Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Kempianism in Cyberspace

Winter 1996

James P. Pinkerton
Hyperion, 1995, xi + 404 pgs.

At times in this strange book, Mr. Pinkerton sounds like an advocate of the free market; fortunately, he really is not. "Fortunately," because our author has an anti-Midas Touch. Whatever he touches he leaves in confusion. Far better to have him on the other side.

Our claim that Pinkerton opposes the free market may at first elicit surprise. Is not a principal theme of the book the failings of bureaucracy, and the far superior performance of the market? Pinkerton goes so far as to rely on Mises and Hayek for support. "The central tenet of Austrian economics . . . holds that bureaucratic decision making must fail because it cannot know all relevant information" (p. 65).

I would not have put it exactly like this myself, but only a rigid ideologue would quibble over our author's wording. Does he not deserve praise? And the passage is no isolated instance. Elsewhere he lauds Mises's attack on statolatry, "worship of the State" (p. 54). How then can I possibly think of Pinkerton as an opponent of the market? Surely such luminaries as William Weld and Arianna Huffington are right to see him as a crusader for freedom! (Never mind whether they are for the market.)

Matters are not what they seem. Pinkerton does indeed grasp that the market far outstrips bureaucracy in getting the job done; but he sees in this fact a great danger. Unless government comes to the rescue, the rich will retreat to private fortresses while the poor suffer in squalor. Owing to the prominence of computers in the "cyber-economy," private companies of worldwide scope have become able effectively to challenge governments. The small size and elusiveness of their products render them impossible to control, and vast fortunes have created a new elite.

Therein lies the peril. "[M]arket forces will redistribute the rich to distant and defensible hills and hollows across the planet. The rich have their quick silver capitalism, enabling them to buy their way out of bureaucracy" (p. 75). The poor, in large part made destitute because computers have driven them out of work, will live in fear of violent crime. With resources sucked away by the rich, nothing but a "second-tier" government remains to protect them.

What is to be done? asked Lenin; and Pinkerton proves an apt pupil. The cure is not to eliminate bureaucracy altogether; that would place us, in the way just described, in the hands of the rich. Quite the contrary; the solution to the problem of bureaucracy is better bureaucracy.

What we need, specifically, is this: "the creation of a post- perestroika class of civil servants, what we might call Samurai bureaucrats. These would be select guardians of the Commonweal, named after the elite defenders of Imperial Japan" (p. 288). Evidently, our author has latched onto one of H.G. Wells's more morbid fantasies. And the parallel with Lenin's "vanguard party of the proletariat" will not have escaped the alert reader.

Pinkerton's band of Happy Warriors have their work cut out for them. To prevent the poor from falling into the dire fate he has mapped out, they must be "empowered." I lack the stomach to describe Pinkerton's Big Offer in the detail it merits; it is perhaps best characterized as Jack Kemp gone psychedelic. (Kemp, by the way, thinks well of the book.)

One proposal will have to suffice. Pinkerton calls for a revived Civilian Conservation Corps. If the cyber-economy drives people out of work, Uncle Sam is here to help: "The New CCC would not be forced labor; it would offer meaningful jobs . . . it might be organized as a military unit without weapons but with ranks, uniforms, honor, loyalty, and the inculcation of civic and patriotic virtues" (pp 315 16). Somehow, I doubt that Mises would have given Pinkerton high marks for understanding his theory of bureaucracy.

But I must be fair to our author. (Not that I am ever unfair to any author.) He does call for the elimination of many government programs, such as agricultural subsidies to rich farmers; and he rightly assails the Supreme Court for vesting welfare recipients with a "right" to their benefits. In the book's best section, Pinkerton traces the ruling to the "new property" theory of Charles Reich (pp. 105ff).

For Pinkerton, though, the cuts are designed to enable government to control us more efficiently. In a Pinkertonian world, the powers-that-be will tell us how much of our incomes we may spend. He wants a "progressive consumption tax." "Such a tax could be made as progressive as the current income tax or more so" (p. 262).

Why, though, is it a good thing that Pinkerton is so poor a Misesian? To reiterate, his standard of argument is appallingly bad; and he can only damage whatever cause he embraces. His picture of a future unregulated by government rests in large part on the Cyberpunk Novels of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, not to mention the movie Blade Runner. These evidently qualify as hard data in the New Paradigm.

And this raises another matter. Pinkerton makes a great to do about the need for a changed paradigm, telling us how much he has been influenced by Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. But he manages to get the book's thesis exactly wrong. Kuhn did not contend that "new paradigms become accepted because they win if they work" (p. 6). His claim is that there is no theory-neutral criterion for progress in sciences. Our author likes to dress up his work with erudite references; but his inability to understand what he cites does not impress. (By the way, Hegel did not write a work called Philosophy of Right and Law [p. 53].)

As if this were not enough, the book is written in a style that at best bears a passing resemblance to English. If "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers," strikes you as well written, you will enjoy the book. Otherwise, why bother?


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