January 29, 2010

Will Chamberlain – Thinking Structurally About Government

Will Chamberlain’s talk at the second annual Seasteading Conference, “Thinking Structurally About Government”, is now available online:

“Everyone is frustrated with the fact that government never seems to work the way it should… that reform seems impossible.”

Will Chamberlain, research fellow for the Seasteading Institute and co-author of Let A Thousand Nations Bloom, asks the root question of modern governance, applicable to individuals around the world of every background and belief: why is there so much broad-based dissatisfaction with the way things are run?

Chamberlain presents his answer, and it is wholly non-partisan in nature — indeed, it can be seen as an emergent natural phenomenon irrespective of political system or cultural tradition. With the help of public choice theorists such as Mancur Olson, Chamberlain describes the environment of human activity that leads time and again to intransigent governments of all descriptions that incite their neglected citizenry to dissent and revolt.

In an environment that provides no internal or external pressures on government to stay competitive for citizens — in other words, to practice “good customer service” to prevent loss of citizenry — the ostensible stability of the system cascades into sclerosis. Special interest groups, once they are formed, are nearly impossible to break apart. The system develops more and more to serve the special interest groups, who in turn control the legislature. Reform then becomes impossible, as the laws reinforce the entrenched groups and disregard (or even criminalize) those who long for reform.

Revolution becomes the only recourse, but expecting any coup to happen in a peaceful and nondestructive way is a naive and highly unlikely outcome. The powerful tend to want to stay powerful; even if the power rests in abstract administrative groups rather than individuals, all entrenched entities are motivated by self-preservation. “Nobody ever gives up,” quips Chamberlain, echoing the observation that has been made of tyranny many times over since classical Greece.

In Chamberlain’s view, Seasteading has a real shot at solving these large, intractable government problems. Rather than a doctine of direct reform, of fixing what can’t be fixed, the multi-micro-nation “strategy” (if the emergent system resulting from many independent actors striving for their own benefit can be said to have one) embodied in unleashing thousands of new governments into the world, all with a far greater Power of Exit than afforded by a traditional nation, has the most probability of producing social structures subjected to enough competitive stress to exist in “bloodless instability”. In such a scenario, dynamic reorganization becomes necessary to stay competitive for citizens, inducing change in governments when and where needed, but without the danger and destructiveness of revolution.

Referring back to Mancur Olson in his first book, the Logic of Collective Action, Chamberlain observes that “smaller groups are more effective than larger groups”. Perhaps here is an advisory towards the future of seasteading, where it may be wise to resist agglomeration even when there may be gains in security and stability. Keeping tension between dynamism and stability will be key to the avoidance of a future in which seasteads could become sclerotic nations full of entrenched special interests just as the traditional land-based nations that came before them.