Thursday, November 11, 2004

Letter to Ed Dodson

Below is a letter to Edward Dodson of the School of Cooperative Individualism ( commenting on the Georgist school of political philosophy, and specifically critiquing his essay “The Democratic Imperative” (

Dear Ed,

I’ve enjoyed reading “The Democratic Imperative”, and other samplings of Georgist thought. Both of our philosophies appear dedicated to maximizing liberty within the realities of human political organization. While we differ in our areas of focus, I think that both our means and our ends are quite complementary. I find that I agree with nearly all of the arguments made in “The Democratic Imperative”, as well as the “Principles of Cooperative Individualism” found on your website. What follows, then, focuses on explaining why I choose to place emphasis on different parts of what I see as a common cause:

Let me start with one of the principles of your philosophy: “That human behavior falls outside the realm of liberty, and within the realm of criminal license when such behavior violates the liberty of others.” I agree completely. I find that a principle of my philosophy is quite similar: hierarchal organization creates differential stratification of power (liberty) where the few accumulate power (liberty) taken from the many. Hierarchy, then, falls within the realm of criminal license.

In order to preserve liberty for all, you suggest that “[w]hat is needed to more fully realize the promise of democracy is take the debate over solutions to a sustained, higher level that focuses not simply or primarily on short-run, remedial measures, but looks at the fundamental construction of our socio-political arrangements and institutions.” Again, I only differ on what part of our “fundamental construction” to focus on. Your essay suggests that we revise the mechanisms of our democratic political-economy (significant changes to our representative form of government, corporate structure, government funding sources, etc.) in order to prevent abusive, uneven distribution of liberty. I prefer to focus on what I see as the root cause of the problem: the fundamental structure of hierarchy.

As an alternative to hierarchy, I propose the transition to a “rhizome”, or networked architecture in our political-economy. The abuses of liberty (which I consider interchangeable with my term: power) in our nation and in our world stem from the fundamental structure of hierarchy. From studying anthropology, history, economics and physics, I have come to the conclusion that hierarchy as a pattern tends towards continual centralization and intensification. Its very structure is predicated upon taking liberty away from people to concentrate it at ever-more-distant points. Hierarchy creates rigid, inflexible structures that are incredibly strong until they shatter in the cycles of history. But through grass-roots efforts towards localized economic interaction and decentralization we can transition from hierarchy to rhizome. The phrase “cooperative individualism” puts this vision very eloquently, indeed. In my view, the fundamental failure of any government—and certainly of our present government—is systemic. It is due to the problems of information processing within hierarchies of significant size, and will not be resolved solely by the restructuring within the framework of hierarchy. At best, I think that a restructuring of our government—without a removal of its centralized, stratified, hierarchal nature—would result in a system of benevolent, but equally ineffective bureaucracy.

Of course, stepping outside the narrow confines of political theory, it seems most effective to address our real-world problems with a forked strategy: simultaneous modification of our government (top-down) as recommended in “The Democratic Imperative”, along with a grass-roots economic and political decentralization and transition to rhizome as I advocate in my book, “A Theory of Power”. Rhizome defeats hierarchy by making it irrelevant: it is not a step into the past, but as the most recent discoveries about network architecture and group psychology suggest, it is a step forward.

I think that the true strength of both of our approaches is that they don’t rely on revolution or violence to be realized. We clearly share similar goals. I am confident that my theories can be improved by incorporating Georgist thinking, working for complementary actions and common ground… hopefully the effect can be reciprocal.

~Jeff Vail

No comments: