In the early dawn of the American experiment, a man uttered:
“Give me liberty, or give me death.”
Along with ‘don’t tread on me,’ these words form the seemingly unflappable center of the American value of individual sovereignty. Most Americans couldn’t imagine any value superseding the notion that inalienable rights both exist and must be protected.
On a zoomed out timescale of human civilization this idea is pretty dang unusual. It’s even somewhat novel amongst this motley crew of modern nation states we have to choose from today.
Simple regression to the mean logic suggests the staying power of individualism in the top perch of our moral framework is precarious at best.
Leaning on evolutionary biology and game theory, one could argue human values aren’t “true” in absolute terms. Rather, our values are “true” to the degree they “work” over an iterated set of moral games. In this way, the foundational values stable societies are built upon are emergent solutions to the dynamic and complex prisoners dilemma that is survival on this pale blue dot in the rural Milky Way.
Individualism, free speech, liberty, justice. These ideas are the foundation of America, one of the few civilizations ever united by ideas, as opposed to ethnicity or arbitrary geographical markers.
In reality, we hold these truths to be self-evident because they seem to do a good enough job of holding diverse groups together peacefully (compared to the alternatives on order in the 18th century at least).
It follows then that significant alterations in a society’s environment could alter the fitness of any value over time.
I’m here to tell you that the trends and forces that have made individualism fit to ship since 1776 are currently under extreme tectonic stress.
The 13 Days Before Armageddon
In terms of the prevention of mass-scale human suffering, JFK is likely the singularly most important individual in all of history. In 1962 when the Soviet Union staged 162 nuclear missiles 90 miles off the coast of Florida, the prospect of global nuclear holocaust was a stones throw away.
As the Kennedy Tapes reveal, pretty much every US military leader thought JFK was bungling the crisis. His blockade was seen as a milk toast countermove to Soviet aggression, and all his top brass demanded an invasion of Cuba. Through negotiation, JFK was ultimately was able to deescalate the crisis peacefully. It was later uncovered that Khrushchev believed a US invasion of Cuba would have provoked the launch of the missiles.
If Nate Silver ran the Cuban Missile Crisis 40,000 times in simulation, I’d wager that humanity probably is terminated in a hearty chunk of those sims.
This is a real example of a bold act of contrarianism leading to the avoidance of mutually assured destruction. This is the canonical American meta-narrative, embodied.
Of course, modern historians tell us that this Great Man Theory version of historical analysis is an under-baked form of academic wrong-think. It is trends and forces that move history, not individuals (sorry Gandhi, kick rocks).
Reading between the lines, a thoughtful student upon shutting their laptop after Zoom history class may be left believing that we simply don’t need contrarian individuals at all.
And in this new world of exponentially leveraged trends and forces, maybe that’s true.
Democratizing the Means of Destruction
When JFK was alive, it took the economic resources of a superpower to enrich even a minuscule quantity of uranium. As Nick Bostrom suggests, we’re fortunate the laws of physics made it so costly.
Imagine if it was possible to enrich a more easily mined element like iron and turn it into a nuclear bomb. If that were the case, cavemen may have developed nuclear weapons right around the time they figured out the wheel.
How would Genghis Khan have wielded that power? What values would be required to scaffold a stable society in such an environment?
The bad news is we’re about to find out the answer. New technology is slashing the cost of mass destruction to record lows.
For example, it is becoming cheaper and cheaper to create bioweapons. We live in a world where a high schooler could leave his bedroom after Zoom history class about the Cuban Missile Crisis, walk to his basement biohacking lab, and use CRISPR tools to create a bioweapon on a bench top. Here is a kit if you’d like to try, it costs $900.
The troubled souls that become school shooters today will become Oppenheimer-esque destroyers of worlds in the 2040s.
In that world, it is not impossible to imagine that an authoritarian government which scrupulously monitors what all citizens are doing with their hands at all times would be more ‘fit’ than a more individualistic, freedom-focused, society.
It seems that in that future, individuals aren’t assets. We are all liabilities.
What’s Streaming on your Telescreen?
Americans have been watching the same few television plot lines play on loop since the 1950s.
Our Dads grew up on Walker Texas Ranger. We have The Mandalorian.
Ah, The Mandalorian, The Texas Ranger of the Galaxy Far Away. A rugged individual who singlehandedly rights wrongs in every sector. Usually when a rag tag outcast with limited resources fights tyranny in the movies, they overcome all odds and win. Yet in the real world Citadel beats WallStreetBets and China beats Hong Kong. Goliath tends to win.
And while we love to consume individualism narratives in our entertainment, we’ve largely failed to live up to these ideals in our own lives.
For example, when Facebook or Google ask us to accept onerous data privacy terms and conditions, we click ‘yes please’.
When a foreign nationstate chops an American dissident to pieces, the acting US administration brokers a $500m weapons deal. Then the subsequent administration kills the Keystone pipeline, reinstating our energy dependence on that same nation.
When young protesters in Hong Kong learned to make Molotov cocktails on Youtube to fight authoritarianism, our sports heroes showed the polar opposite of solidarity.
When Disney thanked the CCP and the Xinjiang province in the credits of Mulan, did we notice? No, we sat on our couches and let that ‘play next’ button switch us over to The Mandalorian.
Just last week, when a lead actor on The Mandalorian was blacklisted due to some controversial tweets, many Americans rejoiced. Another bad thinker had been purged from our carefully curated Overton window.
Watch what people do, not what they say.
If It’s ‘Fit’ it Ships
It clearly seems individualism is falling out of fashion. Americans increasingly see individualism as a plot line to be consumed, not as a value to embody.
Are Americans hanging up our spurs for good?
In the sci-fi classic Ender’s Game, Ender’s individual talents for military strategy are deceptively used to destroy the ‘buggers,’ an alien civilization with a single ‘hive consciousness’. Upon a failure of proper due diligence the buggers attacked humans, believing humans to be non-sentient given our lack of a collective consciousness.
While humans are in fact sentient, we still tend to otherize what we don’t understand. We struggle to grok what runs counter to our most foundational beliefs. But values do change over long periods of history, as environmental variables change the fitness of those values in terms of long term peaceful coexistence.
Maybe we’re on a path to become the ‘buggers’ ourselves. After all, our minds are more connected than ever through the internet. Future innovations like Neuralink and hyperreal VR simulations will only strengthen our hive mind. Perhaps nature is passing us the baton of evolution, calling us to build a technologically networked cloud-cortex that will interface seamlessly with all minds.
Maybe this is a temporary phase, like that time you dyed your hair blue as a teenager. Maybe humanity is merely passing through a narrow, steep pass on the uphill climb of human evolution where the risks of annihilation are unseasonably high. Maybe we do need to give the reins of power to a Caesar State that can navigate this high risk period, even if it means risking the endgame where the Caesar State never hands power back to the people.
Maybe the CCP and the USA are the opposing political parties in a future hive mind society. Just two narratives ebbing and flowing in the trends and forces sine wave of history.
Maybe the idea of the individual sovereignty is becoming obsolete. Perhaps like the forgotten steam shovel in a world of high energy density diesel power, contrarian individuals are being rendered artifacts. Is it the case that authoritarianism is best strategy for ensuring survival over the next 1,000 years of iterated games?
Or maybe by smoothing out the rough edges of our disagreeables, malcontents, contrarians, jesters, and rag tag rebels, we are smothering the very voices we most need. These folks could have the capacity to prevent some surprise proton torpedo from slipping past the authoritarian goalie we all learned to dutifully obey.
So what is the path forward from here?
That is for individuals to decide.