Balaji Srinivasan’s new book, The Network State, lays out a speculative roadmap for the formation of a new kind of political entity — an online community with its own laws and commerce that eventually grows and evolves to the point where it can acquire land and some of the other hallmarks of what we think of as modern statehood.
I won’t attempt to summarize the book or the project here — Balaji himself provides a number of summaries of different lengths in the opener to the book — but I do want to zero in on one particular aspect of TNS that makes it quite a bit different from the kinds of libertarian startup city or “free state” projects that the pitch may call to mind for some readers: the one commandment.
In contrast to both standard-issue democratic pluralism, which pointedly doesn’t take a side in most debates about ultimate values but instead aims to provide a neutral framework for unaligned individuals to peacefully pursue radically different ends, and to free-market ideology, which leaves “utility” undefined while trying to set up rules by which different utility maximizers can compete to the good of all, Balaji’s advocates that network states be explicitly and overtly ideological.
The idea is that the community’s laws and markets are a vehicle for the working out of a single ideology, vs. being an area where different ideologies vie for temporary dominance. That’s where the one commandment comes in.
Balaji (he’s popularly known by either his first name or his Twitter handle, @balajis) writes:
Communities are Causes First, Companies Second
Every new startup society needs to have a moral premise at its core, one that its founding nation subscribes to, one that is supported by a digital history that a more powerful state can’t delete, one that justifies its existence as a righteous yet peaceful protest against the powers that be.
To be clear, it’s a huge endeavor to go and build an entire moral edifice on par with a religion, and work out all the practical details. We’re not advising you come up with your own Ten Commandments!
But we do think you can come up with one commandment. One new moral premise. Just one specific issue where the history and science has convinced you that the establishment is wanting. And where you feel confident making your case in articles, videos, books, and presentations.
It’s interesting to me that the opening chapters of Shadi Hamid’s new book, The Problem of Democracy, explicitly highlight the same motion but in the post-Enlightenment west — i.e., first came liberal values around individual rights and the primacy of the rule of law, then democracy and markets took shape afterward as an expression of those liberal values (and with the aim of securing individual rights).
Like Hamid’s book, Balaji’s The Network State is not as concerned with preserving liberalism as it is with promoting a specific process (in Hamid’s case, that process is small-d democracy, and in Balaji’s, on-chain governance) that can accommodate a variety of ideological projects. And also like Hamid, Balaji definitely has his own preferred set of ideological commitments that he’d like to build his own polity around — Hamid is personally committed to liberalism, while Balaji promotes a trinity of concrete ideals: truth, health, and wealth. But for both men, they’re okay with other people using the process (democracy and network states, respectively) to pursue very different ideological programs. Let a thousand internally aligned but externally diverse polities bloom.
A proposed “one commandment”
I’ve been involved with Balaji’s network state project in some form or another since the summer of 2021, so I’ve had a lot of time to think about what “one commandment” I’d propose if I were founding a new online community — maybe not an entire network state, but something along the spectrum from “a chat room” to “an entirely new political unit.”
I recently hit on a “one commandment” I’m happy with. Some readers will recognize it instantly, and among those who do, it may be polarizing. But hear me out: Be fruitful and multiply, and fill up the solar system, and subdue it.
This is a variant of God’s initial commandment to humanity in Genesis 1:28, but with “the solar system” substituted for the original’s “the earth.”
I like this commandment for a few reasons:
First, it’s pro-natalist. This commandment explicitly says that having children is not only good, and by virtue of who says it and when, it strongly implies that having children is the highest good. It’s the one thing you’re obligated to really get after in this life. As a pro-natalist, a father, and an anti-anti-natalist, I rate this commandment five stars.
Second, it’s universal by design and by tradition. Much later rabbinic Judaism envisions a kind of Russian nesting doll arrangement of divine commandments, where the Genesis commandment above applies to all humans, as does the later Noahide Covenant. So I think many different kinds of people from different religious and secular traditions could sign onto this commandment.
Next, it comes to me by way of tradition that’s important to my own formation and to which I’m still committed: Christianity. But it’s older than Christianity and probably older than anything that’s recognizably Jewish.
It re-establishes that the purpose of sex is reproduction, not self-actualization, pleasure, identity formation, or any of the myriad other things we use sex for. There are entire modern discourses, especially the current morass that is gender ideology, that stop even making any sort of intelligible sense when your context for thinking about concepts like “sex” and “male and female” is anchored in reproduction.
If you sign on to it, then it forces you to put your money where your mouth is. Children are really expensive and a huge burden in modern, capitalist societies. If you’re going to be actively pro-natalist, this means having kids, which is undoubtedly the most significant financial decision anyone can make.
It’s good that it’s divisive and forces you to make tradeoffs among fundamental goods and goals. For instance, pro-natalism has serious implications for women in particular, and for their autonomy and freedom, because women are the ones who have to carry the babies to term. If you’re going to do women’s rights and pro-natalism, then you really have to work at managing the trade-offs there. Likewise, it also has implications for pretty much every other tradeoff in every other area you can think of. It doesn’t work as an adjunct to some other set of ideologies that can exist apart from it — no, it’s a term in every equation you’re trying to balance.
One clear implication of the change I’ve made to the original commandment is that space exploration is good. The aim isn’t just to fill up the earth and subdue it, but to fill up the solar system. It commands us to go to Mars and to the other planets and moons, and there’s a whole set of technological advances that will be required to enable that vision.
Finally, there’s a clear win condition. It doesn’t leave the terms of success ambiguous or unachievable. When the group that has dedicated itself to filling up the solar system and subduing it has done so, then at that point we’ll have fulfilled the one commandment and can figure out what’s next.
I could probably think of other benefits to this one commandment if I were to keep going, but I think the list above is a good start. I also like my list because it explicitly acknowledges that there are tradeoffs and definitely downsides to pursuing a pro-natalist one commandment like this, but — and this is the really critical aspect of all One Commandments, whatever they are — it is definitionally outside of and prior to any kind of cost/benefit calculus. Every calculus has to start with a set of axioms, and the one commandment is the axiom.