Interview with Zach Weinersmith, Author of Polystate: A Thought Experiment in Distributed Government

by Daniel Listwa

Zach WienersmithOne need not look any further than the items in one’s pocket to see that the progress of technology has facilitated a continued explosion of choice and customization. In the past, technological constraints implied that a particular household generally had only a single choice over telephone service providers. Now, the advent of the cellphone allows one to choose from a whole menu of providers. The phenomenon is widespread. From online dating sites enabling people to browse through millions of potential significant others, to 3D printing allowing the complete customization of almost anything, the trend toward greater personalization of experience continues to grow.

What if the tendency toward tech-driven personalization were to spread to the sphere of government, breaking its monopoly in such a way that each individual were allowed to freely choose what sort of government system to be a part of? This is the “what if” behind Zach Weinersmith’s new book, Polystate: A Thought Experiment in Distributed Government.

In his book, cartoonist and writer Weinersmith, best known for his daily web-comic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (SMBC), describes the world in which typical geographically-bound nations as we know them (or “geostates” as Weinersmith calls them) are replaced by “polystates,” which are simply collections of “anthrostates.” To quote Weinersmith, an anthrostate is “a set of laws and institutions that govern the behavior of individuals, but which do not govern a behavior within geographic behavior.” In other words, while a fascist living in a democratic geostate would have to abide by the democracy’s laws, in a polystate a fascist could choose to live in a fascist anthrostate.

While the laws of the fascist state will apply to her, they may not apply to her neighbors, who may be citizens of a social democracy or communist state. Citizens would be regularly given the opportunity to change anthrostates, allowing them to experiment with forms of governance and easily escape the reign of a government they do not agree with. This is in stark contrast to the modern geostate, where even if one can change government, it is with great difficulty. The implications explored in Polystate  are enormous. Just take the growth of North Korea, for example. As Weinersmith writes, “It is hard to imagine that he [Kim Jong-un] would have this larger population if any of his citizens could have freely switched to any other government.”

I had the opportunity to sit down (virtually) with Zach and talk a bit about his new book, anarcho-capitalists, robot judges, and the ethics of technological growth. The following is an excerpted version of our conversation.

Polystate - A Thought Experiment in Distributed Government

Daniel Listwa: Your comics have earned you a reputation for coming up with creatively plausible situations and exploring their implications. Polystate is not an exception in this regard, but it is quite different in form. What led you to delve into this new medium?

Zach Weinersmith. I’m actually working on a few science fiction projects, and this universe was one of them. I started to write the book, and at some point realized I was basically writing a series of dialogues about how the system in question might work. That seemed too boring for fiction, but just boring enough for a fun extended essay. Also, it was fun.

DL: Can you give us any clues on your future projects?

ZW: I’d rather not reveal too much, since it’s all very sketchy right now. But, I’m working on a few books, some for adults, some for kids.

DL: You suggest categorizing Polystate as a work of speculative “Poli-fi,” relating it to the speculative science fiction of writers like H.G. Wells and George Orwell. In what sense do you consider your book’s premise to be speculative, as opposed to simply counterfactual?

ZW: Here was my thought – there are a lot of trends that suggest what I called “discretization of experience.” That is, we more and more expect to be (at least superficially) allowed to make choices about everything. And, I think this’ll only continue as technology and affluence increase. For example, right now you don’t get too much choice over what your house looks like, unless you’re rich. And, even if you’re rich, you’re still limited by what builders and designers can realistically do. Now, imagine if some of the projects to create 3D house-building come along? If that gets cheap enough, every homeowner is going to expect to have a unique special house.

I think if you look around you’ll see this trend everywhere in terms of the arts, sexual expression, family structure, politics, and so on. We all want to be different. So, it occurred to me that we may perhaps at some point expect lots of choice from government as well. But, of course, choice of government is a lot more complicated than choice of potato chip (the options for which are also skyrocketing!). So, I wanted to explore one way that might work.

