Zoltan Istvan – journalist, transhumanist philosopher, and author of the novel The Transhumanist Wager – is currently touring the western United States on his Immortality Bus, spreading the message that indefinite life extension is achievable through the progress of science and technology, and should become a political priority. Istvan is running for President of the United States. He knows that he is almost certainly not going to win the 2016 Presidential election, but he seeks to maximize public awareness of the opportunities and questions posed by emerging technologies, and he has thus far done so on an impressively minimal budget. Istvan has founded the United States Transhumanist Party and has encouraged the formation of State-level parties in order to improve his chances of recognition as a candidate at the federal level. On August 31, 2015, Wendy Stolyarov and I officially formed the Nevada Transhumanist Party and registered it with the Secretary of State. (See the officially filed Constitution and Bylaws here and a searchable version here; also join the Facebook group here, as Allied Membership is open to anyone with a rational faculty and ability to form political opinions.) The Nevada Transhumanist Party Platform adopts and expands upon many of the planks of the United States Transhumanist Party Platform – but also imparts upon them a heightened libertarian and individualistic flavor.
Even while I also do not expect Zoltan Istvan to win the Presidency in 2016, and while I recognize the even greater difficulty of qualifying for ballot access for State-level offices (in Nevada, this would require submitting a petition with the signatures of 5,431 registered voters and is thus not a near-term priority for the Nevada Transhumanist Party), I still unequivocally endorse Istvan’s campaign. Why have I made this decision? I present my reasoning here. Whether or not readers will view Istvan as their preferred choice for President, the motives for his campaign and its impact have a much broader significance that should be considered by all.
1. Voting should not be about who wins. In fact, much of the sub-optimal equilibrium of the two-party system in the United States arises from a misguided “expectations trap” – where each voter fears expressing his or her principles by voting for the candidate closest to that voter’s actual policy preferences. Instead, voters who are caught in the expectations trap will tend to vote for the “lesser evil” (in their view) from one party, because they tend to think that the consequences of the election of the candidate from the other party will be dire indeed, and they do not want to “take their vote away” from the slightly less objectionable candidate. This thinking rests on the false assumption that a single individual’s vote, especially in a national election, can actually sway the outcome. Given that the probabilities of this occurring are negligible, the better choice – the choice consistent with individual autonomy and the pursuit of principle – is to vote solely based on one’s preference, without any regard for how others will vote or how the election will turn out. One is free to persuade others to vote a certain way, of course, or to listen to arguments from others – but these persuasive efforts, to have merit, should be based on the actual positions and character of the candidates involved, and not on appeals to sacrifice one’s intellectual integrity in order to fulfill the “collective good” of avoiding the victory of the “absolutely terrible” (not quite) candidate from one major party, whose policy choices are likely to be near-identical to the “only slightly terrible” candidate from the other major party. While an individual’s vote cannot actually affect who wins, it can – if exercised according to preference – send a signal as to what issues voters actually care about. Whichever politicians do get elected would see a large outpouring of third-party support as a signal of public discontentment and will perhaps be prompted by this signal to shift their stances on policy issues based on the vote counts they observe. Even a few thousand votes for the Transhumanist Party can send a sufficient signal that many Americans are becoming interested in accelerating technological innovation and the freedom from obstacles posed to it by legacy institutions.
2. Life and liberty necessarily go together. You cannot have liberty if you are not alive, and you cannot live well unless you have liberty. In “Liberty Through Long Life” (2013), I discussed the many emerging technologies that could facilitate dramatic improvements in individual liberty, but also noted that “there is a common requirement for one to enjoy all of these potential breakthroughs, along with many others that may be wholly impossible to anticipate: one has to remain alive for a long time. The longer one remains alive, the greater the probability that one’s personal sphere of liberty would be expanded by these innovations.” In “Liberty or Death: Why Libertarians Should Proclaim That Death is Wrong” (2014), I expressed a corollary to this insight: “If we argue for liberty today, it will still likely take decades of the most ardent advocacy and activism to undo the harms caused by ongoing and escalating infringements of every natural and constitutional right of even the most law-abiding citizens. Therefore, while I support every effort – conventional or radically innovative – to move our societies and governments in the direction of liberty, it is essential to recognize that the success of such efforts will take an immense amount of time. If you do not remain alive during that time, then you will die without having known true liberty.”
Unfortunately, given the current combination of political, economic, and societal conditions – including the decidedly un-libertarian mindsets of the majority of the world’s population today – the transformation of existing societies into libertarian havens will not occur anytime soon. Politics as usual – and even libertarian argumentation as usual – will not get us there in time for us. And yet we should continue to strive to actualize the libertarian ideals; we should do so by championing radical life extension as well as societal transformation by means of emerging technologies, so that the balance of resources and incentives can gradually shift in favor of individualistic, pro-liberty mindsets and behaviors – without violent revolutions or other personally damaging upheavals.
