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Towards YouTopia: Must All Public Good Providers Remain Earthbound?

October 20, 2009

Our newest guest post, the first of a series, comes from Max Borders. Max works in the trenches of the liberty movement–which means eating bland rations from a tin so he can lob the occasional grenade against the state. When he can find the time, he posts to his own blog.–Editor

Liberal academic George Lakoff once compared taxation to paying membership dues at a club. Steven Pinker gave him shit for it, and deservedly so. After all, if you don’t pay your taxes “men with guns will put you in jail.” But what if that didn’t happen? What if we accept the best of Lakoff’s mendacious metaphor and downgraded strict citizenship to membership in community?

To be fair, we’re still at the stage of sorting through our thinking. But before I offer my uncomplicated ideas for social change, I want to present a challenge to the statist.

I define a statist as a) someone who believes that government power is good and makes the world better than it would be otherwise and b) someone who believes that governments should have monopolies over certain goods, services and spheres of activity.

Most people agree with your right to leave the county, state or country if you don’t like what the government in that jurisdiction has handed down. You can go live somewhere else, though probably under a different thumb or set of thumbs. So why does something as arbitrary as geography determine your right to exit from some system of government?

For the statist – i.e. one who believes in the ultimate authority of the state – there seem to be two possible responses:

  • x: “If they could get their hands on me – i.e. my body and/or my wealth – whether in Sweden, or down there on my secret island, they would be justified. There is really some objective, global justice, the ends of which justify their means of getting to me”; or
  • y: “Considerations of pragmatics and citizenship mean that once I’m in another jurisdiction, so long as I haven’t broken any laws in the old jurisdiction, I’m no longer your concern. Because I am living in another place, under different auspices, you have no right to bother me there—whatever your concept of justice.”

I think fair-minded statists will stick to y. Those committed to x are the ones with whom we may eventually have to think of ourselves as being at Hobbesian war. And believe you me, those who’d answer x live among us. But I think those that lean towards y might be persuaded about a right of exit. Indeed, if we can exploit an issue with y – call it territorial chauvinism – we might be able to make good headway with our case.

To the point: by virtue of what, exactly, does my living in some geography require my compliance with a single system encompassing some bundle of goods and services provided by the state? Why can’t I become a member of a Swiss-, Singaporean-, or Swedish-style system of administration? If your answer is “because you live in this system, not in another” you’re arguing in a circle. I’m trying to find out what it is about my living geographically within this system or that that makes me duty bound?

One fair answer might be that there are functions of the state that are more or less linked to territory. We enjoy these functions just because we live in an area. But which ones? Let’s pull out the government functions that actually relate to the territory where one lives and focus on those. In the interests of convincing you I’m not crazy, I won’t get all anarchist on you and suggest privatizing everything under the sun. I want only to introduce a thought experiment that is charitable to the idea of so-called “public” benefits while recognizing only the ones that people would enjoy by virtue of their living somewhere. Consider the following list of territorial goods:

  1. Transportation and Roads
  2. National Defense
  3. Police, Fire, and Emergency services
  4. Justice (Criminal, Tort, and Titling)
  5. Public Utilities (Water and Sewer)
  6. Penal, Psychiatric and Reform
  7. Parks and Aesthetics
  8. Nuisance Court or Zoning
  9. Environment and Waste Disposal
  10. Identification and Immigration

I’m granting for the sake of discussion that territorial goods have an inherent “public-ness” about them. For example, police and defense should be considered territorial goods because it’s easier to free ride on others who pay for these. In other words, I’ll benefit from national defense spending even if I don’t pay for it. Or, if police are cruising your neighborhood, you’ll benefit even if your neighbors pay and you don’t. There are other goods, like dispute resolution and property rights, that not only establish the “operating system” for a territory, but standards and legal precedents the law offers generally. It may turn out that some or all of these territorial goods would be better provided by the private sector. But let’s agree that the above list can all be considered territorial goods, even though not all of these would be considered public goods in the economic sense, or fully privatize-able in Libertopia. (The economic sense of a public good is non-rivalrous and non-excludable.)

