Huffpost WorldPost
Michael Shermer Headshot

The Revolution Will Be Tweeted

Posted: Updated:

At the Atheist Alliance International conference this past weekend in Burbank, California, the Skeptics Society had a booth in the vendor's section of book sellers and the like, the latter of which included a table full of bumper stickers. One struck me as a poignant proxy for what I predicted will happen at the end of my book, The Mind of the Market: the Internet as a form of trade will enable freedom to find a way. In reference to the recent Iranian elections and the attempted suppression of the protests therein (thwarted by Twitter posts), the bumper sticker reads: The Revolution Will be Tweeted.

This concept allows me to expand on my previous posts about markets, capitalism, and free trade. My critics especially have pounced on me for using such terms, but what I mean by free trade is much broader and encompassing: the free exchange of products, services, and ideas between people anywhere in the world anytime they want. To show how broadly I go with this concept, when Chimp A grooms Chimp B, and subsequently when Chimp A is attacked by an alpha male, Chimp B is more likely to come to his aid because they have formed a bond, an attachment, a trading relationship. Grooming in this example is a form of free trade.

Why does this happen? In The Mind of the Market I introduced Bastiat's Principle, based on an observation by the 19th-century French economist Frédéric Bastiat: "Where goods do not cross frontiers, armies will." Its corollary elucidates one of the principle steps toward conflict reduction: where goods do cross frontiers, armies will not.

This is a principle, not a law, since there are exceptions both historically and today. Trade--the free exchange of products, services, and ideas between people--will not prevent war, but it attenuates its likelihood. Thinking in terms of probabilities instead of absolutes, trade between groups increases the probability that peaceful and stable relations will continue and decreases the probability that instabilities and conflicts will erupt.

As an example, Yanomamö hunter-gatherers are not only the "fierce people," as Napoleon Chagnon characterized them, they are also willing traders. Following the political dictum "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," Yanomamö inter-village trade and reciprocal food exchanges serves as a powerful social glue in the creation of political alliances.

As in my Chimp example above, Yanomamö Village A cannot go to Village B and announce that they are worried about being conquered by the more powerful Village C, since this would reveal their own weakness. Instead, Village A forms an alliance with Village B through trade and reciprocal feasting, and as a result they not only gain military protection but also encourage inter-village peace. As a by-product of this politically-motivated economic exchange, even though each Yanomamö band could produce all the products it needs for survival, they often set up a division of labor and a system of trade. The unintended consequence is an increase in both wealth and products. The Yanomamö trade not because they are innate altruists or nascent capitalists, but because they want to form political alliances.

Chagnon explains:

Without these frequent contacts with neighbors alliances would be much slower in formation and would be even more unstable once formed. A prerequisite to stable alliance is repetitive visiting and feasting, and the trading mechanism serves to bring about these visits.

Where goods cross Yanomamö frontiers, Yanomamö armies do not.

Bastiat's Principle holds not only for hunter-gatherers but for consumer-traders as well. Note, for example, that in the modern world of consumer-trading nation states, economic sanctions are among the first steps taken by a nation against another when diplomatic conflict resolution attempts break down. Often such sanctions are imposed for purely economic reasons in a mercantilist mode, as when the United States imposed import tariffs on steel purchased from China and Russia in 2002, which the World Trade Organization declared to be illegal.

Economic sanctions are also imposed for political reasons, as when the United States enforced them on Japan after its invasion of China in the 1930s, and these became a prelude (among other factors) to Japan's retaliatory bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 and our involvement in the greatest war in history. Or more recently, economic sanctions were imposed by the U.S. and Japan on India following its 1998 nuclear tests, by the U.S. on Iran because of the latter's state sponsorship of terrorism, and by the United Nations on Iraq as a tool to force the Iraqi government to comply with U.N. weapons inspectors' search for weapons of mass destruction.

Economic sanctions send this message: if you do not change your behavior we will no longer trade with you. And by Bastiat's Principle, where our goods do not cross your frontiers, our armies will. Not inevitably, of course, but often enough in history that the principle retains its veracity. Economic sanctions are not a necessary or even sufficient cause of war, but they are almost always a prelude to war.

In The Mind of the Market I also introduce the Starbucks' corollary to Bastiat's Principle: Where Starbucks cross frontiers, armies will not. That is, the free trade of products between peoples, and open access to services across geographic borders, obsoletes the necessity of political borders and thereby decreases the probability that armies will cross them. To the Starbucks corollary I add the Google theory of peace: Where information and knowledge cross frontiers, armies will not. That is, the free trade of information between peoples, and open access to knowledge across geographic borders, obsoletes the necessity of political borders and thereby decreases the probability that armies will cross them.

A stirring example can be seen in Europe. Since the formation of the Treaty of Rome and the European Union--which integrated disparate and historically divided European nations under one economic umbrella--where once invasions and wars were commonplace throughout a thousand years of European history, they are now unthinkable. Try it. Imagine Germany invading France and waging war upon her, or picture France motoring its armies through the Chunnel and then marching them into London to declare the country French. What once made for dramatic literature now sounds like pulp fiction.

The Wikification of the economy adds to the Google theory of peace the entire world economy as practiced by and participated in by billions of people. Wikipedia is the right analogue for this emerging economic phenomenon. It is an open-sourced, peer-produced, mass-collaborated, bottom-up, self-organized, emergent property of millions of people choosing to build the modern equivalent of the Alexandrian library whose purpose it was to make the sum of the world's knowledge available to everyone in one location. Granted, the ancient Alexandrian Greeks had far less knowledge to store than we do today--by many orders of magnitude--but we have the World Wide Web.

In the long run, no dictator, demagogue, priest, president, or any other pretender to power will be able to control the Googlefication, Wikification, eBayification, MapQuestification, YouTubeification, MySpaceification of information, knowledge, geography, personal relationships, markets, and the economy. Chinese bureaucrats can attempt to put all the firewalls and controls they want on a billion potential Chinese web surfers, but in the long run they will never be able to prevent knowledge, products, and people from finding their way to those who seek them. And to this list we can now add the Twitterfication of information. The revolution will be tweeted. And...

Freedom finds a way.