Politics & Policy

Memories of Futures Past

A brief history of bold new visions of the American order

Alex Seitz-Wald, the poor man’s Hendrik Hertzberg, has in the latest issue of National Journal heaved a Ciceronic sigh and declared that the Constitution “isn’t going to make it,” that it should be replaced by the wise men of our generation, who have “learned what works and what doesn’t.” This sort of essay is practically a genre unto itself. The print version of Mr. Seitz-Wald’s article is headlined “Get Me Rewrite,” as were the Boston Globe’s 2006 essay on the same subject, Lewis Lapham’s 1996 version in the New York Times Book Review, a 1999 San Francisco Chronicle version of the same piece, and a half-dozen other offerings, the main variation being the occasional presence of an exclamation point, as favored by the excitable Mr. Lapham.

Mr. Seitz-Wald’s is not the most intelligent of the selections, but it satisfactorily adheres to the conventions of the genre, which are: (1) the question-begging assertion that our federal government “isn’t working” because it stubbornly refuses to do such things as Mr. Seitz-Wald wishes it to do; (2) the conceit that we have at long last reached the stage in our social evolution at which we can best the work of the founding generation; (3) populist techno-fetishism, which since the first days of radio has been promising to unleash the forces of democracy against the arrayed lines of big business, malefactors of great wealth, vested interests, and the rest of that bunch.

This is mainly a progressive interest, though not exclusively so. Conservatives such as Mark Levin also are interested in making sweeping changes to our constitutional order, though Mr. Levin would work within that order, specifically through the amendment process, to achieve his version of a more perfect union. Mr. Seitz-Wald, on the other hand, writes admiringly of Arthur C. Clarke’s Imperial Earth and its fictitious political system, which “asks the public to choose leaders from a preselected pool of candidates who have been algorithmically chosen for leadership potential.” One suspects that the main attraction of that idea is the opportunity to write the word “algorithmically,” and Mr. Seitz-Wald all but squeals with delight as he considers the new possibilities offered by technological development: “These tools are still in their infancy, but scaled up they could change what democracy looks like in ways we’re only just beginning to imagine. At the extreme, we could theoretically have smartphone-enabled direct democracy, where the public could vote directly on legislation and where Congress would almost be irrelevant. At the same time, Lorelei Kelly of the New America Foundation and the Smart Congress project warns against ‘mob sourcing.’ One glance at what’s trending on the White House’s ‘We the People’ petition platform — e.g., ‘Investigate Jimmy Kimmel Kid’s Table Government Shutdown Show on ABC Network’ — confirms this. Instead, she says, we need something more like Rotten Tomatoes democracy. Unlike typical crowd sourcing, the movie-reviewing site privileges expertise and aggregates reviews for smarter results.” Note the loving use of California business-speak — “scaled up” for “improved,” etc. — and the general undertone of Silicon Valley envy.

Political types are right to suffer from a little Silicon Valley envy. As Balaji Srinivasan noted in his much-discussed Y Combinator talk in October, the tech sector has been putting a serious hurt on what he calls the “Paper Belt,” the traditional centers of power in which nest men such as Mr. Seitz-Wald: New York City’s newspapers, magazines, and book publishers; Boston’s education cartel; Los Angeles’s near monopoly on film and television — and, next up, Washington’s ability to hijack our resources and to tell us how to live. While Mr. Seitz-Wald is dreaming about tapping a referendum app on his iPhone to allow him to sharpen up EPA carbon-dioxide regulations, Mr. Srinivasan notes that innovations such as BitCoin and 3-D printers bring into question whether Washington can effectively regulate us at all.

Mr. Srinivasan — that’s Balaji S. Srinivasan; he uses the middle initial because there are at least a dozen Balaji Srinivasans in the Bay Area, a fact that is itself an interesting indicator — is not entirely immune to the clichés and facile conclusions that mark Mr. Seitz-Wald’s essay. Joking that the United States is the Microsoft of nations, he points to the Constitution and complains that “the code base is 230 years old and written in obfuscated language.” But his ideas are very much in the American tradition, unlike those of Mr. Seitz-Wald, whose “Rotten Tomatoes democracy” is essentially a crude form of might-makes-right majoritarianism with a light complement of technology mostly intended to allow men such as Mr. Seitz-Wald to act as referees. Which is to say, Mr. Seitz-Wald’s political vision is neither new nor fresh, but the oldest vision of all: transferring more power to himself and to men such as himself.

