We’re living in times in which ancient and seemingly immutable institutions are being overturned and disrupted by technology.
Uber for traditional taxi cartels, Airbnb for hotels, Bitcoin for finance, Ethereum for (well we’re not so sure yet but we reckon lawyers are going to find their job prospects limited in coming decades). In the pipeline we already take for granted that future cars will be driverless, electric, and connected to our phones. Will we even be using phones or will augmented reality finally become a thing?
Now that we’re comfortable with the norm of disruptive innovation, we have to ask the increasingly nagging question: is there anything in society that can’t be disrupted by something better, cheaper and more enriching than the status quo? Can we, for instance, see the entire legal system disrupted by better dispute resolution? Will prisons be disrupted by effective rehabilitation? Could some new un-thought-of technology or system disrupt global warfare and stumble the planet into an age of peace? Could we expect parliaments to be disrupted with a better form of governance? It’s happened before many times. In my own country of South Africa racial segregation was disrupted by an inclusive constitution in 1996. Like all disruptions it seemed impossible 10 years earlier, but by 1994 it was inevitable. To answer the question of whether we can apply the magic of disruption to anything, we have to understand what disruption really is.
Disruption is Extinction
You probably already have some intuitive sense that disruption is a form of natural selection. That’s why the sunset industries such as typewriter manufacturers in the 1980s are uncharitably labelled dinosaurs by the media. But evolution is complex and isn’t always the classical process of gradual refinement. Sure, in the case of the personal computer, the qwerty keyboard didn’t pop into existence in 1976 but there is no way that a typewriter gradually evolved into an Apple 1. Many different technologies were brought together by a whacky hippy with a temper problem and his engineering friend to make that happen. Disruption is evolutionary but in no way is it gradual.
Picture yourself as a tiny herbivorous mouse-like creature on a quest to eat ferns. Your predators aren’t just limited to snakes. You also have to worry about titanic monsters that rule the planet. Your only protection from these godzillas is to remain really small. Of course being small makes you fair game for snakes but at least it’s only snakes. It would never be a wise evolutionary strategy to evolve into something big because by the time your species becomes the size of a dog, the dinosaurs will stamp you out of existence. So you stay small and furry and develop a profound sense of anxiety. Suddenly a miniplanet eliminates the dinosaurs. Disruption. Now your descendants are limited only by the square-cube law. Snakes are not even noticed by elephants.
Reform is Stagnation
Sometimes, as with the case of the qwerty keyboard, old baggage from previous refinement is brought along for the ride on disruption. The human appendix is a nice example. It’s not that gradual refinement is irrelevant in shaping the future. In fact it’s the pre-requisite to disruption (mammals existed before the asteroid) but quite often the things being refined in the present have no use post-disruption. This is why I get frustrated when I see social commentary about how bad government laws need to be reformed. Political reform is the social equivalent of gradual evolutionary refinement. It’s like our ground dwelling mouse ancestors becoming more agile and developing special cold spots to confuse snakes. It’s all very nice but without exterminating the dinosaurs in the room, we’re really just aiming to be quicker mice. Every legislative reform is also an attempt at making us more comfortable with the snake and mouse way of the world; every reform we pass delays the transition from frightened inconsequential mammals to tigers, lions, dolphins, humans.
State technology is intentionally designed to not be disrupted
The democratic nation state was carefully crafted to be as immune to disruption as possible. This was done for good reasons, mind you. The terrors of arbitrary rule were famously acknowledged in the signing of the Magna Carta (would you rather live under Joffrey or a layer of bureaucrats?). From there, Western Civilization (inspired by the Roman republic and Greek democracy) placed as many encumbrances on the state as was possible. Make no mistake: the purpose of a constitution was never to enshrine human rights. That’s a distinctly 20th century notion. It was to retard and stagnate the machinations of the state; to fasten together the energetic hands of tyranny. Coupled with democracy, we began to buy into the concept that through popular consent, we could bend the state to serve the welfare of the populace. But here too, the constitution has ample safeguards against tyranny of the majority. To safeguard its internal institutions, the state also has to wield absolute militaristic power against both external foes and, more importantly,internal revolutions.
As a species in evolution, the state’s adoption of democracy is one of the cleverest survival adaptations to date. It acts as a pressure release valve against internal rebellion by forcing the population to own the choices of the state. In return for reduced autonomy, a state guarantees its survival through the ballot box. This is why even ridiculous despots attempt to imitate democracy in the hope that they can get the wins of collective buy-in without sacrificing autonomy.
