Where I Stand, Structurally

Summarizing my political views is hard. In the forums, I’ve been calling myself a “liberaltarian” — because I’m too libertarian to call myself a liberal, and too liberal to call myself a libertarian. (I posted an essay here, at Blue Hampshire, where I discuss particular policies and describe how I reached this position.)

But in this post I want to focus on a more interesting aspect of my views.

Beyond policy lies another level of politics. This is the structural, or institutional, level. Institutions determine, not individual policies, but how policies are chosen. When New Hampshire Democrats and Republicans fight to make it harder or easier for college students to vote, they are making crude forays into structural issues. Campaign finance reform would be a structural change.

While straightforward republican democracy has been working relatively well in America, it suffers from well-established flaws. Special interests and voter biases, in particular, create the most obvious problems. Anarchists (of whatever variety) and communists are unique in that they actually propose an alternate set of institutions to deal with these flaws. No other major political philosophies do this.

In opposition to anarchists and communists, however, I would like to see more structural experimentation: let a thousand nations bloom. We don’t have to decide merely between government and anarchism or capitalism and communism. A whole variety of fascinating and promising alternatives have been proposed– futarchy, deliberative democracy, policy juries, market-provided law, different ways of allocating representatives, virtual federalism, experimentally-determined policy, and more. Not only that, but different structures can be mixed and matched as needed. For example, in response to David Friedman’s proposal to provide law on the market (popular with many anarchists/voluntaryists), Robin Hanson proposed a system of regulated private law.

(This structural thinking is what led me to create the pro-secession website NHBloom. Though I’m not as excited about the concept as I used to be, I’m keeping the site up to spread ideas.)

In the end, I want a variety different decision-making methods to create government policy in the areas where they have been rigorously, scientifically shown to be most effective, with constant experimentation to find better solutions. There are major parallels, surprisingly, between my views and the U.S. Constitution, with it’s separation of powers between the three branches of government (each with a different decision-making process), and the federal system (providing “laboratories of democracy”). The biggest criticism of the Constitution I can make, from the structural perspective, is that the states have been poor laboratories.

Experiments in deliberative democracy have been run in Vermont and my home state of Texas, with promising results. Policy juries are common in Canada. Many studies of futarchic betting markets demonstrate an uncanny accuracy.

Our current recession was allegedly caused by a failure of financial regulation; what would have happened if, instead of being decided by a representative democracy, these regulations were controlled by a policy jury or a betting market?

It’s time to experiment and add new approaches to our governance tool set.

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  1. Evan

    Everybody, secede!

  2. Helio

    I also have an academic interest in the sturcture of legal institutions. My particular view is that economics can aid in the elucidation of the problems current institutions create. Generally speaking, any economic good, be it a service or a tangible, is provided best when the consumers have increasing proximity of choice in its provision.

    Current institutions fail, I assert, because the consumers of law do not have direct control over the value of said services. They have to use what the state lays down for them, regardless of their aggreeableness. In the representative republican model, a middle-man is placed between the consumers and the providers, who are the citizens and bureaucrats respectively. Bureaucrats do not have access to a direct 'pricing' model that originates with the final consumer and as such, makes terrible calculation errors because of the feeble knowledge that so-called representatives provide through the rule making process.

    While I am a market anarchist, the daily quality of life would be much better if there were more institutional choices, even if most were founded upon aggression.

    But I don't want gradual improvement of current institutions, I want them gone and abandoned.

  3. Skeptikos


    I agree that there's a lot of potential in competitive, private law. At the time I moved to Keene, I considered myself to be a market anarchist. I finally abandoned all-out anarchism, though, because it has a number of weaknesses–

    — It can't provide large-scale public goods, at least not reliably.

    — It's handling of market externalities would be crude, at best (Coase notwithstanding).

    — There's no way to redistribute wealth toward the poor, which, IMO, is very important.

    So the most I would support, in that direction, would be some version of Robin Hanson's regulated private law.

    And I understand that I'm holding market anarchism up to a pretty high standard here– a standard that our current government often doesn't meet itself. But I think we could do better than either extreme, just by being a little more creative.

  4. Helio

    Don't take my reply here as a rebuke, its just academic objection as I am not well read on public goods arguments.

