Just after midnight on July 18, Darren Charrier grabbed a surfboard, headed out past the breakers near Cape Canaveral, Florida, and settled in to wait. Before long, he got what he came for. His buddy—paddling just behind on his own board—documented the moment for Twitter. In the striking snapshot, Charrier is in silhouette, backlit by the flare of a rocket returning to Earth and settling upright on its launch pad.
Inspiring feats of aeronautics are not terribly unusual at Cape Canaveral, home to NASA's Kennedy Space Center. But this particular rocket doesn't belong to NASA. It belongs to Elon Musk, a man who is almost certainly both richer and smarter than everyone you know. His aerospace company, SpaceX, does have a contract with the U.S. government to carry several loads of cargo and hardware to the International Space Station. This mission, the seventh so far in 2016, successfully ferried a Dragon capsule loaded with two and a half tons of gear—including a handheld DNA sequencer—into low Earth orbit. But running a delivery service for the feds is merely a waystation for the co-founder of Tesla and PayPal, who has his eye on more radical experiments in living.
"I think it would be cool to be born on Earth and die on Mars," says Musk. He adds, "Hopefully not at the point of impact."
At the same moment Charrier was bobbing on the dark water, bathed in the glow of burning rocket fuel and Elon Musk's fever dreams, the rest of Twitter was exhaustedly signing off after day two of the Republican National Convention, which by that point had already been through a plagiarism scandal and an extended discussion of Hillary Clinton's exact relationship to Lucifer.
The following week in Philadelphia served up the Democratic variant of anti-trade, pro-intervention, debt-denialist rhetoric, with donkeys in place of elephants and the word fair in the place of the word safe, alongside an awful lot of Donald Trump trash talk.
The stakes are undeniably high in 2016, but the prospects for free markets and smaller government seem poor, no matter who wins. What to do?
"Don't argue about regulation. Build Uber." Balaji S. Srinivasan is CEO of the cryptocurrency firm 21 Inc. and that is what he tweeted right before the conventions got rolling. "Don't argue about monetary policy. Build Bitcoin. Don't argue about it. Build the alternative."
As the last U.S. space shuttle limped into retirement in 2011 and the agency's future looked uncertain, we could have had a big national debate about the future of space exploration. Instead, a bunch of billionaires were already strapping up to slip the surly bonds of Earth on their own—Musk with SpaceX, but also Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, and others. Don't argue about space policy. Build rockets.
For nearly five decades, reason has advocated the privatization of the U.S. Postal Service. But those calls have become less heated over the years. Why? The Post Office still exists, it's still awful, and we're all going to be paying mail carriers' pensions until the end times. But that awfulness is increasingly irrelevant to daily life, thanks to a glorious cascade of innovative workarounds. FedEx, UPS, email, IM, SMS, Slack—even those old fax machines. Each is a razor blade slashing the Gordian knot of entrenched bureaucracy and byzantine regulation. Don't argue about the Post Office. Build messaging apps.
This, then, is the only way out of the mess we've made: Culture and commerce must continue to get bigger and smarter faster than government and politics get bigger and stupider.
Shortly after the conventions ended, Amazon announced a sale on former reason editor Virginia Postrel's 1998 book The Future and Its Enemies, a bargain at $3.99. Almost 20 years after its initial publication on dead tree, Postrel's recasting of the American political landscape seems more on point than ever, shining up from the iPhone Kindle app.
"Some people," Postrel writes, look at "diverse, decentralized, choice-driven systems and rejoice, even when they don't like the particular choices. Others recoil. In pursuit of stability and control, they seek to eliminate or curb these unruly, too-creative forces.
"Stasists and dynamists are thus divided not just by simple, short-term policy issues, but by fundamental disagreements about the way the world works. These are not the comfortable old Cold War divisions of hawks and doves, egalitarians and individualists, left and right."
Two decades later, The Economist's convention wrap-up sounded eerily similar notes: "The political divide that matters is less and less between left and right, and more and more between open and closed. Debates between tax-cutting conservatives and free-spending social democrats have not gone away. But issues that cross traditional party lines have grown more potent. Welcome immigrants or keep them out? Open up to foreign trade or protect domestic industries? Embrace cultural change, or resist it?"
The tricky part is that dynamism can look an awful lot like disaster. The month before SpaceX pulled off that Cape Canaveral landing, the company crashed a rocket into a barge on open water, splintering both into fiery wreckage. Musk is willing to literally crash and burn if it furthers the cause, something NASA hasn't been up for since at least the '60s. He's willing to absorb the cost of failure over the long term, too, thanks to his incomprehensibly vast wealth—precisely the kind of accumulation decried over and over from the podium at the DNC.
But when new ways of doing things dramatically sweep away old ways—when manufacturing jobs vanish, families change shape, and money transforms from paper to code—it's alarming, right up until the moment when no one can remember what it was like before.
When Uber opened up shop in a dozen cities, it operated on a forgiveness rather than permission strategy, winning market share as quickly as it could, and then deploying every single satisfied rider or happy driver as human shields against the predictable onslaught of state and local regulation.
One place where that strategy failed was Philadelphia. The city's parking authority started conducting stings on drivers in 2014, plunging uberX into a legal limbo. But when Democratic convention organizers realized the car-hailing app was their best bet to shuffle all those delegates, press, and hangers-on around the City of Brotherly Love—that it had gone from a luxury to a necessity—they went about quietly, ruthlessly, hypocritically clearing the way for the service to operate legally (and slapped on a new tax too) long before a single visitor in a button-covered hat realized her own party's bad policy made it impossible for her to get back to her hotel.
In her only major economic address so far, Hillary Clinton promised to "crack down" on what she called "the gig economy." But the Uber convention exception shows we're too far gone for that. While the taxi cartels and the labor unions were looking the other way, the gig economy became our new reality.
The pace of innovation and the growth of government are both accelerating. It is their relative rates of change that will determine whether the world we live in keeps getting happier and healthier and weirder, or whether we wind up locked in and kept down. One encouraging sign: Charrier, the young surfer, describes himself as an aerospace engineering student at the University of California, San Diego, whose research "focuses around 3D-printed rocket engines." And Moon Express, where he's a "propulsion intern", just secured Federal Aviation Administration permission for the first private lunar mission. Which sounds insane, right up until the moment that it becomes utterly unremarkable.
Most of us aren't in a position to 3D-print ourselves a ride to Mars just yet. But at least for now we can hop into an Uber and ride off into the sunrise together.