Book Review: The Sovereign Individual


This book is about understanding the relationship between the technology for violence, the returns of violence, and patterns of human organization. Hand in hand with this is the relationship between the cost effectiveness of taking (e.g. stealing food from a farm) and the cost effectiveness of creating (e.g. growing plants on a farm).

The following ages emerge for which the above variables remain mostly constant within each age while undergoing large changes between them. Each time the variables change, radically new forms of government / organization emerge.

  1. Hunter gatherer age: Weak technology for violence, not much property, not much of an incentive for violence because there isn’t much to take, mostly small tribes of organization.
  2. Agricultural age: Property emerges, it becomes easier to take food than to create it yourself, and small governments form to provide a service that protects property from those who try to take it with violence.
  3. Industrial age: Technology for violence becomes much stronger, governments can grow and maintain a monopoly of violence over larger territories, and nation states emerge eventually leading to the welfare state.

Most recently we have entered the information age. The open question is, how will governments evolve in the face of the most recent advances in technology? Large scale human coordination / governments haven’t had a significant rework since the creation of the computer.

This is playing out in real time. A core novelty of the information age is the mobility of its property. Unlike a coal mine which can’t move and is stuck under the control of whichever government controls the property it resides on, software companies live in “the cloud” and aren’t bound to any physical location. Additionally, the advance of AI is significantly reducing the number of humans required for effective warfare which means that it becomes possible for a government to defend itself without requiring a large nationalist population.

The book’s thesis is that this will trigger a shift to greater competitiveness between governments as they bid for their more mobile residents based on who offers the lowest taxes, ultimately leading to smaller more efficient governments winning out against large welfare states. In this new paradigm, a winner takes all system will reward people meritocratically on a power law distribution and unprecedented inequalities will emerge.

What I Got Out Of It

I grew up being taught and thinking that our current governmental system was more or less the end state in terms of human coordination. This book threw that into serious question and points to signs of imminent collapse for the current system. The book is cynical and sees politics as the highest stage of organized crime.

Overall I thought the book had a lot of interesting ideas, but that the writing style felt a bit rambly and would sometimes make large claims without offering significant justification.

I’m looking forwards to reading The Network State and seeing how it builds on the ideas presented in this book.

Key Takeaways

  • Throughout humanity, four stages of economic life:
    1. hunting and gathering
    2. agricultural societies
    3. industrial societies
    4. just recently, information societies
  • Large transitions in the meta of governments usually involve chaos.
  • Corruption, moral decline, and inefficiency appear to be signal features of the final stages of a system.
  • The growing importance of technology has accelerated history. Less time to adapt to each change. (hints of accelerationist thinking back in 1999)
  • Predicting the future is a lot more useful these days because it will occur over the course of your lifetime.
  • Main factors which precipitate revolutions in the use of violence:
    • Topography
    • Climate
    • Microbes
    • Technology
  • The capacity to mass produce books was incredibly subversive to medieval institutions. Printing rapidly undermined the Church’s monopoly on the word of God, even as it created a new market for heresy.
  • The Ninety-five Theses was a milestone in the revolt against the corrupt and anachronistic church as part of the move to the industrial age.
  • Communism and the welfare state democracy have more in common than you might think. One way to think about communism is that the state owns all property. One way to think about welfare state democracies is that they force all enterprises into a profit share agreement for 30%+ of their profit (i.e. 30/100). Democracies have the advantage of still benefiting from market economy forces.
  • Who controls the government? There are three basic alternatives in the control of government when seen from the lens of it being a service:
    • Proprietors
    • Employees
    • Customers
  • Currently, most nation-states are controlled by their employees whereby they vote themselves larger and larger benefits and send the government into a deficit.
  • Thomas Schelling: “The power to hurt - to destroy things that somebody treasures, to inflict pain and grief - is a kind of bargaining power, not easy to use but used often. In the underworld it is the basis for blackmail, extortion, and kidnapping, in the commercial world for boycotts, strikes, and lockouts. It is often the basis for discipline, civilian and military; and gods use it to exact discipline.”
  • For the longest time, traveling far was something very few people did. Nowadays traveling far is easier than ever.
  • Democracy prevailed in places that reinforced the military power and importance of the masses:
    1. Cheap and widely dispersed weaponry
    2. Weapons that can be used effectively by amateurs
    3. A military advantage for a large number of participants on foot in battle.

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