Switching Government Service Providers

Ever wish you could reinvent the entire systems of government you live under without starting a costly war, revolution or having to win an election?  No?  Well, Patri Friedman has (wondered, that is).  And so has a growing number of seasteaders, ordinary folks (and the occasional PayPal billionaire).  Or to be more precise, as Patri explained at this year’s Idea Project confab [sign up now for next year, it may sell out quick!] they believe we should at least get to choose from some reasonable options.  Currently your choices are some form of democracy, autocracy, or theocracy.  And switching costs are high.

What if you wanted to start your own sovereign nation in a tucked away corner of earth somewhere?  Problem is, every piece of land more than a few feet above sea level is already claimed by governments, private individuals or commercial interests.  Enter, the high seas.  Turns out there’s nothing stopping you from going out to international waters, building a platform, giant boat or floating something-or-other and starting over with government, completely from first principles.  Patri and Seastesd.org are committed to helping you do just that.  And before you go assuming that the best form for your utopian flotilla must be some form of democracy (social or otherwise), consider all the unsolvable problems that face even your very favorite “government service provider” today.

So with that in mind, I’ve invented a new form of government that I’m putting in the public domain for any would-be seasteaders, guerilla factions or velvet revolutionaries to use as they see fit.  Don’t thank me now, just send postcards from time to time.


“Having a nice life… Wish you were here!”

Principle 1: Values First

  • Rather than assert that there are such things as Inalienable Rights (or even Rights at all), recognize that there exist a set of  Shared Values which can be explicitly stated.  It is the Shared Value Statement (SVS) around which the State is organized.
  • To be a Citizen you must uphold and abide by the SVS.  You may renounce Citizenship at any time.
  • The SVS may be amended (process TBD by founders; process subject to amendment by Citizens).  It is understood that any amendment is likely to turn some Citizens into non-Citizens.
  • Any non-Citizen who is visiting or residing in the State is to be treated — and act — AS IF they were a Citizen.

Example values: Empathy; Discipline; Group Harmony; Consensus; Individualism; Personal Freedom; Happiness; Respect; Gratitude; Absolute Truth; Relative Truth; Parsimony; Efficiency; Sustainability; Education; Personal Improvement; Democracy; Meritocracy; Marketocracy; Autocracy; Theocracy; Ends Before Means; Means Before Ends; Aesthetic Beauty; Entertainment; ad infinitum.

It’s clear that Values are soft, not hard like Rights.  And that any particular set of Values will, to a greater or lesser extent, conflict.  The SVS is an unordered finite set.  Relative significance of Values is unspecified by the SVS and can only be known by inference from practical implementation via Principles 2 and 3.

It is up to the Citizenship to determine what values belong in their SVS.  Some sets of values will be inherently more stable than others, and some are simply not viable.  But it is a category error to suggest that some SVSs or states are more moral than others.  Morality is internal to the State and relative to Shared Values.

. . .

Principle 2: Positive Incentives Before Laws

  • Where possible, formal positive incentives (economic, social and otherwise) will be used to shape individual action.
  • Where such incentives are impractical or undesirable, formal laws may be created.
  • Laws trump incentives and should be used sparingly.
  • The entire set of formal incentives and laws (i.e. the Formal Code) is meant to embody and prioritize the SVS.

How the FC is arrived at, amended and implemented will vary from state to state, and is to be in accordance with the SVS.  If Democracy is part of the SVS you would presume to see some form of voting mechanism.  If Democracy is not on the SVS but Consensus is, you might expect the FC to be determined by a jury-like process.  And so on.

. . .

Principle 3: Practical Wisdom

It is recognized that Principles 1 and 2 are not enough by themselves to create a good society.  To wit: our loss of moral wisdom.

Therefore, it is the Responsibility…

  • …of each Citizen to be a moral exemplar always and embody practical wisdom
  • …of the State to celebrate moral heroes and create a culture of moral action

. . .

Principle 4: Non-Human Agents

It is recognized by the State that there are non-human agents that exist in the world, some of which exist in the State, and that they do not necessarily have the same motivations or moral capacity as humans.

Examples of non-human agents include: corporations, governments (the State, other sovereign states, local governmental bodies within the State), military systems, market systems, exogenous non-state actors (e.g. terrorist groups), religions, cults, sociotechnical complexes (e.g. military-industrial complex, academia-medical-regulatory complex, DDoS attacks, crowdsources), technological agents (e.g. software viruses, robots).  New forms of non-human actors are emerging at an accelerating rate, and are largely unpredictable.  So-called “artificial intelligences” are of particular interest and concern.

Non-human agents are good at responding to incentives, but not good at responding to laws or moral intuition.  The proper treatment of non-human agents — including and especially the State itself — is recognized as important, especially as it pertains to the legal system.

The treatment of non-human agents as Citizens in Fact may be a threat to a good society.  For instance:

  • Should Corporations be treated as Persons (as they are in the U.S. legal system for many purposes) ?
  • Should the State or local governments be party to lawsuits?
  • Should there be a para-governmental system designed to protect humans inside the State? the State itself? the SVS? humans not in the State?  humanity as a whole?
  • What should be done about non-human agents which threaten the State from (at least partially) inside (e.g. military-industrial complex) ?

. . .

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  • Wonderful approach, much appreciated, thank you.


  • Alex Golubev

    very interesting. i have to sit on this one for a while. first thoughts though – principle 4 seems to be one that could and should become a focus for the US policy makers. good stuff.

  • John Dziki

    Interesting but, not at all creative or new. Guess you have never studied Chinese history with an emphasis on Confucianism.

  • Rafe Furst

    @John, there is nothing new under the sun. Guess you have never practiced Zen with an emphasis on non-judgment ;-)

  • Regardless of Chinese history, there is ample American history–especially from the 18th century, resurrected in the late 20th century–from Garry Wills and Gordon S. Wood–which shows how American Founders attempted to enunciate values (“Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”) and a framework which allowed those to combine in individuals, as they might. Without getting into a side-track about the imperfections and mistakes made 200+ years ago (which the Founders acknowledged by inclusion of an amendment process)–the key, for this posting is, I think: what does it take to create a context in which a multitude of conflicting values are not merely allowed to clash freely, but to co-exist and grow? I think of it as the difference between wanting to design a greenhouse and choosing what to grow in it. Unlike what is found in a New York Times article this past week, they knew that if America were an official “Christian” nation, when people became dissatisfied with, say, an industry bail-out–it would also dissuade them from believing in God. So they tried to work out a way in which the mistakes of men didn’t interfere with religion. Today, some tend to have it all turned around, thinking religion will save government–or America. Yet making government depend on a particular set of values–as opposed to a set of meta-values–would be a sign of its final internal combustion. It would signal a loss of the old idea that my advocating your freedom, in an unending wave across the land–is what guarantees it, as it spreads like a benign contagion from one person to another, each a witness and a recipient of a good idea: that neither of us has to be right about our individual values. What we share is our deeper belief in the meta-value. We come together in the greenhouse, and plant what we each want–yet we never forget the necessity of letting go our differences when it comes to protecting that greenhouse.

    It comes down to designing a system in which you and the person who’s ideas you cannot stand, still, get along–still respect each others’ path.

    (Apologies for “greenhouse”–an analogy so over-used in a different context.)