All other goods, whether or not you think people ought to have them by “right” under some notion of “social justice,” aren’t really linked to territory. Nor are they public goods in the economic sense: i.e. my consuming those goods means someone else can’t. It is also easy to identify who’s using these goods and charge them for it. Health care, education, arts, etc. can therefore be considered another class of goods. In other words, these goods aren’t really linked to territory in the way we think defense, roadways and streetlamps might be because I can enjoy the benefits of health insurance risk pooling and online education virtually anywhere I live. And while I may benefit from a tax-supported theatre in my area, this is not a good that everyone needs or uses—like roads or police protection.

And that brings us back to an important question: if I’m okay with your leaving the US and becoming a citizen of Sweden, or leaving New York and becoming a resident of North Carolina, why shouldn’t I be okay with your right of exit from any non-territorial system? If there is nothing intrinsically territorial about a system that provides goods and services like healthcare or education in a certain way, why ought I not I simply be allowed to “exit” in the same way I leave Michigan to go to a state with a more favorable climate?

I think it’s time we divorced non-territorial systems from territorial systems of goods. Then, we should demand greater latitude to form non-territorial systems across geographies based on our individual interests and beliefs. Of course, the devil is in the implementation. But the idea is simple. More tomorrow.

[Update: you can find Part II to this article here.]

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  5. November 1, 2009 8:07 pm


    Your ideas are not new to the small group of libertarians who call themselves panarchists. I encourage you to take a look at, and especially the links there to (home of an exhaustive library of references), and Panarchy South Jersey (, which discusses the implementation of panarchy at the municipal level of government.

    As opposed to the utilitarian or deontological, I take the ontological approach, looking at human nature and the human rights that derive from it as the source of my argument for panarchy. My example of two non-territorial governments in my town does not attempt to resolve your question of territorial versus non-territorial, but simply gets around it by positing two independent governments that cooperate on all things (at least in this example) except education. My intention is to get people first of all to recognize the very possibility of non-territorial governments existing. The resolution of what must be territorial I leave for the working out by experiment, with the creation of other non-territorial governments within the town which attempt to go their own way with regard to police and judicial services, or any other component of govennment that might be considered properly territorial.

    I began by saying that your ideas are not new to panarchists; however, I am very happy to see these thoughts so clearly expressed by you in your two “Youtopia” articles. The freedom of self-determination, including the right to choose ones government at every level, is something that we should all be working toward, each in his own way, but acknowledging the good wherever we see it.

    I wanted specifically to say something about “taxes”. Libertarians look upon taxes as theft, insofar as the government is an involuntary component in society. The ability for a person to choose their government would remove the nature it has had up to now of being monopolist and involuntary. I would agree with you that taxes within the context of a freely chosen government lose the nature of “stolen goods” and become instead “fees for services”.

  6. October 21, 2009 12:30 pm

    The utilitarian/deontological two-step is fairly typical. Can’t argue with you there. However, I think there is considerable force to the idea that – whether or not you’re dancing between a moralistic and consequentialist frame – you have to embrace x either way. To embrace x over y at least makes the arguments clearer and the lines starker. In other words, I think it’s tougher to argue y and evoke either form of moralism. That said, your identifying this back and forth between utilitarian and deontological premises as a general problem in political discourse is right on. In this particular case, though, once you get people to agree to x, they may be committing themselves to a global Leviathan and an “any means necessary” frame that puts them on the defensive. A clever person can probably find some rhetorical middle ground between x and y, but it isn’t going to be easy. If they can’t tell me the “moral” difference between different rights of exit, then they’ve got the problem. My hope with this duality is to force one’s intellectual commitments utterly to statism or to opening the door to liberty. (And by the way, if we can pin them down either to consequentialism or deontology, then we can argue for a right of exit on those terms. At least that’s my hope.)

  7. October 21, 2009 4:02 am


    Nice attempt. I think the dissonant thinking that leads to such conclusions is the bait-and-switch between moral and utilitarian arguments. E.G. saying “rich people need to pay more taxes because they benefit more” to “we can’t let rich people pay lesser taxes, it would harm the poor” depending on the argument, and combining both of those into a muddled narrative. Of course one can believe both the moral and the consequential argument, but i’m guessing (pessimistically) that the (moral) frame that you have established will be countered with consequential/utilitarian arguments, and if/when you argue the consequential, you’ll be presented with moralistic preening.


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  4. Organization, Olson and the Red Queen Effect « Let A Thousand Nations Bloom
  5. Towards Youtopia. « Panarchists
  6. Youtopia Part II: Let Persuasion Rule Over Power « Let A Thousand Nations Bloom

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