John McCone grew up in Ireland. He graduated at experimental Physics at trinity and went on to measure vortex flow and carbon impurity in fusion plasmas at CCFE in Oxfordshire. He then worked as principle spectroscopist at General Fusion, a technology company developing a magnetised target fusion reactor.
A man of many interests, John dabbled in politics and was senator of Europe United, a fellow of the prestigious Cambridge-based E3 foundation and has served on the board of Village Vancouver, a Transition Initiative aimed at building local resilient economies and self-reliant, caring communities.
Throughout his career he was concerned by the lack of direction in moral and political thought when compared with the boundless speed of scientific progress and has pondered why this was the case and how this issue could be systematically resolved. John currently writes political and moral philosophy while serving as ambassador for The Seasteading Institute.
John has written two books; The Philosophical Method: A Complete Synthesis of Knowledge, Ethics, Politics and Economics (Blurb 2017) and The Countryside Living Allowance (Blurb 2018).
If you wish to know more about John and his work you can visit his website at https://johnmccone.com/.
Ten Questions with John McCone: The Interview.
1) We’ll start with the books first. What is The Countryside Living Allowance and why do we need it?
The Countryside Living Allowance [ https://johnmccone.com/book/the-countryside-living-allowance/ ] is a per capita payment of £5,000 to anyone who lives in the countryside and agrees to pay Land Value Tax on all their UK land holdings. We need it to address rural poverty but also to take pressure off the housing market in the city by giving those who only live there because of work, the option to live on rural land instead. This effect of reduce rents in the city may enable the Countryside Living Allowance to pay for itself through reduced housing benefit payments. Furthermore, crowded city life is known to increase levels of stress and mental illness [https://lsecities.net/media/objects/articles/urban-stress-and-mental-health/en-gb] so promoting rural life could lead to positive health outcomes. There are also more opportunities to provide for yourself in the countryside, where land is cheap and enough of it can be purchased to grow food as well as just live. In this sense, it is the countryside where the purchasing power of money goes farthest (at least when it comes to buying land).
The effect of a basic income will be greatest in locations where cash is scarcest, so I thought: “what if we begin by just paying out an income to people that live in cash scarce regions?” this would reduce the budget of basic income but, at the same time, the mobility of the workforce would spread the benefits of the allowance in the form of higher wages and employment levels and lower rents, across the entire country. The countryside living allowance would have 90% of the benefit of a universal basic income while costing one fifth of the budget.
2) Post Nietzsche many different philosophers from various schools of thought have tried to overcome the nihilism of modernity. You take up the gauntlet in The Philosophical Method. Do you feel your background in physics and nuclear fusion has given insights that are maybe lost on academic philosophers and, if so, what makes your approach different from theirs?
I think my experience working with engineers in a tech start up was my greatest source of inspiration. As a physicist, my main concern was measuring and analysing plasmas in order to describe them accurately. I noticed that the engineers in the company were more interested in building than describing and wanted to know how my analyses related to the overall development of the product, which in this case was a fusion reactor.
When I started writing The Philosophical Method [ https://johnmccone.com/book/the-philosophical-method/ ] my initial idea was to apply a product development approach to establishing the definition, and meaning, of morality. I began by thinking “What underlying consumer need does morality address?” and “How could we adjust the meaning of morality to best serve that need?” I increasingly viewed morality as a social tool whose purpose was to keep the peace. This approach eventually led me to embrace pragmatism and preference utilitarianism as the one true morality. So my conclusion is not so different from that of many other philosophers. But I believe I have managed to justify the basic premises of utilitarianism within the context of a more fundamental methodology (which I call “The Philosophical Method”) while many utilitarian philosophers accept the premises of utilitarianism as a priori axioms – Jeremy Bentham certainly did and said as much. Additionally, I also managed to apply that same product development approach to establishing a definition for universal human rights, and I believe that The Philosophical Method [ https://johnmccone.com/book/the-philosophical-method/ ] manages to successfully incorporate human rights into the utilitarian tradition. This is a significant accomplishment as utilitarianism tend to be pretty wobbly when it comes to human rights.
