The One Commandment
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 delete107, one that justifies its existence as a righteous yet peaceful protest against the powers that be.108
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.
These presentations are similar to startup pitch decks. But as the founder of a startup society, you aren’t a technology entrepreneur telling investors why this new innovation is better, faster, and cheaper. You are a moral entrepreneur telling potential future citizens about a better way of life, about a single thing that the broader world has gotten wrong that your community is setting right.
By focusing on just one issue, you can set up a parallel society with manageable complexity, as you are changing only one civilizational rule. Unlike a political party, you’re not offering a package deal on many issues that people only shallowly care about. With the one commandment you are instead offering a single issue community, and attracting not single-issue voters but single-issue movers.
Just as a note on terminology, we consider a startup society to be a new community built internet-first, premised on a societal critique of its parent community, and founded for the purpose of addressing that specific societal problem in an opt-in way – namely, by recruiting people online to voluntarily form an alternative society that shows a better way. The implication is that a startup society is still pretty small and near the beginning of its ambition, just like a startup company.
A parallel society is roughly equivalent to a startup society, but the implication is that it could be much larger in scale. It’s parallel because it stands apart from mainstream society as a parallel version, as a fork. It’s not set up in opposition to the mainstream on every dimension, but a parallel society is certainly differentiated from the mainstream on a key axis.
You can think of the relationship between “startup society” and “parallel society” as similar to the relationship between “startup” and “tech company”; the former is early stage, while the latter can be of any stage.
The analogy works in another way. Just like a “tech company” can refer to a fully remote organization, a partially physical company with some office space, or a globally recognized multinational like Google, a “parallel society” is also an umbrella term that can denote a wholly digital network union, a partially physical network archipelago, or a diplomatically recognized network state.
That’s important, because you may be able to realize the goals of your startup society with a purely digital network union, you may need the physical footprint of a network archipelago, or you might need the formal legal recognition of a full network state. It all depends on the nature of your one commandment: can it be accomplished purely at the community level, does it require a physical buildout, or does it require changes to the legal system?
A few specific examples will make this clear. We’ll describe startup societies based on a wholly digital network union, others based on a partially physical network archipelago, and yet others that need diplomatically recognized network states.
Let’s start with an easy example of a one commandment-based startup society, which only requires a purely digital network union and doesn’t require a full physical footprint like a network archipelago, let alone diplomatic recognition like a network state.
This is the cancel-proof society.
Suppose you’re the hypothetical founder of this startup society. You begin with a history of the last 15 years showing all the bizarre examples of social media cancellation, something like Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.
You note that these cancellations represent a moral failure by the people of the State and the CEOs of the Network. Their partisan warfare and engagement algorithms trapped many innocents in the crossfire of social war. Now a stray comment by a civilian is routinely turned into a human sacrifice to make an ideological point. It’s as if a passerby took such offense to your offline comment to a friend that they opened fire.
Those who agree that normal online behavior shouldn’t come with risk of a social death penalty imposed by random people are the basis of your new society. They agree with your historically informed, moral critique. And the one commandment may be something like “cancellation without due process is bad”.
How do you implement this? One solution is just a network union that provides a combination of (a) guild and (b) cancellation insurance.
You assemble a group of people in a Discord, optionally take a stake in each other by issuing a DAO token, and work together to promote each other’s work and help each other out. This could be a guild of, say, graphic designers or young adult fiction writers or electrical engineers. The token of the DAO would be optional – it wouldn’t be meant to be some massive new thing like Ethereum. It’s just a way to record who contributed time and/or money to the startup society, and how much they did. People would give in order to get, a bit like StackOverflow Karma. And those with more money than time may buy the token to support those in the guild with more time than money.
Now, 99% of the time this startup society is just doing “peacetime” activities, like helping people find jobs, organizing promotion for new product launches of members, facilitating introduction, or just hanging out at meetups.
