“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” – Winston Churchill
Churchill, an aristocrat, imperialist, racist, and militarist, was arguably part of the problem, not part of the solution.
[Procedural note: since I may need to clarify some things, rather than leaving them entirely in the comments, I will make any edits or additions to the body of the text in this lovely shade of blue.]
Churchill’s quip annoys the hell out of me, because political philosophers have been offering up a variety of ideas for political systems for as long as there have been political philosophers and aristocrats to ignore them. We would also do well to remember that the Athenians killed Socrates because of his politics – religious “impiety” was the ostensible reason, but that impiety was more to do with Socrates’ support of aristocratic government instead of democracy. It’s impossible to assume that his great teacher’s death over political philosophy left Plato unaffected when he wrote The Republic – a sort of pre-refutation to Churchill – perhaps all Churchill could really say is something like “Post-enlightenment democratic republics are so adequate that political science runs on inertia and it makes us less willing to try other, potentially better, things.”
I’m going to go out on a limb, here, and offer my own idea for a political system, for the non-existent civilization of Badgeria. It’s going to be a shortish series that are a reboot of a political sketch I posted back when I used to write on the Fabius Maximus website. I don’t ask for a “generous reading” but I’d appreciate it if you could bear in mind that I know I am talking impracticalities, pie-in-the-sky stuff, and I am not offering a rigorous defense of the ideas. Plato’s Republic offers utopian ideas that are equally impractical: a philosopher king who’s obsessed with trolley-car problems and epistemology, and selfless guardians who give up everything because they’re good people. Indulge me, then, and offer me the same suspension of disbelief – maybe even more because I am far less worthy of it than Plato.
A Quick Tour of Badgeria
A thumbnail sketch of Badgeria is that it’s a direct democracy based on distribution of powers tied to sunset clauses. Instead of attempting separation of powers between branches of government, the government of Badgeria consists of different capabilities that are directly authorized by the people; every capability has a sunset provision so that, in principle, if a majority of the electorate disagree with the direction the overall government is taking, they can wait it out and watch it die. That is a trick I stole from the US’ two-party system’s budgetary games: I call it “government by passive-aggression.” It’s not such a crazy idea, if you think about it, because it answers Robert Paul Wolff’s question about autonomy: citizens can agree to let their autonomy be reduced by a government as long as they have a non-violent way of revoking their participation at any time. The rest of the structure of Badgeria is as a set of bodies that don’t govern at all, but exist only to organize public discussion around the tasks to be undertaken by the parts of government – the agencies – that actually do things. The intent of this arrangement is to make it harder for power to aggregate, or for politicians to lobby covertly; systems of government must be resistant to corruption and influence and that resistance can only be achieved through radical openness and a separation of powers between the people and the government. In Badgeria we recognize the iron laws of bureaucracy and oligarchy and try to head them off at the pass.
Let’s start with the foundational ideals of Badgeria. They are:
- Government exists to serve all of its people; the government is an emergent property of the will of all of the people.
- Government exists to maximize personal opportunity first and foremost, and also to protect the weaker citizens from the stronger, more numerous, or those that shout loudest. When a decision must be made between the needs of the collective versus the desires of the few, we will favor the few so long as no harm is being done.
- It is impossible to support human flourishing in a society where there is more than the small amount of naturally-occurring inequality. Once society has discharged its first duties (#1 and #2) its remaining duty is to do whatever it can to foster equality.
- There are many dangers in human experience where it is best to respond collectively: natural disasters, man-made disasters, and economic problems – government’s responsibility to its people is to coordinate efficient and effective response.
- There are many problems in human experience that are best to address collectively, therefore, it is government’s responsibility to provide for common services as well as the common good. This manifests itself in the form of standards and core services, e.g.: telecommunications, education, standardized roads, transportation systems, interchangeability of government-adopted technology, etc.
- A human being living outside of civilization is not fully human; when a person is born into a civilization, they are allowed to use its resources during their life-times, but individual ownership of property is a lie; society may choose to allocate a car, or a residence, or art-works to individual citizens but that person is serving as custodian for the resource on behalf of society – they are expected to take care of it, maintain it, and return it to society upon their death or when they otherwise no longer want it.
