A group of citizens in Sardinia is petitioning Rome. Their request: sell their island to Switzerland.
The group’s founder states: “The madness does not lie in putting forward this kind of suggestion. The madness lies in how things are now.”
I’m sympathetic to his argument. From all I can gather (mostly by reading – but also in a recent visit to Italy), Italy’s national government is pretty bad at governance.
This is not the first time something (sort of) like this has been put forth: Hong Kong is perhaps the most prominent example of a city being ruled by a foreign country; and the charter city movement, led by Paul Romer, seeks to construct similar (but voluntary) arrangements elsewhere.
Of course, selling actual land goes beyond time bound legal jurisdiction, but the general idea of “competitive governance” intrigues me.
In the world of education reform, charter schools being able to select their authorizers is probably the most analogous situation – though this relationship is between corporation and regulator, not citizen and government.
With the lens in mind, some thoughts (by someone who is not an expert and only spent 30 minutes mulling this over):
Pros of Being Able to Choose Your Own National Government
1. This could provide a good incentive for more effective government behavior: tax revenue is lost when your citizens leave, so you better govern them well.
2. Innovation could increase: when you have to compete for your customers, you tend to generate more / better ideas.
3. This could lead to more start-ups: governments could form with the explicit purpose of trying to gain citizens through exceptional governance.
4. Liberty might increase: citizens could have the power of exit as well as the power of the ballot box.
5. Tolerance might increase: the world might be a little more cosmopolitan if government wasn’t tied to geography; also minority populations would have an escape hatch from terrible majorities, which could temper the worst instincts of majorities.
Cons of Being Able to Choose Your Own National Government
1. Launching a race to the bottom: for example, governments with lax pollution regulations might be attractive to a region that pollutes a lot, especially if the costs of this pollution are born by other regions.
2. This could lead to an increase in authoritarian governments: if governments constantly felt threatened by their populations leaving, they might seek to exert tighter control on the activities of their citizens, so as to suppress succession movements.
3. Increased global instability: historically, annexing and succeeding territory has led to much bloodshed; the fact that this is on its face a peaceful process doesn’t mean it would lead to peaceful outcomes.
As with much in public policy, one of the basic tensions here is between innovation and stability.
In general, I think the main function of government is to prevent absolute disasters from happening. Human history is littered with violence, and stable, democratic governments seem to be decent at mitigating our most violent tendencies (relatively speaking).
So my instinct is to tread lightly.
The main counterargument to this line of thinking is that most democratic governments, while in many ways better than those of the past, are still pretty terrible when it comes to existential threats. We should be spending way more public resources on the global catastrophic risks covered in this book.
So perhaps the real threat is that if we don’t get better governments we’re all going to die anyways.
All in all, I guess I’m in favor of small scale pilots. Let’s experiment with charter cities and the like. If it works, let’s try to scale them.
One last thought: I once worked with the Tibetan Government In-exile on their democratic structures. The most fascinating part of their democracy: exiles could vote for the home government offices regardless of where they lived. And, for their Congress, it was proportional representation based on how many exiles lived in each region; i.e., Europe got X seats, North America Y seats, and so forth. And the government existed in the shadow (the light?) of their living God, the Dalai Lama, who held incredible sway of the prime minister.
All of which is to say: there’s probably a million ways to run a democracy other than the ways with which we are most familiar.