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Youtopia Part II: Let Persuasion Rule Over Power

October 21, 2009

This is our second post from Max Borders. His first can be found here.–Editor

As I wrote yesterday, I think it’s time we divorced non-territorial systems of goods from territorial systems. But how would this work?

It would take two fairly simple changes to the law of the land. That is, two new rules. These new rules would track with the two different types of goods-systems we touched on yesterday. Let’s call the non-territorial systems “communities” and the territorial systems “territories.” For communities we have a right of exit. For territories, we have a rule of localization.

A right of exit means:

  • Anyone can leave a community at any time as long as he or she has honored his or her end of any membership agreement.

You can be a member of any community you like. Membership in that community can have all sorts of provisions and conditions, but you can always disassociate yourself from that community provided the community has let you in to begin with. You can take all the resources you were once forced to pay in taxes and use them for resources to pay for anything—including your membership in a community (or multiple communities). It’s that simple. You may prefer the rugged life outside of community. From my point-of-view, that’s your right.

Communities, which we‘ve defined as systems of allocating or exchanging non-territorial goods, can be highly diverse. With a right of exit, we have the possibility to unleash the creative forces of community. Some of these communities might be based on the area in which we live, but many would exist across territories. With no territory responsible for the provision of, say, health care, I might join a cooperative that pools risk across all the members. A certain number of people with preexisting conditions would be allowed to join, perhaps any number. As a condition of membership, I might also be required to pay for certain coverage items. Of course, this system would compete with other health care communities for members. A competitor might require its members, say, to put aside a certain amount of money each month into a personal health savings account. But membership might also cost less. Either way, it would be illegal to force others to join my chosen system. Instead, I could join the health care system I thought was the most efficient, effective, or even the most morally upright. No system would depend for its existence on everyone in some geography being forced to join (a monopoly). It would, rather, be an issue of individual preference and ethical bent. While market forces would constrain the form and feasibility of any system, the system need not be “free market” as narrowly defined. One could opt into a communal arrangement just as easily as she could opt into patient-driven model. And we would consider that her right as a sovereign human being.

Who knows whether communities would evolve to look anything like our contemporary political caricatures of Democrats and Republicans. People might cluster in all sorts of ways we cannot anticipate. With different incentives and competition among communities, even the most “progressive” person might come to see the world differently. The staunchest individualist may find new social ventures for which he can’t resist volunteering his time and money. King-of-the-mountain politics simply wouldn’t be much a part of this new America. But moral suasion and marketing would most surely be. To get this change, we would have to introduce new rules. Then, each person can put his system (and his money) where his mouth is (and his votes used to be).

I’m pretty firmly committed to a moral relativism of communities (though morality as such would get a lot more attention than the low-cost moralisms of the voting booth). That means a community might require pretty much anything you can imagine as a condition of membership. A community might want people to cluster together, as Amish or Kibbutzim. On the other hand, a given community could be as cosmopolitan as you please, with members from around the world connected electronically. You could theoretically agree to do things most of us find totally wacky in terms of, say, accepting restrictions on your behavior—though I hesitate saying that memberships would entail people getting to kill each other for either contract violations or fun. Barring the hard cases of personal choice (of which there are a few), the result would approach maximum pluralism. But not chaos.

What about territorial systems? A localization rule means all authority for such systems would be as local as possible. Consider this definition from Charles Murray’s What It Means to Be a Libertarian, which he calls a “principle of subsidiarity”:

  • Legitimate functions of government should be handled at the most local feasible level.

The idea is that, the smaller the territory, the more likely you are to approach unanimity. In the absence of such unanimity, it is at least that much easier for people to move to a territory they find tolerable. When any task or administrative function is carried out at the most local feasible level, a state government, for example, would never deal with roads if territories could. Territories would not deal with streets if neighborhoods could. Of course, as a corollary to our rule of localization, we might also want to set the area of a basic territory, initially. The area should be reasonably small—say, 546 square miles. (This is the size of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina where I grew up.) After all, we would want to draw territorial boundaries is such a way that it’s easy enough to move out, but large enough to get economies of scale. If our localization rule required wider geography – say for regional highways or national defense – then levels of authority would transfer up and territorial boundaries, out. But compared to today, there would be a lot less authority up-and-out and a lot more down-and-in.

Decentralization and local empowerment would follow these rule changes. A federal government might end up having responsibility for an extremely narrow set of goods—like national defense and a court of ultimate arbitration (a Supreme Court of sorts). Otherwise, you’d have the common law and probably no legislatures outside of territorial boards or councils. It’s not at all clear what states would have responsibility for, if they needed to exist at all. States might handle disputes among territories or be responsible for planning and coordinating certain emergency functions territories couldn’t handle. They might deal with the administration of inter-territorial road projects. The common law would handle most environmental problems, as we’ll see. With states becoming an artifact of centralization, I apologize in advance to college basketball fans.

