Narrated by talk show host, Brian Wilson, “Down With Power” a Libertarian
Manifesto, by L. Neil Smith now downloadable as an audiobook!
Number 1,019, May 5, 2019

Twentieth century—the hangover years.
I think it will take all of the
21st to recover from the 20th.

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Burning Libraries
by Jim Davidson

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Special to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise

"Take me out to the black,
Tell them I ain’t comin back.
Burn the land and boil the sea,
You can’t take the sky from me."
Firefly Theme Song

Many long years ago, to destroy a fleet of Egyptian vessels, the navy of Marc Antony, it is said that Octavian sent fire ships into the port at Alexandria. In the conflagration that followed, much of the library of Alexandria was burnt to the ground. Centuries later, as told in the film Agora, the remnants of the library of Alexandria were at a temple called the Serapeum when a Christian mob led by Cyril attacked the building and destroyed the remnant of the library.

Further destruction was wrought on libraries in the region by Arab conquerors during the conquest of Egypt roughly AD 642. However, after about a century, there was considerable mellowing in the Caliphate, which had enormous wealth, power, and controlled vast territories from Indonesia to Spain. Thus were born the Houses of Wisdom.

In Baghdad there were these libraries, in many languages. Scholars from all over the known world were welcome there. Copies of many great works were kept there. And in AD 1258, the Mongols, having been insulted by someone in Baghdad, entered the city after a siege and utterly destroyed it. Some places were burnt, but the accounts of survivors say that the Mongols threw the libraries of the Houses of Wisdom into the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. One account has it that the paper pulp was so thick, one could ride a horse across either river. Another account I’ve read says that the waters ran black with the water soluble ink for six months as treasures of human knowledge and history were utterly destroyed.

Why did these things happen? Obviously there is no particular pattern amongst these events. The Mongols were not yet involved in Islam; the Christians were an anti-pagan mob; the Roman navy under Octavian was only interested in the strategic advantage of destroying the enemy fleet in port. It isn’t about a particular religion, or, in many instances, any religion at all, that knowledge of the past is destroyed. It is about another problem entirely.

Centralisation is Dangerous

Fundamentally, knowledge is best when it is as widely distributed as possible. We’ve known this fact for thousands of years. People have proverbs about it.

An ancient Chinese proverb has it that if you give a man a fish you feed him for a day, if you teach him the knowledge of fishing you feed him for a lifetime. A saying by Confucious has it that if you would plan for a year, plant a crop. If you would plan for a decade plant an orchard. If you would plan for a century, educate the people. The crop will return tenfold what is planted, the orchard a hundred fold, and the education of people many thousand fold.

Centralisation is the tendency to bring records and scholars together in one central place. In 2010, as I recall, shortly before he passed away, I saw David Nolan speak about why centralisation was important, and a good thing. He pointed out that having access to records of their empire helped the Egyptians thousands of years ago to keep order, train scribes and scholars, and collect taxes. Having files spread out all over the place was cumbersome and difficult, so centralising them was useful. It was useful to those who sought to rule others.

Of course, I’m not in favour of some ruling many. Nor was David. And he pointed out that something new has started happening. Its beginning actually coincided, within only a few years, with the founding of the Libertarian party itself in 1971. David was referring to the creation of the Internet.

Decentralisation is resilient

Back in 1969 the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency sought a solution to what they saw as the problem of communication after a global thermonuclear war. Many cities would be wiped out. How would the surviving military bases communicate?

The military already had computer networks. They already had communication lines that were deeply buried and would probably survive an electromagnetic pulse. What they lacked was an inter-networking protocol so that routers communicating from network to network would search for any remaining nodes and use those nodes to find pathways to all remaining nodes.

Vinton Cerf, Bob Kahn, and a number of colleagues came up with the Internet Protocol (IP) also known as the Transfer Control Protocol. It is basically a stack of information about how routers communicate with one another, how they establish a connection handshake, and how they transfer packets of information, confirming in the process that the transfer was successful and accurate. Nothing has been the same ever since.

Carnegie and the Libraries

Even before DARPA got its Internet, a movement was afoot to distribute knowledge pretty widely. Andrew Carnegie created a foundation for financing the creation of public libraries in smaller cities and towns all over America. There are now libraries in a great many places. Often these are the only buildings in major cities where "the public" are actually welcome, so they can be used by those unable to find a public restroom. Nevertheless, libraries distributed throughout the population are a basically good idea.

I myself am utterly against all forms of aggression, and taxation is violence. However, of the many terrible ways tax dollars are used, I think the libraries found in public schools are probably the only useful feature of public schools (which are terribly violent, centralised, and authoritarian places) and the larger public libraries, and libraries of universities and colleges, are all a good thing. It is possible, but somewhat difficult, to be more than 200 miles from any library and be in the continental United States.

