Saturday, September 6, 2014

A Libertarian's take on the Detroit Water Project

I recently had dinner with a good friend, who, as it happens, is a fairly staunch liberal. He made a joke at some point in the evening about me being "a conservative." Of course, my political leanings are towards libertarian more than anything else, so to highlight the difference, I explained that he and I shared the same end goals, politically: I'm pro-choice, egalitarian, and against corporatism. I dislike military adventurism. I support equal work for equal pay. So on and so forth.

"The only difference between us", I went on, "is that you think the way to achieve all of these goals, is through government".

In the minds of my more progressive friends, their default instinct to solve any problem is a simple three step process:
1) Voting your conscience is just as good as acting upon it.
2) Tax "the rich"
3) Government will handle the rest.

They're happy to let government act as a proxy for them, allowing someone else to do the work (government programs), and someone else to pay for it (the apocryphal "rich".)

It's not that I think that government doesn't have a good and proper role in our lives, it's only that I feel like it should be our absolute last resort. It's never efficient, rarely effective, and frequently unintentionally harmful. It's best left to those roles that can't be filled by any other form of collective action. And thanks to the internet, there are new forms of collective action taking shape every day to step in. Problems that 25 years ago were only solvable by large monolithic institutions, like corporations or governments, are now solvable through ad-hoc collective action, organizing people via new technology.

Which brings us to the Detroit Water Project.

Here is a true grassroots movement, started by web developer Tiffani Bell and designer Kristy Tillman, to do one simple thing: when the city started shutting off water to homes who were delinquent in their water payments, they stepped in to match willing donors to accounts that were in arrears. Today, my pledge was matched with an overdue account that I could pay off directly for someone in need that I didn't personally know. This is a logistical lift that would have been impossible to recruit for, and impossible to coordinate before the internet. The Detroit Water Project isn't an organization or a foundation. It simply coordinated people who wanted to help, with their own cash, with accounts that needed paying, directly. It's ad-hoc, and low-overhead. Most importantly, the bills got paid, so the people in need are cared for, and the water company got it's due. All parties are satisfied without having an outside authority step in and pick a winner and a loser.

It's important not to overlook the marvel that this is: it's not any form of institution that existed before the internet; it's not a corporation, a church, a government, or a non-profit. It's just a pop-up phenomenon, led by two people who cared enough to gather other caring people to them, and pointed them at the people who needed their help. For the first time in human history, this kind of charity is truly scalable.

This project is a model for the kinds of solutions that are possible in the 21st century--solutions that go beyond the "government vs. corporations" left-right mentality that taints our political discourse, and distorts our options to collectively solve the problems that our society faces. This kind of collective action keeps us directly involved, but still scales to levels that allow real change and broad effect. So few human accomplishments that really matter are individual achievements; collective action is necessary to solve big problems. This is a powerful new way to think about how we can organize ourselves to solve some of our toughest problems, and no matter where you fall in the traditional political spectrum, it satisfies the desire to collectively organize to help those in need, while bypassing the inefficiency and clumsiness of asking the government to go and do it for you.

Thank you Tiffani and Kristy, for your efforts to organize this project. It's an incredible testament to what caring people will do when given the opportunity.