Max Borders

Towards YouTopia
Must All Public Good Providers Remain Earthbound?




In this very interesting essay, Max Borders invites us to distinguish, within current states, between communities and territories on the basis of the presence of territorial or non-territorial systems of goods. He then proposes that, whenever we deal with non-territorial systems of goods, the individuals should be free to choose to which community he/she wants to belong and to support, independently of physical location.
The beauty of Max Borders’ proposal consists in being highly suitable and highly viable, especially in societies composed of different people, with quite different cultures and with very different exigencies, all living on the same territory.

In other words, the scenario envisaged in this essay allows us to move nicely and persuasively from up-in-the-sky Utopia to down-to-earth YouTopia. And that is a very good intellectual achievement on which to base a practical strategy that even resolute (i.e. monopolist) statists might find hard to contrast in the months and years to come.

This essay first appeared in Let a Thousand Nations Bloom (October, 20, 2009)

For further analyses on non-territorial secession see, on the same Web Site, their secession week documents.



Liberal academic George Lakoff once compared taxation to paying membership dues at a club. Steven Pinker gave him shit for it, and deservedly so. After all, if you don’t pay your taxes “men with guns will put you in jail.” But what if that didn’t happen? What if we accept the best of Lakoff’s mendacious metaphor and downgraded strict citizenship to membership in community?

To be fair, we’re still at the stage of sorting through our thinking. But before I offer my uncomplicated ideas for social change, I want to present a challenge to the statist.

I define a statist as
a) someone who believes that government power is good and makes the world better than it would be otherwise and
b) someone who believes that governments should have monopolies over certain goods, services and spheres of activity.

Most people agree with your right to leave the county, state or country if you don’t like what the government in that jurisdiction has handed down. You can go live somewhere else, though probably under a different thumb or set of thumbs. So why does something as arbitrary as geography determine your right to exit from some system of government?

For the statist - i.e. one who believes in the ultimate authority of the state - there seem to be two possible responses:

    x: “If they could get their hands on me - i.e. my body and/or my wealth - whether in Sweden, or down there on my secret island, they would be justified. There is really some objective, global justice, the ends of which justify their means of getting to me”; or

    y: “Considerations of pragmatics and citizenship mean that once I’m in another jurisdiction, so long as I haven’t broken any laws in the old jurisdiction, I’m no longer your concern. Because I am living in another place, under different auspices, you have no right to bother me there - whatever your concept of justice.”

I think fair-minded statists will stick to y. Those committed to x are the ones with whom we may eventually have to think of ourselves as being at Hobbesian war. And believe you me, those who’d answer x live among us. But I think those that lean towards y might be persuaded about a right of exit. Indeed, if we can exploit an issue with y - call it territorial chauvinism - we might be able to make good headway with our case.

To the point: by virtue of what, exactly, does my living in some geography require my compliance with a single system encompassing some bundle of goods and services provided by the state? Why can’t I become a member of a Swiss-, Singaporean-, or Swedish-style system of administration? If your answer is “because you live in this system, not in another” you’re arguing in a circle. I’m trying to find out what it is about my living geographically within this system or that that makes me duty bound?

One fair answer might be that there are functions of the state that are more or less linked to territory. We enjoy these functions just because we live in an area. But which ones? Let’s pull out the government functions that actually relate to the territory where one lives and focus on those. In the interests of convincing you I’m not crazy, I won’t get all anarchist on you and suggest privatizing everything under the sun. I want only to introduce a thought experiment that is charitable to the idea of so-called “public” benefits while recognizing only the ones that people would enjoy by virtue of their living somewhere. Consider the following list of territorial goods:

