The decentralized America of 2040 may be a country of 71 states with populations of 8 million and under. This is the vision presented by James Bennett and Michael Lotus in their just released America 3.0. (Thanks and H/T to RR reader who sent me a copy of this book.) Their essay is based on the same reasons I have outlined over the years which call for a new structure for America’s governance. Actually, it is not so much a new structure, but one more akin to what de Tocqueville observed during his visit here in the 1830s.
Bennett and Lotus acknowledge the deep ideological divisions that have arisen since the Great Society years, and see a transformation that seeks to retain America as a single sovereign nation-state that molds itself into regions of smaller states. Each of these states will be more uniform in their political outlook, social philosophy, cultural values, and perhaps even ethnicities. The fundamental truth that will out in such a reconfiguration is that people like to live among people who share their ideologies, cultural values, and mores.
The America of 2040 will come about through its successful transit of a number of financial crises that arise for all the reasons RR readers are familiar. These give impetus for Congress to launch massive new legislative initiatives that reform national tax policy and the functions of the federal government. Most of what the feds now do will be relegated back to the states. The watchword for success will be the re-establishment of local control down to the city and county levels.
America 1.0 was an agricultural society loosely bound by travel and trade. Communities were small, cohesive, and very self-reliant – individualism and freedom flourished. The transition to an industrial America 2.0 was a massive social shift that took at least a century. People moved into towns where their lives were paced not by the sun and seasons, but by the clock and machines in the factories. Life was easier but also very dependent on the health of a more far reaching economy that determined which factories remained profitable and which were forced to close. In response, America became more centralized and individual autonomy diminished. People joined special interest groups – unions, guilds, management associations, professional societies, … - to defend their livelihoods and desired lifestyles.
The pendulum driven by technology is reversing, in America 3.0 people are realizing that big bureaucracies and central planners are not the social panacea that they claim to be. Big government has undergone massive overreach and created a controlled economy that is now giving evidence that economic growth will become much more difficult under the regulatory oversight that each business decision must today obey. Brink Lindsey, senior fellow at Cato, writes in ‘Why Growth is Getting Harder’ that the solution lies in picking the low hanging fruit – reduce the regulatory burden. “… policies that are more friendly to long-term growth will be needed if more robust growth is to be revived.”
This is also the crux of Bennett and Lotus’ argument for the transformation of America into a collection of more numerous but smaller states. They see that paradigm as supporting the Founders’ legacy of the Great Experiment. These smaller states will be able to fashion a wide variety of regulatory and tax environments for the simple reason that they will be inhabited by people having more uniform socio-economic ideologies. To be sure, the progressive form of socialism will still be practiced in some of the new states, and they will attract people who continue to believe that the state should have a greater role in our lives.
But in the 2040 America, people will be able to directly experience the impact of each flavor of governance being practiced in the then 71 states. These laboratories of democracy will be functioning in full bloom so that all will see what works and what doesn’t. And as a result, they will be able to either influence needed changes in their own states/communities, or move to climes more comportive of their own sense of what is right. By any measure then, national political tensions should diminish greatly – polarization may actually become a positive force in its ability to display the pros and cons of diverse modes of governance.
In regard to the visibility of such pros and cons, I hold great hope that the average voter will then become more informed about the intrinsic weaknesses of a collectivist society. Seeing the fortunes of neighboring states, these folks will be able to better relate to the arguments made here and most recently summarized by WSJ’s Daniel Henninger in ‘Progressive Government Fails’.
Bennett and Lotus’ America 3.0 is based on a fundamental shift in the world’s economies brought about by new means of additive and subtractive manufacturing. (See ‘3D Printing – bigger and sooner than you think’) It is the ability to create on-demand custom made parts and equipments in small manufactories, including kitchen table-tops and garages, that the authors see bringing back the modern version of pre-industrial cottage industries. In that world, almost everyone will become an entrepreneur, specializing in some form of making needed things the designs, marketing, and distribution of which will be made possible by an even bigger and better internet.
Not everyone will be smart enough or motivated sufficiently to work for themselves. The workers on the left side of the IQ bell curve will find rewarding jobs in the construction and maintenance of infrastructure through private companies, perhaps also in the format of non-profit service corporations that I have described. In short, the authors see the unemployment problem going away through the combination of new information industries, new distributed manufacturing technologies, and decentralized (and possibly redundant) construction work needed in each of the smaller states and jurisdictions.
While the authors acknowledge that the nation may continue deteriorating into a whole slew of alternative futures, all bad, they argue persuasively that technology will provide the means for wholesale abundance, and that the rank and file will not be able to resist the obvious benefits that can accrue from new structures of governance that will take advantage of these technologies.
This same argument of an abundant future, without the expansion into a new structure for the country, was presented by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler in their Abundance – the future is better than you think (2012). Diamandis is a successful entrepreneur who is also the founder and CEO of the X Prize Foundation, and chairman of the Singularity University. Kotler is a successful and prize-winning wordsmith. In their book Diamandis and Kotler outline a ‘pyramid’ of technologies that will create their joyously abundant future. The list of good things already here and coming down the pike is longer than I care to review (please see my posts under ‘Science’, ‘Science Snippets’, and ‘Singularity Signposts’).
Every item on their list makes a compelling argument for intelligent machines, robots, nano-devices, and genomic interventions that reduce the need for workers and leave a healthier and more informed human race in their wake. And there I run into a conundrum with both of these volumes. In neither tome do we find the needed catalyst to get the almost 40% of our non-participating workforce back on the job, any job. What starts the ball rolling to get people back to work? It most certainly is not the current growing list of debt-increasing, deficit spending, wealth redistribution programs. I think it was Reagan who most recently said something to the effect that if you pay a man not to work, he won’t be looking for a job.
In their enthusiasm to describe a benign future, neither set of authors recognizes that little needed transition that must occur in a world in which energy costs are dropping, machines are doing more and thinking better than humans, and fewer people are required to create things that can be sold. In short, there is a disconnect between the here and now, and the then and there. And then there’s the Singularity.
But I do agree with Bennett and Lotus’ structure of America 3.0 as being a preferable implementation of the Great Divide. But to get there we must overcome the best intentions of those “good men” that CS Lewis describes above.