How to Change the World, Starting Now
This is based on the talk I gave on Saturday at the Ohio State University in Columbus, OH at the Ohio Students For Liberty Regional Conference. You can find the slides here.
I want to start off by saying that I’m glad the opening remarks dealt with big ideas in social change — changing the world, building a more peaceful world, trying to build a society not built on brute coercion. These are all great topics to talk about and are all noble goals. But as the opening remarks noted, you can’t just sit in the basement of some dank, dark university building and discuss these things with the three libertarians on your campus. There has to be some kind of path to action to get there.
Social Change — What Is It?
What I want to talk about today is in one part social change, one part entrepreneurship, one part political economy, and one part a radical call to action. Before we get too far into the weeds, we need to have an idea of what we are talking about when we say “social change.”
Lots of people say that they would like to see a better world. They would like to see a world without coercion, without war, without whatever — you wouldn’t be here today if you didn’t believe that it was possible and desirable to build some kind of better future.
But how many of us stop to ask what, exactly, we would want that to look like? Sure, there are lots of open-ended questions wrapped up in “changing the world,” but do we look at just the broad questions contained within “building a better society”?
There are at least two ways that we could imagine breaking down our vision for the future:
- Personal — what kind of life do I want to live?
- Social — in what kind of society would I like to live?
Until we can answer these two questions, we can’t really get a good idea of how to get from point A to point B. You may say you’d like to live in a world without war, but it’s possible to have some really terrible futures in which war is not a major issue. Until you can get an idea of what you want your own life to look like and what you want the society you live within to look like, you probably can’t start to get to point B.
You Are Not a Lottery Ticket
Chances are you know people who chose a college, major, or career based off of some “projected median career earnings” report found on the internet. Even if they didn’t like or even enjoy chemical engineering, they went into it because they saw that people who major in chemical engineering make more money in their careers. Even if they hated that Ivy League school they got into, they went there because people who go to that school make more money over their careers than people who go to the big state school.
But they totally miss the point of the lessons lurking in these statistics. Maybe the people who major in Chemical Engineering make more in their careers because they generally are better at making analytic choices than those who study poetry. Or maybe those who go to Ivy League schools make more in their first jobs than those who go to big state schools because — on average — students at Ivy League schools are shrewder and are attracted to higher-paying careers than those who go to other schools. Maybe the individual lost in the aggregate tells a better story than the aggregate here. (this is true, by the way).
I take the title of this talk from Peter Thiel’s phenomenal 2014 book, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build The Future. Thiel is talking largely about how to think of yourself as an entrepreneur of a successful startup, but I think there are plenty of lessons in the book that can be applied elsewhere.
You’ve probably heard all these statistics about successful startups. How many times they failed. How many times they pivoted. How many times they won or didn’t win funding. Thiel wants to move us entirely away from this mindset of thinking in aggregates and statistics. When we think this way, we begin to give up our own volition, our own ambitions, and our own planning to whatever the aggregate says is best.
Thiel presents a few ways of thinking about the world that I think are useful for us today. He breaks world-views down into two categories — on telling us the solidity of the plan to get to the future, and one telling us how the future will look.
Societies and cultures can either be optimistic or pessimistic and definite or indefinite. An optimistic culture sees the world as improving and as the future as a place worth going. The United States has always been a great example of an optimistic culture. Even during the Cold War, when children were being taught that they could be totally obliterated at any minute by a madman in Moscow, Americans were still planning on a future of flying cars and of Mars colonies. China and Europe are pessimistic cultures. More on that in a minute.
A culture can either be definite or indefinite. Is there a plan to get to the future? If yes, then the culture is definite. If no, then the culture is indefinite. China is a definite, pessimistic culture. Everybody thinks China is going to take over the world, except for the Chinese. Think of what they build. They only build what the West has already built. Armies, cities, coal plants, nuclear plants — nothing new. Very little innovation comes out of China. They’re building — building for a future where they might not be on top. Europe is an indefinite, pessimistic culture. The Europeans see the world as going to hell, so we might as well as drink, be merry, and take twelve weeks of paid vacation while it happens.
What does this mean for you?
I like to think that most people hold an optimistic view for their own personal futures, so let’s disregard that side of the matrix for a minute.
Do you have a definite plan to get to your future, or are you just going to figure it out along the way? Do you know what you want in the next three years? Next five years? Next twenty years?
Or are you just going to take the first job that comes your way? The first spouse who will settle down with your sorry ass? The first city you can move to?
I urge you to be definite. All of the most successful people will tell you that they had plans. In my work with Praxis, I meet and interact with a lot of very successful people. If I had to choose one defining characteristic about them all, it would be that they all are people who had and have plans. They might change their plans as new information becomes available, or as new opportunities arise, but they had a plan.
