Citizens Who Build
tl;dr: We can reboot a civic culture that builds in NYC, and Maximum New York is producing the fundamental social technology needed to do that. If you want to help that process go further, faster, fund the $6k Friends of Maximum New York Grant by June 29. UPDATE: the fundraiser was a success! Thank you to everyone who helped make it possible.
Since Marc Andreessen’s “It’s Time to Build,” many have noted that this doesn’t just apply to private industry, but also government—we need to not only empower private innovators, but also reshape our governing institutions.1 Government, after all, is the substrate in which all of private industry grows (or not), especially by its capacity to define and enforce property rights; it hardly matters how much innovation you have in the private sector if your government fails. Venture capital can only pick up so much slack from a failing state, not supplant it.
However, our task isn’t therefore “create a government that builds.” We must go further upstream than that, because the quality of a government (and broader society) is a consequence of the quality of its citizens, specifically the civic culture they do or do not build. Government is the emergent sum of citizens’ agency, of what they will and will not tolerate. Its shape is determined by what each of us does, or, more likely, doesn’t do.
Our government does not build, because our civic culture doesn’t build, because most of us do not build. But it wasn’t always this way; America has a brilliant past of thriving civic culture, a broad-based can-do attitude that tackled problems directly, diffused into governmental and private efforts, and demonstrated immense institution-building sophistication possessed by vast swathes of the populace.
But this essay is not a theoretical exposition on how someone might go about regenerating civic culture, or how “we” (a convenient rhetorical tool often used to mean all of us in aggregate, but practically excusing any reader or writer individually) should encourage the development of these people. This essay explains how I understand the problem, and what I am doing about it. Along with my friends, I’m rebuilding the kind of civic culture in New York City that will result in a government that builds. My hope is that you will join, or do it better.
What was the nature of the civic culture that we had?
The now-dead American civic culture that built, and that generated a government that built, had a particular nature that we can understand and replicate in our modern context. But it’s important to understand it before thinking about what it could be now.
“Civic culture” means the sum of prevailing norms and commonly used social technologies in a place. Samo Burja has this to say about social tech:
“It’s important to note that all except the simplest social technologies are designed. Though many of our crucial social technologies seem like natural parts of reality today, this was not always so. At some point they required intentional construction and adoption. Many social technologies we take for granted, including the very idea of having such critical systems as currency, law, and government, were born from concerted human agency. It is for this reason that we call it social technology, rather than social ‘norms’, or take a broader anthropological or philosophical approach. Much like material technology, social technology is designed, adopted, and scaled. It is proceduralized and documentable.
Social technology is a tool that directs people to knowingly or unknowingly take certain actions, and in so doing it has the ability to shape an extremely broad range of human action. It can be used to reduce coordination costs between people, causing them to work together more effectively towards a goal, but it can also be used to restrict collaboration and action.”2
This means, regarding social technology, some civic cultures are more technologically advanced than others, with the obvious consequences for governmental efficacy. In the same way that materially technologically advanced cultures create new material technologies, advanced civic cultures create, combine, and innovate upon new civic institutions; they produce a thriving ecosystem of civic startups, each dedicated to creating and distributing new and better social technology, all for the purpose of coordinating everyone to do. And the citizens of these cultures not only know how to spin up new institutions, but effectively participate in others.
On these counts, the America of the early and mid-twentieth century was far more advanced than we are today. Tanner Greer from The Scholar’s Stage outlines it well:
“The Americans of 1918 had carved towns, cities, and states out of the wilderness, and had practical experience building the school boards, sheriff departments, and the county, city, and state governments needed to manage them. Also within the realm of lived experience was the expansion of small towns into (unprecedentedly large) metropolises and the invention of…America’s first multi-national conglomerates. The progressive movement had spent the last three decades experimenting with new forms of government and administration at first the state and then the federal level, while American civic society saw a similar explosion in new social organizations.”
This, then, is the nature of our challenge today: we have lost most of our beneficial, advanced social technology. Civic culture is a fundamental expression of social technological sophistication, so we must reconstitute this; it is difficult for similar reasons as reshoring a long-lost industrial base, but it can be done. It must, if we want to build anything again, especially if we want it built expeditiously.
Why did we give up advanced social technology?
The short answer is that we stopped using it, because we assumed (often unwittingly) that someone else would do the hard work of civic culture for us, whether that be government, management, nonprofits, etc. The problem, fundamentally, occurred at the level of individual choices to not do repeated by millions of Americans. We stopped forming new civic institutions, and so forgot how. The civic ecosystem slowly collapsed, and today, instead of a whole new set of institutions generated by a dynamic civic ecosystem, we have a gray monoculture of nonprofits, think tanks, sclerotic bureaucracies, and corporate HR departments—the inevitable institutional and governmental landscape in a culture where most citizens forfeit their role in public life. Where most citizens do not build.3
Our social technology, our civic culture, was not taken from us; we left it to rust in the fields.
