Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Fantasy Islands

There have been a number of great social experiments since the founding of the United States of America as a secular republic whose legitimacy arose from the consent of the governed rather than the approval of some leader presuming to speak for God. It's too soon to know if it's been entirely successful.

If the Ayn Rand style social experiment envisioned by young venture capitalist Peter Thiel ever gets off the ground, or more accurately if it floats, since it's to be conducted on an artificial island, we may get a more definitive answer in a much shorter period of time, or so I suspect. Thiel, the fellow who helped found Paypal and Facebook, would like to construct a series of floating city-states in the Pacific where the 'principles' of Ms. Rand would be tested. They would somehow be established along "strict libertarian lines with a minimalist government free from the regulation, laws, and moral suasion of any landlocked country" says Details Magazine.

How a technology-intensive creation such as a floating city could be built without rules puzzles me since the builders and owners would in essence be the government and a government responsible only to its investors like Thiel and Patri Friedman, ultra-Libertarian grandson of economist Milton Friedman and the brains behind the idea. What sounds Libertarian on the drawing board may be corporatocracy at sea -- or perhaps just a bunch of little boys whose adulthood has been stunted by their massive wealth, playing Peter Pan. I have to wonder which one is Wendy.

And of course, the islanders wouldn't be randomly selected from the teeming masses real America is composed of, if I'm guessing correctly, so perhaps the Island of Randtopian Objectivist Dreams wouldn't have to deal with the real world's most intractable problems nor would any lessons learned about the value of living without the burden of altruistic responsibility be worth the effort. Think of a Petrie dish with a Plague bacteria culture. One might never know the dangers it presents since the vectors that spread it aren't present as it sits there peacefully digesting its agar.

Our country has long been home to many social experiments, some of which have withered away either by banning reproduction or lack of further interest by the participants. Some have gradually turned from the founding principles and melted into the larger American pot. Some are alive and growing, even if slowly changing. But a few thousand rich and aggressive millionaires on an oil rig without "government intrusion" forcing them to treat others in the way they'd like to be treated might be an interesting experiment, but what would the results actually mean in terms of conducting that kind of experiment outside the Petrie dish: in a nation of 300,000,000 rich, poor, healthy, sick, young, old smart, stupid, people with varying degrees of neurosis? Would the experiment mean anything at all if everyone there were so wealthy that the normal concerns and normal needs of normal people never manifest themselves?

Beats me, but this is an experiment proposed by young billionaires full of enthusiasm and self-esteem or should I say, overweening egotism. The real problems of real life are far away from their experience and all too easy to associate with other people and dismiss as the "bad choices" lesser people make. Far too easy to move away from to a fantasy island where disease, suffering, old age and bad luck fear to tread and the good times always roll like those long Pacific swells.

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