Think of the life you want to live. Think real hard about it. Then devise a plan to get there.
Societies Are Not Civilization V
Before you get too far ahead and jump into thinking about the society you would like to live in with the life you would like to live, I want to caution you not to give into a the conceit of a central planner. After me exhorting you to “Plan! Plan! Plan!” you might be tempted to plan out society, too.
Fight this temptation. Fight the temptation to become a central planner. Fight the temptation to think of society as a strategy game that you can play and move things around, like Civilization V.
The caution of this demand to plan is that it works best if every individual plans for their own life. If every individual plans for their own life, then no one individual can plan in such a way that plans for the lives of others.
This means that you need certain institutions that allow for mass individual-planning without a type of central planning.
The price system is one of these institutions. Price signals help ration consumption so that those who most need a resource get it while simultaneously alerting entrepreneurs and innovators to find new ways to either find the resource or new alternatives.
Common law is another example — it is predictable-but-evolving law that allows people to sort out disputes and find new ways of working together.
Spontaneous Order vs. Constructed Order
The Austrian economist F.A. Hayek wrote about two different ways that you can view a political order — it can be either spontaneously ordered or a constructed order.
A constructed order is a society in which a central planner designs everything. The USSR was a good example of this. Prices were set by boards, commissars, and central planners. This wasn’t just a political or economic planning, either — it was personal planning. If you wanted to be a steel mogul in the USSR, you were mostly SOL unless a bureaucrat decreed you worthy of working with steel.
A spontaneous order is a society in which different evolutionary mechanisms allow order to arise out of supposed chaos. Free market societies depend on spontaneous order. From hundreds, thousands, and millions of exchanges happening on any day, prices arise to guide behavior and ration resources. If you want to be a steel mogul in a spontaneous order, you have to work within the marketplace — which is considerably more open and free than a political order.
To illustrate the superiority of the spontaneous order, think of the sheer complexity of building a pencil. Only in a marketplace, where knowledge is dispersed but guided by a system, could you actually do something like build a pencil.
Who Plans for Whom?
Libertarians get a bad rap for being opposed to central planning. Even Peter Thiel, who wrote articles for the Cato Institute and accepted SFL’s Alumnus of the Year award in 2012, has been said to think libertarians aren’t definite enough in their plans.
I find this curious, because there’s nothing in the political economy of libertarianism that is opposed to building a future with the definite optimism of Thiel and his colleagues. There’s nothing that prevents a libertarian from proposing a clear plan to build a freer, better society.
The only thing that libertarianism prescribes is that the state not be the planner — and for good reason! As FA Hayek said, “The more the state plans, the more difficult planning becomes for the individual.”
Or, as “Hayek” said in the Keynes vs. Hayek Rap, Part II:
So I exhort you to plan for yourself, and build a society that allows for as much individual planning as possible. This is what the outline of the libertarian free society looks like: it is one that has individuals motivated by definite optimism, but who live in a political and economic order that allows for their planning.
Where Do You Want to Live?
So we have four options for a society — it can be one of spontaneous or constructed order, and it can be a culture of a definite or indefinite future.
The best place to live is a society of definite optimism in a spontaneous order. This is a society that allows individuals to build their lives and the future around them. It’s one where the people believe that they can make a difference and have control over their lives and one where the government stays the hell out of the way and lets them do this. This is the prerequisite for any society that experiences a technological boom. The reason so many companies moved to Silicon Valley in the mid-20th century? Lack of regulation. It was easier to build a business there than it was in Boston, New York, or Chicago. Same goes for Pittsburgh in the 1800s, or Singapore today.
You also have societies that have some kind of spontaneous order, but no real motivation to navigate it. This is a society that has picked all the low-hanging fruit. This is something like the Great Stagnation United States.
A constructivist order with an indefinite future is something like a European welfare state. Everything is regulated, controlled, taxed, and requires state oversight. Culturally, there’s very little plan for the future — just tax, regulate, oversight, repeat.
The constructivist order with a definite future is arguably better for those living within it, but is still not a place where you can build your own future easily. This is a place where the government controls everything towards a central plan. Think of the USSR during the space race, or China today.
How Do You Want to Live?
These broader cultures and orders allow for different kinds of individual life plans to spring forward. The variety in the Spontaneous Definite Order is much greater than any other order. This is the place you want to live if you want to be in control of your life and if you want to see some true variety in careers, families, and life-plans. This is a place full of entrepreneurs, happy professionals, innovators, and intellectuals free of the burden of the state. It’s by no means a perfect place, but it is a place that allows for individuals to build their own lives outside of the confines of the state much more easily than any other option.