   1. Transportation and Roads

   2. National Defense

   3. Police, Fire, and Emergency services

   4. Justice (Criminal, Tort, and Titling)

   5. Public Utilities (Water and Sewer)

   6. Penal, Psychiatric and Reform

   7. Parks and Aesthetics

   8. Nuisance Court or Zoning

   9. Environment and Waste Disposal

  10. Identification and Immigration

I’m granting for the sake of discussion that territorial goods have an inherent “public-ness” about them. For example, police and defense should be considered territorial goods because it’s easier to free ride on others who pay for these. In other words, I’ll benefit from national defense spending even if I don’t pay for it. Or, if police are cruising your neighborhood, you’ll benefit even if your neighbors pay and you don’t. There are other goods, like dispute resolution and property rights, that not only establish the “operating system” for a territory, but standards and legal precedents the law offers generally. It may turn out that some or all of these territorial goods would be better provided by the private sector. But let’s agree that the above list can all be considered territorial goods, even though not all of these would be considered public goods in the economic sense, or fully privatize-able in Libertopia. (The economic sense of a public good is non-rivalrous and non-excludable.)

All other goods, whether or not you think people ought to have them by “right” under some notion of “social justice,” aren’t really linked to territory. Nor are they public goods in the economic sense: i.e. my consuming those goods means someone else can’t. It is also easy to identify who’s using these goods and charge them for it. Health care, education, arts, etc. can therefore be considered another class of goods. In other words, these goods aren’t really linked to territory in the way we think defense, roadways and streetlamps might be because I can enjoy the benefits of health insurance risk pooling and online education virtually anywhere I live. And while I may benefit from a tax-supported theatre in my area, this is not a good that everyone needs or uses-like roads or police protection.

And that brings us back to an important question: if I’m okay with your leaving the US and becoming a citizen of Sweden, or leaving New York and becoming a resident of North Carolina, why shouldn’t I be okay with your right of exit from any non-territorial system? If there is nothing intrinsically territorial about a system that provides goods and services like healthcare or education in a certain way, why ought I not I simply be allowed to “exit” in the same way I leave Michigan to go to a state with a more favorable climate?

I think it’s time we divorced non-territorial systems from territorial systems of goods. Then, we should demand greater latitude to form non-territorial systems across geographies based on our individual interests and beliefs. Of course, the devil is in the implementation. But the idea is simple.

I think it’s time we divorced non-territorial systems of goods from territorial systems. But how would this work?

It would take two fairly simple changes to the law of the land. That is, two new rules. These new rules would track with the two different types of goods-systems we touched on yesterday. Let’s call the non-territorial systems “communities” and the territorial systems “territories.” For communities we have a right of exit. For territories, we have a rule of localization.

A right of exit means:

    Anyone can leave a community at any time as long as he or she has honored his or her end of any membership agreement.

You can be a member of any community you like. Membership in that community can have all sorts of provisions and conditions, but you can always disassociate yourself from that community provided the community has let you in to begin with. You can take all the resources you were once forced to pay in taxes and use them for resources to pay for anything-including your membership in a community (or multiple communities). It’s that simple. You may prefer the rugged life outside of community. From my point-of-view, that’s your right.

Communities, which we‘ve defined as systems of allocating or exchanging non-territorial goods, can be highly diverse. With a right of exit, we have the possibility to unleash the creative forces of community. Some of these communities might be based on the area in which we live, but many would exist across territories. With no territory responsible for the provision of, say, health care, I might join a cooperative that pools risk across all the members. A certain number of people with preexisting conditions would be allowed to join, perhaps any number. As a condition of membership, I might also be required to pay for certain coverage items. Of course, this system would compete with other health care communities for members. A competitor might require its members, say, to put aside a certain amount of money each month into a personal health savings account. But membership might also cost less. Either way, it would be illegal to force others to join my chosen system. Instead, I could join the health care system I thought was the most efficient, effective, or even the most morally upright. No system would depend for its existence on everyone in some geography being forced to join (a monopoly). It would, rather, be an issue of individual preference and ethical bent. While market forces would constrain the form and feasibility of any system, the system need not be “free market” as narrowly defined. One could opt into a communal arrangement just as easily as she could opt into patient-driven model. And we would consider that her right as a sovereign human being.