DL: Is it fair to group technological trends, like the rise of 3D printing, with what seem to be more ethically driven issues, like freedom of sexual expression?

ZW: I think it’s overly abstract to say there’s no relation between technology and ethics. For some reason, technology is often treated as unrelated to big philosophical questions. There’s an extent to which it’s a fair distinction, because one is tangible and the other is abstract. However, at least at a pragmatic level (and arguably at a higher level) technology DOES affect things like ethics, metaphysics, justice, and so on. For example, if technology can supply everyone with cheap food, the question, “Do I steal a loaf of bread to feed my family?” is mooted. It’s not undone as a valuable question, but it becomes less interesting.

In the case of 3D printing, well, it’s similar to the food thing. 3D printing potentially could drastically lower scarcity of all sorts of things (from phones to condoms to housing to art). The extent to which we say that this has no ethical component seems to me to be a bit silly. I mean, suppose someone said, “I will dedicate my life to making fusion reactors viable.” That seems to me to be an ethical decision. It’s a decision to act to increase the happiness and choice of other people. I don’t think you would say, “Well, that engineer is just improving technology. This doesn’t affect ethics.”

DL: But surely the pursuit of technological advance is not motivating, for example, the pursuit of LGBT rights?

ZW: I don’t think the line is so clear. In fact, I think it’s no coincidence that societal affluence and social tolerance are correlated. In some ways, I think tolerance is a luxury good society has only recently been able to afford. Group cohesion is always more important when you have many people at higher risk. Now that we’re richer (and there are lots of us), fracturing isn’t so big a deal. In fact, within reason, I think it’s great. It means people have more pleasure and more consent. That’s pretty close to objectively good, to my mind.

I think technology not only can have normative aspects, but technology always does have normative aspects. LGBT rights are, of course, more important than 3D printers, from the perspective of social justice. HOWEVER, consider whether LGBT rights would be so far along, without (for example) the development of cheap telephony, or cheap photocopying.

DL: Government in a polystate is different from government as we know it in today’s world. What’s the common thread that makes both these concepts of government the same type of institution?

ZW: Somewhat out of necessity, I took a very narrow view of government, defining it in terms of coercive power. I don’t necessarily mean coercive in a negative sense (after all, I like when serial killers are coerced into cages), but rather in the sense that all governments share this one thing in common – in the areas over which they rule, they claim a right over the use of force. Even in the cases where you have a personal right to use force (say, self-defense), it is at the dispensation of the government. Of course, at least in western democracies, governments don’t use force most of the time. But, there is in some sense a threat of force behind all law.

This is not a whole description of government. It is an abstract description that was useful for discussion. Of course, real governments always contain context. Laws must be interpreted. Societies have different unwritten social rules. So, my definition had to do more with what is common between governments than a perfect definition of government, which is probably not possible.

DL: Is there at all a political agenda behind Polystate?

ZW: Whether any of this sheds light on government as we know it, I don’t know. I tried mostly to stick to the speculation and not inject much in the way of politics. The book is what it is. There isn’t a hidden perspective.

DL: A lot is left to be negotiated between anthrostates. You suggest Artificial Intelligence would help streamline arbitration. Are you suggesting that legal judgments would be rendered by computers?

ZW: Good question! I think that’s one of the biggest problems with the proposal. AI was essentially a cheat to explain why it might work. That said, to answer your question, there is not reason in principle why an AI couldn’t arbitrate many things. You can certainly imagine simple cases where something like AI is already used – for example, international banking systems which use algorithms to calculate various exchange rates. Okay, it’s not exactly C3PO, but it is in some sense out of human hands. In addition, there are lots of cases where humanity would probably benefit from some machine assistance in the dispensation of justice. For example, there have been compelling studies showing that judges’ decisions can be affected by when and if they eat.

DL: Sounds a bit I, Robot to me.

ZW: Yeah, the idea of a strong AI dispensing justice on humans is a bit freaky for my taste. How that’d work would depend on how AI develops in the future.

