Forget about Second Life. Let’s talk about the virtual reality in the head of Michael Gerson, former speech writer for George W. Bush. In Friday’s Washington Post, Gerson has an extremely silly column in which he argues that Second Life is “a large-scale experiment in libertarianism.” Based on what he observes while playing the popular online role-playing game, Gerson pronounces judgment against a world of thoroughgoing unplanned spontaneity. Here’s Gerson’s charge against the world of Second Life:
[T]he main result is the breakdown of inhibition. Second Life, as you’d expect, is highly sexualized in ways that have little to do with respect or romance. There are frequent outbreaks of terrorism, committed by online anarchists who interrupt events, assassinate speakers (who quickly reboot from the dead) and vandalize buildings. There are strip malls everywhere, pushing a relentless consumerism. And there seems to be an inordinate number of vampires, generally not a sign of community health.
Libertarians hold to a theory of “spontaneous order”—that society should be the product of uncoordinated human choices instead of human design. Well, Second Life has plenty of spontaneity, and not much genuine order. This experiment suggests that a world that is only a market is not a utopia. It more closely resembles a seedy, derelict carnival—the triumph of amusement and distraction over meaning and purpose.
Let’s break that indictment down.
1. Gerson says Second Life is “highly sexualized in ways that have little to do with respect or romance.” Unfortunately, the real world has that, too—even not counting video games. We have that in the United States in spite of laws against prostitution, FCC regulation of indecency in broadcast media, and “community standards” regulation of adult entertainment. Other countries try to control the carnal instincts by strictly regulating personal morality. Does Gerson think the United States should become more like Saudi Arabia? He doesn’t say.
2. Gerson says in Second Life there are “frequent outbreaks of terrorism,” but doesn’t explain how that is a charge against unfettered free markets. Since the real world has frequent outbreaks of terrorism, too, we might suppose that to be a charge against the mostly non-libertarian real world. Gerson, presumably, is in favor of the government actively fighting terrorists—as are most people, including classical market liberals. Terrorism, like war, is inconsistent with free markets. Countries that want to trade with each other don’t go to war. Individuals who want to engage in commerce don’t blow up market places.
3. But Gerson doesn’t seem to be in favor of market places. He laments that in Second Life he sees “strip malls everywhere” and “relentless consumerism.” From Second Life, then we might conclude that commerce is resilient in spite of terrorism. That sounds like good news. So far, Second Life seems a lot like the real world.
4. Gerson objects there are an “inordinate number of vampires” in Second Life. Now that, indeed, is something that the real world doesn’t offer. Is this a difference attributable to a better set of laws than a libertarian society would make? Does Gerson believe that real societies do not have vampires because they have effective laws against vampirism? A libertarian might argue that he, too, is against vampirism and in favor of laws against such, on the same grounds that a libertarian favors the government’s role as a night watchman. A better argument, though, is that real societies need not concern themselves with things that are not in fact real.
The presence of vampires, however, should signal us as to what is wrong with Second Life as a social experiment. If you can be anything and do anything, then it’s a game without much in the way of consequences. The real world, in case Gerson didn’t notice, has consequences. Without consequences from which to learn, the participants in Second Life have little need to worry about how they behave. And without consequences, societies have little need for things like rights, order, rules, and institutions—all necessary elements for a true market order. What Second Life offers, in other words, is not an experiment in libertarianism. It’s not even an experiment in anarchy (because market orders can evolve out of anarchy). (Is it even a game?)
American Conservatism as defined by Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan is a philosophy of robust individualism and limited government. If some conservatives want to embrace instead the idea of an activist government that seeks to improve individuals, they should find better arguments than those derived from Second Life.