Saturday, March 17, 2012

Redrawing Democracy: A Vision

I've been thinking today about my personal vision for the kind of society I would like to live in, a sort of "ideal picture" of an ideal country. It's actually pretty specific, and I think I am finding words to describe this picture. The first part is unabashed utopianism. The second part is serious "political science-fiction" as I like to call it.

Physically, visually, it looks somewhat like a plant, with each part being of equal importance, though some parts are more visible than others. The roots would be in the countryside, where much of the population growth would occur and a reserve of unspecialized yet hardworking people would be maintained, where both new population and raw materials would originate. The stem would be a network of incrementally larger transportation arteries and commercial hubs, from an unmanaged network of dirt and gravel backroads linking rural communities to more paved roads and rails, to factory towns that process the raw materials, finally to the flower of the society: the cities. The cities would be clean, dynamic places, where the great variety of cultural, commercial, and industrial forces that originate in the countryside would shine, hybridize in ever changing ways, as people, products, and ideas moved in and out.

The Root (Country)

The roots would be an essentially unorganized countryside. There would not, in this society, be an organized, State-driven effort to extend the amenities of urban civilization to the farthest reaches. In other words, tax dollars would not be spent to directly extend or subsidize the extension of things like transportation and communication networks to these places. If the phone company sees no profit in extending phone lines to a particular community (and the people of that community are unwilling and/or unable to finance the extension of the network to their community), the lines would not be extended. If the only way to build a paved highway to such a place is coercive finance, the road would not be built.

Th result of this would be that unique rural communities would be more able to continue their existence. Places where labor specialization is less, where jacks-of-all-trades flourish, where traditional values are under less pressure by a ubiquity of instant communication with the rest of society. The various communities would be highly diverse, with some being ethnically diverse, others ethnically homogenous. Some places would host things like free-love hippie communes, while others would host more religiously motivated communities. Some would be essentially commercial operations, focused on profitably providing raw materials for a market. Others, particularly ones further off the beaten path, could be more idealistically founded. There would be a government over this all, but the primary purpose of this government would be to ensure that no particular group of individuals could either monopolize the available resources or impose their communal visions on others.

From these places more adventurous souls could come, migrating to the cities with no particular specialization but a well developed work ethic, revitalizing urban cultures that all too often lose sight of the value of hard work and perseverance in favor of blaming their neighbors for their woes. To these places could go the world-weary of the urban world, who would have a wide range of communities to choose from, and be able to revitalize rural cultures that all too often lose sight of the value of innovation in favor of a dogmatic adherence to tradition.

Ultimately, the character of the root would be a spectrum of degrees of connectivity to the world market, ensuring that there are always places where the value of hard work and personal perseverance is always apparent, unlike in urban societies where the value is often more abstract, hidden as it is by layer upon layer of business-controlled access to capital and other resources.

In our current society (Western civilization and the more urbanized Asian civilizations), the root is undervalued, weakened by well-meaning but misguided efforts to extend the benefits of modern civilization to these places by any means necessary. The result is a sort of grafting-on of the rural societies in other parts of the world, as population growth slows in over-urbanized societies and are are gradually replaced by alien populations. The civilization I describe would be a more balanced civilization, accepting its less incorporated rural populations as kin (being linguistically compatible with their urban counterparts), with an economically resisted but politically free flow of individuals between the root and the flower. Urban civilization would also be more evenly distributed, as opposed the overconcentration of urban communities in the geographic West, with rural populations on the outside.

The Flower (Shining City)

Cities would ideally be clean, prosperous, diverse, and well-engineered, with multi-use buildings being the norm, "zoning" being minimal. These would be the places to which raw materials would flow, both physical and cultural, and from which refined materials would be released, from manufactured products to novel cultural movements. Populations would be dense, and the ubiquity of mass transit would make it possible to travel by foot alone (auto accidents would be few, with most of the drivers being those who have no choice due to their professions). Further, most of the cities would be linked by advanced mass transit (high speed rail?), allowing convenient, almost seamless movements of people and goods between the most advanced cities. Travel between the cities and less urban communities would have a continuum of convenience, from being able to reach the larger towns via older rail systems, the smaller towns via less developed roads, to remote communities that one can reach by inconsistenly maintained gravel roads... at best. And there would yet be places the hardiest of urban tourists would have to themselves, reachable only by foot (whether human or equine).

To these places would come the more adventurous persons of rural origins, hungering for a faster paced and more competitive life than exists in the countryside. From these places would depart those who are weary of that same fast pace and high level of competition, and they would have a wide variety of places to choose from. Thanks to the equitable distribution of access to natural resources (most chiefly, access to physical space, to be described in a later section on the political institutions defending this society), "captive" populations mired in urban poverty would not exist. Further, due to those same institutions, city boundaries could shift and move periodically, to account for changes over time, speeding the decomposition of the dead institutions of dying cities.