DL: What’s to stop an anthrostate from turning into de facto geostates? If I’m a democratic socialist, I’d probably want to be surrounded by like-minded people.

ZW: I think it probably would be the case. People tend to gather with similar people, for obvious reasons. But, I don’t see that as a problem for the polystate system. Remember, the rule is just that you can’t make the claim, “Anyone in area X abides by rule set Y.” So, if a group of anarcho-capitalists have gathered to form a town, that’s fine. They just can’t claim that Karl the Communist also has to obey their anthrostate rules while in town.

DL: But couldn’t the anarcho-capitalists take the next step and declare themselves a geostate?

ZW: As you say, a society could set up its own geostate by just declaring it. How common that’d be is probably just a cultural matter. I mean, it’s technically true that you and I could start a cult in Vermont, declare ourselves lords of the kingdom of The Free State of Weinermith-Listwa, and then face the consequences. But, it’s unlikely. It’s possible that the same would be true in a polystate. After all, if one anthrostate declares a geostate, it’s a land grab from every single other society.

DL: Wouldn’t it be in the interest of some anthrostates to implement geostate-like immigration laws? Imagine communities of “democracy raiders” that join democracies in mass only to form a majority, drain the state coffers, and move on to the next state.

ZW: Ha! I love the raiders idea. I address some similar stuff, somewhere in the book. But, the basic idea is that at equilibrium (always a dangerous phrase), anthrostates should anticipate these concerns. If you’re worried that roving coffer-drainers will rove your way, you have options. For example, you could say, “Only citizens who’ve been here for X years can vote.”  

DL: Doesn’t that suggest that whether geostates arise or not is more than just a cultural matter? If the institutions associated with geostates offer advantages over a “true” polystate, would polystates as you envision them survive?

ZW. Yeah, I think it’s a totally fair point. I still think the question is cultural, in this sense – what is permissible will depend on how loyal everyone is to polystatism. This may be more profound than you think. Consider how you would react if Australia invaded Micronesia. In a certain sense, why should you care? It’s got a population comparable to Tuscaloosa Alabama. It’s nowhere near you. There’s no chance Australia will try to hurt the USA. BUT, culturally, you feel that it is not right for sovereign states to have their sovereignty violated on a whim. You would expect your government (which doesn’t clearly have a dog in the fight) to do something. I think that’s culture, and I think it’s conceivable you’d get something similar in a polystate.

Whether it’d actually work? Nah, probably not. I mean, this is speculative after all.

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6 comments

  1. Chris

    Either Zach has been reading my mind (not likely), or we’ve both been drinking from the same stream (more likely), since I’ve been kicking similar ideas around lately. One thing that is not addressed, is the role of government as guardian of the public trust that regulates access to public resources – resources that, by natural right, belong to everyone, such as land, air, and water – by outlawing harmful uses, and charging rent for uses that exclude their availability to others (e.g. real estate tax), and providing for the common defense, which can’t be parceled out on an individual basis. Polystates might work for some of the more esoteric government functions, like education and healthcare (and then how do you deal with mass epidemics?), but you can’t have one polystate that is based on careful stewardship of the environment for all citizens peaceably coexisting with a fascist polystate structured on seizing and exploiting natural resources for a small elite. There have to be some overarching rules that everyone will have to obey.

  2. Peterson Silva

    I have a lot of trouble with this idea because it only deals with how governments interact with people, rather than how it interacts with things and resources, which is very important because this is the material basis for our living – a fascist is living in a house and next door a communist is living there too, but… Whose government takes care of allocating these houses? And how did it get the right to do so? War? How can one wage war in such circumstances? I get the idea of using just a part of a concept and developing it, but in this case it seems to leave behind a huge chunk of stuff that makes the whole idea much more complicated than the complications already arrived at by the fiction development itself… But then again I haven’t read the book, and I love Zach’s work, so I might be saying shit before I even read the bloody thing :)

  3. Rosie

    Oh, it’s a kindle book! Okay!
    If you want to get the book, here is the url: http://www.amazon.com/Polystate-Thought-Experiment-Distributed-Government-ebook/dp/B00IM5EM7W
    (It wasn’t directly on the SMBC website so I thought I’d save someone some hunting.)

