A review in n parts: Polystate, part 1

Zach Weinersmith of SMBC comics just published Polystate: A Thought Experiment in Distributed Government. I’ve started reading it and immediately needed to start commenting. Before I get into the review, let me say that SMBC comics is an excellent web comic that everyone should read.

The basic idea ZW introduces is the polystate, a system of government comprised of anthrostates. An anthrostate is “a set of laws and institutions that govern the behavior of individuals, but which do not govern a behavior within geographic borders.” It is essentially government that individuals get to choose in the same manner that they get to choose their insurance company; so to neighbors can live under a different set of laws and any disputes between them are a matter for their anthrostates to sort out. At this point you should be thinking: Nozick did it. The idea of a polystate is essentially Nozick’s Utopia of Utopias.

He contrasts poly/anthrostates with geostates, the geographically defined monopolies on the use of force we are used to today. Does it need to be thus?

Why should we suppose that a person who likes hot dogs, is familiar with a two-party electoral system, and believes Abraham Lincoln was a great man is necessarily someone who should live in a temperate climate in the Western hemisphere?… This is not to deny that history and culture and the choices of individuals matter, but rather to assert that many of the “essential” qualities of nationhood are not, in the long run, meaningful ones.

I’ll agree and disagree. These qualities are relevant to some sense of cultural identity, but are not essential for defining the boundaries of a state. This cultural identity is part of the environment of informal institutions, which are part of a broader polycentric order. This is the underpinning of law (the way Hayek characterized it) which is much broader than legislation.

ZW approaches the problem like a mathematician and sets himself up with a hard sell, by assuming there will be a huge need for technological advances to overcome transaction costs. His argument rests largely on technological possibility and is highly concerned with interaction at the anthrostate level.

A polystate would likely increase the complexity of business and legal transaction. In a world with only 200 or so geostates, most commerce is not interstate and even if it were, geometry tells us that the number of possible two-state transactions is given by n(n-1)/2.

Nobody thinks the distribution of such transactions is uniform, and in real life we see a large proportion of international transactions go through countries that specialize in trade. Hong Kong would surely have an anthrostate analog. In fact, there are historical antecedents. He foresees rules being designed at the polystate level to simplify interactions but, “whatever rules were put in place, the results would be too burdensome to exist without a large bureaucracy or some sort of computational way to arbitrate these many interactions.”

The basic flaw in ZW’s approach is that institutions and laws are provided from the state, and so technology is the answer to transaction costs problems. In fact, the issue is that ZW (though he’s not alone on this) wants a change in institutions that will require a new order to emerge. His book will help to peacefully guide the process of societal change towards that new order. Technology will surely play an important role as well.

That gets us through the first four chapters. I will continue with more tomorrow evening.

6 thoughts on “A review in n parts: Polystate, part 1

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