Polystate: A Not-So-Bad Book About a Very Bad Idea

If you’re a reader of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, you may have noticed that its creator, Zach Weinersmith (or just Weiner; it’s complicated), recently wrote a book about a new form of government: Polystate. (If you’re not a reader of SMBC, well, you should be.)

Since Weinersmith’s comic is so clever, I thought the book might also be. Unfortunately, the idea of a “polystate” is pretty terrible. I do see its appeal, but it suffers from the same misunderstanding about politics that a lot of complaints about the “two-party system” suffer from. Sometimes, compromise is necessary, and compromise means you don’t get what you want.

The idea behind Polystate is that people living in the same geographic area might be citizens of different states[1]. Weinersmith calls these personal states “anthrostates,” in contrast with “geostates,” which are the familiar states defined in part by their territory. A “polystate,” then, is a territory with multiple anthrostates. If Lou Blue wants to live in a country with nationalized health care, he can pay the taxes for that benefit and get it. His neighbor, Ted Red, can pay lower taxes for fewer benefits. Everybody gets what they want.

While attractive, the proposal fails to appreciate where political conflict comes from. It’s not just some technological or bureaucratic limitation that makes us have to have the same government as our neighbors. It’s that so many human activities have what an economist would call externalities. Broadly speaking, the private, unregulated and seemingly benign behavior of some people can have consequences that affect others. Government steps in to manage those consequences.

For example, one person may wish to live in a community where their children are not exposed to overtly sexual material. Others want to sell pornography to customers who are eager to buy it. Government steps in and says that sexual materials may be sold, but in ways where they are not seen by children and others uninterested in them. It is no use to say, well, your anthrostate requires smut to be shielded, but your neighbor’s antrhostate says he can show anything anywhere. The neighbor’s behavior affects you, so you have to have the same rules. The rules are designed to manage the disagreement.

Or, take the minumum wage, which Weinersmith addresses briefly and inadequately. The crux of the minimum wage is the notion that, left to their unregulated devises, employers and employees might choose an arrangement in which the employee is poorly paid. The employee could be said to have freely chosen this wage, but some people believe that the bargaining power of the employer is such that workers, who need jobs, will accept grossly inadequate wages, since the alternative is no job at all. Since prices are public goods, if other people will take the job for a lower wage, everyone has to. Government steps in and sets a floor.

In both cases, perfectly reasonable and consensual actions by one set of people create a (possible) harm for others. And in both cases, the polystate is not neutral. By allowing different kinds of states to coexist, the polystate is essentially ruling in favor of the minimal government. Weiner regularly claims that his polystate does not reduce to a radical libertarian or anarchic state, but it comes pretty close.

We may well disagree about which of these harms are more serious, or even real. In the United States, we have chosen to try to maximize freedom, so the bar that has to be met by an externality is pretty high. But we still think that your freedom to swing your arm stops at my nose, and so we have to figure out which metaphorical noses need protecting. And we often disagree a great deal about that. That’s politics. Which harm is real, the one to an unborn child who might be aborted, or the one to the worker who risk his life in unsafe working conditions? Are we more concerned with the family that wants contraception so it can decide when it wants to grow, or the religious employer, who doesn’t want to pay for any contraception they feel is immoral?

So a polystate is a bad idea, because it ignores all these consequences. But it is also appealing. If only we could circumvent the need to agree with disagreeable neighbors!

The appeal of the polystate is the same as the attraction of minor parties and independent candidates. People want to be able to vote for a party that stands for exactly what they stand for. If you can’t live in your own anthrostate, maybe you can at least vote for it.

If all you care about is expressing your opinion, then that’s great. But if you care about policy, it matters who wins. At a bare minimum, that means thinking about how your vote will aggregate with others’ votes. Voting is a social act. The way in which voting is aggregated is different from the way in which policies are aggregated, and there can be room for multiple parties in an election, while there is no room at all for anthrostates in a civilized society. But, under our electoral rules[2], voting for minor parties doesn’t generally affect who wins. In the end, it is appealing in the same way that a polystate is appealing, but it’s not wise.

[1] That is, countries. Not states in the way that the subunits of the United States are states, but states in the way that nation-states are states.
[2] Under single-member districts with plurality rule, and with an Electoral College, it is very difficult for a third party to win significant political power.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Hans Noel

Hans Noel is an assistant professor of government at Georgetown University.