America’s Faux Debate about Democracy

When is a debate over democracy not a debate over democracy? Senator Mike Lee recently Tweeted, “We’re not a democracy.” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez replied, “Maybe we should be.” I summarized the basic issues: “This ‘debate’ gets so tiresome. We have a ‘democracy’ broadly speaking, with elected representatives and a Constitution that protects individuals’ rights from majority oppression. We don’t have ‘pure democracy.'”

As is obvious to every thoughtful person, neither side is serious about this debate. Both sides agree that we do and should live under a broadly democratic and constitutionally bound representative government. And both sides often strategically cry “democracy” or “constitution,” not for any great reason, but simply to advance their prior agenda.

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The Self-Blindness of ‘The Social Dilemma’

The Social Dilemma is an interesting and important film (released September 9 on Netflix) that everyone who uses social media would do well to watch. It shows that, at least for some people, social media promotes addictive habits that can damage a person’s self-image (particularly a problem for youth) or drag someone down a “rabbit hole” of fake news and conspiracy mongering. Anyone who has heard of Pizzagate or QAnon glimpses the problems. In his novel Fall (paid Amazon link!), Neal Stephenson imagines a near-future America torn apart with no-go zones occupied by information-bubbled cultists. It’s terrifying because it’s plausible.

Yet the film is also astonishingly self-blinded in certain ways. Its main message is essentially “OMG profit-driven capitalism is destroying the world and we need government regulators to save us.” Okay, so the problem is that social media use has unintended problems. Well, does government use ever have unintended consequences? Yes, obviously—there is an an entire subfield of economics devoted to that problem—although the film spends not so much as a single second contemplating this.

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Why Am I Doing This?

It may strike some people as opportunistic of me that I started this site, Contours of Liberty, a little over a week after Tyler Cowen announced that his Emergent Ventures would award $100,000 to a recent or new blog exploring “ideas relevant to liberty, prosperity, progress, and the foundations of a free society,” and possibly five additional awards up to the same amount. So I wanted to explain my aims and motivations here.

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Exploring the Contours of Liberty

I think it’s possible that, over the next thirty years or so, a quickly growing fraction of the world’s people could enjoy abundant and clean nuclear energy (or some alternative), pleasant habitations and ample foods made better and cheaper through innovative and resource-efficient technologies, vastly improved health, plentiful opportunities to find meaningful work and recreation, and stable and peaceful governments.

I also think it’s possible that United States culture and politics could continue to degrade into irrationalism, conspiracy mongering, and interest-group conflict; that innovation-stifling ideologies and policies could generate continual economic crises, slowing global economic growth; and that increasingly authoritarian governments at home and abroad could threaten (more of) the world with wars and in the worst case even with nuclear devastation.

And I think that whether we head down one of these paths over the other, or down some other path, depends very much on how we think and what we do today. By “we” here, I mean everyone who chooses to enter the intellectual arena to influence the direction of culture, industry, and politics.

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