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 thoughts on “Competitive Government vs. Democratic Government”

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.)

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

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

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

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