“Liberty is the mother, not the daughter of order.”—Proudhon.
One of the common objections to the libertarian futurist vision of a free, dynamic society is that unchecked liberty invites social chaos.
Even those who favor a relatively unregulated free market often believe government must step in to set uniform scientific, health, and safety standards. Otherwise, they fear, chaos would reign in the development of science, technology, and industry.
One infant industry going through lots of changes lately is computers—where a variety of incompatible computer software has been making life inconvenient for consumers. But a recent decision by 17 U.S. and Japanese electronics firms offers evidence that the free market contains within itself powerful pressures that tend to generate harmony out of the marketplace’s competitive “chaos.”
In the United States Memorex and 3M have joined together with TDK Electronics, Sanyo Electric, Fuji Photo Film, Hitachi, Maxell, Matsushita Electrical, and other Japanese firms to begin mass-producing a standardized floppy disc computer memory device this spring.
Electronics firms have been racing to miniaturize floppy discs to meet the growing market for small computers. Most memory discs now on the market measure five inches in diameter. The new consortium’s standardized disc will be only three inches.
What caused these 17 companies to cooperate? Competition, for one thing. Their decision followed a January announcement by a l3-member rival manufacturers group, led by Sony Corp, that it would begin marketing a 3.5 inch disc this spring. In a relatively unregulated marketplace, companies don’t have to please the government—but they do have to please the consumer, whose desires and needs impose very real constraints on businessmen. Unlike state-imposed constraints, which are frequently evaded by businesses lobbying politicians and bribing bureaucrats, consumer imposed restraints are not so easily overcome.
If the public doesn’t like a company’s product or an industry’s standardized format, they won’t buy it. Just remember the Edsel, or quadraphonic sound, or the replacement of Regular 8 movies by Super 8, followed by the gradual transition, taking place now, to home video cameras.
In a truly free market, the only way to “bribe” the consumer is by offering him or her a better price or a better product.
Of course, our libertarian futurist vision of progress and prosperity in a fully free society is a far cry from the state capitalist/corporate socialist welfare/warfare economy of America today, which perpetrates a hundred forms of state-franchised monopoly (like the Post Office, AT&T, and public utilities), a thousand forms of harmful government regulation, and a seemingly infinite number of government-created injustices.
That’s why libertarian futurists have our work cut out for us. We need to show those who value reason, dream of progress, and admire scientific accomplishment, that freedom is the best means—in the long run: the only effective means—of reaching their goals.
We need to explain (in more convincing detail than is possible in a short editorial) that a civilized society founded on full respect for individual rights and voluntary exchange is a major prerequisite for our species’ future progress—on earth or in space.
That complex, too-little-understood network of social cooperation made possible by liberty has been identified and analyzed by Nobel prize-winning economist Friedrich Hayek as the subtle phenomenon of “spontaneous order” It’s what Adam Smith, in less scientific, less secular times called the “invisible hand.”
Their libertarian insights—which the Libertarian Futurist Society acknowledges by awarding Hayek Half and Adam Smith gold coins each year to Prometheus Award and Prometheus Hall of Fame winners—offer the key to unleashing a veritable flood of scientific, cultural, and technological innovations, if government will only get out of the way.
Freedom doesn’t lead to chaos; government does—as the twentieth century’s history of war, mass murder, monopoly, runaway inflation, depression, and dictatorship proves. Libertarian futurists have an important role to play in exposing the myths that maintain today’s despairing culture of collectivism and libertarianism may begin to flourish.
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