The other orders are all each more confining in different ways. Even in the spontaneous ordered indefinite society, you find people limited by their lack of imagination and their inability to build a life for themselves. The culture is restrictive. It keeps people apathetic and unambitious.
Where Are We Today?
I’m pretty optimistic about our ability to move to the spontaneously ordered, definite society, but this pretty clearly isn’t where we are today. Despite the sexiness of tech startups right now and movies like Steve Jobs and The Social Network, it’s actually really hard for people to innovate. If you want to do something truly disruptive, something that can really change the way people live and go through their lives, good luck. You’ll be regulated at every, single, stop. You’ll have social commentators throwing shade constantly. You’ll even have venture capitalists tell you that “oh, this is just another service for the rich,” and back out.
Between a culture of indifference (save an occasional ambitious idea from Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos) and a regulatory state that would make Marx blush, I’d say that we’re somewhere between a spontaneous and constructed order in the indefinite area. We still have prices. We still have some semblance of a market — it’s just really regulated and there’s very little vision for the future.
With the growth of the regulatory state — three million bureaucratic peons in the government now — we’re moving towards a more and more planned order.
It doesn’t have to be this way, though. There is a way out. Innovators find ways.
But how did we go from semiconductors and steel mills to jobs at Deloitte and the State Department?
How Did We Get Here?
There’s a lot going on here and in this question. We are talking about how a generation lives, about how laws and legislation work today, and about how a culture operates. It’s tempting to blame our parents — especially the Baby Boomers.
And while pointing fingers is rarely useful, I do think there is something to this. The Boomers grew up in an indefinite mindset. They grew up in a world where they just expected stuff to get better. They grew up being told they can just go get jobs as doctors, teachers, secretaries, whatever.
Thiel puts it well in Zero to One:
The strange history of the Baby Boom produced a generation of indefinite optimists so used to effortless progress that they feel entitled to it. Whether you were born in 1945 or 1950 or 1955, things got better every year for the first 18 years of your life, and it had nothing to do with you. Technological advance seemed to accelerate automatically, so the Boomers grew up with great expectations but few specific plans for how to fulfill them. Since tracked careers worked for them, they can’t imagine that they won’t work for their kids, too.
But it can’t entirely be their faults. There has to be more of a reason other than, “your parents were uncreative and unambitious with the futures they wanted.” There’s more to a culture.
Culture is complex — it’s many moving parts with no central motor — but there is one common denominator that crafts how almost every single person in the United States today comes to process information and view the world around them. There is one system, one institution that is such a glaringly massive part of every person’s life that it pretty much defines who they are going to be and how they are going to grow up. It’s a massive institution — yet it is somehow excused from much of the cultural critique. This institution is the government school.
Forced Government Schooling: The Biggest Threat to the Future Today
Think about your time in school. If you went to a public school, it was probably similar to almost everybody else who went to a public school’s experience. Think of what the day-to-day was like. Think about the schedule. Think about the curriculum. Think about what made school, school.
Now think back to the society matrix from a few slides ago. Where do schools fall if you were to put them on the matrix?
You have no choice but to be there. The entire day is planned out by a central authority — mostly some stranger who lives far away from you. Your every action is controlled. You have to ask just to use the bathroom.
Where does the compulsory government school fall?
It’s definitely in the constructed side of the matrix. There is nothing akin to a spontaneous order in schools — save maybe some bad kinds in the cliques that form in the hallways, but even those are constructed by forced class status, age stratification, and lack of ways for young people to interact with the outside world.
The school-as-a-society is a microcosmic example of the constructed order. It is dictatorial in its structure. A school lunchroom looks more like the cafeteria of the State Department than the lunchroom of a private company.
The worst part about it is that it is entirely institutional. Good teachers either struggle for years to make a positive impact on their students while slowly being crushed by administrators, testing standards, bureaucracy, and a nightmarish level of micromanagement, or they quit in frustration. It is, as historian and former schoolteacher John Taylor Gatto said, “psychopathic, [without] conscience.”
If you think I am being hyperbolic, consider for a moment that new testing standards require students to read Environmental Protection Agency guides rather than literary classics. What kind of English teacher would want to teach that?
If your typical school is constructivist (in the political sense), how does it sit culturally? Does it prepare young people to at least build a life for themselves within the state-sponsored order, or does it prepare students for apathy, for grasping in the dark, and for a life of an indefinite attitude?
Schools are, at their core, indefinite institutions. Think of class periods and of grades and of semesters. Think back to a time that you were getting into something you really enjoyed in a class that you love. Maybe it was poetry, art, government, or math. Then the bell rings. Done. Out. Go. On to the next activity. Why should you care deeply about any activity when it is done and over with in 60 minutes? In 45 minutes? In 39 minutes (the odd and frustratingly short time period my high school gave to most classes)?