Who knows whether communities would evolve to look anything like our contemporary political caricatures of Democrats and Republicans. People might cluster in all sorts of ways we cannot anticipate. With different incentives and competition among communities, even the most “progressive” person might come to see the world differently. The staunchest individualist may find new social ventures for which he can’t resist volunteering his time and money. King-of-the-mountain politics simply wouldn’t be much a part of this new America. But moral suasion and marketing would most surely be. To get this change, we would have to introduce new rules. Then, each person can put his system (and his money) where his mouth is (and his votes used to be).

I’m pretty firmly committed to a moral relativism of communities (though morality as such would get a lot more attention than the low-cost moralisms of the voting booth). That means a community might require pretty much anything you can imagine as a condition of membership. A community might want people to cluster together, as Amish or Kibbutzim. On the other hand, a given community could be as cosmopolitan as you please, with members from around the world connected electronically. You could theoretically agree to do things most of us find totally wacky in terms of, say, accepting restrictions on your behavior-though I hesitate saying that memberships would entail people getting to kill each other for either contract violations or fun. Barring the hard cases of personal choice (of which there are a few), the result would approach maximum pluralism. But not chaos.

What about territorial systems? A localization rule means all authority for such systems would be as local as possible. Consider this definition from Charles Murray’s What It Means to Be a Libertarian, which he calls a “principle of subsidiarity”:

    Legitimate functions of government should be handled at the most local feasible level.

The idea is that, the smaller the territory, the more likely you are to approach unanimity. In the absence of such unanimity, it is at least that much easier for people to move to a territory they find tolerable. When any task or administrative function is carried out at the most local feasible level, a state government, for example, would never deal with roads if territories could. Territories would not deal with streets if neighborhoods could. Of course, as a corollary to our rule of localization, we might also want to set the area of a basic territory, initially. The area should be reasonably small-say, 546 square miles. (This is the size of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina where I grew up.) After all, we would want to draw territorial boundaries is such a way that it’s easy enough to move out, but large enough to get economies of scale. If our localization rule required wider geography - say for regional highways or national defense - then levels of authority would transfer up and territorial boundaries, out. But compared to today, there would be a lot less authority up-and-out and a lot more down-and-in.

Decentralization and local empowerment would follow these rule changes. A federal government might end up having responsibility for an extremely narrow set of goods - like national defense and a court of ultimate arbitration (a Supreme Court of sorts). Otherwise, you’d have the common law and probably no legislatures outside of territorial boards or councils. It’s not at all clear what states would have responsibility for, if they needed to exist at all. States might handle disputes among territories or be responsible for planning and coordinating certain emergency functions territories couldn’t handle. They might deal with the administration of inter-territorial road projects. The common law would handle most environmental problems, as we’ll see. With states becoming an artifact of centralization, I apologize in advance to college basketball fans.

In any case, I can’t see any way around people paying some form of taxes to territories under this system. Such might take the form of a modest consumption tax (sales) or even some form of Georgist tax (property). While extreme libertarians might like to hear me call all taxation theft, there are arguably basic functional aspects of territorial goods that make all the rest of commercial and social life possible. While one might be convinced that these can all be provided privately - and in the interests of justice, should be - I will leave our simple rules - a right of exit and localization - as a happy medium between the status quo and a seemingly impracticable Libertopia. Believe me, I would like to banish all forms of coercion from the earth. But for now, I’m willing to settle for shrinking it as much as is feasible.