    I had to hunt it down because I’m curious if he addresses public works like roads, street lights and law enforcement since all of those currently function around models completely dependent upon the attributes specific to a geostate. It sounds like a polystate would function under a post-scarcity civilization (more so than we currently have) so that public works like roads are probably inexpensive or moot. Like Zach mentions in the interview itself, the populace would be able to survive fracturing to the degree that a lone individual could survive and/or thrive without its fellow citizens geographically nearby. This isn’t all that implausible considering how globalization and the technology that enables globalization makes geographic distance less relevant. Where you live doesn’t solely determine the people you meet now or even work with.

  4. Asterisk

    Count me as another who’s had similar ideas kicking around in my head.

    I’ve actually been looking for examples in history and literature of political systems that resembled this, and I’ve found two viable real-world examples, and one very interesting fictional one.

    In the old Ottoman Empire, they had something called the “millet system” – “millet” is a Turkish word which literally means “nation”, but the millets were divisions of society organized not on the basis of national culture, but on religion. So there’d be a Muslim millet, a Jewish millet, a Catholic millet, an Orthodox millet, etc. The millets were formalized communities that had their own authoritative institutions, and these were not just religious institutions, but judicial and legislative ones as well. Most of what we’d today lump into the category of “personal law” or “social policy” was the responsibility of the millets, not of the central Ottoman government. The millets were non-territorial, so if you were e.g. Jewish, you’d be part of the Jewish millet no matter where you lived in the empire, even if you were in a region that was mostly Muslim or Christian, and would not be bound by the laws of the other millets. Of course, since this was completely based on religious affiliation, people could not easily switch to a different millet, or found their own, new millets.

    A modern example is, believe it or not, Belgium. That country has a complex federal system that maintains not just separate territorial governments for Flanders and Wallonia, but also separate community governments for the Flemish, Walloon, and German communities, i.e. the populations of people who are culturally French, Dutch and German, respectively (there’s a small German-speaking minority which mostly inhabits some of the border areas). Similarly to the Ottoman millet system, social policy is broadly within the scope of the community governments; other, more prosaic administrative responsibilities belong to the territorial governments instead. Also in common with the Ottoman example, the community governments are pre-defined, and people can’t found their own.

    I think for system that would approximate Zach’s vision to be feasible, there’d need to be something that approximated the Belgian system, but with a clear, constitutional definition of what powers belong to the communities and what powers belong to the territorial governments. People would need to be free to switch their ‘community’ citizenship, and free to charter their own formal communities with sovereignty over all matters belonging constitutionally to community governments. There’d also need to be a reliable mechanism for sorting out disputes that arise between members of different communities – which law would control, and which institutions would adjudicate it. This way, there’d always be options for people who prefer different policies, different roles for government in their social relations and personal undertakings, and different institutional models: one community government might implement a democratic-socialist model with a parliamentary system; another might be a hereditary monarchy with strictly limited powers.

    The fictional example, by the way, is the city of Sigil in the Planescape setting of Dungeons and Dragons. There are fifteen or so factions, organized according to philisophical affinity, and the philosophies are well-developed and nuanced. Each faction also has its own institutions, with the exception of one called the “Free League”, which is really just a loose association of individuals who don’t want to cede any authority to factional institutions, and the “Revolutionary League”, who actively oppose the existence of any institutions, anywhere. (If anyone’s interested, there’s a fantastic classic PC RPG called Planescape: Torment which delves into the faction politics quite a bit, and it’s one of the best computer games ever made.) The official government of the city is an enigmatic being called the Lady of Pain, who doesn’t interfere with people’s affairs, but whose equally enigmatic servants continuously repair and extend the infrastructure of the city.

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