- Because the citizens of Badgeria are a collective, they are expected to understand that when they help their fellow citizens they are helping themselves by making a better, happier, safer collective. There is a designation, hoplite, that some citizens may aspire to – it combines the roles of national guard, emergency response patrol, disaster engineer, and street police. Being a hoplite confers no additional privileges, and comes mostly with additional responsibilities, though the government may deem it useful to equip or train hoplite citizens appropriately during their term of service. For example, a hoplite unit responsible for fire response might get a fire-truck, time off from other responsibilities(s) in order to train, and emergency gear. Per #6, such gear is owned by the collective, and the hoplite is expected to return it in good condition when they are done with it.
- Citizens may take upon themselves responsibilities that are above and beyond the basic duty of a citizen when this happens, a system of money exists in order to track and value citizens’ work. The basic duties of a citizen are simple: don’t cause trouble. Citizens that are meeting their basic duty get a basic stipend that is sufficient for a baseline standard of living. Naturally, citizens are expected to want more than that, so they are encouraged to use their time and energy wisely to take on responsibilities that either other citizens or the government may be willing to pay for. [Some citizens may choose to do nothing, or to play online games on the Internet, or to read books, or study their own navels to prevent belly-button lint. Being a full-time Omphalopsychite is a “career” in Badgeria. The bar for a “job” is very low.] The government’s Department of Human Resources serves as a clearing house for work projects ranging from the small (“pick up trash by the hour”) to the large (“be a brain surgeon”) and also carries projects for businesses that are looking for staff. The H.R. Department is also responsible for regulating the value of responsibilities within established ranges based on the educational requirements, physical requirements, hours, difficulty, etc., of a job. For example, the H.R. Department would not ever be likely to value a job such as “Corporate Senior Executive” with a high educational requirement and an 80-hr work week as more than twice as valuable than “University Professor” with a high educational requirement and a 40-hr work week.
- Raising a child is a tremendous responsibility, since a child is a citizen and has rights of its own that a child-raiser must navigate. Children are categorically not the property of a parent; the parents’ rights over a child are minimal and there is a bill of child’s rights indexed to age until maturity. For example, a child-raiser has no right to modify a child’s body or to fill its mind with nonsensical ideas like religion. Child-raising is a profession with educational and practical requirements, certification, and oversight. If someone unqualified to raise a child creates one, The H.R. Department will find a qualified child-raiser to raise the new citizen. Many citizens of Badgeria decide to have and raise a child, and reduce their other responsibilities and fall back to the basic stipend while they are taking the child-raising training and getting certified, before they start the child. Many others prefer to take advantage of the free contraceptives that are available from the Department of Wellness kiosks. While a child is a minor, the child-raiser is responsible for wisely spending the child’s basic stipend on the child’s well-being: food, clothing, supplies, room, etc. As the child begins to approach majority, the amount of its stipend the child can access gets shifted by increasing percentage so that eventually the teen-ager is spending ‘their own’ money on choosing their own clothes, cell phones, etc. Any child-raiser who redirects a child’s stipend has committed the serious crime of embezzlement.
Regarding point #3: a free-market advocate or someone who has been deeply indoctrinated by US anarcho-capitalism/pseudo-liberalism might say “centralized government is less efficient than free markets!” The Badgerian’s response is: it is government’s job to be as efficient as a free market, in certain areas, and we expect nothing less. Badgerians would point out that free markets are actually pretty inefficient, themselves, because they result in multiple implementations of parallel infrastructure, and encourage endless expansion of bureaucracy as a result of competition. Badgerians understand that free markets optimize for the best outcomes for the market-maker, and not necessarily the consumer.
Point #7 sets up the justification for Badgeria’s national defense and emergency response, which is a topic for another episode.
Point #6 is where we will spend the rest of this discussion; the structure of the rest of the government is a larger topic for another episode.