In any case, I can’t see any way around people paying some form of taxes to territories under this system. Such might take the form of a modest consumption tax (sales) or even some form of Georgist tax (property). While extreme libertarians might like to hear me call all taxation theft, there are arguably basic functional aspects of territorial goods that make all the rest of commercial and social life possible. While one might be convinced that these can all be provided privately – and in the interests of justice, should be – I will leave our simple rules – a right of exit and localization – as a happy medium between the status quo and a seemingly impracticable Libertopia. Believe me, I would like to banish all forms of coercion from the earth. But for now, I’m willing to settle for shrinking it as much as is feasible.

Let us take heart, though: taxes would be relatively low in territories that dealt only with police, defense, and territorial justice—particularly given competition from neighboring territories happy to take your citizens. If a territory provided territorial goods and services that citizens really liked, they might be willing to stay and pay more in taxes. As anyone can see, this is much easier to determine locally than nationally. Sound roads and attractive thoroughfares are right in our faces. Intergenerational Ponzi schemes like Social Security are not. Again, limitations on the size of a territory and its functions – due not only to localization but to tax competition among territories – would keep taxes reasonably low. Experimentation in both revenue collection and provision of these localized goods would ensure policy iterations that could be mimicked or scrapped. In short, lower taxes and higher quality would be far more likely to result.

Unity in Diversity

Before we get into the deeper question of justice, let’s indulge in a detour for a moment. In his great work Philosophical Explanations, Robert Nozick invited us to consider the idea of organic unity. The idea, roughly, is that within any system there is value in the balance of diversity and unity—whether in systems of art, science or society. Maybe he was inspired by the dollar bill dictum e pluribus unum. Indeed, Nozick might have offered ex uno plures. Either way, diversity and unity were mutually constraining, according to Nozick—a sweet spot between rigid order and chaos. He asked, “Can we draw a curve of degree of organic unity with the two axes being degree of diversity and degree of unifiedness?” The diversity axis will constrain the unity axis and vice versa so that both achieve a kind of stasis. The beauty of Nozick’s graph, apart from its simplicity, is its appeal to some intuitive notion of value in balance. Why would any such notion be important to our idea of society?

The truth is, people are different. They have different conceptions of happiness and the good life. From our view, forming society is not about finding a singular ideal to be crafted by Washington masterminds. Rather, it is as about acknowledging our differences, accepting them a fact of life, and unleashing the creative forces that arise from those differences. But something has to unify us.

Enter the rule of law. Sadly, like “public good,” the rule of law is a phrase that has been perverted over time by both postmodernists and political opportunists. In order to get maximum unity constrained by maximum pluralism, we have to think about the rule of law in a narrower way. In other words, the fact of some elected assembly’s getting a bill through the legislative sausage-grinder does not make said bill right, good and prudent. In the stricter definition, the law must apply equally to everyone and privilege no person, group or industry. That’s what we mean when we say rule of law. And we have carefully to guard that meaning from men who crave authority and their supplicants.

Under our proposed system, things are much clearer and far simpler. The effect of our two, simple rules would amount to a massive reboot complete with a whole new operating system. We would end up dismantling the big ole byzantine edifice of federal and state legislation and replace it with new, bottom-up rule-sets established by communities and territories.

At the core of all this lies the idea that people shouldn’t be harmed. Force is harm. Theft is harm. Fraud is harm. A constitutional prohibition on force, theft and fraud takes us very far in establishing a social system that yields peace, prosperity and pluralism. The unifying aspects of our society become free contract and some ultimate arbitration body. But at the very center of our constitutional order, we should be able to find a non-harm principle. Some of my fellow libertarians think contract is enough. But an institution of universalistic justice built on principle of non-harm, however, provides both a constitutional guide for ultimate dispute resolution and an object worthy of our reverence.

In the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the object of reverence was once an unalienable right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” In the Constitution, there are the enumerated rights. And while we may quibble over the philosophical origins of “natural rights,” writing down the principles of a people has powerful connotations upon which a culture of freedom may be developed. A culture of freedom is essential to the survival of any formal institutions that enshrine freedom.

There might be places for caveats in all of this. But I hope two rules and a principle are enough for a good start. In the search for rules that maximize the number of possible communities available for people to join voluntarily, a right of exit and a rule of localization take us far, indeed. While they would not be perfect, nor perfectly libertarian, these two rules would represent a giant move away from the status quo. They would mean a leap towards a thousand so-called “intentional” communities. Experimentation would flourish, all of which works toward the ends peace, prosperity and personal sovereignty. I need not go into the economic benefits that would come about—benefits that would increase our pull to social entrepreneurship. And by having communities to join, we can still satisfy our clannish instincts. The only price would be never being able fully to indulge the urge to dominate others for the sake of a single utopia. Persuasion would finally rule power.

  1. December 26, 2009 8:37 pm

    This seems circular to me. If we could narrowly define government, we could make big gains.

    The problem is that any government with the capacity to tax has the inclination to increase its tax base. Constitutional prohibitions are absolutely meaningless if the state is the sole arbiter of what is constitutional or not.

    While I can accept that transition will require gradualism, the notion that some gradual changes will be possible or even desirable is not a given.

    The first post on territoriality was much better.


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