September 8, 2008

Competitive Government vs. Democratic Government

 Arnold Kling has a paper (PDF) which is directly relevant to the political motivation for seasteading:

In this essay, I will suggest that competitive government might be better than democratic government at satisfying the desires of the governed. In democratic government, people take jurisdictions as given, and they elect leaders. In competitive government, people take leaders as given, and they select jurisdictions.

The first part of this essay reviews some relevant literature. The second part lists some of the performance shortcomings of democratic government. The third part argues that competitive government could overcome these shortcomings. The fourth part considers possible arguments against competitive government. The fifth part looks at various proposals for implementing competitive government.

Seasteading can be considered a proposal for implementing competitive government.  In my opinion, it is the most likely way for competitive government to ever happen. Not because the problem of settling the ocean is easy, but simply because it is less defficult than getting democratic government to relinquish control.  After all, current governments profit from lack of competition, and have used those profits to entrench their power.  Starting on a new frontier, while it means a lot more work for us, is the best way to bypass current power structures.

The paper includes a great quote from my dad:

“Imagine buying cars the way we buy governments. Ten thousand people would get together and agree to vote, each for the car he preferred. Whichever car won, each of the ten thousand would have to buy it. It would not pay any of us to make any serious effort to find out which car was best; whatever I decide, my car is being picked for me by other members of the group. Under such institutions, the quality of cars would quickly decline.”

–David D. Friedman, The Machinery of Freedom (1995), p.132

An obvious question to ask when contemplating shrinking the size of government is whether a large size is necessary to get economies of scale on large public goods such as self-defense.  One possible political structure for seasteads is a hierarchical system like feudalism, in order to get economies of scale for large things while preserving local autonomy.  In other words, local seasteads would set rules for things with only local impact (gun laws, zoning laws, building codes), while larger groups would take care of larger problems (like defense).  In feudalism, only territory on a border can potentially switch sides, but with modular seasteads, any member could change jurisdictions.  This will lead to more competitive pressure and thus more efficient government, while still retaining the benefits of large groups for defense.

16 Comments on “Competitive Government vs. Democratic Government

September 9, 2008 at 1:27 am

Your last comments sound quite logical.  Shove as much power as possible down as low as possible, and only reserve for the top what absolutely has to be there.  Sounds very… what’s the term… Constitutional… to me.

It totally sucks what we’ve done to our government.  If we just abided by what the founders wrote in that document, I think a lot of our ills would be gone.

Jeff Chan
September 9, 2008 at 9:36 am

Collective defense properly follows from personal defense.  That’s the key principle of a militia, which is the grassroots form of collective defense that America’s founders clearly preferred.  It’s much better to keep the tools of potentially coercive force closely in the hands of the people than in the hands of a standing army, for example.

In other words, each individual is responsible for his or her personal defense and those individuals work and organize together to form a collective defense starting with and based on their individual defensive arms.

Regarding larger weapon systems, during the American revolution privately-owned cannons were among those used.  Ship owners, merchants, etc., would arm their ships with cannons for defense against pirates, privateers, etc.  Same with cannons on land, more or less.

Few if any of the common functions of a modern government need to be provided by a government.  Insurance, firefighting, contract law, communications, healthcare, defense, etc., can and probably should be provided by private means, which is usually more efficient.  I’m pretty sure everyone here already knows this, so it’s not clear why we’re trying to put these functions back into a government. 

That said, competition between governments for customers is a good thing.  But the role of government should be severely restricted so that freedom is widely opened.  At least that’s the sort of government I’d prefer.

September 9, 2008 at 10:53 am

Those are strong statements to make about a type of government that is rather lacking in empirical examples.

Dont get me wrong, i am sympathetic to the idea of anarcho capitalism, and seasteading sure will enable ancap, and i think thats a good thing. Yet i feel there are certain areas where competitive ‘government’ has a natural disadvantage, where i would probably prefer some sort of explicit social contract: forming a community based on mutual consent with people whos values i share.

In any case, i would only enter ‘government’ type of constructions that clearly whitelisted which powers it would take upon itself.

But to each his own, thats for sure.

September 9, 2008 at 12:41 pm

There is no incompatibility between an explicit social contract and anarchy, as long as the principle of free unanimous consent is respected as the default position.

I would just add that centralised military is only useful for invasion, and not defense, and history demonstrates this as at least half of all such militaries failed in defending territory, which is a failure ratio so high I wouldn’t bet any money on it. Meanwhile, Switzerland has known no open conflict within its border for two centuries, even through two world wars and one cold war.

In feudalism, only territory on a border can potentially switch sides

But the people and their mobile assets did switch sides a lot while looking for competitive advantages. That kidn of movement used to trigger skirmishes and violent rivalries as each local sovereign tried to coerce neighbours into dropping those advantages. Funnily enough they did not really attain as much centralisation in their predation against the people as nation-states did centuries later. In some conditions, even strict federalism is a step backwards ?