    Public goods are just really expensive and therefore, economically unviable projects that a minority want, but demand anyway. A streetlamp is deemed a public good by people who want it to exist, but aren't willing to shell out the bucks to make it happen. The question isn't will the good provide a use, but rather will that use be more highly valued than all the other potential alternative uses that can be derived from available funds.

    A practical example of public goods provided for free without exclusion by private players are the bathrooms at stores and restaraunts. There is an economic advantage to having them for one's customers, even though they will be used by people who do not pay. Free loading isn't a cost if the opportunity cost of the good not existing costs its provider greater gain. I suspect paved highways would spring up spontaneously, provided for by wealthy merchants of surrounding towns and cities to facilitate their own trade and to entice would be travellers. They would do this because the cost of new customers and goods travelling not occurring might outweigh the actual cost of the highways.

    Market externalities, as I understand the term, seem to be failures of property frameworks, and not markets per se. With competing systems of property, better and better claim and conflict resolution solutions should emerge to solve those problems.

    Why is confiscating and transferring wealth to people who destroy it rather than allowing it to stay with the producers and multiply economically important?

  5. SnowDog

    I think the problem with the idea lies in "constant experimentation to find better solutions". Once you turn a government on, you can't turn it off. It literally requires a revolution to change something structurally, if your structure is built on the use of force.

    Hence my idea is to scale the state government back to a voluntary government, one that does not commit aggression, and whose only purpose is to ensure justice and local defense. If someone is put in prison without a trial, it could step in and demand that the fellow have a trial. If someone is not given an appeal to his trial, it could step in and demand an appeal. If local gangs are not acting as defensive agencies, but rather as gangs, then the voluntary government could stop this activity. It would have a monopoly on the use of force, simply by its size.

    The voluntary government could be a role-model for society, allowing people to register land; establish claims to broadcast bands, airspace, and fishing rights. It would be voluntarily funded.

    In 1836, the Texas Provisional Government, (a voluntary organization), appointed Sam Houston to lead a volunteer, donation funded, army against a dictator which seized control of the Mexican government, and won their war for Independence. Voluntary organizations can do great things.

  6. Skeptikos


    RE: Public goods– I think your criticism really missed the mark, and now I'm tempted to write a post about this.

    Externalities– Maybe. I'm having a hard time thinking this through.

    Transferring wealth– The whole point of the economy, IMHO, is to promote human welfare. Money does the most good for those who are poor. Thus, I'm willing to sacrifice some economic efficiency to increase overall human welfare.


    On structural rigidity– It seems to me that the U.S. government has gone through all sorts of structural changes since its inception. The growth of presidential power, the use of bureaucracies…. Even the power of the Supreme Court to decide if laws are Constitutional was not originally there.

    Voluntary government– if your government is going around "demanding" trials and establishing "claims" to broadcast bands, I'm not convinced it's really voluntary.

    Texas– Wikipedia says "Members of the regular army would be paid in land". But I wouldn't be comfortable with that, regardless.

  7. Resident Troll

    By 'check out' your book, you mean BUY?

  8. forindividualrights

    Interesting reaction Resident Troll (and the other guy who voted me down). I know of few people talking along the lines of Skeptikos, and I know of no integrated work that provides the philosophic basis for what he's talking about but my book, so I thought it was relevant.

    It took me a great deal of time and effort to write, but if you think it's not worthy of any profit, feel free to contact me and I'll send you a code to buy it at cost.

  9. theKINGofKEENE

    In defense of "forindividualrights": You mentioned a relevant book you wrote. Sure, you'd like to sell as many copies as you can. But, when challenged, you offer a "code", to get a free copy, or to read it free. Whatever. Point is, I say you're OK here. Not trying to over-commercialize a basically free blogpost. How much chaff do I have to eat, to get the wheat of the definition / distinction between "deliberative democracy", and "participatory democracy"….There are others here, who, like myself, are not well-eductaed on these topics, and we do want to increase our knowledge and understanding of these things…Thanks, all!…~tKoK.

  10. theKINGofKEENE

    …i just call myself "theKINGofKEENE"….Keene would still be Keene, even without the King. But, theKINGofKEENE would not be, could not be, without the *PEOPLE* of Keene….In other words, the King needs Keene, but Keene does not need the King….That holds true for *ALL* of us!…

  11. theKINGofKEENE

    Can we just legislate on "opt-out" clause, or something like that???…~tKoK.

