Author Steven Johnson is a rare individual these days: A genuine optimist. His new book, “Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age,” preaches a gospel of an emerging worldview that “doesn’t map on to the existing left/right political categories.”
He swears he’s not selling “cyber-utopianism,” but Johnson believes the “peer network” structure of the Internet can help us meld the best qualities of conservatism and liberalism into a more visionary third way.
And he might have a point.
Consider the website Kickstarter, which allows individuals to voluntarily support creative projects. As Johnson notes, the site is “on track to distribute more money than the National Endowment for the Arts” (a potentially positive development for conservatives who lament having their tax dollars involuntarily go to such projects.) Why couldn’t, as Johnson suggests, local governments incorporate a similar sort of “participatory budgeting” model to decide which projects to fund?
This might sound like a quixotic attempt at “direct democracy,” but Johnson (who is the author of several other terrific books, including “Where Good Ideas Come From” and “Everything Bad is Good For You”) insists that finding new solutions requires casting aside cynicism and embracing optimism.
And it is refreshing to read an ostensibly political book in which the author genuinely seems to have no ideological agenda or partisan ax to grind. Johnson’s advice, thus, rings at least sincere.
“I think one of the key things that the Left needs to acknowledge is that the libertarian position that kind of comes down from Hayek,” he tells me, “in the long run, will outperform and out innovate centralized bureaucratic institutions.”
But while Johnson dismisses the notion that elite planners can solve all our problems, he also argues that tomorrow’s best innovative solutions won’t come exclusively from the market-based sources. “The idea is not to replace the market with the state,” he avers, “but to enhance and extend the market with other decentralized systems that aren’t necessarily driven by profit incentives.”
If this sounds naive, think of Wikipedia. Thousands of people voluntarily contribute to creating and maintaining this online encyclopedia — for free. (As author Dan Pink, has pointed out, sometimes financial incentives actually reduce motivation and participation.)
Achieving Johnson’s vision won’t be easy. A lot of people are invested in preserving the current political system. ”The Left needs to get rid of the idea [of] top-down, state-centralized master plans [and] big, top-heavy unions — all of these things that have been institutions of the left for a hundred years,” he says.
“But the Right has to give up the idea that everything is going to be solved by the market.”