In the first editions of A Lodging of Wayfaring Men, I included several essays that I cared a great deal about. In the second edition (now available), I took them back out. I feel that a novel is best standing on its own. But I don't want the essays to simply vanish, and so I will continue posting them here from time to time.
This is one of the major essays, penned by a character named James Farber, as he and others were building a "free digital economy."
It began with rogue traders and the merchants of Venice. They really didn't know what they were building or how it would work. They merely struggled for the betterment of themselves and their families.
It began to break out when the deep superstition of the Middle Ages cracked open under the strain of new philosophies and religious ideas.
It found room to thrive wherever new and wild vistas were found. It expanded with each discovery of far-off new lands. It made its home everywhere the old order was broken up and fresh starts were being made. It took a firm root in America and flourished there for over a hundred years.
Never again, where history is recorded, will there be any question as to whether or not it works.
"It" is the great discovery of the modern era: the positive-sum game. It is the liberation of human energy to do its appropriate job. It is the operation of creation, using the only counter-entropic force we have: free human energy.
You can see it work everywhere from the research lab, to the front office, to the construction site. It is what drives the entrepreneur to develop and produce a new product or service, and it is what gives the construction worker pride when his skill overcomes a difficult problem, turning his blueprints into a functional structure. Why is the construction worker proud, and why does the entrepreneur exult? Because they have done the one thing that all humans have the impulse to do – to create something good that would not have been otherwise.
Human energy is the great creative force in the world. Without it, things tend to entropy. (As the second law of thermodynamics states, "Closed systems tend to entropy.") Without active and creative human energy, everything goes back to an animal level of existence.
This human energy does not function by obedience and compulsion – it cannot, no matter how many rulers wish it were otherwise. Look at the command economies of the dead socialist world; within several decades their occupants were reduced to an animal existence. Look at the millennia when constrained people lived at the pleasure of their kings, seeking permissions from their rulers to live and work. They continually starved and died. Things began to change only when freelance merchants began living according to their own minds and breaking away from the permissions of their rulers.
When human energy is free to move, creativity goes wild, as do motivation, happiness, and the accumulation of wealth. When it is restrained, the descent to animal existence takes over again.
The discovery of this fact is what differentiates us from the Middle Ages, and not much else. Do you think the people who lived in those dark times were inherently less intelligent than we are? They were not! You and I are their direct descendants, not many generations removed. We are essentially the same.
The term positive-sum game signifies that this system creates more than the sum of its parts. The only real magic – human energy – creates more than it started with. Take some raw materials that are themselves of little worth, and when you add human creativity you can create vehicles, computers, and space ships. The materials themselves have been around since the creation of the earth, if they could have turned into something great of themselves they would have done it long ago. But they cannot – it is only when humans manipulate them according to their own ideas that they gain any real value. Thus, five dollars' worth of materials becomes a product worth thousands of dollars.
They who do not play the positive-sum game instinctively fall back into being motivated by envy. Ultimately, they find reasons to feel that "there are only so many pieces of the pie." This is the seed of destruction.
The next thing they say is, "If you have a bigger piece of the pie, then someone else has to have less." That is a zero-sum game – the idea that nothing is really created, just moved from one hand to another. Not only is it false, but it is also the credo of every envious looter who speaks of 'fairness' and 'equal distribution of wealth,' but who secretly hopes to get a share of the wealth held by others.
The real controversy of our time is this: Is human energy allowed to work in the world, or will it be tied down? The miserable experiment of Communism has taught the world's rulers that the positive-sum game is necessary. So, their plan now is to allow human energy to work, but to siphon off as much wealth as possible without killing it altogether. We productive people are carrying the governments of the world upon our backs. Are they worth half of our efforts – half of our lives?
They take half of our earnings away from us continually by a vast web of taxes, fees, and regulations – for what benefit? "To help the poor," they say, and clamorously infer that if you disagree you are a heartless and dangerous person, and further that all will despise you. But if our money is forcibly taken from us, is not the state robbing us? Any dictionary will tell you that this is so, but it is considered poor form to say so – even to consider it.
And are the poor better off? Certainly some of our money goes to the poor (although most is eaten up in the bureaucracy). This feeds their bellies insufficiently, while at the same time locking them into a life of dependence that wages an unending war upon their souls. Is that a good thing? Are the poor better off for this robbing of producers and living in a state of dependency?
Many of you will gasp and reel in shock that I would challenge the respectability and honor of your tradition, and you fear to let yourselves consider my case. You have come up against someone who does not share in your conspiracy of compliance. You must either turn away from these subjects or face the prospect of becoming a radical and of people saying bad things about you.
Are you angry? If so, it is not because I am wrong. If that were the case, you would simply turn away. You are angry because I am ill-mannered enough to bring up subjects that you wish to avoid. My ideas bother you. When they come up, you divert your mind to pat phrases like, "That is the price we pay for our society." You dodge reason and shunt your thoughts away in order to keep your mental comfort level. You do not face these ideas head on because you are afraid of them – you are afraid that you might have to agree with them. And then you would have to face the choice either to be a hero or to be a coward.
I stood one evening in IBM Plaza in Chicago, looking over the riverfront skyline as the sun sank in the southwest and realized that the towering monuments to human effort in front of me were the results of the positive-sum game run at only half speed. Chicago was wild and open from the 1830s through the 1890s. Then, slowly, curbs and limits were imposed by do-gooder government and collectivist types. These inevitably slowed the workings of a city that had been, as one writer said, 'geared for giants.' But the restraints were not enough to stop the positive-sum game – only enough to slow it down.
The Chicago skyline I watched was the result of the positive-sum game being played at half speed, yet its results were awesome. I thought about what might have been if it were allowed to operate unfettered. And then I thought of the greatest example of the positive-sum gave during my lifetime: Hong Kong. It went from rice fields to the grandest city of the East in one generation – an explosion of unrestrained human energy.
What things we have been deprived of! What glorious accomplishments aborted and stillborn! And now our recent explosion of technology has become the target of bureaucrats worldwide. Where will we go from here? Will the positive-sum game once again be strangled, or will it migrate to new and open lands?
But! Moving to a new land will be a problem, won't it? There is no land on this planet that is not claimed by some gang of rulers. So, until cheap space flight is achieved, there is only one new country to be found: cyberspace. So escape there we shall. And there we will – and must, for our own sake and for the sake of our descendants – establish the positive-sum game without restriction.
Toward that end, we have built a private free market. We used our own money to do it, and we've broken no laws that we are aware of, save laws that outlaw privacy. Now the rulers are trying to stop us. Why? We want to run an experiment and see if freedom really is better than servitude. Why won't they let us try? Are they interested in the betterment of mankind, or are they really interested in monopoly powers? All we want is to be left alone and to try freedom. Why is that threatening? And why do they wish to imprison us?
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