Maybe if I vote for myself, the masses will think they’re free
In the (classical) liberal quest to constrain the state and guarantee maximum human rights, we’ve inadvertently created an immortal life form at the heart of society, a life form designed intentionally to be immune to disruption and difficult to change. As such, we’re conditioned to believe the functions of the state can never be disrupted. Most people believe they shouldn’t be disrupted. Better the evil we know than the chaos we can’t imagine.
The safest way to disrupt the state without hurting anyone: the petri-dish economy
So we have good reason to fear a rickety state that can be taken over by militant extremists at any moment and a super agile state that can abolish your rights with a thought. Braced between two scary alternatives we’ve opted for the stagnant state, impossible to abolish and almost impossible to reform. So is there a safe way to disrupt some of the less desirable features of the state without accidentally unleashing the next Kim or Mugabe?
The good news is yes and the better news is that it’s been tried many times and has been an overwhelming and unambiguous success. We have plenty of data on how to do this. Spoiler alert: it’s at the heart of why global poverty has recently and suddenly fallen to an all time low.
The trick is this: instead of overhauling an entire state, create a new microstate in your borders with which to experiment on new legal systems. Brace yourself for the inertia built into the state, though. The safeguards against sudden change will almost certainly kick in to prevent such an effort because legal experimentation can cynically be relabelled human rights violation. So choose a piece of land that no one cares about, preferably near the sea. You might need to pull a few tricks out of the bag to get this going in a democracy so before experimenting with a brand new legal system, pick a prosperous country with an existing legal system and steal theirs. This is how Dubai got their UAE financial center off the ground. In my opinion, a nice way to do this is to grant 200 acres of unused land to the New Zealand, Australian or even British embassies.
Growth is just the start.
Inspired by Hong Kong prosperity under British protection, China created a number of free economic zones, starting with Shenzen. To quote Michael Strong, they zoned land for prosperity. The results have been nothing short of the Chinese growth miracle. What’s more, China was able to learn from Shenzen and incorporate some of the governance laws into the broader country like a scientist drawing conclusions from a petri dish experiment. Everytime a Shenzen, Hong Kong, Singapore or Mauritius succeeds, it acts as another data point in support of the thesis that existing institutions are the only things that really determine the welfare of a population. But let’s not stop at growth. These high growth free zones are only phase 1 of this experimentation with legislation. We have plenty of case studies that if you teleport a chunk of England into Asia, you get English levels of wealth. What we need now is true experimentation with the very foundations of what a state does. The next phase of petri dish economic experiments should be to ask fundamental questions about the first principles of state governance. For instance, do we need prisons at all? Well let’s start a microstate with no prison system at all and see what happens. The worst that can happen is we call off the experiment. The best? The host country abolishes prisons and we enter a new age of not putting humans in concrete cages. Interested in basic income? Let’s try that out as well. What about something more exotic like the resource based economy? Maybe there were some parts of it that could help change the way business operates. Maybe it was in fact all built on error and bad economics. No point in arguing about it in youtube comment sections. Let’s get a few microstates going to test this hypothesis.
How do we go from stagnant democracy to microstates?
I hear you chiming in now that expecting an institution as immune to disruption as the state to allow something as disruptive as internal city states is ridiculous. Here again we have to remember that although the asteroid was necessary to give the tiny mammal room to evolve, the mouse still had to gradually evolve to its present state before the gains from the asteroid could be realized. So it is with this. In most democracies, the mechanisms are in place. With enough voter interest a microstate clause can be appended to existing constitutions. That is the one step of refinement evolution we need to get into position to disrupt everything. From there, we have plenty of space rocks in the forms of blockchains, open source legal systems and seasteading waiting to crash down to earth and disrupt it all. Ironically, the first step to radical disruption is probably to go through the tedious, slow, democratic process of reform. But if we’re lucky, this might be the last time we have to do it. An asteroid is coming.
This article “Disrupt Everything” is free and open source. You have permission to republish this article under a Creative Commons license with attribution to Justin Goro and emancipatedhuman.com.
About Justin Goro:
Justin Goro lives in South Africa. He’s a vegan, voluntaryist, cryptocurrency enthusiast and software developer with an academic background in economics. He writes about the philosophy and mindset of liberty, and the steps that we can take in our lives to achieve freedom. His current favourite quote to live by: “If you have to choose between being kind and being right, choose being kind and you will always be right”