The Tyranny of Libertarianism
Despite the allure that sophists shroud libertarianism and technoliberatarianism in, both systems are a form of tyranny. The problem is straightforward: libertarianism is a lofty ideal on paper but catastrophic when practiced at scale. Ironically, this is no different from the shortcomings, so often lambasted by libertarians, of communism.
Who would have thought that a single taxi ride, excuse me—ride sharing experience with an independent contractor, through central Kyiv would unfurl so much political philosophy. To frame it: I needed to get from Ocean Plaza to Podil but couldn’t take the metro. This should be a 15 minute drive. I had more than an hour to hash out my thesis.
Any long-time resident of Kyiv would know to avoid, if at all possible, any central route on a weekend. Traffic is always a mess, Khreshchatyk is closed, just don’t do it. Dropping back to Druzhbi Narodiv and going along Naberezhna would have been sensible; cutting through Luk’ianivka would have also worked. My driver, sheepishly obedient to Google Maps plunged headfirst into the least logical route.
Uber-izing Things Isn’t the End of All Problems
There are things that I like about the Uber model, namely using technology as a middleman, increasing accountably through reviews and challenging monopolies. It’s great that I can get a taxi, place to stay and a myriad of other services using my own device in my language. This breaks up the cartel of airport taxi drivers without forcing me to call a dispatching in Thai or some language I don’t know. The fact that I’m being reviewed as a passenger means I’m leaving a fair tip and being polite. The eternal change problem is solved with cashless transactions. There’s a lot to like.
The downside is that Google Maps or some such thing is going to be worse than a local expert. Maps are a reference, but human knowledge should override what a map tells you. If Google Maps tells you a route that is obviously problematic, a good driver would ignore Google.
In the right use case, all of these apps and gadgets are fine. If I’m on the road or going to a part of town I’m unfamiliar with, Google Maps is better than nothing. Although I fondly remember my first days traveling in China and having to ask locals for directions without knowing Chinese. It wasn’t perfect but it worked.
Providing a useful tool to fill knowledge gaps isn’t the goal of technolibertarians like Uber and Google. Instead, by providing something like Google Maps, it’s possible to hire a taxi driver from outside of Kyiv and undercut the salary of drivers who actually know the city. I see this time and again with Uber; I get drivers who don’t know the city and it’s clear from their accent they are from smaller towns surrounding Kyiv.
It’s hard to see this as anything other than a dystopian future: creating digital assistants that are just good enough to help a completely clueless human perform a task. I get it. Some company is maximizing their profits. I’d rather pay a bit more and not have a driver ask me where the airport is.
The Loch Ness Monster
Ukrainians in the mold of Homo Soveticus and American libertarians base their worldview on the maxim that anyone who follows the rules is a sucker. Being a sucker is the worst thing that can happen to you in life.
Back to my epic tax ride across Kyiv. Every single bottleneck had the same cause: drivers entering an intersection without being able to exit it. This delayed traffic in the other direction, which led them to do the same thing, which started a chain reaction. The solution is mind numbingly simple, even if you have a green light don’t attempt to enter an intersection unless you are certain you can leave the intersection before the light turns red.
Our glorious nation of clever non-suckers can’t do it. What if someone else was able to get in and got somewhere ten seconds before me? That’d make me a sucker! The pattern repeats. Every turning lane gets backed up because drivers try to avoid waiting in line and hop to the front, which in turn blocks through traffic. Glad those drivers aren’t suckers though!
This is where the mythology of libertarianism breaks down. You can easily observe that a system where everyone acts only in their own best interests breaks down at scale. A quick drive through Kyiv or nearly any town in the developing world would confirm this. The alternative to lack of regulation isn’t a Soviet style nanny state, it’s a well-regulated Autobahn with strictly enforced rules. Hence, the Autobahn is both efficient and safe.
I don’t think there a term for this ‘I’m not a sucker!’ morality, so let’s go ahead and invent one. The Russian word in question is лох and is pronounced like the Scottish loch. Given the propensity of this ideology’s adherents to believe in something entire baseless, I see no more fitting name than Nessie Syndrome.
Nessie Syndrome in Technoliberatarianism
There’s no more obvious manifestation of Nessie Syndrome than the ideological underpinnings of Bitcoin. The point of Bitcoin is to complete trustless transactions. The problem though is that all of human civilization is built precisely on building trust. Technology isn’t going to replace trust.
I’m not arguing that technology can’t help build trust. Verified reviews, GPS and cashless transactions make me far more likely to trust a random Uber driver. This isn’t the end goal of the technolibertarians. They want a system with zero trust by design. As one of the better critiques of the blockchain put it: ‘Somalia on purpose. That’s the vision.’
You Can’t Always Not Lose
One thing you quickly learn when playing go is that even the best players lose territory during good games. It’s simply not possible, unless players are comically mismatched, to win every skirmish. Good strategy in go consists of being able to quickly identify situations you have a low probability of winning. Once you’ve made that call, pull out all of your resources and devote them to an area of the board that you can dominate.
This fear of not always not losing causes paralysis. Nessians find it perfectly logical to gut a program that 1% of recipients abuse, even if the total benefit to society is well beyond that 1% lost. It’s hard to even call this selfish, as Nessie Syndrome doesn’t bring any visible signs of happiness. It’s more of an extreme version of loss aversion and short sided thinking merged into one.
To put it bluntly, you will sometimes lose out. People will cheat you from time to time, others will act in bad faith and something things just won’t work out. I aver that the cost of this is both personally and societally far less than the trustless dystopia dreamed up by the technolibertarians.
What’s Good for Society
Waiting for the next light rather than being stranded in the middle of an intersection seems like a personal loss. Theoretically, you could shave thirty seconds off of your trip by doing this. Conversely, losing thirty seconds now means that all traffic flows better which, on average, gets you around faster. That 15 minute drive will take just 15 minutes and not an hour.
When I point this out, the nessians tell me that I’m naïve. I see well-functioning societies built on this principle. The only thing stopping here is Nessie Syndrome, an irrational fear of being a sucker.
Be Good at Human Things
Computers are great tools, but people often use them for all the wrong tasks. Blinding following Google Maps into a traffic black hole or into a lake for that matter is surrendering your humanity to a computer. These decisions are trivial for a well-informed human to make but incredibly complex for computers.
Likewise, the new Google Duplex makes little sense. The project burned through engineering resources for almost no real-world gains. Making a quick phone call is easy for a human. On the other hand, a simple booking form using already existing technology would have solved the same problem. In fact, I use this so clients can schedule a meeting directly on my calendar.
The point of this diversion is that there are tasks computers rock at it. I crunch numbers and store data in spreadsheets, I write scripts to automate repetitive tasks and I use a slew of reminders and organization apps to stay on top of things. Nothing sexy here—no AI or anything that hasn’t been around for at least a generation. I know the weaknesses of my human brain such as holding lots of data, doing complex calculations instantly and not forgetting things.
Instead of using computers for these sorts of things, we’re trying to use them as humans. This is absurd. Be human. Call another person, see your friends in real life rather than on Facebook and make decisions.
And that other pesky part of being human? Trust other humans and build a community. Simple human friendship triumphs over dystopian gadgets.