Let us take heart, though: taxes would be relatively low in territories that dealt only with police, defense, and territorial justice - particularly given competition from neighboring territories happy to take your citizens. If a territory provided territorial goods and services that citizens really liked, they might be willing to stay and pay more in taxes. As anyone can see, this is much easier to determine locally than nationally. Sound roads and attractive thoroughfares are right in our faces. Intergenerational Ponzi schemes like Social Security are not. Again, limitations on the size of a territory and its functions - due not only to localization but to tax competition among territories - would keep taxes reasonably low. Experimentation in both revenue collection and provision of these localized goods would ensure policy iterations that could be mimicked or scrapped. In short, lower taxes and higher quality would be far more likely to result.

Unity in Diversity

Before we get into the deeper question of justice, let’s indulge in a detour for a moment. In his great work Philosophical Explanations, Robert Nozick invited us to consider the idea of organic unity. The idea, roughly, is that within any system there is value in the balance of diversity and unity - whether in systems of art, science or society. Maybe he was inspired by the dollar bill dictum e pluribus unum. Indeed, Nozick might have offered ex uno plures. Either way, diversity and unity were mutually constraining, according to Nozick - a sweet spot between rigid order and chaos. He asked, “Can we draw a curve of degree of organic unity with the two axes being degree of diversity and degree of unifiedness?” The diversity axis will constrain the unity axis and vice versa so that both achieve a kind of stasis. The beauty of Nozick’s graph, apart from its simplicity, is its appeal to some intuitive notion of value in balance. Why would any such notion be important to our idea of society?

The truth is, people are different. They have different conceptions of happiness and the good life. From our view, forming society is not about finding a singular ideal to be crafted by Washington masterminds. Rather, it is as about acknowledging our differences, accepting them a fact of life, and unleashing the creative forces that arise from those differences. But something has to unify us.

Enter the rule of law. Sadly, like “public good,” the rule of law is a phrase that has been perverted over time by both postmodernists and political opportunists. In order to get maximum unity constrained by maximum pluralism, we have to think about the rule of law in a narrower way. In other words, the fact of some elected assembly’s getting a bill through the legislative sausage-grinder does not make said bill right, good and prudent. In the stricter definition, the law must apply equally to everyone and privilege no person, group or industry. That’s what we mean when we say rule of law. And we have carefully to guard that meaning from men who crave authority and their supplicants.

Under our proposed system, things are much clearer and far simpler. The effect of our two, simple rules would amount to a massive reboot complete with a whole new operating system. We would end up dismantling the big old byzantine edifice of federal and state legislation and replace it with new, bottom-up rule-sets established by communities and territories.

At the core of all this lies the idea that people shouldn’t be harmed. Force is harm. Theft is harm. Fraud is harm. A constitutional prohibition on force, theft and fraud takes us very far in establishing a social system that yields peace, prosperity and pluralism. The unifying aspects of our society become free contract and some ultimate arbitration body. But at the very center of our constitutional order, we should be able to find a non-harm principle. Some of my fellow libertarians think contract is enough. But an institution of universalistic justice built on principle of non-harm, however, provides both a constitutional guide for ultimate dispute resolution and an object worthy of our reverence.

In the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the object of reverence was once an unalienable right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” In the Constitution, there are the enumerated rights. And while we may quibble over the philosophical origins of “natural rights,” writing down the principles of a people has powerful connotations upon which a culture of freedom may be developed. A culture of freedom is essential to the survival of any formal institutions that enshrine freedom.

There might be places for caveats in all of this. But I hope two rules and a principle are enough for a good start. In the search for rules that maximize the number of possible communities available for people to join voluntarily, a right of exit and a rule of localization take us far, indeed. While they would not be perfect, nor perfectly libertarian, these two rules would represent a giant move away from the status quo. They would mean a leap towards a thousand so-called “intentional” communities. Experimentation would flourish, all of which works toward the ends peace, prosperity and personal sovereignty. I need not go into the economic benefits that would come about - benefits that would increase our pull to social entrepreneurship. And by having communities to join, we can still satisfy our clannish instincts. The only price would be never being able fully to indulge the urge to dominate others for the sake of a single utopia.
Persuasion would finally rule power.


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