Zoltan Istvan is attempting to do exactly what I have advocated in “The Imperative of Technological Progress: Why Stagnation Will Lead to Disaster and How Techno-Optimism Can Overcome It” (2015): “The key to achieving a freer, more prosperous, and longer-lived future is to educate both elites and the general public to accurately weigh the opportunities and risks of emerging technologies. […] By simply arguing the techno-optimist case and educating people from all walks of life about the tremendous beneficial potential of emerging technologies, we can each do our part to ensure that the 21st century will become known as an era of humankind’s great liberation from its age-old limitations, and not a lurch back into the bog of premodern barbarism.” By becoming a prominent techno-optimist advocate, Istvan has even transcended the typical issue-specific policy debates. I may disagree with some of Istvan’s specific policy stances (for instance, his suggestion that college should be free and mandatory for all) – but these disagreements are greatly outweighed by my support for Istvan’s larger role as a visible champion of a radical acceleration of technological progress – the only path that will enable the libertarian ideal to ever be actualized for us.
3. Zoltan Istvan has successfully and beneficially co-opted politics as a vehicle for techno-optimist discourse. Zoltan Istvan is achieving for the cause of transhumanism – the overcoming of age-old human limitations through science and technology – what Ron Paul achieved for the cause of libertarianism during his Presidential runs in 2008 and 2012 (both of which I supported). Ron Paul also did not win the Presidency (although he became an impressive contender for it), but the educational impact of his campaign was tremendous – particularly raising awareness on the issues of a peaceful foreign policy and respect for civil liberties and social freedoms, but also to some extent on the dangers of central banking and inflationary monetary policy. A new generation of activists for liberty came of age during the Ron Paul campaigns and obtained valuable experience and a platform for advocating meaningful policy changes. While Ron Paul was not the sole influence on the recent decisions in many states to completely decriminalize marijuana, the 2015 legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States, and the United States’ avoidance of war with both Russia and Iran, he certainly helped sway the political climate in the direction of these victories for liberty. The Republicans lost both the 2008 and 2012 Presidential Elections, and deserved to lose, in part because the Republican Party establishment deliberately sidelined Ron Paul and rigged the rules against him. Meanwhile, Ron Paul ended up a longer-term winner – an intellectual inspiration to a growing segment of the American population, many of whom continue to deeply respect his example and unwavering integrity.
Zoltan Istvan is venturing even further in the direction of politics-as-education, completely discarding the damaging notion of politics-as-horse-race. Instead of throwing much of his effort into the task of winning the election – which often requires duplicitous rhetoric, creation of a fake persona, and appeals to the lowest common denominator, hardly recipes for true progress – Istvan holds nothing back in expressing what he actually thinks about the desired directions for politics and government. In particular, he emphasizes issues that other candidates systematically avoid – such as the implications of human genetic modification or the possibilities of radical life extension in the coming decades. By prominently communicating that these technologies are not mere science fiction but proximate opportunities, Istvan may persuade large numbers of people to press for the removal of political and other institutional barriers to these technologies’ development and dissemination. Public awareness of possibilities for tremendous technological improvement may result in a greater groundswell of advocacy for the “Six Libertarian Reforms to Accelerate Life Extension” that I outlined in 2013. Zoltan Istvan is, furthermore, an ardent champion of taking resources away from offensive inter-human wars, which needlessly destroy many innocent lives, and instead devoting those resources to technological innovation – so that we can stand a chance of winning the real war that we should be fighting against the forces of ruin. Even this alone – giving the world a few decades of breathing room from organized slaughter staged by national governments – would have a colossal, salutary effect on progress and human well-being.
4. The most vital political change will be achieved by visionaries on the fringes, who do not care about the winds of popular opinion. Mainstream politicians – particularly officeholders who seek reelection – are most often lagging, rather than leading, indicators of societal change. In order to keep the favor of their constituents, politicians need to either respond to ever-shifting public opinion or to create the illusion of doing so (a more common course of action in the increasingly oligarchic American political system). For good or for ill, third parties have most often been the originators of policy proposals that were eventually adopted by a future political establishment. To successfully advocate principled positions – such as the maximization of individual liberty and the elimination of political barriers to life-extension research and treatments – does not require holding political office, but it does require visibly persuading many people – both ordinary voters and elites – that these positions are correct. Those politicians who mostly care about remaining in office will never drive these changes themselves, but they might find themselves impelled to jump on the bandwagon if enough support accumulates. I hope that, because of what Zoltan Istvan is doing today, major party platforms in the 2020s and 2030s will include at least some favorable mentions of life-extending medical research, if not calls for the removal of legacy institutional barriers to the acceleration of such research.
Because of the first-time Transhumanist political presence, the 2016 US Presidential election will be unlike any other. This time, especially given the completely unpalatable candidates from both the Republican and Democratic Parties, it is time to try a radically different approach. Jettisoning the conventional aims of electoral politics and turning it instead into a peaceful, honest, innovative, and spectacular educational campaign for techno-optimism and longevity, is a promising approach that could bear fruit for advocates of liberty, even many years and decades into the future.
This essay may be freely reproduced using the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike International 4.0 License, which requires that credit be given to the author, G. Stolyarov II. Find out about Mr. Stolyarov here.