Opt-in market socialism

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Opt-In Market Socialism: a resolution to the dispute over taxation and social safety nets

The Basic Split

America seems to have two primary visions of what society and government should be like, each of which is more or less in exact disagreement with the other on certain key points.

Broadly speaking, we have:

  • Libertarians / anarcho-capitalists / market capitalists / conservatives who argue that government should be "small" and unobtrusive, only the fittest should survive, individuals should be self-reliant, and competition between businesses will solve the problem of optimizing goods and services for the benefit of all, and income inequality is simply a reflection of the fact that some people are winners and some are losers (i.e. economically unproductive people become poor because they're economically unproductive).

Let's call that ^ philosophy Frontierism.

  • Liberals / socialists who argue that there should be a social safety net because even the most self-sufficient person can run into bad luck and need a little help and private charity has historically been woefully inadequate, poor people are economically unproductive mostly because they're poor, and free contraception saves money, and free medical care saves money, and sex education reduces unwanted pregnancies, and legal/safe abortion leads to a saner society, and income inequality is bad, and pollution is bad, and workers deserve universal safety standards... and a whole slew of other things the other group tends not to like.

...and let's call that ^ Supportism.

From here, the Frontierist side seems to be winning (with a few minutes of research, I believe I could pull up a long litany of recent Frontierist legislation). Arguments supporting the Frontierist position seem to have wide, solidly-based appeal, despite being easily refuted.

What if we didn't have to have one system for everyone?

What if individuals could choose, upon achieving adulthood, which kind of system they'd rather be in -- one with more obligations and more benefits, or one with more of a frontier "you're on your own" mentality? What if we could just let this whole argument go -- those of us who want a safety net can create it, and those who want to make use of it can make use of it, and everyone else can have all the ineffective government they want?

The obvious catch... well, there are several obvious catches, but I suspect this is the key one... is what you do when a Frontierist runs into trouble they can't handle, and asks the Supportist system for help [1]. If anyone can switch systems whenever they need help, then we have the classic "insurance" problem: everybody will be a Frontierist (no taxes! no obligations!) until they need help, then join the Supportists until they're back on their feet, then return to the Frontierists -- or, at least, there will be a strong economic incentive to do so.[2]

I don't know what the solution is, but it seems likely that there is one. Some obvious ideas -- Frontierists joining the Supportist society[3] could be required to choose from the following list (which might be restricted depending on their circumstances):

  1. Surrender all their existing assets and start over at the lowest rung of Supportist society (which we would design to be quite tolerable, given the nature of Supportism)
  2. Agree to be a spokesperson for Supportism for some length of time -- perhaps proportional to how long they have been a Frontierist, or proportional to how much help they needed to get back to a state of equilibrium...
  3. Put them in a special extra-high tax bracket for some length of time (see #2)

Anyway... going with the assumption that this problem can be solved, here's the next "what-if":

Government Competition

Instead of having one monolithic Supportist government, how about setting up lots of different ones, each one trying a different set of parameters (e.g. rules for Frontierist joiners, how taxation works, how the social safety net works...)

In other words, let socialist governments compete in the marketplace. (Hey, is that ironic, possibly?)

The following advantages to this system suggest themselves (in addition to being able to work out the optimal parameters through artificial selection over time):

(a) We could start relatively small -- how many people do we need to have in order for the average of the fortunes and misfortunes of individual members to have an acceptable likelihood of remaining within reasonable bounds over some length of time (say, 20 years)?

(b) If any individual Supportist government becomes evil, people could just leave it for another one.

Yes, there are lots of issues that would need to be resolved, but the only one that looks like it might be a show-stopper is that there are a lot of issues on which you can't isolate people from each other's decisions. If the Supportists have a water-monitoring program for local streams, Frontierists benefit from it. If Supportists determine that a certain factory is polluting the stream, but the factory owner is a Frontierist, there's no obvious way to stop the pollution.

So maybe there would have to be a geographic element to this as well... which is when the idea starts collapsing back towards more conventional political boundaries, which (I think) has been shown not to be a satisfactory solution. So maybe we need to find other ways of dealing with those "in my back yard" problems.


  1. coughcoughAynRandcough
  2. Many people, of course, do have principles and would not do this -- many Frontierists would sooner die than accept Supportist help, and many Supportists would stick with their system even if they didn't expect to need it themselves, knowing that their membership helps pay for help that others need ...but we can't count on there being enough principled people to keep Supportism economically solvent, given that there will be unprincipled people.
  3. presumably this would most often happen in an emergency, we'd probably have to extend some trust, expend some resources with no promise and take the chance that they'd renege... but we could withhold full service until they agreed to the terms -- e.g. put out the fire, but don't help rebuild; do the life-saving operation, but not the one that fixes the problem.