Branch and Stem (Everything In Between)

The cities would not be walled; the country would not be isolated. The chief characteristic of the connecting tissue would be variety, variety, variety. There would not be one single plan defining the nation's transportation system. Larger towns, serving as hubs of trade and manufacturing between the two extremes, could be connected by robust transportation systems. But there would yet be places connected by only the most tenuous threads, with minimal (but still present) commercial connection to the urban flower. The further one got from the most rural communities, the more diverse the communities would become. While the great megatropolises would connect with others around the world, the smaller cities would connect regionally. But new transportation systems would be established in an organic fashion. Megatropolises could shrink to more regional status; new cities could rise (though this happens less often than one might think, with the oldest city sites having been continually occupied).

I'm not sure what else to say about this.

Bark and Thorn: Government

There would be, constitutionally speaking, two levels of government: the national and the local. Local could be big in some places, representing the populations of entire cities or wide-ranging territories. It could also be small in other places, representing entirely independent villages or even individual homesteads.

The concept would be that all individuals have an equal right of access to the land. By default (due to the absence of equally distributed "ancestral estates" in most of the world), this right would be exercised by equal and inalienable ownership of shares in a single corporation, which would function as the national government.

This government would collect "taxes" in form only. In substance, they would simply be rents paid for the privilege of excluding others from use of land resources, which would include everything from physical, geographic space, to the limited capacity of the atmosphere (locally and globally) to process the byproducts of human activities, to exclusive use of segments of the electromagnetic spectrum. It would always seek to collect the most it could, keeping rents at revenue-maximizing levels (seeking neither to raise them so high it hurts productivity, nor lower than necessary). It would spend these revenues on whatever the board of directors, elected by the population at large, decided was necessary. Any extra would be returned to the shareholders (read: again, the population at large) as a dividend.

Ideally, in my opinion, this government would focus primarily on defense of people against aggressors, both foreign and domestic, keeping the peace and leaving more in-depth governing to the lower levels of government, and thus returning as much of its revenues as a dividend as possible (this practice is what is meant by "geolibertarianism"). This is what I would advocate as a participant of the political process. However, the actual results could be whatever the citizenry enabled via the board of directors.

Local governance would not be set in stone, and would be formed in the following manner. Groups of shareholders would have the right to redeem, temporarily, their corporate share in exchange for a physical share of the land equal in value to their share of the corporation. Essentially, segments of the population could "secede" from the level and govern themselves in whatever manner was mutually agreeable to the participants. They would, first, have to had legal occupancy of that land; they would have to already "own" it and be paying the appropriate rents for it (which would tend to be higher per square foot in urban areas, and potentially nearly-free in the most remote rural areas). The value the population would receive back as a dividend if the rents could somehow be collected without bureaucratic overhead and the government returned the entire amount as a dividend would have to equal the rents that would normally be paid for protected occupancy.

From that point until the expiration of the charter, no more than fifty years later, the national government would not collect physical land rents from this area, nor would they exercise jurisdiction over internal affairs in this area. (They would still collect, and its people would still participate politically, in a limited fashion as joint-owners of overlapping broadcast regions and pollution basins.) At expiration, the population would be re-issued their shares in the national government, the land be returned, and if they so desired and the re-assessed rental-value still matched the re-counted population (and they all still wanted to participate), the charter could be re-established. I suspect, however, that people more often would take this opportunity to adjust borders, try entirely new divisions, or even return to direct national governance.

Examples of how this might work include cities that make the decision to become "free cities", establishing independent political institutions (particularly independent of more tradition-bound rural populations), collecting local revenues more efficiently, spending them locally on urban priorities, and so on. It could include a small town that wants to defend it's unique local character from what it perceives as an overbearing national government. It could include an individual homestead, the members of which want to attempt a fully "market anarchist" type of political life. It could include a pioneering community, who believe the rental-value of an area could be substantially higher given some work, and who could use this institution to secure the benefits of putting in that work and taking the risk over a period of fifty years... but not allowing their descendants to perpetually place themselves over the remainder of the population.

Most importantly, it would include a great variety of different sizes and types of local governance, making such a country, overall, into a true "laboratory of democracy." Successful experiments could be easily extended and imitated; unsuccessful experiments would liquidate by default after a time. Populations that wish to break away could do so peacefully; others that wish to join together could do so without dragging their neighbors into it. THINGS COULD CHANGE... and nobody would have to fight a war to make it happen.

The national legislature could even be bicameral. One house would be the board of directors elected by all who choose to be governed directly by, and participate directly in, the national government. The other could be the representatives of voluntary contributors (a version of the "openly sold Senate" I described nearly a decade ago).

Anyway, that's what the vision of this particular brainstorm looks like.