  12. Skeptikos

    There's a link in the post to an article describing some of the reasoning behind deliberative democracy, and some of the experiments being done:

    Participatory democracy is apparently a different idea, and, based on the wikipedia article I read, it's not something I'm excited about.

  13. forindividualrights

    @theKINGofKEENE thanks.

    The structural matter Skeptikos raises is supported by the moral argument for individual rights. Particularly, contrary to anarchism, the right of consent morally justifies the formation of government — so long as that government does not violate the consent of those who do not wish to participate. No anarchist can morally interfere with those who, say, want to create a township that has its own government consisting of consenting property owners that make up the town, just as none of those who create a government can morally interfere with those who want to remain in a state of anarchy. But many would want a government, so these would naturally emerge.

    "We don’t have to decide merely between government and anarchism or capitalism and communism."

    This is one of the reasons I posted, because it was one of the key conclusions in Chapter 3 of my book. One thing that must go along with this however is a clear understanding of the distinction between natural law and man-made laws. If you violate the natural rights of anyone, then there are no jurisdictional boundaries that you can rightly escape into. On the other hand, no one has the right to foist man-made laws on you. The distinction between man-made laws and natural laws is I think is the central confusion that we've been dealing with.

  14. Skeptikos

    I would consider what you're describing, Shayne, to be anarchism. The fundamental property of governments is the use of force. This is what makes it a desirable institution. (Strangely.) If a government were based on consent, and consent only, it would be unable to do any of the things that governments, historically, have been used to do. It would be pointless.

  15. Resident Troll

    Snowdog, you have a good plan to a point.

    First, what we need to do, is put ALL government employees on MINIMUM wage.

    Then, and only then, will we see the MINIMUM wage go up to $100,000/ annually..

    Alot of services you speak of, we already have, BUT hit them in the wallet, and we all can be living more comfortably.

  16. Helio


    "RE: Public goods– I think your criticism really missed the mark, and now I’m tempted to write a post about this."

    I welcome your thoughts and encourage you to do so.

    "Thus, I’m willing to sacrifice some economic efficiency to increase overall human welfare."

    This sounds like central economic planning. Sacrifice all you like personally, but the minute you send a goon with a badge and gun to take what is mine for your schemes is when you and I will no longer have a civil relationship.

  17. forindividualrights

    Skeptikos, there's nothing in what I said that means governments can't legitimately use force. Of course they can. In principle, they can do anything you or I can do (specifically, they can exercise any right we delegate to them).

    For example, let's say we have a town set up with a voluntary local government. A roving anarchist gang throws a rock in my window. Well, I personally have a right to extract justice, and therefore I can delegate that right to the town police as well.

  18. Curt Howland

    Skepticos seems to assume that voluntary interaction cannot build 'big things'. Indeed, the historical record is lacking in anything bigger than cruise ships, supertankers, turnpikes, trans-continental railroads or bridges being built through voluntary cooperation rather than govt force, but I have to ask, what is bigger than those?

    I agree with Helio that a "public good" is merely what someone wants, but wants other people to pay for. Reality is that there is only so much production to go around. What is spent on one project cannot be spent on another, so when coercion is used to build an aircraft carrier, there is that much less stuff available to build wheelchairs, cars, toys, water tanks, windmills, and all the other things people actually want.

    There is also something very important I think Skepticos is overlooking, and that is demand. If people want something, they will pay for it. It is true that through coercion costs can be distributed while benefits are concentrated, so an expensive "thing" can be built with relatively little cost per taxpayer. But nothing, no matter how big, serves every taxpayer that pays for it. So funding through taxation becomes a redistribution of wealth from those who do not use "it", to those who do use "it".

    This concentration of benefit hides the true costs of things, making it impossible for competition to increase the efficiency of whatever it is being subsidized. So the poor not only are taxed, what they actually want ends up being more expensive than what it would be without the taxation.

    At every step, the imposition of "structure" hurts the very goals that Skepticos and other "bleeding hearts" espouse, by decreasing competition, decreasing opportunity, and entrenching business models that would otherwise fail because they just don't efficiently serve their customers actual wants.


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