San Diego 'Build it and they will come," the proverb tells us. Today, however, disciples of the precept have little use for its noble motivational message; they prefer instead its promise of material reward. Build a mall, a towering apartment complex, another exhibition of Impressionist paintings, and the crowds will oblige you. Even the Arcadian Vermont commune I lived near as a child proved to be little more than a playground for one man's sinful covetousness -- a bitter pill to swallow for me and half a dozen other happy kids. But another dictum tells us that cynicism is the easy way out. Tom Wilson, of Pacific Beach, preaches such a gospel. "We can form a sub-society where greatness is the norm," he announces. "The first trick is to concentrate like-minded people. In time a network of friends will form with the size and cohesion necessary to relocate in unison, like the Mormons did." According to Tom, communal urges and desires for congeniality are perfectly natural. "Many social movements join people intellectually or bring them together temporally," Tom says, "but creating a 'commune' geographically is the next important step. Many people feel compelled to live in a homogeneous neighborhood: ethnicities, gays, the rich, young families. Hippies also like to live among themselves. They are the victims of tremendous persecution. There is more than enough discontent with the system to fuel a nationwide chain of SOFT [Society of Free Thinkers]-friendly apartment buildings."
Tom is smart, and he likes, above all, to share his ideas. And though he has no job, Tom works as hard as anyone in San Diego: he's an artist, a musician, an inventor, and possibly a prophet. Tom has a plan to save the world: he is recruiting members for an alternative community called SOFT. "The closest thing to an epicenter of cool people in San Diego is a few blocks of apartment buildings around Windamear Street in north Mission Beach. I plan to declare this area the first Mecca of SOFT." Tom hopes that eventually SOFT will secede from the United States and populate a new country, possibly on land somewhere, but ideally on some sort of "floating structure" off the coast of San Diego. "I have plans for amphibious motorcycles and bikes and extremely cheap floating buildings," Tom explains. "If I try to live off the coast I will call my floating structure an oceanographic research vessel. I believe that will keep the Coast Guard and the coastal commission off my back. Unfortunately, San Diego has big waves, but it also has the best weather and lots of people with the pioneer spirit. Many people on the West Coast would have kept going west if they could have."
One could hardly make a more optimistic gesture than to invoke the spirit of those mythical pioneers who endured mother lodes of hardship on their trek to a better place. That that history has been revised to tell a different tale -- one of such imperial crimes as thievery and murder -- does not deter Tom's faith in a new colony: "The system of operation and the laws for the utopian nation that I am imagining will be as simple and libertarian as possible. Voting would be used to decide who is eligible for membership and to set the tax on different types of pollution. Banishment from the community would take the place of jails. Policing would be left to the citizens, at least at first, but there would need to be a court system."
Tom attended UCSB for a year and did well in science before transferring to UCSD. "I dropped out after a year there, deciding I could succeed as an inventor, which I still believe. I have hundreds of ideas and prototypes." Tom says that his best invention is a unique roller skate that only rolls forward and that allows your heel freedom of movement, like cross-country ski bindings. This skate permits a normal walking motion, which exercises more muscles than the current lateral push used in skating. Tom explains that he is also "working on a body board prototype that uses a small propeller, which is powered via a loop of cord connected to foot straps, allowing, again, a more natural running-like motion." Among many other clever inventions, Tom has designed a "super-easy home-brewing kit" and various safety devices for bikes and cars.
"My family likes my projects," Tom says, "and they think I'm really smart, but they are very busy themselves, so they don't get involved much." Tom's father is a judge, his brother is a lawyer, and his mother works at UCSD. "I live rent free and make $160 a month gardening for my parents," Tom explains, "but if I needed to I would much sooner camp out or live in a van than work full-time, because I love to think about my own ideas."
Tom's vision for SOFT is not as half-baked as some might think. When I balked at his explanation of a grid system, Tom patiently spelled it out for me: "If SOFT acquired land, the grids would be similar to the road systems in normal cities, except developers would lease the right to develop it from the community. To prevent abuses, two independent land grids would be set aside. This way, people would have a choice for transportation and the free-market system would force developers to provide value if they want to stay in business." As this leasing system demonstrates, what distinguishes SOFT from other "alternative" enterprises is that it embraces capitalism and all the trappings that come with it, especially money. SOFT is not for people who succumb to squeamishness in the face of cutthroat economics.
"I totally embrace capitalism," Tom declares. "Capitalism is the only way resources can be allocated without the use of force. Stealing from the rich by taxing them inordinately causes the flight of talent, lessens motivation, and puts money into the hands of incompetent people. Improvements to the standard of living originate in the top strata. Like any immoral system, using force to take the money of one group for the benefit of another...is a mistake in the long run." When trying to describe what he wants SOFT to become, Tom conjures such diverse groups and movements as the early Christians, the Mormons, the Amish, the Grateful Dead, the Merry Pranksters, and youth hostels. Tom means it, however, when he says, "I do not like socialism or communism." He continues, "One benefit of starting a new society results from the fact that land derives its value from its proximity to people and their money. If enough cool people move in unison, they can turn cheap land in the boonies into a tastefully developed and interesting place, with property values to match." As wise as Tom is to the fiscal needs of government, making money is a small part of his motivation for forming SOFT or for his inventions. "I do not anticipate ever having money problems, partly because I truly do not like fancy things. Impressing people with my creations is my goal." Tom trades in concepts, and ultimately, if Tom has his way, SOFT's currency will be deeds.