3) Representative democracy has come under a lot of criticism from populists from both left and right of late. In Section 3 of The Philosophical Method you develop a programme for Constitutional Anarchy. What is Constitutional Anarchy and how can it solve our democratic impasse and is it of value to libertarians like myself?
Constitutional Anarchy is a form of government with eternal and unchanging laws. In a Constitutional anarchy, no one has the authority to change the laws of the state. There are no legislators, only enforcers and interpreters. It solves the democratic impasse by reducing the scope for disagreement by enforcing a consensus which no one has the power to change, within a given jurisdiction at least. I believe that, among other things, Constitutional Anarchy will increase the extent to which freedom of speech is tolerated through reducing its political ramifications. In a democracy – fascism, despotism, genocide and catastrophe are always just one ill-conceived vote away and the possibility of a sudden deterioration in politics always looms menacingly in the background. For this reason, it is understandable that many people feel nervous and threatened when they hear others expressing and promoting political views which they believe will influence voting choices for the worse. But in Constitutional Anarchy there are no voting choices and so all political discussions that dissident may engage in can only ever relate to starting a new political system somewhere else and, thus, are not a threat to others that are living alongside those dissidents. By reducing the damage that careless speech produces, constitutional anarchy will facilitate more freedom of speech.
Constitutional Anarchy is of value to anyone that believes that politics should be conducted in accordance with objective principles as opposed swaying to and fro with the whim of the populace – including libertarians. This is because once a group of people establish a new constitutional anarchy in accordance with a given set of principles – those principles will remain in force forever and no mechanism exists with which to undermine them.
Some politicians may be concerned with the idea that the laws they pass today could never be changed for the rest of eternity. But surely this indicates that they aren’t being sufficiently careful with the legislation they pass into law. I believe the knowledge that the laws you pass today will remain in effect forever would encourage law makers to take stock and try much harder to grasp the underlying eternal political and ethical truths that it is the purpose of the law to embody.
In order for constitutional anarchy to work each jurisdiction would need to be small and there would need to be a vigorous start up sector for new jurisdictions. Even then there might be any issue of needlessly wasting fixed infrastructure that was built in a jurisdiction with flawed, yet unamenable, regulations. Yet if the infrastructure was floating [ https://johnmccone.com/2018/10/15/floating-infrastructure-for-stable-governance/ ] and the jurisdiction was established on water, then this would no longer be a problem.
4) In Section 4, p258, of The Philosophical Method you state that ‘An incorrect explanation of a fact does not necessarily imply the underlying fact is incorrect’. In our post-religious secular world, do you think we have perhaps thrown the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to religion, particularly from an ethical perspective?
From the point of view of the ethics that relate to survival, I don’t see the rejection of religion causing much problems. There aren’t hordes of Atheists running around the place murdering people! But we do seem to be slipping towards a kind of “reproductive nihilism.” The idea that when it comes to sex and child-rearing, anything goes so long as it’s consensual. And there’s quite a lot of disagreement (at least philosophically) over where to draw the line with respect to what constitutes consenting sex – a considerable problem given that the difference between consent and non-consent is many years in prison. It is an undeniable fact that the decay of religious belief has produced a meteoric rise in single parent families and skyrocketing divorce rates. In the 19th century, the number of children born outside marriage was less than 2% and divorce rates were even lower. Today 25% of families with dependent children are single parent families [ https://www.gingerbread.org.uk/policy-campaigns/publications-index/statistics/ ] overall 40% of 12 year old children are not living with both birth parents [https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/223251/Children_both_parents_income_FINAL.pdf ] and 55% of children in low income households are not living with both birth parents.
Some single parents do a heroic job bringing up their children, but it cannot be denied that a disturbing chunk of the next generation are being reared by some really messed up people in really messed up conditions. Parents with mental illness and drug problems bringing new people back into the house to have sex with on a weekly basis. Some children have to live with this. There is also a 1 in 6 chance that women who grew up with a step father will have been abused by him at some point in their youth [ https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6609753 ] – and the number of stepparents has skyrocketed.
