Polystate – book 3

This is my nth response to Polystate and covers the third and final portion of the book (for the 1st through n-1th responses see here, here, and here).

As a quick reminder, the purpose of this book is to consider a possible political structure where individuals choose their own government (“anthrostate”) and these governments operate in the same geographic area (under a “polystate”). This is in contrast to the current system of geographical monopolies on coercion (“geostates”).

Book three attempts to identify insoluble problems with the idea of a polystate. The first problem is the potential for bureaucracy explosion (no, not that kind). A greater (which is to say any) degree of customized service in our current government would surely come with increased costs. There may be technological solutions to this problem, and competition between anthrostates would surely add pressure to get around these costs. In any event, the administrative questions are actually quite interesting. I suspect that many government services would end up moving back into civil society and private markets and the result would be lower monitoring costs in the case of civil society (e.g. for social security through mutual aid societies), and greater use of specialization and innovation in the case of market goods (e.g. for safety standards).

Another big one is the importance of “sacred locations.” If we had always lived in a polystate, Jerusalem might be considered a state of mind. But in the world we live in, it’s a geographical location, and different groups want it for themselves. A market with private property allows these groups to express the importance of this location by outbidding others for its purchase, but such a system is likely not good enough for some members of the relevant groups, and it’s plausible that violence could be resorted to. At the risk of sounding like an insensitive social Darwinist… maybe that’s not the worst possible outcome?… But certainly still a bad, though the root problem is the beliefs of those people; determining which political structure (all of which have costs and benefits) is “best” is an interesting question.

I think the biggest area of potential contention (by non-libertarians) is demonstrated by the issue of gun control. One anthrostate’s gun control is meaningless if it coexists with another that doesn’t have gun control. In other words, a polystate is less polycentric confederacy and more anarchist default plus an odd contract structure for particular firms. This leads to the final problem: transition.

The epilogue discusses the “issue” that the proposal is for a minimal polystate. We can think of this as a contemplation of federalism. This is a thought experiment in radical federalism that is so far down the spectrum of possibilities that it puts the onus of governance on the individual. In many ways, discussions by libertarian political economists can be thought of more as discussions of federalism than discussions of liberty; I think it’s worth thinking about the connection between federalism and freedom, as well as different potential forms of federalism.

Here are my overall thoughts: The book presents an interesting thought experiment and the author does an excellent job of providing well thought out analysis without going overboard. There is plenty to think about, and plenty more discussion to be had (note: read this book with friends and discuss it over beers). ZW had a choice of going into more detail and making a stronger case, or going into less detail and leaving more of the thought experiment to the reader. I think he perfectly balanced these two goals.

Note: an ungated version of that last link is available here. The article is “Afraid to be free: Dependency as desideratum” by James Buchanan.

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