Life, Death and Taxes in Badgeria
Foundational principle #6 sets up the financial structure of Badgeria – citizens don’t “own” anything, though they can trade money for lifetime use of a resource, object, residence, or short-term use of a service. Upon the citizens’ death, everything they had the use of reverts to the Department of Logistics. “Everything” includes any money that the citizen may have piled up during their lifetime. In terms of older civilizations such as the United States of America, this could be described as “100% death tax.” Some citizens might build substantial wealth prior to their death; they can die secure in the knowledge that their accomplishments are being recycled into the collective.
A citizen’s child does not need to be provided with an inheritance because, as a citizen, they are subject to the bill of rights from childhood. A child-citizen gets a small stipend (e.g.: “an allowance”) that increases in steps as they age, until their stipend is equal to the basic stipend at the age of adulthood.
Education is provided for all citizens, through the Department of Education. At the age of majority, a citizen has three choices:
- Resign their citizenship. They get a free ride to the border.
- Continue their education; the Department of Education provides education for any citizen up through a PhD.
- Enter the work-force or start a business or career. [Or sit on the couch and play World of Warcraft all day. In which case, playing World of Warcraft would be the citizen’s “career”]
While still students, citizens may subsist on the basic stipend, or find additional work. Citizens that decide to enter the work-force or start a business are given “the grub stake” which is a one-time payment from the government that is intended to allow a new adult citizen to gear up for a career or business, or which they may save or invest. Most Badgerian citizens, naturally, don’t tend to pile up money – there is no need to have a cash cushion against events or medical crises – money in Badgeria circulates rapidly; many citizens refer to it as “recycling.” Citizens that choose to continue their education up to PhD or medical school do not get the grub stake; the presumption is that their education is already building value in their careers and they will not need a booster to get started.
Badgerian currency is negotiable only within Badgeria; citizens are only allowed to hold a small amount of foreign currency, and foreign exchange is controlled by the Department of the Treasury. Citizens attempting to “offshore” wealth, or to transfer it to children, are guilty of a serious crime – antisocial selfishness – which may result in a free ride to the border, or the Department of the Treasury nationalizing the money. Foreign commerce is not taxed on the Badgerian side, though (because of currency conversion) all transactions are cleared through the Department of Treasury’s Commerce branch.
The successful and wealthy Badgerians realize that their wealth is impermanent; there is no reason to accumulate endless amounts or to lay aside money to give their children an unfair head-start in life. In fact, attempts to give a child an unfair head-start are antisocial selfishness on the part of a parent – the implication being that their genetic legacy is more important than anyone else’s and their children ought to be promoted though they did nothing whatsoever to earn it. There have been incidents where Badgerian parents have tried tricks like starting businesses that will employ a child as a way of gathering inter-generational wealth. The Department of Logistics’ probate process includes some analysis of a deceased person’s wealth, and appropriate scrutiny is applied; such attempts are considered dishonorable and antisocial, and most people would be very unhappy if a parent did something that would set them up as suspicious to their peers. As they age and begin to feel that they are heading into their retirement years, wealthy Badgerians often start businesses or foundations to dispense with some of their wealth. The Department of the Treasury has strict guidelines for the sort of corporate structures that qualify as “survivable entities” that may continue past the founders’ death. Survivable entities may be anything from a small business that its founder wishes to survive, to a large corporation or a service organization. The key criteria for survivable entities are that they do not exist simply to accumulate wealth, they must have some socially valuable purpose even if it’s only that it creates jobs. Survivable entities must do their hiring through the H.R. Department, in order to ensure that they are offering fair-market compensation and are hiring fairly. Survivable entities would, depending on the type (charitable foundation, or for-profit corporation) be subject to regulation and taxes – similarly to how charitable foundations in 21st century USA are required to disburse a percentage of their assets; there might also be a nominal corporate tax for for-profit corporations (because otherwise the for-profit corporations would simply attempt to grow infinitely large, forever).
