Polystate: Book 2

This is my third entry on Polystate and will cover book 2 (entries one and two covered book 1). This section covers a thought experiment in polystates and begins immediately with the flattering implication that macroeconomists can make speculative predictions about complex systems. This is typically where an Austrian would say “the world is too complex to make speculative predictions which is why  we need a flexible system.”

Quick reminder: a polystate is a state that contains non-geographical anthrostates. Anthrostates have rules relevant to their members, while polystates have rules relevant to the interaction of anthrostates and their members.

My first qualm with ZW’s conception of anthrostates is that there are local spillovers in governance, culture, etc. that would likely lead to enclaves. ZW addresses this now with rule number one of polystates being that no anthrostate may claim territory. My general feeling on federalism is that the higher units will have rules that are more universally accepted, so that a nation will have prohibitions on murder, while regions of states/provinces may have fairly uniform rules on abortion, drug use, etc., individual states have their own traffic laws, and cities have their own rules on neighborly conduct. Polystates are a radical form of federalism, but in order for them to work adequately, they must start with fairly uniform basic rules on property rights over land.

Rule two is that individuals choose their anthrostate annually (by birthday). The specific interval is fairly arbitrary but it seems obvious that it should be neither too long (in which case anthrostates gain monopoly power) or too short (in which case they can’t credibly commit to govern in difficult situations such as collecting taxes or enforcing punishments). The alternative to a time-based restriction would be a social-stigma based restriction which has pros and cons of its own but I’m tempted to think would be more effective (though with some very important caveats that warrant further discussion!). The birthday rule is interesting as it staggers political change leading to greater stability than having “global revolution” at each shift; we face a similar problem in today’s world of election days.

Rule three is where things get tricky: anthrostates that take territory lose their government status under the polystate order. This creates a collective action problem among other anthrostates as enforcing this rule won’t be free and won’t have uniform benefits to others. ZW recognizes this, but the problem still stands. This is essentially the same as the national defense problem. This is really the big one: are geostates unnecessary but inevitable? Essentially this book is considering a special form of anarchy and so belongs in the same category of other classic thought experiments.

It obviously isn’t statelessness, and so it isn’t quite anarchy, but I’m not so sure anarchy is quite anarchy either. Even the sort of state imagined by David Friedman has coercion, it’s just decentralized. Likewise, polystates specifically allow anthrostates to act coercively, but it subjects them to competition. In essence, the polystate proposal is to increase competition among governance structures by allowing them to be geographically diffuse.

An interesting institutional feature of polystates is that anthrostates are no longer bound to seek something like an end state. Where as the USA tries to set up a system for the median voter who is expected to be there for life, an anthrostate could specialize in particular stages of individuals’ lives. There could be a state for students and one for seniors (… I wonder what a world with AARP running an anthrostate would look like…).

ZW doesn’t mention this, but if individuals can be members of more than one anthrostate (of course, based on the rules and enforcement of those rules by the relevant anthrostates) then it is conceivable that government services not be so horizontally integrated. This raises an interesting line of inquiry: is a polycentric polystate possible?

A big problem is the “inherent goodness” of imposing rules on people who don’t want them. It’s easy for libertarians to say that drug laws are dumb (because they are), but as Ryan Murphy surely writes somewhere, where people see value/justification in imposing their views on others we run into problems. We’re pretty much all cool with prohibiting murder, but what about less clear cut issues? If I saw veganism as having the same moral weight as murder (“I don’t think humans should be treated like that.”) then I would be morally justified in striking down with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers with icky lentils. The best solution would be for me to stay the hell away from Berkeley. Again, we’ve got local spillovers in governance. We also have tribalistic barriers to the sort of integration economists want to see for the good of everyone.

In the final section on war ZW raises an interesting point regarding the possibility of war-mongers self-selecting into aggressive anthrostates. This is a troubling notion, but such behavior is expensive. North Korea is aggressive, but manageable because Kim Jong Un isn’t wealthy enough to pose a more drastic threat to NATO. With self-sorting, a North Korean anthrostate would lose many of its productive people and be even less of a threat. But ZW doesn’t raise the question of nuclear weapons…

The example of Kidnappocracy drives home the point that ultimately coercion underlies any system of governance. Rights are as rights are enforced. Political structures are created to resolve rights disputes in an amicable (sort of) fashion, and polystates will still need means of resolving these disputes. Even in a geostate, some people are willing to fight and die for their views, but the institutional change to a polystate seems somewhat orthogonal to such issues. Anthrostates will serve as focal points, and having more disparate focal points may increase the possibility for conflict. But mostly it would just be a different sort of federalism; if we don’t see violence between people from different states, and if effective institutions emerge quickly enough, this problem may be small and quickly swamped by other benefits.

Ultimately the resolution of problems between members of different anthrostates would require that 1) their disputes are matters of honest disagreement that can be resolved with arbitration, 2) interactions that may lead to such disputes are minimized by a general refusal to interact, or 3) there is a strong and near universal support for (this sort of) federalism such that people are willing to resolve differences to support the overarching system. The second seems most likely, supporting the hypothesis that geostates will typically be more successful even if they will be less prosperous.

I come away increasingly convinced that perhaps the most fundamental aspect of governance is geographical sorting. I don’t like geostates (I don’t think many people truly do), but I think geographically localized governance is effective because it reduces interaction by people with contradictory conceptions about good behavior and so reduces conflict while supporting order. I think ZW’s ideas are largely influenced by a sort of a sci-fi view (that I’m highly sympathetic to) which reflects the sort of governance we see on the Internet. 4chan is a very different place from Facebook and every subreddit has it’s own unique culture. In such a world, “geography” is a different matter; it takes a different form, but it’s still there.

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