July 2011

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Labs and Cafeterias: Night Thoughts About Government

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Thirty years ago or more, I imagined an area of space known as "the Lab", in which humans discovered hundreds of empty earth-like planets orbiting adjoining stars. An administration would be set up to receive and grant applications from groups that wanted to leave a beleaguered, over-crowded Earth. The basic idea was to give almost anyone who asked a planet to run as they see fit, then to come back a hundred years later to learn the outcome.

Imagine a planet run by the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Taliban or Al Qaeda; Lyndon LaRouche, the Scientologists, or the Church of Latter Day Saints; a Catholic planet or a Libertarian or Tea Party planet. Communist and socialist planets, Green Party planets, and so on. You wouldn't even need an ideology; you might apply with ten thousand of your closest friends and get a planet, to be operated on the premise that you picked the most intelligent and sympathetic people you know, and we are going to do at least as good a job as the Framers of America, but without the slavery.

The idea for the Lab was born from the perception that all of the war and many of the other problems humans suffer on earth comes from the limited space, the fact that people of unlike views, who will never reach accomodation, are forced to share the planet, and its continents, nations and cities. Ross Perot, a crackpot in so many ways, impressed me with his declaration that we must "lead, follow or get out of the way". So much gridlock--including the U.S.'s current and possibly terminal paralysis--is caused by people who exert power and are unable or unwilling to do any of the three. By giving all the different groups a planet where they can lead unimpeded, we would create a laboratory for human governmental ideas where groups could succeed or fail without outside interference. No-one to blame but themselves.

I believe I know how most of these planets would work out. A hundred years later, some of the planets--the Taliban planet, the Al Qaeda planet--would be almost uninhabited, because run by people who know how to kill and die, not to live. The libertarian planet would look like Earth's middle ages, with powerful barons and helpless serfs. Would any of those planets be thriving? My guess is that the ones which would be decent places to live would be the ones which started on some sort of democratic premise. Would any be utopias? Probably not, because human nature does not permit that. We could be wonderful adults, if we weren't such ridiculous children.

This week, I hit on another wonderful daydream, a way to implement a version of the lab on earth. Not by separating populations, like the partition of India and Pakistan, which was accomplished with much murder and continues to involve periodic mass murder. Instead, by offering a cafeteria version of government.

There are really two elements to a political belief. The first is the basic idea: I would be better off under a minimal goverrnment, or on the contrary, one with the most extensive safety net possible. The second element, which we think flows from the first but is actually somewhat loosely coupled is: so would everybody else. The more subjective, the more morally-derived, the belief, the more we want to mandate that everyone else live the same way. The prime example is abortion, where the premise "I never want to have an abortion" becomes "and neither should anyone else." (Shades of a great bumper sticker: "Against gay marriage? Don't have one".)

Here is my modest proposal: a system of opt in government completely consistent with democracy, in fact arguably much more democratic than a system in which a majority of voters (or minority of activist billionaires) get to dictate how the rest live. Essentially a governmental cafeteria plan. At age 18, you choose which of the available benefits you want, and your taxes are structured accordingly. Do you want a government single payer health insurance plan? You agree to pay more tax in return. Don't want government health insurance? Pay less. Oppose abortion? The pledge you sign on your eighteenth birthday asks the government to prosecute you if you ever obtain an abortion, or facilitate someone else's.

This way, the citizens of the country could each individually determine how much they want the government involved in their lives. The main objection to government, "Why should I pay taxes to support things in which I do not believe?", goes away. The only unsatisfied element is the desire, really inappropriate, to force everyone else to live the way you do.

Of course, to make this work, we would have to police quite carefully eligibility for benefits. Nobody who opted for lower taxes should receive those elements they decided not to pay for. Someone who signed a declaration at age 18 that they do not desire to pay for, or receive, Social Security, should not be permitted to change her mind at age 65. And the single most difficult, but completely necessary, part of the plan would be to turn away from the emergency room anybody without insurance or ability to pay who had opted out of the health care system.

Beautiful, isn't it? We could co-exist while each living under the system of our choice. And it would function like a laboratory; in a hundred years, we will see which part of the population is healthy, educated and prosperous and who is struggling.