To tune the Badgerian budget it might be necessary to have spot-taxes on certain luxuries, or specific excise taxes to fund major projects. Generally, however, the principle is that enough money will be recycled when people die, to fund the government. I don’t know how to estimate whether such a system would actually work, though I’ve tried. For example, the total wealth held by all Americans in 2000 was $44tn. Something like 900,000 Americans die every year; presumably they’re going to fall on a curve of wealth that approximately matches the population, so there would be 900 1%-ers dying every year, and the 1% hold 34% of the wealth. Roughly, the numbers look workable to me. I think that any necessary tuning could be accomplished with a nominal tax on all survivable entities – since survivable entities never “die”, it seems reasonable that they would be expected to return a percentage of their accumulated wealth to society, annually. Depending on the size of Badgeria’s economy that wouldn’t be a particularly large amount. One of the other ways that Badgeria’s economy is shock-resistant is by not spending 10% or more of its wealth on military.
Next up, we will look at the structure of Badgerian legislature; it’s deliberately a bit convoluted. After that, we’ll talk about how national and civil defense works, and the role of the hoplites.
The idea of a 100% death tax came to me after a really unpleasant dinner conversation. I was at a conference in New York and went to the speakers’ dinner (as one must) and wound up seated next to a self-described “social and fiscal conservative” who began making some disparaging remarks about the “welfare state.” Like any proper trout, I rose to that fly, and as he drank more, the conversation began to pull in some of the surrounding diners – soon he was calling me “red baby” and other things that I suppose he imagined were insults. I messed with his head a little bit by asking him how having a massive military/industrial complex that was centrally managed by the Department of Defense was any different from worst-case socialist central planning, and then started asking him why he was against welfare. I was being quite honest – the idea of hating the poor because of their situation has always made no sense to me – and, since he was getting quite drunk and aggressive, I thought it’d give him a good chance to sermonize from the mount for a bit. That was when things got really interesting: he went full-on class war, saying something like:
What I don’t want is to have my hard-earned money go to some ‘single mom’ who has had 6 kids by 8 different men, and who’s on welfare and is using her welfare money to drive a mercedes. She’s not earning the money, she’s just asking for a handout.
No kidding, he really said that. Of course, I immediately pointed out that he didn’t appear to understand how poverty works; nobody who’s unemployed and is trying to raise 6 kids is having a good time, unless they’re wealthy and can afford the logistics to make that work. I also pointed out that he was promoting an unpleasant and ignorant stereotype. At that point he started waving his fist around and some of the others suggested he calm down. So I asked him:
If I understand correctly, then, your complaint is that you want to control how your money is spent?
What would you do with it? What great purpose do you have for your money that you can’t afford to help someone out?
I’d use it so my kids could go to a good college, and I could buy them a car or something when they graduate.
And I said,
Fair enough, but what did your kids do to earn the money? Are you just giving them a handout? Shouldn’t they work for it?
I couldn’t get that conversation out of my mind (mostly because it was pretty unpleasant) and I got to thinking that one of the great reservoirs of inequality is inter-generational wealth transfer. Any society that wants to achieve some kind of equality must break inter-generational wealth – but also must give every child an equal start. That means that private education (one way of transferring inter-generational advantage) must not be an option. That means that employment opportunity must be managed by the government. Those three realizations are the pillars of Badgeria’s egalitarianism.
Does human nature make it impossible for parents to be willing to have children that they don’t raise? I believe that’s the hardest part of implementing Badgerian society – but I don’t think it’s that huge a deal. For one thing, parenting, as something socially valuable, has been “outsourced” in many societies. 33% of American preschoolers are raised by a non-relative (day care) versus 44% by a relative. Perhaps making child-raising a professionalized art-form and career would do the trick. My observation is that my drunken dinner companion’s emphasis on “my kids” is empty posturing; the American “nuclear family” is a myth that only held sway for a brief while in the 1950s – prior to that, and for all world history going forward, it was quite common for children to be orphaned or raised outside of a family unit. Consider the constant disruptions to family units from wars, plagues, and famines, and atomic families have been historically rare.
I’m not going to ask you to be gentle, but – pulling these sort of ideas together into a whole picture is a challenge. I’m sure I’ve missed things. It’s an interesting game, playing armchair general with civilizations – I understand why Plato attempted it, though I can’t hope to play at the level he did.
The Fabius Maximus website: interesting stuff, but the site’s moderator veers into toxic skepticism – JAQing about global warming and I eventually became uncomfortable with being associated with conspiracy mongering and asked that all my stuff be removed.