The Ethics of Exit vs. Voice

This is essay 2 of 6 for 1729 Writers Cohort. Apply to 1729 today at 1729.com.

Twitter

After college, I lived in Costa Rica for five years. During that time I would run into expats in the waves or on the beach who would tell me that they’d moved down from the US because they’d finally had enough of Bush’s wars or Obama’s Socialist policies, or whatever. They were practicing a way of expressing displeasure with their system called “Exit.” Years later, when Donald Trump became president, I heard many more threaten to do the same thing. And I’m sure lots did.

But did they do the right thing? How ethical is it to leave one’s community, one’s country of origin because they’re mad about something? Aren’t we, after all, a democracy? Shouldn’t they use their voice rather than just split?

As I investigated this question I discovered that both are essential, Voice doesn’t have power without Exit, and Exit is an extraordinarily creative force unto itself.

Exit vs Voice

Last summer I went to Miami to see Peter Thiel speak, and during the Q&A someone asked him about the concept of Exit versus Voice. He said something to the effect of: he leans 90/10 in favor of Exit for dealing with many of our current societal problems. I found his answer so perplexing. How can we make things better if we just leave? I asked myself.

Just a few short months later I was forced to confront the question again, this time more seriously. I had joined 1729, a lecture series about how to build a new kind of state, led by Balaji Srinivasan. The long term goal, should it pan out, is to begin as a community in the cloud and slowly form a crypto economy. In its final, mature stages, we would start to buy buildings and then land, establishing a country in terra firma. Should we succeed, we are not just forming an Exit plan, ourselves. We are building a model of Exit for others to follow.

This ideas of Exit vs Voice comes from the book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty by the late Harvard economist Albert Hirschman. The basic concept is as follows: members of an organization like a business, a nation, or whatever, have essentially two possible responses when they perceive that the organization is decreasing in quality: they can Exit (withdraw from the relationship) or, they can use Voice (attempt to repair or improve the relationship through communication of the complaint, grievance or proposal for change).

The struggle is real

I wasn’t very comfortable with my contribution to Exit at first, I’ll be honest. It felt too much like retreat, surrender, giving up. I also happen to work in local democracy, so my goal is always to help people get more involved in their local governance. Which is to say, I’m in the Voice business.

But, being as I take 1729 very seriously, I decided to examine this Exit vs Voice issue more closely to see what I really thought.

A few of the six million Venezuelans exiting chaos and hyperinflation

“Exit is actually an extremely important force in complement to voice, and it’s something that gives voice its strength.. Exit makes democratic voice more powerful.” — Balaji Srinivasan

Exit and Freedom

A great fifteen minute introduction to Exit is Balaji’s 2013 talk Silicon Valley’s Ultimate Exit. In it, he explains that Exit is much more than simply “voting with your feet.” It’s a ‘metaconcept’ that describes creative acts such as competition, forking, founding and emigration.

Exit isn’t about quitting, it’s about freeing people to start something new. He makes the point for instance that the Google founders couldn’t have started their company from inside of a larger company like Microsoft, who already had over 30,000 employees and was already entrenched in its ways. Larry and Sergi needed the complete freedom that comes from Exiting whatever it was they were doing and starting over from scratch. Beginning something new requires Exiting what you were doing before.

Exit and Competition

Peter Thiel also addressed the issue at a Students for Liberty conference in 2012.

“Our sort of general pro-political bias is that voice is much more important than exit, and the question I think that’s always worth raising is: Is there a point where exit is more important than voice? And certainly the state governments and municipal governments in the U.S. are much less screwed up than the federal government because people can move to different states; there’s still a decent amount of competition that happens on a state-by-state or city-by-city basis — much less on the federal basis. So I think the idea of creating some competition between governments is one of the most critical things that one can do.”

He makes a very compelling point. Due to the reality of Exit, cities and states are forced to compete. The result is they are much more functional overall than the federal government. People pick up and move around the country in silent protest to their city and state’s policies all the time.

North American Moving

The reality is exit is oftentimes much more powerful than voice. It’s people taking their skills and tax dollars and using them to support another jurisdiction.

