uninfected person is asked a difficult moral or political question, he will have to think hard about it. He will have to weigh pros and cons, evaluate uncertainties, and then arrive at a conclusion. There is no guarantee that the conclusion he arrives at won't be highly provisional.
For an ideology-infected individual the process is radically different. He starts with a set of first principles that tells him all the answers. All that he has to do is reason them out for a particular case. The infected person functions as a machine carrying out a calculation according to a set program. While sane people will listen to reasonable criticism, he will vehemently defend a conclusion that he may only have arrived at a moment before.
David Sucher has an anecdote about this type of mental functioning. Edward Said was Sucher's first English Composition teacher at Columbia. Sucher relates this discussion from his class:
“One day that [F]all Said sat on the edge of the desk and asked us this simple question, and of course I paraphrase:
“'Have you ever had a conversation with someone who always had the answer? No matter what you say, they always can refute you. They've always got an answer. And what seems like a pretty good answer?'
“By this time we all had enough sense to nod only dimly so as to avoid attracting attention. Duh. 'Yes.':
“'Have you ever thought about why they are so successful at debate?'
“'Well it's simple. You find such people—those who always have what looks like a cast-iron bulletproof answer—among groups who take part in a fully-formed and rounded ideology. Catholic priests, Communist organizers, zealous adherents to an ideology—any of them will be able to take your question, digest it within their intellectual framework and spit it back. Their intellectual system is powerful enough to handle any challenge. Or so it appears. They're hard to talk to, hard to beat in argument because their system has an answer for every question.'”
The function that ideologies perform in rational discussion is to bypass complexity. Once armed with a few general axioms of the “always this,” “never that” variety, there is little need for anything but pure logic in dealing with a hard question.
The One Meme to Rule Them All
Libertarianism is a specially virulent example of an ideological meme infection.
Part of Libertarianism's success has to do with the failure of Communism, the collapse of faith, and the advent of the sexual revolution. All these events contribute to a Zeitgeist favorable to Libertarianism.
But the real advantage of Libertarianism is its simple axiomization. To be a good libertarian, one only needs to know that authority is always evil and that freedom is always good. Since the meme comes in a small package, its process of indoctrination needs to take only a little time on communicating main principles. Once those principles are grasped, colonization of the psyche can begin immediately.
This small rule-set makes the functioning of the ideological program very efficient. This especially rewards people who put a high priority on rationalism and being able to reason things out from first principles. Real world complexity far dwarfs their simple rule-set solution. But the fact that Libertarianism allows rationalists to play to their strengths—reasoning things out—and avoid their weaknesses—weighing preferences and uncertainties—more than makes up for this lack.
A Subset of Libertarianism
Moral Libertarianism, a part of the libertine impulse, triumphs for another reason. Moral Libertarianism can be summed up as the philosophy “if it does not affect me directly, it's not my concern.” According to Roger Scruton in his famous article Bring back Stigma:
“It is now orthodox to regard social stigma as a form of oppression, to be discarded on our collective quest for inner freedom. But the political philosophers and novelists of former times would have been horrified by such a view. In almost all matters that touched upon the core requirements of social order, they believed that the genial pressure of manners, morals, and customs—enforced by the various forms of disapproval, stigma, shame, and reproach—was a more powerful guarantor of civilized and lawful behavior than the laws themselves. Inner sanctions, they argued, more dependably maintain society than such external ones as policemen and courts. That is why the moralists of the eighteenth century, for example, rarely touched upon murder, theft, rape, or criminal deception; instead, they were passionately interested in the small-scale mores on which social order depends and which, properly adhered to, make such crimes unthinkable.”
According to Scruton, this has had the opposite effect of what libertarians intended:
“Stigma has evaporated in our era, and along with it much of the constant, small-scale self-regulation of the community, which depends on each individual's respect for, and fear of, other people's judgment. In consequence, the laws have expanded, both in extent and complexity, to fill the void.”
Moral Libertarianism is yet another meme, this one taking advantage of television and other mass-communication technologies as disease vectors. The elimination of stigma is the same phenomenon as lowest-common denominator programming on television. Functionally, the elimination of stigma works because of the mechanics of crowd appeal. If you want to attract a large audience, or get a lot of people to vote for you, or get a lot of people to buy your product, you cannot afford to offend anyone. Morality offends.
Libertarianism on the Net
Libertarianism is to a large extent a middle-class white American phenomenon. Like science fiction, the literature of the white male ghetto—and why shouldn't we have own literature?—much of the Net's early libertarian infection was spread by the out-sized American contribution to its founding and development. Libertarianism takes many of America's ideological founding myths—ideas such as freedom, self-reliance, and tax revolt—as fuel. One arrives at Libertarianism by extending these ideas only a little past their logical conclusion.
The phenomenon is amplified by the fact that early in this century, America lost its frontier. The West was won. Since then, our frontiers have been capitalist in nature. Throughout our history, the American Frontier served as a safety valve for radical individualists, those seeking to make a name for themselves, and people who could not get along in normal society.
Today, the Net serves as this frontier and safety valve. It has been colonized by often-dubious small business startups and by crazy ideological projects of all sorts. It is home to kooks and geniuses of every kind.
Already individualist by nature, the Net often creates libertarians out of these sorts of individuals. Unlike previous frontiers, the Net is not the real world. Unlike a Western border town, there is no need for cops, judges, or lawyers. Libertarianism is seductive to people whose interaction with the outside world takes Net use as one of its main forms.
In the real world, ideologies are implemented by people who see the ideology as a means to gain power. Once implemented, these ideologies have invariably discredited themselves. Libertarianism, not having ever been tried anywhere—no young Caesar has seen it as his chance— has no real world results to drag it down. There were no libertarians in the seventeenth-century Scottish Highlands.
The Net rewards crackpots and nuts in a way that the real world does not. People who society keeps at a distance are free to behave unrestrainedly on the Net. Nuts have more stamina, one of the key factors to holding on-line arguments. Not only do these people tend to be highly individualistic—one of the keys towards getting sucked into libertarian ideological conformance—but they also tend to be enamored of their own reason. The rest of the world cannot understand their genius. Libertarianism plays on this hubris with a rational outline for how the world should work. Its cousin-cult, Objectivism, goes even farther down the road of self-reason worship.
People with technical backgrounds, often nerds, are the first-adopters and the designers of everything that makes the Net work and play a large role there. Like the crackpots, the nerds tend to be conscious of their own social inferiority—Paul Graham claims that nerds spend their time improving their intelligence rather than fighting for popularity—and they are gullible when it comes to having their rationalism pandered to.
Nerds are especially attracted to an ideology like Libertarianism that can seemingly eliminate complexity from the real world and make all human problems into logic puzzles to apply their special set of principles to. On the Net, the social arena where their competence shines best, those nerds infected by the libertarian meme have gone a long way towards evangelizing their beliefs.
Thrasymachus is the pen-name of Joel Eidsath. A far reduced version of this piece appeared on his old blog. He has a recently revamped and improved blog at blogger.com. He also writes an online Fantasy novel serialization, Noname Chronicles