But 1% of the time someone in the guild is under social attack. In that situation, the guild can choose to publicly respond as one or — if grievously outnumbered — can quietly support the affected party with a new job after the uproar has died down. In such a circumstance, the one commandment kicks in, and there is internal due process around the attempted cancellation. Did the person actually do something wrong, and if so, is the correct penalty more like a hundred-dollar fine or an apology rather than a career-ruining publicly calumny?
The concept is that this kind of startup society serves a dual purpose: it’s useful in “peacetime” but it also gives people a community to fall back on in the event of digital cancellation. And that’s how one could build a cancel-proof culture.
Next, let’s do an example which requires a network archipelago (with a physical footprint) but not a full network state (with diplomatic recognition).
This is Keto Kosher, the sugar-free society.
Start with a history of the horrible USDA Food Pyramid, the grain-heavy monstrosity that gave cover to the corporate sugarification of the globe and the obesity epidemic. Also discuss the cure in the form of keto and low-carb diets.
Then operationalize this cure in the form of a partially physical network archipelago. Organize a community online that crowdfunds properties around the world, like apartment buildings and gyms, and perhaps eventually even culdesacs and small towns. You might take an extreme sugar teetotaller approach, literally banning processed foods and sugar at the border, thereby implementing a kind of “Keto Kosher.”
You can imagine variants of this startup society that are like “Carnivory Communities” or “Paleo People”. These would be competing startup societies in the same broad area, iterations on a theme.
If successful, such a society might not stop at sugar. It could get into setting cultural defaults for fitness and exercise. Or perhaps it could bulk purchase continuous glucose meters for all members, or orders of metformin.
Cars are on balance a good thing. But you can overdo them. Mid-century America did. It obscured the San Francisco waterfront with ugly elevated highways, impeding the walkability of this beautiful area. That highway was removed in the late 20th century.109 And the removal was an acknowledgement that sometimes we can have too much of a good thing.
24/7 internet connectivity is like that. It’s good that we’re doing things like Starlink, to bring internet access to the entire world, to provide free online education, and to get them into the global economy.
But it’s bad if you can never disconnect from the internet. That’s why apps like “Freedom” are so popular. That’s why people use commitment devices like timed cookie jars to hide their phones. That’s why apps like Twitter and Snapchat got popular on the basis of artificial constraints, like limited characters or disappearing messages, because they were optimizing for fallible humans rather than infallible machines. That’s why Tsinghua cuts off the internet at night, why Apple now provides screen time metrics, and why books like Atomic Habits and Indistractible sell so well.
What if this optimization for fallibility didn’t have to be an individual thing? What if there were a society that helped you with internet distractions and self-control, that recognized that the internet was good, but that times and places without the internet were also good — just as cars are good, but a San Francisco waterfront without cars is also good?
One way of accomplishing this would be a Digital Sabbath society where the internet is just shut off at night, from 9pm to 9am. Some buildings and rooms would furthermore be enclosed in Faraday cages, to put them offline on purpose. Areas would start to be flagged as online and offline areas, a bit like smoking and non-smoking areas on planes. All internet use would be conscious and focused, as opposed to unconscious and involuntary.
Over time, such a society could even try to build apps to give individuals back control over their internet use, with open source machine learning tools running locally on devices in a privacy-protecting way to prioritize notifications, block distractions, and encourage productivity.
The Digital Sabbath society is an example of a network archipelago that’s focused on improving self-control around internet use. For obvious reasons, you’d need a physical footprint, and wouldn’t be able to do this purely digitally.
Now let’s do a more difficult example, which will require a full network state with diplomatic recognition.
This is the medical sovereignty zone, the FDA-free society.
You begin your startup society with Henninger’s history of FDA-caused drug lag and Tabarrok’s history of FDA interference with so-called “off label” prescription. You point out how many millions were killed by its policies, hand out t-shirts like ACT-UP did, show Dallas Buyers Club to all prospective residents, and make clear to all new members why your cause of medical sovereignty is righteous.
