Last spring I sat down to create a third edition of The Freedom Outlaws Handbook.
I knew major updates would be needed, particularly in the areas of freedom technology and privacy. Eleven years had passed. Tech changes. Ventures fail. Laws tighten. Rarely, laws loosen (but it does happen). I was prepared for that.
I wasn’t prepared for devastation. But devastation confronted me as I attempted to revise item after item. Mere rewrites were futile. Mere replacements didn’t exist.
Site after site, option after option had disappeared. Sometimes they’d merely disappeared, broke, obsolete, unable to deliver on their promises, or neglected because they didn’t produce enough for their owners. Perfectly natural creative destruction. Perfectly common in a rapidly changing world.
Other times, businesses had been shut down by the feds, their creators arrested. Or entrepreneurs shuttered operations because government threats or diktats created unacceptable risks. Services (both online and offline) that were shiny new in 2007 had been rendered useless by advances in the surveillance state. Independent websites had been consumed by megatech, and thereby put in service to the omni-marketing state.
And nothing had replaced them. Or where there was a replacement it was either offshore — because the U.S. is so hostile to privacy — or the replacement was known to be compromised.
After a few hours, I put the project aside.
I returned to the book a couple months later, this time with a hopeful plan. I’d reduce the 179 action items of the second edition back down to 101 (from TFOH’s predecessor book). I’d be more general about tech, focusing on tips to help people find the latest freedom options while avoiding pitfalls. I’d recommend fewer specific sites and businesses. I’d talk more about freedom in the real world. Etc. etc.
But when I sat down this second time and began deleting page after page after page of the manuscript, things looked even more bleak. It wasn’t only in the online world and the privacy realm that we’d lost so much. It was everywhere.
It’s now clear that no one will ever halt the surveillance state (or even temporarily push back against it as Congress did in the 1970s), and that even the most hopeful forms of privacy tech are either compromised from the get-go, too complicated for Ordinary Joe and Josie to use, or (worse) both. It’s also clear that Joe and Josie either don’t care or have given up. Allegedly “private” tech businesses are either working jointly with government or are themselves so controlling, so patronizing, so political, and so all-seeing that they’re more malign than Big Brother.
It was too depressing. I couldn’t face a project that — in the name of celebrating rowdy individual choices and taking charge of our own lives — would put me in the doldrums for months and not be as good as its predecessors.
Unless something radical changes, there will never be a third edition of TFOH. I didn’t even have the heart to tell Mason-Marshall (the new publisher of my old books), who’s probably finding out by reading this column (sorry, Oliver).
Charles Hugh Smith reminded me this week of what we’ve lost in the real world — from functioning markets to social mobility to perspectives on entitlement.
I don’t agree with Smith on all his points. Some things he values, like trust in institutions, I think we’re better off without — because institutions rarely deserve the trust they’re given. He also identifies these losses as occurring in the last 10 years, when really our social devolution has been going on far, far longer than that.
But there’s no denying it; in the last decades we’ve been losing, not gaining.
Of course there are some positives. There always are. Tech has brought us 3D printing, whose value we’re barely beginning to see. A couple of Supreme Court judgments have supported our rights to keep and bear arms. The constitutional carry movement has done awesome things. States and individuals are finally becoming rational about cannabis (though I fear the liberalized laws are just as much about bread, circuses, and new tax sources as they are about individual rights). Despite its more loathsome effects, computer technology continues to do amazing things for us, including enabling us to connect with each other.
And even where things look the most bleak — healthcare, for instance, or higher education, or that poisonous secretive uber-government that pulls the strings of the elected/appointed government we imagine we have — those seemingly dire straits can signal good on the horizon.
Because when systems can’t be reformed, they break. Because governments can only grow so topheavy before they topple. Because frauds eventually get uncovered. Because omni-surveillance leads to data overload that enables cagey people to slip between the cracks. Because when we can’t trust institutions, we must learn to trust ourselves and our neighbors once again.
So for all that we’ve lost, we’ve also gained. It’s just that much of what we’ve gained isn’t readily apparent or isn’t pretty. It also isn’t for the weak or the stupid. (And in some ways at some times, we are all weak or stupid.)
There’s still plenty of freedom out there to be had. There always is. There always must be.
But it’s harder now and getting harder yet. Much of it’s going to be found only through struggle. I still hope that’s not the struggle of overt war. But struggle it will be. Struggle or retreats into the better kinds of tribalism and other parts of the world descend into the worse kinds of tribalism.
I gave up on a book because this is no longer the time or place for that book. I don’t give up on us or our freedom. But the days of easy answers for creative individuals — if they ever existed — are no more.