Bitcoin as Exit

If you slip a dollar out of your pocket and read it, it will say it’s for “all debts public and private.” Your dollar is part of the greatest monetary monopoly in history. Prior to Bitcoin it was totally inconceivable that an Exit from the dollar would be possible. But 13 years ago Bitcoin went live, and with it the most powerful financial exit of all time. It has already achieved values of over a trillion dollars, ranking it in the top three global currencies by circulation behind the euro and the dollar.

In little over a decade, Bitcoin has generated hundreds if not thousands of companies that have created billions of dollars of wealth for miners, exchanges, hedge funds, and little bitty retail investors like your humble author. For the first time people have true custody of their money, nearly free international remittences, and a stable monetary policy that looks to provide a corrective mechanism over the corruption of the global financial system. Not to mention kicking off the entire crypto / Web3 industry!

This is because, remember, Exit is a creative force. People don’t exit into a vacuum, they exit to the next thing. And if what the next thing is disrupting has been allowed to stay the same without competition for decades, the potential for innovation tends to be massive.

“All progress is really the process of: You exit, you build something up, and then it gets ossified, and the next generation exits again,” — Balaji Srinivasan

Exit and The Network State

The Network State is the ultimate exit. It is a movement for the history books because, like Bitcoin, it uses technology to coordinate people around the globe socially and economically in ways never before possible in history. And also like Bitcoin it will unleash countless advancements.

Although many details of its development haven’t been ironed out yet, it’s easy to imagine the big picture of a Network State. A bunch of people online begin to work with each other using crypto currencies. Over time we start to raise money to buy locations and live together in cities throughout the world. Then eventually, we buy land on which to start a small state, (which may very well resemble a city, like Singapore).

I mentioned above the incalculable advances that grew from the single innovation of Bitcoin over money. Now just imagine what happens when similar advances begin to take place at the level of the state. Regulations, decision-making, planning, R&D, infrastructure, education and more. All of these things will be pushed to explosive new heights through successful Exit and reimagining of old governmental systems. After all, the last country to achieve such innovative progress was an “Exit nation,” The United States.

The United States is an Exit-Nation

People came to the United States for more than just to abandon their corrupt and impoverished countries. They came to build a new life and they succeeded at building the future. It’s governing system became an inspiration around the globe. This country of Exit invented the sky scraper, the steam engine, the telephone, the electric light bulb, the airplane, they put a man on the moon and then created (largely) the modern internet. Exit includes both departure and recombination on the other side.

Voice still matters

After seeing Thiel in Miami, I was lucky enough to also see Thiel’s colleague and Founders Fund VP Mike Solana give his opinion on Exit vs Voice. But his answer was very different from Thiel’s.

“In terms of the exit versus voice thing… This conversation frustrates me because we’ve not even tried Voice. I think Exit is maybe eventually something important, and I might leave San Francisco myself... However no one has really really put in the effort to fix it yet… I’ve lived there for ten years and I’ve never seen a compelling candidate.. No one in tech has sent someone up who’s interesting. Until I see someone run on practical issues and lose then I don’t even know why we’re talking about leaving.”

I later asked him for an example of Voice being effective and he cited the San Francisco School Board Recall, where residents took it upon themselves to oust political extremists within their communities who put their agenda ahead of their core responsibility of educating the youth.

Now that I understand Exit better, I am certainly in favor of efforts to create new versions of anything which has gone stagnant. I often wonder whether our institutions have what’s needed to course correct and begin functioning properly for the American people again. It’s possible they don’t. If that’s the case, they will need to learn from the experimentation of the news states, filled with those who left them, just as young America became old Europe’s instructor for modernization.

I will continue to contribute to 1729 and do whatever I can to prepare an exit for those brave people who are willing to embark on that adventure. But I’ll also continue working on enhancing Voice at a local level here in the US.

I wonder how our founders would see the issue.

Matt Harder runs the civic engagement firm Civic Trust, where he guides cities in re-building their civic infrastructure by helping residents, civic organizations, and local government co-create public projects. He is also a passionate Bitcoiner. Follow him on Twitter.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store