Is this a problem? Will the next generation muddle through? Will they rebel against their parents and develop a more pious and strict sexual ethic? Or will the decay continue, and, perhaps, after a few generations of this, will people even lose sights of ethics that relate to survival such as “thou shalt not kill”? This explosion of single parent households is really too recent to say for sure whether it’s an issue of major concern or not – but I don’t think we can discount the possibility that the cumulative effects could be very serious indeed.
It seems to me that rearing children is a complicated business and that the correct way to do it requires extensive study and investigation. Perhaps, some day, we may develop a scientifically optimal child rearing strategy which is strongly supported by evidence. In the meanwhile, it seems safer to continue rearing children in the same way that previous generations did rather than to conduct a massive social experiment on the effect that radically different child rearing techniques have on society.
5) With capitalism increasingly desiring flexibility in the workplace and the rise of precarious employment, do you see Basic Income becoming a viable mainstream policy solution in the near future?
Basic Income was always viable. It has been proposed since the time of Thomas Paine. The future of basic income is deeply intertwined with the future of politics. Will the employers win and get a desperate workforce willing to work for virtually nothing, or will we get a basic income which, through facilitating the activity of self-provision, [ https://johnmccone.com/2018/09/17/basic-income-self-provision-and-full-employment/ ] will enable workers to negotiate a decent wage and do O.K. whenever their flexible work dries up?
I think flexible, precarious work is inevitable. I don’t see anything we can do in the long run to stop it. And something like basic income, combined with training people to provide for themselves, is the only way to ensure the workers will continue to be able to live in dignity when it happens.
6) The spectre haunting capitalism at the moment is that of automation and not a day goes by without a news article or economic report proclaiming we’re on the verge of an era of mass unemployment. Is this something that worries you, and if so, how can we manage it?
The big thing that automation does is render the existence of a workforce unnecessary. Before full automation, the asset value of a worker to someone with a large amount of power exceeded the liability of that worker’s existence. After automation, workers will have zero asset value, but will still represent a considerable liability. After automation, from the perspective of those in power, other people will be a useless, dangerous mass that they don’t need but which might rebel.
What automation does, is make the distribution of wealth purely political. When the Haves needed the Have-nots to work for them, the Haves had to distribute enough food and resources to enable the Have-nots to be of use to them, practical considerations demanded this. What we consider today to be a “good work ethic” is really just a slave mentality that been ingrained into us over the ages as those who were the most useful to those in power tended to be the ones who were kept alive and given the resources to breed and rear the next generation.
Unless we settle on a way to distribute the fruits of automation out in a manner that is acceptable to all, the battle over rival claims to those fruits could get really nasty as people will no longer be of use to each other and will merely be rival claimants.
If we take a Marxist view of industrial history being a battle between labour and capital, then every new technological advance increases the relative power of capital compared to labour.
In my view, the best way to manage automation, in the long term, is to move towards the principle of equal consumption. When nobody is responsible for the production of wealth, then all have an equal claim to it.
7) In 2017 the First International Conference on Floating Islands was held in Tahiti, country detrimentally affected by climate change. In your opinion, is seasteading a realistic and practical solution to accommodating the needs of humanity?
The seasteading institute [ https://www.seasteading.org/ ] aims to create a huge number of new nations on the high seas and, by doing so, provide people with an alternative to the existing governments on land.
I have written extensively about how a Basic Income or Countryside Living Allowance would, by facilitating the economic activity of self-provision, [ https://johnmccone.com/2018/09/17/basic-income-self-provision-and-full-employment/ ] give people an alternative to entering the labour force and, through doing so, would force employers to raise wages and improve their treatment of workers or risk haemorrhaging employees. I don’t seriously expect everyone to leave for the countryside, it may well be that only 5% of the population would go to live there, but the 5% that did exit the workforce would “set the standard” for how the remaining 95% of employees, that choose to stay, get treated at work.
