Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, announced a plan yesterday to invest $2bn in a pair of initiatives. One will operate tuition-free, Montessori-style academies in underserved communities. The other will fund local efforts to relieve homelessness and hunger. This generous donation represents about 1% of Bezos’ net worth.
Bezos’ announcement is notable not just for its size, but for its emphasis on replacing failed public functions. His announcement also references his other investments in public infrastructure, like his space exploration company and what he calls his “stewardship” of the Washington Post. In his announcement, Bezos promises that in his new schools, “the child will be the customer.”
Philanthropy is nice. Smart, responsible government might be better. Perhaps we should just be grateful to be batting .500.
What’s coming Next after the decline of liberal democracy? No organized, intentional rival is yet apparent. No Adam Smith, John Locke, or Karl Marx has emerged with a manifesto or blueprint for a new system. All we can see of Next is a post-democratic environment taking shape, full of unanticipated new strains on our social order, lacking any coherent plan on our part for a purposeful replacement. Liberal democracy, communism, socialism and fascism all emerged from environmental demands that rendered older systems, like monarchy, inadequate. Here’s a rough outline of Next, as an environment awaiting our adaptation.
Where liberal democracy prized human rights, Next is favoring economic rights. Instead of equality, Next emphasizes competition. Where we once elevated elections and representation as the vehicle of personal expression, Next is channeling those energies through transactions in free markets.
Rule of law is being nudged aside in favor of atomized contractual relationships. Civic duty is declining in favor of transience, as citizens shed their burdensome attachments to place, institutions, duty, and inherited (unchosen) relationships. Next is a civilization of consumers rather than citizens, a world of utility divorced from duty.
Value in the old, industrial democratic order was measured in productivity. Economists watched statistics like employment rates and GDP. Value in the Next order is governed by Moore’s Law. Data processing, not the production and consumption of trinkets, will determines wealth, success, and power. Winners in the industrial age owned raw materials and the means of production. Winners in Next own data and the means of computation.
Journalism in Next is just another business, dependent on customers for its survival. Journalistic outlets will deliver news their customers want to hear, or they will fail. There is only a very narrow market for unpleasant realities, so professional journalism will be increasingly constrained by the prerogatives of the entertainment industry. Whatever authentic journalism in the classical model survives in Next will owe its survival to wealthy patrons and public donations.
It is likely that some form of private journalism may develop, to uncover real conditions for those who still thrive on dissonant information – corporate leadership. Their work-product is likely to be proprietary, available only to insiders, closer to the work of private investigators than to the reporters of the past. Whatever public journalism survives independent of a patron, will be refined to compete with movies and video games.
The most powerful people in a monarchy are aristocrats. The most powerful people in a liberal democracy are elected heads of state. The most powerful people in Next will probably be global corporate management and celebrities. In the spirit of parallel processing and competition, there will be exponentially more of them than the number of aristocrats in a monarchy, or elected leaders in democracies. Even without public elections, a form of balance of power may be achieved in Next, influenced by the choices of billions of consumers. Liberal democracies limit concentration of power through laws and civil rights. In Next, concentration of power is limited by competition and innovation. Where governments fail to stop Uber, a new driverless car competitor might succeed.
Our public mythology is already evolving under pressure from Next. Public monuments once venerated generals or presidents. Our declining attachment to public institutions mean the next generation of heroes might be entertainers, sports stars, inventors, or ordinary people who achieved some Kardashianesque notoriety. As the influence and importance of public institutions declines, people will run for Congress and win just to promote their Netflix show or their YouTube channel. They might not even bother to go to DC to take their seat. Idiocracy will likely swamp our highest electoral institutions. Many public policy alternatives that might have mitigated the negative outcomes of Next will be wrecked by the dysfunction enveloping electoral politics.
How might we combat the descent of public institutions into Idiocracy? One simple, if troubling solution might be handing more public power to the entities thriving in Next. Imagine if the CEO of GE ran for Congress? Or perhaps more realistically, imagine if United Healthcare or Oracle, or local consortiums of companies hired employees specifically to run for office and funded them directly. Instead of a Congress in which corporations trip over each other with donations and lobbying efforts to influence Congressmen, what if corporations just got their own employees elected? Picture a Congress in which 50-70 members got their primary income and their direction from their employer? This may sound like a terrible future, but we’re mostly there already.
Vice President Dick Cheney, during his term in office, made far more money from Halliburton than he earned from his meagre federal salary. It should come as no surprise that he accomplished far more for Halliburton than he did for us. Our current president still runs a largely secret business than profits directly from his political position. Governors of Florida and Illinois are also billionaire former CEO’s who continue to profit from their capital investments. Their political policies reflect their capital interests, which are still worth hundreds of times their salaries.
Eddie Farnsworth is a state legislator and political entrepreneur in Arizona. He’s about to earn $30m selling public schools back to the state by essentially laundering the facilities through the charter school program. Farnsworth’s scheme is particularly galling, but politicians using their position for profit isn’t unique.
The median US Congressman is a millionaire. If half of them were officially paid employees of a corporation, at least they would have some formal accountability to a sane institution with rational interests. A Congress in which many members were corporate employees might be less corrupt, smarter, more responsive to genuine public needs, and more broadly effective than our current representatives. Perhaps most importantly, corporations are already accustomed to offload many routine decisions to algorithms. Representatives drawn from their ranks will likely be more comfortable with the inevitable pivot away from decision-making based on the democratic process toward decision-making built on science, data and AI-based computation. And whether it’s a good idea or a bad one, formalized corporate representation looms as a likely outcome as companies seek to remove the inefficient political middleman. The Chinese are already doing it.
Tencent is the largest corporation in Asia, and one of the largest in the world. Its founder and CEO, Ma Hauteng, was “elected” to China’s National People’s Congress. Dozens of other corporate leaders hold positions in Chinese government. Most of the country’s senior leadership are billionaires through their business roles. This is a pattern in both the authoritarian and democratic nations of Asia. As those governments look to leverage the parallel processing capabilities of private institutions, they must bring them into roles of formal government power. Prominent corporate figures already take on roles of official public leadership and corporations have formal input in public decisions. If Jeff Bezos is going to influence public life through “stewardship” of the Washington Post and a network of charitable entities, would it be better or worse for him to be accountable through a formal public office?
Corporate power has already developed into a vital hedge against Idiocracy in the US, as our political system is swamped by nutjobs and opportunists. Corporations have played decisive roles in fighting bigoted legislation in major US states with a strong business presence. In states like Mississippi, with little offer big businesses, there’s been nothing to stop the descent into Idiocracy. As Next gains steam, we are likely to see businesses step in to shore up failing public institutions, blurring a once-sacred boundary in liberal democracies between political and economic power.
Next is likely to be a system in which older liberal democratic institutions continue to exist, but stripped of their former purpose, influence and power. Real decision-making slips ever farther out of the hands of public institutions into not just corporations, but toward other ad hoc organizations like Southwest Key Programs that pop up to solve a problem for cash. As citizens are replaced with consumers, power shifts out of politics and into the marketplace, placing decisions of central public importance in the hands of unelected experts with a keen eye on the bottom line.
Monarchies still exist, they just don’t matter. This is likely the fate of democratic institutions as Next takes shape.
This post is part of a series exploring what’s next after liberal democracy and what we should do to prepare. Much of this material was covered in The Politics of Crazy, though from the perspective of a more optimistic era. The work fits better as a whole, but reading through a 6000+ word piece on a computer seems impractical. When these are complete I’ll gather them into a series of links on a single page.