What do eBay, Renaissance Florence, "network-centric warfare," terrorism, language, leadership and neuroscience have in common?
Nothing obvious. But in "A Crowd of One," computer-age egghead John Henry Clippinger of Harvard Law School ties them all together.
He insists they all provide insight into this question: Should we change our definition of the individual to fit our new wired and ever-more-connected world?
Clippinger thinks so, though he won't convince all readers. This ambitious book, which lightly touches on history, economics, warfare and technology, makes fascinating and worthwhile reading, but it's also frequently frustrating.
Connections between chapters are hard to see. Clippinger moves from a chapter that's half about Clausewitz's influence on cutting-edge Pentagon theories of warfare and half about Adam Smith's theories of natural human sympathies to one about how neuroscience illuminates our understanding of the social functions of language. He doesn't hold the reader's hand as he skips from insight to speculation to historical example.
Clippinger writes insightfully about how valuable new social and technological orders, bound by simple rules, can suddenly arise, without any central planning or control—think Internet. Yet he sneers at unbridled free markets—which are merely that same insight writ large.
Clippinger caricatures free-market economics as an expression of pure greed and argues that it must be contained. Yet economic freedom, and the ingenuity required to fuel it, have never been about seeking pure gain at others' expense.
To use one of Clippinger's own examples, eBay's successful experiments in trust and community are as "free market" as it gets, not any kind of "post-market" phenomenon.
Clippinger correctly notes that a world full of disgruntled people with the power to cause unprecedented harm needs more of the sense of "we're all in this together." He thinks recent neurobiological advances can show the way. The book surveys the various disciplines that will advance this understanding.
Clippinger fails to prove that "individual identity" is an anachronism. But he does make us think about the systems and methods that bind individuals into something bigger than themselves—and how those connections make people's lives richer and more fulfilling.
His optimism that the digital realm offers opportunities to build trust and engage in valuable social experimentation is borne out daily in the world around us.
Brian Doherty is a senior editor for reason, and author of Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement. This article originally appeared in the May 13 New York Post.
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