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.

Polystate, part 2

After much distraction I’m back to continue my review of Polystate: A Thought Experiment in Distributed Government (part 1 is here). But now that I think about it, this isn’t so much a review, as a book club (of one…) where I respond to the book.

In this section, ZW gets into the benefits of polystates. He starts with the benefit of choice. Someone born into North Korea is utterly screwed, but someone born into an unattractive anthrostate can simply leave when they reach the age of consent. The reverse is also true: someone may join an anthrostate that the rest of us see as distasteful. Want to join a cult? You’re free to. The thought of that possibility will certainly make your inner-paternalist squeamish, but remember that if you aren’t free to make mistakes, you simply aren’t free.

Another benefit I wouldn’t have thought of is that traditionally problematic systems of government have a higher chance of success when they are separated from geography. For example:

It may be that the failure of collectivization has not got to do with the individual so much as the aggregate. If 95% of people work poorly in a collectivized environment, any random collectivized farm will perform poorly. But it may be the case that 5% of people would excel in such an environment.

I would expect a communist to protest that geographic seclusion is necessary to create New Communist Man. How are people supposed to learn how to shed their egoism if they cannot help but see the vulgar bourgeoisie all around them? But that sword cuts both ways and shows a benefit of polystates ZW didn’t bring up: a child raised in a fascist anthrostate can see non-fascists and so make a more informed decision of whether to stick with fascism when they get older.

ZW sees the polystate as offering a sort of decentralized Tiebout competition. That covers the demand side (what benefits to provide to whom). Adding in the supply side (who will face what opportunity costs) raises the problem of economic calculation in socialism. But ZW takes it in a different direction, hypothesizing that sorting between anthrostates would lessen decision making costs due to more homogeneous populations.

Choice ensures we get more of what we want with less hassle but also provides the option of exit at low cost. Taking geography out of the equation means that there is a larger number of potential state-competitors, as well as more credible movement on the part of citizens.

He raises an interesting problem related to a recent post of mine:

[T]here may be a difference between good governance and governance which pleases one’s constituency… But, regardless of the philosophy of good government, there is an extent to which good governance must have to do with what voluntary citizens decide is good.

First off: No! Government and governance are two different things! But putting that aside, the big problem we face is how to not just aggregate preferences (a difficult problem in itself), but how to ensure that (or even determine if) our method of aggregation results in something good.

I think cable TV is pretty good at giving people what they want, but I also think that the product is overwhelmingly bad. It’s not a big deal with TV because there are so many alternative sources of entertainment and information (although cable news might have existential dangers). Similarly, I think government broadly gives people what they want (not peace and prosperity, but xenophobia, “doing something,” paternalism, and the like) but that’s not a good thing. The idea of the U.S. senate was to prevent people from having too much choice so that good institutions could be preserved. So could the degree of choice offered by polystates be to much? On the other hand, how could you determine an answer without incorporating the revealed preferences of the governed?

Finally, ZW gets into an especially meaty benefit of anthrostates: peace. It’s hard to start a war with a disbursed enemy (“semi-random geographic distribution), and hard to finance one when your citizens can switch to a more peaceful government. This could be especially important in avoiding territory disputes as humans explore and colonize space (for example, if resources on the moon become valuable enough to justify the expense of following Newt Gingrich up there).

That concludes Book 1 of Polystate, and that’s where I’ll stop for now. I’ll be picking through the book fairly slowly, so I recommend that you buy the book for yourself!

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.