In a similar way, I don’t expect everyone to suddenly rush into sea en-masse. I doubt that more than 5% of the population are likely to live on seasteads anytime soon. Indeed, seasteads will have to make a big effort to create legal systems that are sufficiently better than the one’s available on land in order to attract anyone to move onto them at all! Nevertheless, by providing a more just alternative to the existing governments on land, I believe that, much like basic income and self-provision will “set the standard” for treatment in the workforce, seasteads will rapidly “set the standard” for just governance everywhere. Bad governments will start haemorrhaging citizens and will scramble to improve their laws to stop people leaving.
So while I expect that only a small proportion of the world’s population will live at sea in the near future, I also believe that the effect that seasteads will have a profoundly positive effect on governance everywhere.
It is a known fact that all net new jobs are produced by start up companies [ https://www.kauffman.org/what-we-do/resources/entrepreneurship-policy-digest/the-importance-of-young-firms-for-economic-growth ] when you have no employees, that is when demand for employees is greatest. Similarly, new countries with no citizens will have the highest demand for new citizens and will be the easiest places to apply for citizenship. As such, it seems likely that seasteads will be a place of refuge for those who seek escape from the most troubled regions of the world.
Other advantages of floating infrastructure include immunity to floods and rising sea levels and reduced scope for rent-seekers to purchase land and hold the accumulated fixed capital on that land ransom. So, while the infrastructure required to live on the sea would probably be more expensive, the location value of seasteads would probably be less that a comparably fashionable location on land. So a particularly nice floating metropolis might actually be more affordable than a corresponding metropolis on land as its location value would be less due to the fluidity of the infrastructure.
There’s no doubt that it is technically possible to build floating cities. We already have them – they’re called cruise ships. They just cost more to build than land based cities. But I think that, for all the reasons I’ve mentioned, the potential benefits of floating cities are large enough to justify the larger costs – at least in some cases.
8) In a critique of my essay Soul of The World: Rethinking Nature and Consciousness in which I attempted to formulate a non-reductionist account of nature you stated that ‘all projects to revive vitalism are doomed to failure’. Would you agree with Ray Brassier’s in his Nihil Unbound that ‘Nihilism not an existential quandary but a speculative opportunity’, that is we should push the disenchantment of the enlightenment through to its logical conclusion?
Well, to clarify, I think there might be a difference between the animate and the inanimate, between different levels of structure and order (so rocks are distinctly different from people), but it’s a sliding scale and I don’t think we can draw a meaningful clear distinction between life and machines. Maybe you could define life as “an entity that exhibits directed behaviour whose construction arises from information that is stored as DNA” but that seems to be a pretty arbitrary definition, I don’t see what is profound or magical about DNA.
“Enchantment” is an interesting word. It suggests a strange mix of pleasure, deception and being under the control of something else. “Disenchantment” suggests a kind of disappointment with the truth along with a feeling of betrayal. I think we should certainly pursue the truth without compromise but I don’t think we have to feel disappointed about it. The knowledge that new scientific research reveals every day is quite amazing when you think about it.
The central problem with the enlightenment is that the process of scientific enquiry encourages emotional neutrality. This is so that when competing hypotheses are weighed against each other, there are no emotional associations that might distract the enquirer from dispassionately comparing each purely on the merits of supporting evidence. This emotional neutrality is a useful tool for avoiding feelings and attachments that might distract us from the evidence. The problem is that when our scientific understanding diffuses into the language of wider society, the emotional neutrality diffuses into society with it. It’s almost a form of semiotic pollution.
The psychological well-being of humanity depends on a healthy level of emotional stimulation, so all the emotionally neutral, analytical language pouring out of scientific institutes into wider society may exert a psychologically damaging disorienting influence on the people it affects.
But there’s no reason why we have to be emotional neutral about the truth. If you get emotional about something that is truth it won’t stop it from being true. So I think it is an important task to try and take the truths that emerge from scientific research institutions and clothe those truths with emotions. But we must do so in ways that don’t compromise the underlying truth – a difficult task indeed!
