May 11, 2008

Modern Pioneers

I’ve been adding more about the importance of having a frontier to the revised book (Polycentric order also has a post about this).  Here is one of the new sections:

Consider people who:

1. Are unhappy with the current state of society.
2. Have a specific vision of what a better society for them would look like.
3. Are interested in building their lives around that vision

It’s easy to dismiss people like this as dreamers or whiners, but that would be unfair.  Whiners are people who only have 1.  Dreamers have 1-2 (although their visions are often impractical).  But we cannot call merely dreamers or whiners those who see problems in society, have specific proposals for how to build a better society, **and** who would (if given the opportunity) join a group of like-minded people to create such a society.

These visionaries deserve better, for they are the pioneers of social innovation, who band together to start new communities with new rules.  They are much like business entrepreneurs, but launching new social systems rather than companies, which makes them a key part of the evolution of human society.  They still exist in the modern world, and they still have plenty of ideas about what ails society and how it might be cured.  But there’s a problem.

What we lack is a place for them to experiment.  The original intention of the founders of the United States was for the states to serve as such experiments.  But the idea of federalism is long dead, since nowadays most of government is implemented at the federal level, and even the states are far too large for easy experimentation.  The main alternative, frontierism, is suffering from the lack of any modern frontier – every bit of land on the globe has been claimed by an existing government.

So society’s valuable pioneers[1] are left expressing their ideas uselessly in bars,  blogs, and books, proposing better systems that will never be.  Many turn their talents to business or academia, where good ideas are (sometimes) rewarded.  A few become successful activists, and have some tiny positive impact on our fundamentally broken political systems.  Most get frustrated and burn out, and then learn to focus on their own lives, where they can make a real difference.  But deep within them still lurks the urge to blaze a new path, their pioneering spirit dimmed but not forgotten.

Them’s our peeps, and they’ve had it rough.  But we got their back.

[1] This reminds us of the current situation vis-a-vis public education in the United States, where creative, active, playful children are labeled as "ADD".  Trapped in the factory schooling system, doing obviously useless tasks, the energy and impatience that can make a great entrepreneur or scientist leads kids instead into trouble.  Sometimes they recover (Patri did).  Sometimes they do not.  Either way, a system that treats something valuable as a dysfunction is a system that could use some tweaking.