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Libertarian Conversations

I have nothing against Libertarians except that many of them seem drawn to it because it gives them a point of view that lets them utter statements they think are controversial but which are merely wrong.

When writing my sections of The Cluetrain Manifesto (now available at bookstores on and off the Web -- yes, this is a plug), one particular line got flagged by a number of people to whom we showed the early draft. I wrote, rather casually, that most managers "along with Ayn Rand and poorly socialized adolescents" mistakenly believe that the "fundamental unit of life is the individual." The default political position of the Web is, after all, Libertarianism, so my statement that, of course, communities come before individuals was certain to rankle many webheads.

Well, tough. Communities do come first, on and off the Web. Individuals are artifacts of communities. And that's at the heart of the fundamental thesis of our book: Businesses are conversations.

We mean "businesses are conversations" to be a statement of literal fact as well as a darn good metaphor. The most important work of business is conducted by people talking with one another. Without conversations, you'd never be able to design a car, build the plant, find out what the market wants, or let the market know what you have. Take conversations out of the, say, the automobile business and all you have are humans drilling bolts into metal. There's literally no *business* at all. Likewise, knowledge without conversation is the equivalent of having a whole bunch of properly-shaped metal sitting in a plant somewhere -- it's not a business, it's not even interesting.

But, what is a conversation? It's people talking as equals about something they care about, not knowing what's going to emerge from the talk. This means, I believe, that individual voices emerge from conversation, not vice versa. (It's actually messier than this, of course, but the line between over-simplification and clarity is ironically blurry.) Who I am depends very much on the person I'm talking with -- I sound somewhat different when talking with my parents, my wife, my children, my clients, my co-authors, etc. I am not -- unlike some of my co-authors (you know who you are) -- a raging sufferer of multiple personality disorder. All humans sound different in different conversations -- and if they don't, there's something wrong with them.

Further, a conversation isn't something we make but is something that happens to us. A great conversation grips us, moves us forward. Our voice is a response to the conversation. The content is born from the conversation itself. In precisely the same way, groups form individuals. We cannot be human except through a group. Imagine a baby born on a deserted island, magically tended by invisible robots that drop food off. The baby has no interaction with any human. That baby will not be what we think of as human, will not be what we think of as a person. It will be a howling animal in the body of a human. We only are what we are because of what human community gives us: history, culture, family and language.

Ah, says the Libertarian, while that may be true, we are nevertheless primarily self-interested. We care about ourselves more than about others. That's our immutable nature.

Sez I to the Libertarian: Oh yeah?

First, we *may* be primarily self-interested, but that doesn't mean we are only self-interested. It seems to me that our impulse to rock our chair forward when it accidentally squishes a dog's tail is as genuine and natural an impulse as our impulse to eat the last bit of the candy bar without offering to share. Watching my children grow convinces me that caring about others is a part of their nature and that selfishness is, by and large, learned.

Businesses have generally assumed the Libertarian view that we are all primarily self-interested and greedy and that therefore to get us to collaborate they have to offer the types of rewards that interest greedy people. For example, people don't want to share their knowledge, so perhaps we can pay them to do so. Maybe. But it is at least plausible (and I think more than plausible) that we've trained people to respond to selfish schedules of reward and that in fact people will share knowledge -- and much more -- if the business environment allows this natural generosity to emerge.

Let me put this bluntly: If the only way you can get people to share knowledge is to pay them, then you're in a business that views itself as a war of all against all, and where knowledge is a weapon. You'd do better to change the culture than to provide more ammo.

David Weinberger is publisher of the Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization (JOHO) newsletter and a frequent contributor to KMWorld Magazine.

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