But! As alarming as that all might sound, there’s nothing stopping us, stopping me, stopping my friends and those who join us, from reversing it. Advanced social technology, potent civic society, and a government that builds, can be ours again. We must merely construct new civic institutions to solve our problems, and help others to do the same, starting with the most vital. In my case, that’s Maximum New York—it teaches New Yorkers how their government works, and networks them together to engage in novel forms of political activity.
If this kind of task seems too large, too daunting, or simply not worth the trouble…well I just disagree with all of that. Choosing to build something does not guarantee that you will succeed, especially if you don’t properly identify what you need to accomplish the task, but it is a far better option than letting entropy continue to sap our civilizational life force unchallenged. It’s more satisfying too. In other words, “Get in loser, we’re rebuilding New York City’s civic culture.”
Why Maximum New York?
Besides addressing the problem of launching a new social technologic base, I created Maximum New York for two reasons.
First, the essence of a civic culture is its citizens; if you do not build institutions for the specific citizens of a place (starting with your friends), you will likely get no one at all to participate in your thing. The challenges and social structures of New York City are distinct, and so its civic social technology must be developed to respond to those conditions. It simply would not work to jump straight to forming some kind of national entity that’s divorced from any specific local culture. New York City needs New York City institutions.
Second, because I live in New York City. As a citizen it is proper that I help reboot its civic culture. It is not someone else’s problem. It is my problem, and yours, and one that I happily shoulder.
In a self-governing society, sometimes “self” really does mean “yourself.”
American culture used to be filled with individuals who combined together into a profusion of private-commercial-governmental organizations to meet the needs of society. They correctly perceived their personal stake in whether or not collective problems were solved, and correctly resolved to contribute their efforts through the deployment of advanced social technologies like brand new institutions.
We can do that again, no problem.
The foundational function of Maximum New York is to create more minds that understand the NYC system of governance, law, and history. Only then will they be able to apply their intellectual power to the task of improving it, and only then will they have the skills they need to build their own civic startups that engage with politics. Before you create citizens who build, you must first show them how to use tools. This task is upstream of all the rest.
I accomplish this by, among other things, teaching The Foundations of New York; it takes talented people who would otherwise not have entered the civic or political space, and provides them with the knowledge to see why that task is not only worth doing, but interesting to do, especially with others. I’m not in the business of giving lectures and moral harangues to people about why they should “get involved.” I am in the business of helping them see what intrinsically motivates them in the endlessly interesting world of complex civic systems, powered by a robust understanding of the city government and law.
Join me to rebuild a flourishing civic society in NYC
The task of creating citizens who build is not easy, but it is straightforward, especially with history and good political theory as guides. The reward for success, among many things, is a government that builds. New York City will get the housing and new subway lines it needs only then.
If you think the project of rebuilding New York City’s civic culture is a good problem to tackle, and if you think my theory of the problem and solution are correct, then boy do I have a deal for you:
I’ve been working on Maximum New York for more than three years (research takes its good sweet time), with classes and broader pedal-to-the-metal activities starting for the first time at the end of March 2022. The reviews are in, and it’s going well. So: if you want it to go further, faster, you can contribute to the $6k Friends of Maximum New York Grant.
This grant is for me directly, and it funds three months’ worth of my and MNY’s operating costs. Instead of applying for institutional grants4, this is an experiment in civic culture. If my project is what I say it is, and I’ve explained it well enough, I think it will be an appealing trade for some of you. I will continue to produce the social technology needed to power New York’s new civic structure, which I think is valuable, and you can incentivize more of that value production with the Friends of MNY Grant. I have no equity or dividends to give away, but that doesn’t mean there’s no value to exchange here.
We need hundreds, and then thousands, of new citizen builders, to make a dent in our problems of civic society and governance. So we, and I, will merely help them come into being.
This post also appears on the Maximum New York Substack.
Ezra Klein’s supply-side progressivism (2021) and a liberalism that builds (2022) are two of the most remarked upon pieces here, but they are part of a rising, larger chorus. ↩
From Samo Burja’s Great Founder Theory manuscript, “Social Technology,” p. 22 ↩
Greer discusses this phenomenon at length on his blog, which I encourage all of you to read. As he says at the end of this piece: “If this post on American institutions and culture caught your interest, you might consider some of my older posts on the problem:”A Tour Through Three Centuries of American Political Culture,” “The Title IX-ifcation of American Childhood,” “Pining for Democracy,” “Awareness vs. Action: Two Modes of Protest in American History,” and “Institutions, Instruments, and the Innovator’s Dilemma.” ↩
None of which seem to be interested in MNY—but that’s OK, that’s their prerogative! It just means I need to: (1) figure out better ways of trading MNY’s produced social value for monetary value, and (2) establish a NYC-native value exchange system to fund civic startups. So I will, and so will my friends. ↩