Meanwhile, computer technology has continued to become awesome and we can now store petabytes of information (one times ten to the fifteenth, or two to the 50th power, or a quadrillion bytes of information) in a very small space. It is possible to store every book that has ever been published on a single computing device. And, given that possibility, there is no reason not to have a digital copy of every public domain book in every home.

Public Domain

What works are in the public domain? Here is a brief list:

  • All works published in the U.S. before 1923
  • All works published with a copyright notice from 1923 through 1963 without copyright renewal
  • All works published without a copyright notice from 1923 through 1977
  • All works published without a copyright notice from 1978 through March 1, 1989, and without subsequent registration within 5 years
  • All works after the death of the author plus a further 70 years

Some years ago, a friend of mine, Jay Hall, suggested an interesting product which would be a tablet which included every public domain work ever published. At the time, we figured we could retail it for $90 and make a good profit on each unit.

Today you can make your own complete copy of every public domain work, and buy as many copyright works in digital form as you wish, using whatever computer resources you have on hand. And that might be a very good thing to do.


Prepping is something I’ve known about since the 1970s. The book Lucifer’s Hammer by Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven came out in 1977. I was fourteen. I vividly remember staying up all night reading it, and sitting out on the ledge outside my brother’s window as the Sun rose the next morning.

Over the years, I’ve seen prepping go from something only done by survivalists to something recommended by people all over the world. It is not a new strategy either, there are religious groups such as the Mormons who have advocated preparedness for many decades.

In all your getting, get understanding, it says in Proverbs. It is a good idea. If you are going to survive the collapse of what passes for civilisation, which does seem to me to be coming at us, if you are going to be around to build a new culture thereafter, won’t you want access to as much knowledge as possible? There are books about how to build steam engines using 18th Century materials. There are water wheel technologies you can know how to create by reading a book.

What if you had all those books, all the books ever, on a device that you could keep in a Faraday cage so it was safe from electromagnetic damage in the event of a Carrington event or a nuclear detonation in the upper atmosphere? What if you also had a hand cranked power device that you could use to recharge its battery, even if it wasn’t sunny outside due to clouds of dust and smoke from the burning of cities near you?

The Errors of Atlantis

Distributed knowledge is better. Distributed power is better.

Today we not only have the Internet but we have a huge opportunity to create nearly anything we want with 3D printers. We can build houses and other structures with 3D printing systems. We can build guns, and drones, and aircraft, and ultralights and all kinds of gizmos. I even have a credit card that was 3D printed. Imagine building a tank, or a rocket propelled grenade launcher, or a grenade or shaped charge, with a 3D printer. There are no limits to what you might do with composite materials. I’ve even seen, recently, a composite printed rocket nozzle.

For thousands of years, ever since Plato extolled what he imagined were its virtues, many people have been trying to re-create Atlantis. But Atlantis was no good. It was destroyed.

Why? Graham Hancock has said that it was destroyed in a great cataclysmic flood because the leaders of Atlantis ceased to wear their prosperity with humility. I believe that it was destroyed because it was hierarchical rather than decentralised, aggressive rather than cooperative. Certainly Plato recounts his ancestor Solon being told by Egyptian priests of an aggressive war in the Mediterranean by the people of Atlantis.

Some collapse is coming

It isn’t clear how bad things are going to get, but existing systems are very fragile. The power grid is fragile. The political system is fragile. The food distribution systems are fragile.

Imagine what would happen if a Carrington event or a supervolcano or a limited nuclear war were to occur. If you think there would be food on the shelves of stores for three days you’ve never been through a hurricane in a tropical city. Food will fly off the shelves, and if the systems are all down, possibly without any of it being paid for. People will flee the major cities, and many will die in the panic. Others will starve later as systems break down, or die of dysentery and other illnesses due to bad water, or die of communicable diseases as their immune systems are compromised.

There are economic, political, military, and natural disaster events that can easily bring about a vast change in what amounts to, or passes for civilisation on this planet.

The questions that brings up are many and varied. Where are you going to be when it happens? What preparations are you going to make, now, while you can? And how much are you going to be able to rebuild in the years that follow?

The knowledge you can access may be critical to your ability to not only survive, but thrive after the collapse, in whatever shape or shapes it comes.


Jim Davidson is an author, entrepreneur, and freedom enthusiast. He’s working on several freedom communities based on the Liberty Project book by Chris Boehr. He’s also working with people on a number of crypto-currency projects. But if you need carpentry or ditch digging, he’s happy to work in those ways, too.

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