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Let’s Try Everything – Local Autonomy And Innovation In Government

June 29, 2009

Here at Let A Thousand Nations Bloom, we have a different way of thinking about politics which we believe greatly simplifies a number of issues.  Instead of fighting about what policy should govern a nation of 300,000,000 people, we believe in promoting an ecosystem of competing nations.  Instead of uniformity in political goals, culture, and implementation, we believe in diversity.  Instead of solving problems, we believe in setting up a system where problems solve themselves.  Sounds impossible?  Let me explain.

As I wrote in my Cato essay Beyond Folk Activism, we can look at politics at three different levels:

  1. Policies: Specific sets of laws.
  2. Institutions: An entire country and its legal and political systems.
  3. Ecosystem: All nations and the environment in which they compete and evolve.

Most political discussion occurs at level (1) – argument about what the best policy is.  Protection or free trade?  Socialized medicine or our current vaguely-private-ish system?  Private retirement accounts or Social Security?  The revolution of public choice theory was to point out the importance of level (2), the institutions of a society, in determining what policies get passed.  For example, while a democracy will tend to pass policies that are broadly beneficial compared to what monarchs and one-party states implement, it also tends to pass policies which appear to reflect the will of the electorate, but whose details benefit special interests.  To keep debating about what the perfect policy would be, and ignore the fact that perfect policies never get passed, is to ignore the last half-century of economic research showing that level (2) matters, and that policies are an emergent behavior of institutions.

But that’s not the end of the story, because national governments are not the highest level system.  They emerge from and compete in the global ecosystem of nations, and we think that the future of economic research and political activism lie in understanding and changing this ecosystem.  Currently, there are less than 200 governments for almost seven billion people, and it is very difficult to start a new country.  All land is claimed, and countries are reluctant to allow secession or local autonomy.  Why would they?  The governing industry is an oligopoly, and current nations are like any cartel which tries to restrict the entrance of new firms in order to keep selling a bad product (government) at a high price (taxes).

What if we somehow changed this, by restoring American Federalism, increasing support for secession, or opening a new frontier for colonization, like the high seas – and thus Letting A Thousand Nations Bloom?  Any change to the ecosystem of governments which allows creation of new governments will make government more diverse and innovative by allowing for small-scale experimentation with many new ideas.  And it will make the market for government more competitive, which will lead to it providing a better product at a lower price.  In other words, the governing industry is just like any other industry – restrict it to a few big firms, and it stagnates, but allow small ones to enter, and they will innovate.  No wonder politics has so few new ideas – it has no startups!

For those who doubt that governments compete, look at the tax rates on capital (corporate tax) vs. labor (income tax).  Capital is taxed less because it is more mobile, and so countries must compete for it.  Which they don’t like – which is why they are trying to form a cartel to keep taxes up.

Imagine a world where instead of debating furiously about what policies to impose on everyone, we debate just enough to establish the top contenders – and then go try all of them.  For example, socialized medicine (or radical free-market medicine) could be implemented on a state-by-state (or city-by-city) basis.  Some experiments will work and be universally adopted, others will fail and be universally loathed, while many will fall in-between and be or attractive or unattractive based on individual preference.  But in every case, our judgements will be based on trials and real-world experience – not hot air from pundits or politicians advancing their own agenda.

There are many ways to get such a system.  Secession obviously increases the number of polities, and even the threat of secession should enable local governments such as US states to reclaim a large amount of local autonomy (ie move the United States back towards its founding principle of federalism).  Opening a new frontier, where social entrepreneurs can go try experimental systems of governance also does the trick.  I’m sure there are more that I haven’t thought of.

The important thing is that we try to make the industry of government more competitive, rather than pushing our favored specific policies.  This solution is glorious because it lets everyone dissatisfied with the performance of the current government industry (which is pretty much everyone) work together to make the world better for all of us.  Republicans, Democrats, Greens, Libertarians – we may not agree on what policies work best, but we can all agree that a world of small governments trying new things will teach us far more about what does and doesn’t work than continuing our endless debates.

Let’s all get behind this global goal of local autonomy:  To Let A Thousand Nations Bloom.

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  7. July 1, 2009 4:23 am

    I agree that we should try various strategies. Certainly that is happening right now, especially in New Hampshire. The freedom activists in Keene, NH are trying something completely different than activists anywhere else in the nation. Likewise, the activists in Grafton, NH are trying something different than in most of the nation. Shall the best town or city be the most free. Hopefully if it works in one part of NH, it can be tried in other parts of the nation where there are few people interested in freedom.

  8. June 30, 2009 1:21 pm

    One of the keywords of this article (key phrase?) is “competitive government”. What we have now, everywhere, is monopolistic, anti-competitive government. Yet most Americans understand that it is thru competition that real innovation takes place, not thru monopoly. I don’t think they have developed a blind spot regarding innovation and competition when it comes to government. They are simply too afraid to challenge the status quo, to demand real choice when it comes to government. A thousand nations would provide the environment for competition and innovation that Americans and the whole world need to move beyond the sorry state of government that we see everywhere.

  9. June 30, 2009 12:20 am

    My problem with the idea is that secession as competitive threat only works if there is any serious fear that it can succeed. As it stands, there is not only no precedent for successful secession, but no groundswell of public opinion favoring it, that might make it a future success. You might persuade 5-10% of the public, but the other 90% will have a visceral reaction against the idea of secession (what do you mean, you want to bring slavery back?), which would poison the well against libertarian incentives and federalist thought.

    Given the limited extent of libertarian political strength, it would be better to either concentrate and influence local policy, as the Free State Project does, or work outside the system, as the seasteading movement does. Secession will remain a domain of the cranks.

    • June 30, 2009 2:41 am

      I agree that secession within the US is very problematic. However, an increase in support for secession can manifest itself in local movements like the FSP or escape movements like seasteading once secessionists realize they are a disenfrachised minority. Also, there is lots of precedent for secession around the world, especially in more geographically distributed places, like UK colonies.

      Another thing to keep in mind is that the increasing strain of the US demographic shift, entitlement spending, etc. may increase general public support for secession as part of the general slow disintegration of the US federal government (if things go that way).

  10. June 29, 2009 7:34 pm

    Patrissimo, I was introduced to this blog only yesterday by my friend, Adam Knott, but I am quite impressed. I agree wholeheartedly in the concept of a thousand nations. As for getting it to happen, my focus is on the lowest level of goverment, the municipality. And my wedge is the little known concept of panarchy, a word with many definitions. One that certainly fits is that it is the right of personal secession. I am working now on a website called Panarchy South Jersey, which, as the name implies, is aimed and creating multiple governments in the small towns of the southern half of New Jersey.

  11. June 29, 2009 6:57 pm

    I would love to see this very article submitted or passed around to some of the influential libertarian thinkers and scholars who are still thinking in terms of imposed political monopolies.

    Will you consider sending it to LRC? The Libertarian Papers? Etc..

    These ideas are revolutionary, and deserve a wide audience.

    Great work Patrissimo.


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