Mr. Srinivasan, on the other hand, constructs his arguments with the familiar language of “exit,” meaning the right to walk away from an arrangement that one finds unsatisfactory. As I have argued at some length, it is the right of exit, and not anything inherent in technology itself, that has produced the radical improvement in the quality of material life seen in the past 50 years. Technology has played a critical role by enabling an ever finer division of labor, but without the exit-based institutions of the marketplace and liberal governance, that would matter much less. Mr. Srinivasan notes that he (and presumably the eleven other Mr. Srinivasans among his neighbors) is an example of exit in action: His father could have stayed in India and tried to reform its economic and social life through the anemic instrument of voting, but it was much more effective to simply move to a more desirable place. (If only he could have voted by iPhone!)

The question Mr. Srinivasan asks is whether under the jurisdiction of the federal government is the most desirable place for technological innovators to be. He is not the only one with that question on his mind. PayPal founder Peter Thiel (whose National Review essay “The End of the Future” is required reading) is involved in sea-steading, a plan to create autonomous free-trade cities in international waters. Google’s Larry Page pines for “safe places” to experiment free of government interference. Contra Mr. Seitz-Wald, these technologists understand that one of the fruitful uses of technology is making it more difficult for traditional centers of power to tell people what to do. It’s always something of an arms race — governments have access to technology, too — but innovation requires a kind of letting go, allowing evolution to runs its course. The dream of consolidating national political power in a unitary parliament wielding both legislative and executive powers with which to expertly manage the affairs of the nation is not an idea from the 21st century; it’s an idea from the 18th century.

It is no surprise then that Hendrik Hertzberg, the upmarket Alex Seitz-Wald, shares his impatience with our constitutional order and prescribes the same remedy: the aggrandizement and consolidation of federal power. Both fundamentally object to the separation of powers: “Latin American regimes,” Mr. Hertzberg writes, “having thoughtlessly aped Uncle Sam, degenerated into dictatorships. It certainly wasn’t because they didn’t have long enough lists of supposedly guaranteed rights in their constitutions. Might it not have been because presidential systems, which invite conflict between their executive and legislative branches, are so bad at making coherent policy and making it stick?”

Avoiding conflict and making it stick are two great themes of Mr. Hertzberg’s, to which end he advocates extended periods of democratically unaccountable governance (he would not put it that way), as opposed to our traditional model of frequent national elections. It is not only fewer elections that our Constitution-unmaking progressives wish to see, but less negotiation across the board, especially negotiation conducted outside of traditional centers of power. The national fit over the baleful influence of “money in politics” is pure reaction, a conniption over the fact that the ability to participate in the national political debate has been extended past the pages of the New York Times and a few minutes on the evening news. The rage runs deep: In the matter of the Citizens United decision, our so-called liberals are after all in support of criminally prosecuting a man for showing a film that was critical of a political figure.

Larry Page may have some boneheaded political opinions, but his idea of an opt-in, unstructured, unregulated space is a genuinely interesting one, especially because he does not attempt to answer the obvious question: “What in the name of God will they do with it?” The answer is that we don’t know, because we cannot know. Who knows what people want, or what they will want? It is characteristic of the middling mind that it can imagine only that which it already desires or already fears. That is one reason why past imaginings of distant futures tend to look so silly — the 1950s “car of the future” and “kitchen of the future” are both ridiculous and ridiculously optimistic: That car may have looked like two-thirds of an Edsel, but it ran on solar power, and nobody in 1955 would have guessed that the kitchen of the future would turn out to be Seamless.com.

Imagined future technology is a concrete expression of the assumptions and aspirations that undergird what we imagine to be rational and practically minded thought, and dreams of new constitutional orders are much the same, if heavier on the hubris. For all its defects, the American constitutional order is, code-base jokes notwithstanding, relatively well suited for the kind of exit-based, experimental arrangements that Mr. Srinivasan contemplates. Limited government leaves room for a large sphere of private life, which is the foundation for those “safe places” that Mr. Page desires to cultivate. It is one of the ironies of our time that a serious attempt to return to the national governing practices of the founding generation would be in fact much more radical than all but the wildest imaginings of our contemporary futurists. (Consider that Abraham Lincoln was a grown man before the world saw the establishment of the first professional police department.) Mr. Seitz-Wald’s alternative, using technology and innovation in the service of a more powerful, consolidated, and monopolistic state, is in an altogether different spirit, one that would have been familiar to George Orwell, who, in his more charitable moments, understood that nobody plans on becoming Napoleon, it just works out that way — something that happens as “they constantly try to escape from the darkness outside and within by dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.”

— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent and the author of the recently published The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome.


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