But to actually achieve personal medical sovereignty, your startup society would need some measure of diplomatic recognition from a sovereign outside the US — or perhaps a state within the US. It would need to actually be what we call a network state, as it would need legal recognition from an existing government.
For the case of doing it outside the US, your startup society would ride behind, say, the support of Malta’s FDA for a new biomedical regime. For the case of doing it within the US, you’d need a governor who’d declare a sanctuary state for biomedicine. That is, just like a sanctuary city declares that it won’t enforce federal immigration law, a sanctuary state for biomedicine would not enforce FDA writ.
With this diplomatic recognition, you could then take the existing American codebase and add one crucial new feature: the absolute right for anyone to buy or sell any medical product without third party interference. Your body, your choice. That’s how you’d get an FDA-free zone.
Now we see why a focused moral critique is so important. It combines (a) the moral fervor of a political movement with (b) the laser-focus of a startup company into (c) a one-commandment based startup society.
Such a society is not a total revolution. We aren’t starting completely de novo. Each startup society is simply taking a broken aspect of today’s world, often a State-caused or at least State-neglected calamity, writing the history of that state failure, and then building an opt-in community to solve the problem.
It’s a tightly focused parallel society making one impactful change.
Why is it so important to introduce one commandment rather than zero or N?
The short answer is that you don’t want to write something as complex as a social operating system from scratch, and in fact others will prevent you from doing so. But you also don’t want to avoid innovating on a broken society. So introducing one (1) tightly focused change at a time in a startup society with opt-in citizens allows testing of the new commandment.
The longer answer revolves around an important paradox of modern society: namely, that many people feel uncomfortable evangelizing religious morals, yet very comfortable evangelizing their political ethics.
The first part is easy to understand. Westerners are nowadays often shy about telling others to practice their religion. Why? They may feel they haven’t figured it all out, so who are they to say? Or they know they can’t live up to their ideal moral code, like someone who wants to diet but can’t always restrain themselves, so they refrain from commentary to avoid the charge of hypocrisy. They also may not want to be attacked as a crazy cult leader. All of these are understandable hesitations for either (a) evangelizing a traditional religion, (b) inventing a wholly new one, or (c) forking an existing religion. (The last is kind of like starting a new denomination of Protestantism, where you keep much of the old codebase but add in some crucial distinctive factors.)
But think about the second part. While there is great hesitation in Western society around religious evangelism, there is seemingly no hesitation around political evangelism. Indeed, this is considered an ethical duty, usually in exactly those terms, with the word “ethical” used in place of “moral” but serving a very similar role, and with at least two large competing political parties fighting for the souls/votes of their believers.
Therein lies the paradox: while political and religious movements can both be considered doctrines110, in that they come packaged with a number of directives on how people must live, the same person who is shy about telling other people about morality is often incredibly confident when yelling at other people about politics.
That’s why we advise one commandment for your new startup society. It’s something in between being too shy and too overbearing. It’s in between avoiding religious-sounding evangelism entirely and indulging in political-sounding evangelism too much. Don’t avoid taking a moral stance, because that means you passively succumb to your surroundings. But also don’t try imposing an all-encompassing political ideology to start, because that’s too hard and means total warfare with your surroundings.
Instead, just pick one flaw in modern society that you do feel confident in building a startup society to redress, and go with that. One commandment, not zero or N.
So far we’ve talked about a one commandment, but implied it is a new moral innovation, like cutting out sugar or limiting internet use. What about older religions, political codes, and moral commandments?
You can certainly return to an older known religious code, adopting it in whole or in part. In a startup society, where everyone opts in, you can make this happen more easily because religion in many countries is mostly about private practice: so long as people agree in a peer-to-peer fashion to practice their religion a certain way, the state allows them to do it.
It’s harder to return to an older political code, because you are now talking about public law rather than private law. Still, if you build a large enough startup society, and pick the right laws, there is probably something at the town, city, or province level that you can do — either within the West or outside it.