Jeff Chan
September 9, 2008 at 4:40 pm

Federalism, strict or otherwise is still arguably a centralization of power.  Power over greater resources concentrated into fewer hands is generally a step in the wrong direction.  That’s irrespective of the fact that such power tends to grow, even if it’s intended to be strictly limited.  ("Limited government" is like being a little pregnant….)  America’s federal government would have grown much faster without checks and balances, separation of powers, bans on direct taxes, etc., yet it did grow… enormously over a long period of time with huge increases justified during wars.  And the growth seldom reverses.  As a very minor example the Federal Excise Tax still paid on tires in the U.S. is left over from World War II rationing.  As a more significant example, recall the degradation of Constitutional rights in the name of the war on terror.  (If ever there were a likely permanent war, could there be a better one that a war on terror?  Well the war on poverty too perhaps.)

Feudalism is also a concentration of power, but on a smaller scale.  It’s also (potentially) destructive, but much less so than a giant nation-state.

Regarding contracts, how about an explicit written one over an implicit "social" one?

I agree that ancap can be compatible with many of the possible structures.

September 9, 2008 at 8:00 pm

I still wanna be a feudal lord, though. 🙂

September 9, 2008 at 9:35 pm

With regard to constitutions and the growth of government power, i am slightly less cynical. Yes, the size of the US government makes the constitution a complete joke. But what makes a constitution is not inkt on paper: it has to live inside peoples heads. Thomas Jefferson is just some name people hear about in school, why should they care what he wrote hunderds of years ago? Where they did ever get to agree or disagree with what he said? Well, they didnt, and thats a big part of why they feel free to completely ignore him, and i cannot say i blame them. Yay for setting a good example of breaking implicit social contracts.

One of the limitations of a explicit written out contract is that it is impossible to try and account for all future scenarios. Some such contracts will have to be somewhat broad and abstract, and hence require interpretation. That isnt to say i dont strongly favor explicitness wherever possible, but i dont think you will ever completely get around having to interpret laws.

Lots of steps could be undertaken to make ones choice of community asmuch an explicit choice as possible. If people dont feel they get to choose, they would likely get a bigger urge to influence things by vote, which is what id like to avoid as much as possible.

I wouldnt join any government body at any level without a clear and well defined exit procedure, for instance. The possibility of secession is all important.

Id be wary of blacklisted powers: an infinite set of powers minus a limited set is still an unlimited set that i am unable to oversee. Id only agree to a whitelisted set of powers. Id only opt to take specific powers to a higher level of government if i saw a distinct benefit that would outweight the spread of power.

One other thing i would strongly advocate is for children not to implicitly become part of their parents community. If they want to subject themselves to its laws, theyd have to make that choice explicitly. Or perhaps join some other community. If they do not take any action, they wouldnt be forced into anything, but they would simply be free to retain their legal status as a child.

Jeff Chan
September 10, 2008 at 7:37 am

Agree completely about the need for people to be fully involved in their freedom.  That means responsibilities.  If people don’t excercise and protect their freedoms every day, the freedoms eventually die as people forget what they mean, forget what they cost, etc.  Individual freedom requires individual responsibility.

Contracts don’t necessarily require laws.  Contracts can replace laws.  Contracts can be enforced privately; that’s exactly what private aribitration is.

All attempts to limit government power seem to have failed.  That’s an observable fact.

Freedom would seem to be incompatible with forcing children to remain in their parents’ community.  It would also seem imcompatible with forcing them to remain children forever.


Jeff Chan
September 10, 2008 at 8:29 am

For something the size of a seastead, a feudal system may be workable.  Would definitely not be freedom though.

September 10, 2008 at 9:53 am

It seems we agree on most things. But im not sure i managed to communicate my point about children: they wouldnt be forced into anything. They would be completely free to go live on their own, they could join an ancap society, or whatever. My point is that a community shouldnt expect anything of, nor give any political power to someone who hasnt made an explicit choice to become part of said community.

September 10, 2008 at 4:26 pm

As long as Natural Right is respected your freedom is guaranteed regardless of the political structure.

September 10, 2008 at 4:56 pm

Well, natural right has an unfortunate habit of not being respected. I see more merit in maximizing freedom by positive rather than normative means.

September 11, 2008 at 12:28 pm

Well, positive right has the unfortunate habit of not being respected AND forcing people into acting in bad conscience AND causing undue punishment AND restricting the range of accepted action to a predefinite domain. In many cases there are errors in positive right that make it flat out IMPOSSIBLE to respect at all. I see more merit in maximizing freedom by self-enforcing decentralized spontaneous judiciary processes than by centralized monopolitic authoritative mix of legislative+executive+judiciary systems. But that’s just me.

September 11, 2008 at 5:13 pm

Positive/negative and positive/normative are two different distinctions. I was talking about the latter, you seem to be aiming your arrows at the former.

September 12, 2008 at 1:19 pm

Seems you’re confusing negative with normative. I sure am not 😉

September 14, 2008 at 4:05 pm

In that case, i have no idea what you are talking about.

Comments are closed.