Peer Progressivism vs. Network Libertarianism

Article excerpt

Steven Johnson's new book is out. You may know the writer from his work on innovation and emergence. (I'm a big fan, myself.) Johnson has now produced something of a manifesto on what he calls "peer progressivism" in a book titled Future Perfect. The idea of peer progressivism is that peer networks will accelerate our civic engagement, especially at the local level. So far so good.

Recently, however, I came across Oliver Burkeman's review of Future Perfect for The Guardian, which Johnson himself (in a tweet) called "nuanced." To be fair, I haven't read Future Perfect - not yet, anyway. So unfortunately you're getting something rather "meta" with this column: a review of a review. As we'll see, the Guardian review is nuanced to the extent that its libertarian caricatures are rich and its straw men are stitched up tightly with plausible misunderstandings about our worldview.

I never thought Johnson was a libertarian. But I thought he might lean that way. After all, once you appreciate the idea of self-organization in the natural world, it's a short step to appreciating emergent order in society. Johnson gets self- organization. But what he fails to appreciate, I think, is the extent to which such orders emerge and thrive without central authority. Progressivism, after all, is an authoritarian doctrine at root due to its reliance on State power. Does sprinkling in technology or adding "peer" to the front end fundamentally change that? My goal for this column is not to review Johnson's book, but to clarify what we might call "network libertarianism."

From Burkeman's review:

But this identification of progress with free-market libertarianism, the technology writer Steven Johnson contends, is as mistaken as Legrand-style central planning. Real progress, he argues in Future Perfect, emerges from "peer networks" such as the internet because they're open and collaborative, not because of private, profit- motivated competition. His book is a call to support what he presents as a new kind of politics, based neither on traditional left-wing ideas of big government nor traditional right-wing ideas of big markets. "We believe in social progress, and we believe the most powerful tool to advance the cause of progress is the peer network," he writes, describing himself and his fellow-thinkers. "We are peer progressives."

That passage makes me want to channel Bugs Bunny: He don't know us very well, do he?

Before going into my concerns about Burkeman's review, I'm reminded of what Milton Friedman said after finding himself chatting in New York's intellectual salon:

[W]hen they heard real arguments instead of caricatures, they had no answers, only amazement that such views could be expressed by someone who had the external characteristics of being a member of the intellectual community, and that such views could be defended with apparent cogency. Never have I been more impressed with the advice I once received: "You cannot be sure that you are right unless you understand the arguments against your views better than your opponents do."

New York-based Burkeman does not understand our arguments better than we do. And, I fear, neither does Steven Johnson.

"Peer progressivism" seems to be built either on one big misunderstanding about markets, or one big philosophical difference about authority. Consider Burkeman's claim that "collaborative peer networks outperform free-market arrangements all the time." Well, maybe. The trouble is, by libertarian lights a collaborative peer network is a species of market. I claimed as much in a tweeted reply to Steven Johnson himself. In his response to me (which I was honored to get), Johnson wrote: "I think it's the reverse: markets are peer networks, as I say in the book; but not all peer networks are markets." Hmmm. Are we talking past each other?

Maybe Johnson is right to point out the trouble with our libertarian shorthand. It's true that when network libertarians say "market," people sometimes hear "big business. …