How did the US beat the USSR? Because it built and defended a parallel system.
Rewind back to how the Soviet Union fell. As Stephen Kotkin noted in a brilliant interview, the most important fact about the Soviet Union was that they genuinely were communists. Outsiders perceived the Soviets to be cynical, but they were wrong; their cynicism had limits. At the end of the day, the Soviets were devout believers in their ideology.
How could it be otherwise? Soviet citizens weren’t stupid, and people knew there were things that didn’t add up, but they were operating within a constrained information environment. The censorship was so pervasive that it controlled thought. The degree of self-deception was so all-encompassing that even the nomenklatura like Boris Yeltsin didn’t know how truly poor the Soviet Union was till he visited an American supermarket and threw up his hands at how far behind the USSR was. Unlike Orwell’s O’Brien, the Soviet leaders deceived themselves too.
So, fundamentally, any proposed edits by Soviet elites to the USSR would have been just on the margins. They were information and values constrained. They actually needed a totally different system. Yet their system resisted both revolutionary and incremental reform.
The solution was the parallel system of the United States. An alternative society starting from different moral premises that eventually produced undeniably better results.
That’s the same basic thing that reformed the People’s Republic of China. The mere existence of successful parallel systems in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and especially Singapore is what drove Deng Xiaoping to adopt capitalism. Ezra Vogel’s book is excellent on this.
So, in both cases, it was a parallel system that beat the Soviet system and the Maoist system.
In the 20th century, the only way to build a parallel system was to fight and win a war (often a hot one) against the communists or fascists who were intent on conquering your territory. The parallel systems of the US and Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan were maintained against the USSR and PRC at enormous cost by fighting for large contiguous regions of land. That was a very State-centric approach.
In the 21st century, our approach suggests a Network-centric way to build parallel systems: create one opt-in society at a time, purely digitally if need be, justifying it with a historical/moral critique of the present system that delegitimizes State violence against them and allows the experiment to continue.
Many will fail, but for those that succeed, we can merge together the good changes and discard the bad ones, and eventually get a parallel society that differs in many respects from (say) the original US codebase, but that maintains enough similarity that it’s “backwards compatible” and citizens can migrate over. Much like the relation of the USA to Europe during the 1800s, this is a way to reproducibly build a New World on the internet to reform existing states.
First, by starting with a seemingly simple moral premise and taking to its logical conclusion, a one-commandment-based startup society ends up changing huge swaths of life, but in a focused, exit-constrained, and intellectually consistent way.111 Just think about what “keto” really means when it’s extrapolated out to the scale of an entire town, and sugar poisoning is taken as seriously as lead poisoning.
Second, one-commandment-based societies allow for scalable, parallel, consensual exploration of sociopolitical space. Different groups that disagree with each other on how to live can nevertheless support the meta-concept of many different one-commandment-based experiments. And indeed, both a carnivore community and vegan village would likely have better health outcomes than the default Western diet, even if these communities disagree on core moral premises.
Third, there’s a network effect between societies. Each starts off highly focused, of course — much as a startup company tries to attract customers with a single focused product, each startup society tries to attract subscribers with a single focused commandment. And as with a startup company, any individual experiment towards a new sociopolitical order may succeed or fail. But so long as some one-commandment-based startup societies succeed, they can copy each other’s proven moral innovations.
Fourth, each of these one-commandment-based startup societies is supported by a history. Listen to someone from the Keto Kosher society and they’ll be able to rattle off an account of how the USDA Food Pyramid led to epidemic obesity. Chat with a Benedictine Option monk and you’ll hear about the religious culture they’re trying to preserve. And talk to a citizen of the post-FDA society and they’ll give you a history of the few strengths and many weaknesses of the FDA, from ACT-UP to drug lag. Some such societies are focused on new technologies and some are not, but all of them are based on an ethical code premised on their reading of history. And that’s why history is the foundation of any new startup society.