12 February, 2009

Competitive government?

On Megan McArdle's blog, one of the commentators posted this, which is interesting.

"I've never seen a libertarian theory of the economy that's plausible in a country as large as the US. I think things like voluntary payments in lieu of taxation might work in a community of, say, 100 homogenous people."

Bob, what makes you think the current system is plausible? It should be obvious to anyone who is paying attention that the American system of government has broken down. The checks and balances of the three branches of government have failed to check and balance and the growth of state power has not only continued, but accelerated. Government spending has increased as a percentage of national economic activity to the point where the risk of default or hyperinflation approaches a mathematical certainty. Supreme Court Justices and legislators are biased toward increasing presidential power because, among other reasonst they draw their paychecks from the Executive Branch Department of the Treasury. Personal freedom has diminished to the point where we actually celebrate the ability to choose between despot A and despot B the way a condemned prisoner might be grateful to choose between death by hanging or firing squad.

The reason why I am so concerned about the usurpation of power by the Executive (and to a lesser extent the Judicial) branch is that the effect is a transfer of power from the citizenry to the government as a whole. Only Congressmen and senators are directly elected by majority vote. The president is selected by the Electoral College and the justices and judges of the federal courts are nominated by the president. The legislature is the branch of government most accountable to the people and it is the branch that has yielded it's authority to the other branches. Among other things, it has lost much of its authority to make war, negotiate treaties, and control spending.

Many patriotic Americans will argue that, although the system is imperfect, it is still better than many alternatives. I actually agree with that claim, but that doesn't mean that the current state of affairs is acceptable. A failure is a failure, regardless of the degree to which it is preferable over worse failures. Having herpes is wonderful compared to having AIDS. House arrest is better than prison, but the domicile we are confined to is starting to look more and more like a penitentiary every day as the cage's gilding loses its luster. Considering the rate at which our less-than-ideal situation is deteriorating, the "it could be worse" defense is particularly unconvincing.

The central weakness with constitutional government is the government's ability to use its rule-making power to modify the rules that limit its power. This is accomplished through constitutional amendments, presidential signing statements, judicial review, judicial activism, selective law enforcement, and other legislative tricks. In the U.S., this has meant that, in just over two hundred years, the government has morphed from a relatively benign force of minor inconvenience into a near-omnipresent leviathan that interferes with almost everything we do. It may not be totalitarian yet, but it is clearly headed in that direction. In order to arrest and reverse this descent into servitude, alternatives should be considered.

I propose that, instead of three branches of government, we adopt three (or more) completely independent and non-territorial governments. I make this proposal because it is not the concept of checks and balances that has failed, but the inadequacy of the particular system in place that is the source of our problems. I know this is a radical proposal, but no more radical than the constitutional republic that we live under now was when it was first proposed. A radical solution is called for because, in my opinion, attempts at incremental reforms have been no more effective than efforts to liberalize the mafia or the Ku Klux Klan would be. It is simply not in the nature of a territorial or monopoly state to relinquish its power or operate in a non-coercive fashion.

Considering how unusual non-territorial competing governments are, several objections spring to mind. I will address a few of them here.

1. Isn't a known but flawed system preferable to an untried solution?

In fact, a system similar to that which I propose lasted for 300 years in Saga-era Iceland, which is longer than our current experiment in democratic republicanism has been running. Actually, as drastic as my solution admittedly is, when looked at another way, it is not so radical. People have the option of changing governments today by moving. I am merely suggesting we extend that same option to those who choose not to relocate. By increasing the ease at which we could switch governments, they would be forced to become more responsive or risk losing their subjects (and tax revenue).

2. Wouldn't a lack of a strong central Government invite invasion?

It's true that a group of non-territorial governments would be less able to protect us from foreign and domestic threats, but the upside of that limitation is that the governments themselves would be less threatening both domestically and abroad. The attacks on Pearl Harbor and the World Trade center killed thousands, but not nearly as many as the Washington policies of slavery, the draft, Indian eradication, and Jim Crowe. Protection from government is at least as important as protection by government, and a decreased ability to prevent attacks is a decreased ability to aggress against other nations and consequently a decreased likelihood of provoking attacks against us.

3. What's to keep anyone from just choosing no government and stop paying taxes altogether?

Most people would still prefer to choose a government for the same reason most people now prefer to buy food rather than growing or raising their own. In economics, the phenomenon is known as Specialization. Nothing would absolutely prevent anyone from opting out of collective government altogether, but the benefits of specialization would encourage most to retain the services of a government at the same time such an arrangement would ensure that the governments would provide services equal to or exceeding the tax revenue they collect (otherwise, they would go out of business).

4. Wouldn't having several competing governments be less efficient?

Some economies of scale would be lost by having several redundant governments, but the benefits of competition outweigh the benefits of monopoly. If governments were run more like private businesses, the incentives would be reversed. Currently, a state agency that does a poor job asks for and receives more funding, which effectively rewards poor performance. Alternately, private companies usually lose revenue or go out of business altogether when they perform poorly and they profit when they do well.
These objections are by no means comprehensive, nor are my responses to them. The purpose of this proposal is not to end discussion but to start it. Real world constraints require practical, not utopian, solutions. As time progresses and the failure of democratic republicanism becomes more apparent, this discussion will assume greater importance and the need for some kind of alternative will be obvious. In my pursuit of a solution to the separation of powers problem, I have drawn on the ideas of many others. I don't claim to have developed this idea on my own and in fact very little of it is original. My goal is not to challenge the ideals of the American Revolution, but to advance them beyond their current implementation. Liberty is a noble objective in itself, but it is also the surest path toward future prosperity.

And later

"There is no choice between government and no government, there is just the choice between big government, small government, and good government/bad government."

DrPat, there is a choice between a state and no state. It's MONOPOLY government that's the problem. Voluntary, competing governments of varying sizes with no permanent exclusive territorial areas of operation would work, just like the providers of every other kind of service works this way.

"At least with our current system, everyone has some sort of say."

Really? Which election was decided by your one vote? Assuming there was ever a 1 vote victory, do you honestly think that it would stand or would it get thrown into court? Voting is worse than a waste of time. It lends legitimacy to a thoroughly corrupt system.

I very much like the idea when it comes to provision of goods and services, and taxation, but I wonder what the response is if a person who affiliates with government A commits a crime against a Ber. Will the Aer be metaphorically extradicted to B's criminal justice system?

I would link to Bearded Spock's blog but his name takes us to this link instead.

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