Imagine if your job or home life worked this way. You’re enjoying a proposal you are working on when — RING! — off to the next activity. Close your computer. Go to another room. Do something entirely different. You’re playing with your kids when — BEEP! — off! Go to another activity in another room with other people.
It’s no wonder students are apathetic about their subjects — even those who enjoy what they are studying are stifled at every stop. I used to love US History and would stay after class, much to the chagrin of my next period teacher, to discuss elements with the teacher. 39 minutes simply wasn’t enough to fall in love with a subject on a level that rewards a vision for the future.
On a broader scale, think of what school prepares successful young people for. It prepares them to go to college. Their passions and vocations are put by the wayside while they sit around and make sure they have a well-curated resume that will impress an admissions officer at some university. As Thiel notes elsewhere in his book:
Indefinite attitudes to the future explain what’s most dysfunctional in our world today. Process trumps substance: when people lack concrete plans to carry out, they use formal rules to assemble a portfolio of various options. This describes Americans today. In middle school, we’re encouraged to start hoarding “extracurricular activities.” In high school, ambitious students compete even harder to appear omnicompetent. By the time a student gets to college, he’s spent a decade curating a bewilderingly diverse résumé to prepare for a completely unknowable future. Come what may, he’s ready — for nothing in particular.
Schools foster the worst kind of attitude towards the world — a world where you aren’t in control and where somebody, some stranger in a room far away, controls your fate. From principals to superintendents to Secretaries of Education and college admissions officers and a variety of other central planners, life is not in your hands. It is in theirs. You better try to cater to them as well as possible, so become omnicompetent.
It should be no surprise that this poses the threat it does today, either. We have reached peak-school. Nearly every young person today has been schooled. Our grandparents could get away without being schooled (although even for them it was difficult). Our parents might have gotten some reprieve here and there. But today, today young people are schooled from Pre-pre-K through the age of 18, 22, 26, or even 30. Adult children graduate at 24 or 25 with their degrees and little idea of what they want from the world and from life. They just did what they were told — get a degree and you’ll get a job. But they never explored why. They collapse into a quarter-life crisis, an uninspiring job, or a political cause.
We have to do better.
We have to start with ourselves and move out of this indefinite, constructed mindset. We have to pry education and school apart from each other and understand that they are mutually exclusive things. The education that happens in schools happens in spite of the institution, not because of it. Education is a lifelong process that requires work every day, not just for 12 or 16 years of drudgery.
What Can We Do?
The subtitle of this talk is “How to change the world, starting now,” so you expect a call to action. This isn’t an anti-schooling talk. This isn’t a talk to tell you we’re marching towards a European Welfare Nightmare. I have two radical but simple calls to action.
Starting Now: Build Your Life
Your life is in your hands and your hands alone. It is not to be governed by national or state testing standards. Those tests you took in high school can’t determine how you are going to live your life. Rekindle your love of learning that you had when you were a child. Think long and hard about what you want and devise a plan to get there. In short, deschool yourself.
This takes work — it will take work every day for a while. I am still working on deschooling myself. As your peers and colleagues continue to school themselves well into adulthood, take control of your own education. Find a hobby, write that epic poem you’ve been dreaming of getting into, take some classes to learn a new trade (classes and education are not mutually exclusive — compulsory government schooling and education are).
The least you can do is to move yourself out of an indefinite mindset. Take up a definite mindset. Build your life within what spontaneous order we have left.
Starting Soon: Raise Free People
Many of you want to be parents someday. Some of you may even be parents. Don’t just automatically assume that when your children are of school-age that you will send them to the nearest public school. Don’t put them in the psychopathic institution of indefinite futures. Raise free people — allow them to keep their love of learning and curiosity about the world.
This can mean a few things. At the very least, deprive the monster that is the government school system of more victims. Home educate. Send your children to private schools (look into voucher programs).
At the very least, when you have children and are planning on their education in a few years, remember this talk here today. Empathize with your children and think back to your own curiosity of the world. Raise free humans.
Build the Future
Build your own future, but give your children the freedom to build their own without having to do the deschooling you will ultimately have to do. Build your life — and give others the ability to build their own.
Zachary Slayback is the Business Development Director for Praxis, an intensive year-long program for entrepreneurial learners. Zachary dropped out of the University of Pennsylvania after seeing firsthand how college fails the most ambitious students. He writes regularly on education, schooling, and philosophy at zakslayback.com.
Originally published at zakslayback.com on October 26, 2015.