9) In 2016 the Institute for Cryptoanarchy held the 3rd Hackers Congress in Prague with a programme declaring that ‘The concept of the authoritative state is gradually becoming obsolete The rise of sharing economies with reputation models, digital contracts and cryptocurrencies makes the role of central government useless’. Do you think that crytoanarchy is a greater threat to the status quo than populism and is there anything we can do to counter it?
Actually, I think states have never had more authority. Think about the level of surveillance which everyone is under today. The spending of some Scandinavian governments exceeds 55% of GDP!!! Money isn’t important in itself. The important thing is property laws, and access to resources, money just represent claims to these things – and these claim will always be political.
Politics is horrible. Politics is messy. Politics involves arguments, character slurs, mud slinging and bad blood. Unfortunately, politics is also unavoidable.
I think cryptocurrency, local currencies, LETS, and the whole alternative currency community sings a siren song to people telling them “You can change politics without getting involved in politics. All you have to do is withdraw from the economy, hang out with us and we can exchange lots of monopoly money together that we’ve printed ourselves and then all feel rich!”
The underlying thing of value is land and capital (as in machinery, physical goods etc.,). You need these things for shelter medical services and to grow the food needed for survival. A group of people can choose to pass monopoly money around as much as they like but if they don’t have access to the factors of production they will starve to death.
At the end of the day, it is the police force that determines who can rightfully access which factor of production and the law that guides them. If you try to access a factor of production that the law says you are not entitled to access (such as by driving someone else’s car without permission) then you get thrown in prison. Hanging out with a small group of friends who exchange monopoly money with each other will not change your underlying access to the important factors of production.
Now it’s possible that rich powerful people might lobby the government to recognise cryptocurrencies, but this would be political engaging with the state – not disengaging. I don’t think that such engagement would ever be irrelevant. I could also see wealthy insiders, periodically lobbying governments to change the regulation over cryptocurrencies and then using their insider knowledge to trade on the crypto-exchanges and suck money out of less informed crypto-enthusiasts.
A simply land value tax only payable in the national currency would immediately link the national currency to a tangible factor of production and relegate cryptocurrencies to the realm of irrelevance.
One of the reasons that I take seasteading seriously is because the movement aims to claim and utilise something that real. A physical space on the oceans that is not yet claimed by any nation with real sunlight incident upon it, and the possibility of real activities – like fish farming. The only cryptocurrency that I’ve ever taken seriously was Varyon, and that was due to the fact that Blue Frontiers went to great lengths to link it to real factors of production.
I can’t take any political movement seriously that claims they can change things while ignoring brute force, politics and access to factors of production.
10) Finally, you’re brimming with ideas. What are your current and future projects?
The current project I’m working on is “The Perfect Economy”. The Philosophical Method [ https://johnmccone.com/book/the-philosophical-method/ ] deals with knowledge, ethics, politics and economics and tries to synthesise them into a coherent whole. About 25% of it deals with economics. In The Perfect Economy I intend to write an entire book on economics that elaborates on the economic ideas which I’ve laid out in the Philosophical Method. Another major goal of The Perfect Economy is to balance the budget for Georgism. Henry George believed that the only tax which the government collects should be a tax on the full rental value of land. Unfortunately the full rental value of land accounts for about 8-12% of GDP (depending on the nation) while the government budgets of most nations are typically 30-55% of GDP. That’s a big shortfall!
In The Perfect Economy I will try to plug that gap while staying as true to the basic principles of Henry George as possible and ironing out all the details as thoroughly as I can without resorting to the usual tactic adopted by Georgist fundamentalists of assuming that, the instant income tax and VAT is taken away, land values and LVT receipts will skyrocket 3 or 4 fold!
After that I intent to write A Pragmatic Theory of Knowledge a book dedicated to a more rigorous treatment of the epistemological arguments made in The Philosophical Method. Then I will write Harnessing The Technology Explosion which will be a detailed and thorough treatment of the existential risk (as well as non-existential threats) which trends in technological development will present to us in the future.
End of Interview.