02 January 2010

Experimental "competitive government" instead of democracy

Until recently, the term "competitive government" has been used to refer to competing policies with regard to democratic institutional arrangements and to the (neo-liberal) introduction of (market-)competitive elements to public administration, such as the privatization and outsourcing of public services (provision of water and electricity, waste disposal, public transportation, health care, etc.), public-private partnerships, and so on.

The term now is about to receive a new meaning thanks to the work of Patri Friedman and others. For them, "competitive government" describes the competition between the political arrangements of entire (future) nation states, be they democratic or otherwise. It is about the freedom of people to decide themselves in what political system they prefer to live and the freedom for every individual to move to a "nation" state/country of his or her choosing. It is about diversity in the forms of government worldwide rather than the uniformity of international "democracy promotion".

For a number of reasons the term "competitive government" may not be ideal, though, for what Friedman and others envisage. After all, unlike today there would be no real competition between such (new) nation states/countries. (Traditionally, competition between national governments and nations too often ends in war.) It's not about dominance, but rather about co-existence and tolerance for other, alternative, diverse forms of government, even "niche" government (political systems that only a minority of people would volunteer to live in). In a competition-theoretical sense, "competitive government" means, however: no monopoly for democracy.

At the same time, the "nation" would have to lose any connotation of blood, ethnicity, and nationalism and come to stand for communities of politically like-minded people instead.

It is safe to say that Friedman is stuck in the terminology of Economics ("competition" rather than accommodation or tolerance, "nation" as the basic entity of political-economic discourse – western democracy promotion suffers from the same competitive misapprehension, inherent in its linkage to capitalist market philosophy and mechanisms).

In Patri Friedman's case this is owed to his family heritage and background. His grandfather, Milton Friedman, 1976 Nobel Prize laureate in Economics, was one of the professors who turned the University of Chicago into a centre of so-called neo-liberal thought. The author of books such as "Capitalism and Freedom" (1962), Milton Friedman was a stout defender of the view that capitalism and democracy are inextricably linked.

Albeit deeply critical of the (welfare) state and pleading for a government that refrains from interventions in the economy, limits its activities to the bare minimum, and leaves the individual as much as possible alone, he still charged the state with the promotion of competition and the provision of a legal and monetary framework for individual and corporate action, primarily in the market place.

Political power should be dispersed as widely as possible, though, so as to avoid coercion of the individual by his fellow men. Dismissing "welfare" and "equality" as the "catchwords" of paternalistic politics against which classical liberalism fought, Milton Friedman held democracy to be merely a means guaranteeing individual freedom.

Now his grandson, Patri Friedman, declares his opposition to democracy.

Taking his clues from his grandfather and father (David D. Friedman) as much as from the libertarian and anarcho-capitalist traditions, Patri Friedman goes further when claiming – on the most elaborate of his many fragmentary websites and blogs – that he is "deeply dissatisfied with current forms of social organization (western democracy)".


He finds "[s]ocial organization (aka government) [...] is being done really badly right now (democracy is better than previous forms, but still awful), and it can be done better. [...] I think most political discussion is [...] nonsensical reasoning about a useless tradition which has accumulated concentrated interests who benefit from it and have entrenched themselves [...]. By stepping up a level, we neatly avoid getting trapped in endless policy debates, debates which are almost pure intellectual masturbation because the problem is not figuring out a good policy, the problem is that the system (say, democracy) doesn't optimize for 'good'. We can argue for hours about the best tax system – but politicians don't want 'the best', they want one where they can profit by selling loopholes."

The solution Patri Friedman proposes is "competitive government" – and the creation of new spaces in which various forms of government and institutional arrangements (some of them non- or anti-democratic) can develop in their own "nation" states/countries. While people (unless they live in some form of democracy) may no longer get to elect their leaders, they would get to decide under what system of government they wish to live – and move there.

Friedman writes: "My path is not just a path to libertarianism, but to a wider variety of governments and societies. I wish to convince non-libertarians that this is an attractive vision, and that it is something they would like to see happen. I also want to help people of many different political persuasions to get along by seeing ways in which each group can have what they want, instead of arguing endlessly over what they should all have."

The way of getting there, according to him, is experimentation: "Government has stagnated. Very little experimentation. (What do you expect when it's basically impossible to start a new country or change an existing one? How do you expect to get technological advances without experimentation?) [...] Experimenting has some important benefits: It gives us empirical evidence about what rule-systems work. This is enormously more valuable than theoretical debates which depend on model assumptions; It enables people to live under a system while learning about it; It gives people a specific, real example to point to when debating the merits of various systems; They let people actually experience a society, physically and emotionally rather than as a mental abstraction. [...]

"The fewer, larger political systems we have, the less experimentation there will be. Also, the less different types of society we will have. I believe that a world with a diverse set of governments, peacefully competing for citizens, would be a much better one. We might see the technologies of social organization advancing as fast as other areas of science and technology."

Patri Friedman recognizes the difficulty of experimenting with political systems in existing nation states/countries. Much like the Zionists at the beginning of the twentieth century, he aims to solve this problem by creating new nations. (One of the blogs he writes on is entitled "Let A Thousand Nations Bloom".) He proposes to "open the new frontier of the oceans", because international waters provide "a very low barrier to entry to creating a new government, and avoid the powers-that-be". " By building cities on the ocean in a modular fashion, the ocean becomes a permanent frontier, because any dissatisfied group can go to a new, empty patch of ocean, and take their houses and offices with them!. This lets them reset at far lower cost."

"And if we build these cities out of modular platforms, so that people can vote with their house (instead of just their feet), we get a world of unprecendented mobility (ie free association). Together, these have the potential to transform the governing industry from an oligopoly into a competitive market."

Patri Friedman calls this "seasteading". He even founded his own organization, the Seadsteading Institute in Palo Alto, California, whose mission statement reads: "To further the establishment and growth of permanent, autonomous ocean communities, enabling innovation with new political and social systems". It may be the first serious project in the direction of "competitive government" since it received a financial contribution of half a million US dollars from billionaire Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal.


Questions remain, of course, like on what basis people are supposed to come together to form a new "nation"/country/community if they do not before have an abstract idea, model, conception of a future society all of them aspire to?

Like anarchist, capitalist libertarians, others too will have to find ways of conceptualizing such non- or anti-democratic societies first, and then put their ideas into practice and to the test in existing or new states, while never ceasing to experiment.

Patri's own libertarian project (which attracted the Silicon Valley start-up funding for his Seasteading Institute) suffers from his erring belief that capitalism can durably be separated from democracy. As his grandfather, Milton, knew full well a capitalist economy will (in the long run) always lead to democratic forms of government – and thus the same old problems.

New forms of government will not be democratic. They will not be capitalist either.

To build a swimming country will always require a lot of money. New non-democratic, non-capitalist societies are therefore unlikely to arise on the high seas. But arise they will.

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