Thursday, September 24, 2009

Future Constitution Brainstorming

Note:  This think is long and complicated, and is still a rough outline in many ways.  Don't read unless you have some time to kill and an interest in politics, intellectual games, and/or the long-term future of humanity.  If you do read it, I certainly welcome as much feedback as possible:

Most countries operate based on constitutions that are decades or centuries old.  Some of these constitutions produce good outcomes for governments and societies, and some do not.  The constitution and institutions of a country have been shown to have a very large effect on individual liberty, social well-being, and economic growth.

We have learned a lot about political economy and game theory in the past few decades.  We have gathered a lot of data about the real-world effects of various political systems and constitutions.

For this reason alone, it is an interesting intellectual exercise to design a new constitution that keeps the positive features of governments that work and discards the features that produce inefficiencies and perverse incentives in government.

But there is another reason to rethink the rules that govern our society.  In recent decades, we have become aware of the implications of new technologies.  In the next century, it is possible that people all over the world will be forced to confront things like human life extension, artificial intelligence, cloning, the granting of sentience to animals, and the creation of new forms of sentient life.  We will have to make decisions about the rights and responsibilities of these new life forms and augmented humans.

I'm certainly not an expert, but I have never seen anyone else doing anything like this, so I'll give it a shot.  My eventual goal is to crate a workable constitution for some future state.  Obviously I'll need help.  I will start off with general principles and outlines, rather than trying to create the actual legal language.

Assume that our new state is a collection of floating cities in international waters that has, for some reason, declared independence from existing nations.  Or that it is colony of some kind in outer space, or the deep sea.  The specifics are not important, but I assume that it co-exists with existing governments without overthrowing them or attacking them in any way.  I also assume that all citizens of the state are willing immigrants who agree to the constitution.

The constitution is designed with four main objectives:

1) The government must provide the maximum value for its citizens, however those citizens choose to define value.
2) The government must have the ability and authority to protect its citizens from internal criminals and hostile external powers.
3) The government must have clear rules for who will be given citizenship in the cases of immigration, reproduction, and the potential creation of new sentient life.
4) The government must be designed remain stable for as long as possible, surviving all forseeable technological and social shocks.

I work under the following observations, assumptions, and philosophical priors:

1) Separation of powers is vital.  Having three independent branches of government: Legislative, Executive, and Judicial, seems to work pretty well.
2) A judicial system should be based on Common Law.  This is a vital check on the power of the other two branches, and reinforces the notion that the government must be bound by the law.
3) A proportional-representation parliamentary system works better than a winner-takes-all district system.

This could be the subject of an entire book, but the basic facts are that Europeans don't have the problems that Americans do with gerrymandered districts and a two-party lock on power.  Our voting system practically guarantees those bad outcomes.

4) Federalism improves the quality of government.

When more decisions are made at the local level, people have more ability to change governments and to move to different places.

5) There should be as few barriers to trade as possible within the nation.  Local ordinances and regulations create barriers to trade.

This conflicts directly with the previous point.  But we have observed lots of corruption and inefficiency with things like state licensing requirements, local cable monopolies, and separate state markets for insurance.  Whenever possible, the whole nation should be a single marketplace, allowing everyone to compete and making monopolies harder to maintain.

So far, the constitution does not deviate much from existing ones, and the actual language is a matter for lawyers.  But now I add some unique things that should help things run better, based on more observations.

6) Complicated laws passed in haste are typically bad.

Here is where a constitution can start to take advantage of new technology.  Whenever a law is proposed, it should be put out for public comment for an amount of time based on its length.  While the comments are not necessarily binding, the time delay should be.

7) Amendments to popular bills are opportunities for corruption.

Any changes to a bill should reset the time for public comment.  It become impossible to slip pork in at the last minute.  If you try, the whole process will get reset.

8) The fact that new laws are constantly being created means that the government inevitably grows in size and complexity, usually with bad results.

The constitution should include a clause saying that all laws automatically expire after a fixed amount of time, maybe ten years.  When the law expires, it can only be renewed after a full period of public debate.  This will mean that, after a decade, most of the legislature's time will be spent working on fixing old laws, instead of constantly introducing new ones.  The size and complexity of government should remain mostly stable, and it becomes harder for bad things to stay in due to inertia.  Unless the lobby fights for them constantly, they will fade away.

9) Legislators have little incentive to balance the budget, and a large incentive to send public money to their supporters.

The pay of the legislature, and to a lesser extent members of the executive branch, should be based on the state of the nation's finances.  The bonus for running a surplus should be fairly large.  Incumbents will also get no-strings-attached campaign funds if the budget situation is good.  This will align the incentives of the legislators with the taxpayers, and it should mean that all other legislators will oppose pork attempts.  Legislators will probably produce a large surplus and end up overpaid with a massive campaign war chest making them hard to get rid of, but that is a small price to pay for fiscal discipline.

10)  Taxes should, whenever possible, be consumption taxes on things that impose costs on society.

When you tax things like pollution, then you either get government money or you stop the bad action.  It is a win-win situation.  It probably isn't possible to fund a modern government solely with these kinds of taxes, but that is the ideal situation, because it means no taxes on income or productive activity.  The constitution should explicitly support this type of taxation.

There are some things, like drugs, smoking, and unhealthy food that impose large long-term costs on the consumer even though they are not really externalities.  These should also be taxed, especially if there is any system of social support for the sick, as there almost certainly would be.

I would personally support a system that taxed advertisements as costs to society, but there may be conflicts with freedom of speech.

Weapons should be taxed equal to the damage they do in crimes where they are used, with no other restrictions on owning any weapons that are not actually weapons of mass destruction.

11) Legal or bureaucratic controls harmful things should be replaced with a combination of taxes and legal protection.

As discussed above, taxing things equal to the damage they do, while keeping them legal, is better than strict rules created by a political process.  It allows more freedom, ensures that all things are taxed equal to the harm they cause, and means that policy decisions are based on real science.  Making vices illegal tends to feed organized crime, while taxes mean the state gets the money.

12) Restrictions on new and untested things should be replaced with an offer of legal protection.

Instead of having, for example, a Food and Drug administration that makes it illegal to sell new drugs until they meet approval, the following system should be supported:

You can sell anything you want.  However, the legal system assumes 'caveat vendor' and you can be sued for anything bad it does.  You may choose to have your product evaluated by a government agency.  If you do, you must pay whatever fees they assign, but you get to put an 'Approved' seal on your product.  And more importantly, if they approve a product and something goes wrong, all lawsuits are directed to the government agency.  Your company bears no legal risk.

Ideally, competition among agencies should keep things working smoothly.  Private companies could also enter into this 'legal coverage' market, if they think their 'Approved' seal can compete with the government's.  Most people would presumably be reluctant to buy anything without a seal of approval from the government or a trusted organization.


So far, the things I have presented are pretty tame.  People have probably proposed similar thongs in the past.  But now, I will show how the constitution will have to be written to deal with the results of advanced technology.  Consider the following points:

1) At some point in the future, the cost of creating a sentient life will become arbitrarily close to zero.  (This could be due to sentient computer programs copying themselves, and also artificial wombs that allow humans to painlessly produce children.)
2) All such lives deserve, and should be given, basic human rights.
3) Guaranteeing the rights and security of these lives will have a positive cost.
4) Some of these lifeforms will not be productive enough to pay sufficient taxes to cover the costs of guaranteeing their rights, yet will still be willing and able to reproduce.
5) If such lifeforms are allowed to reproduce unchecked, the government will eventually become bankrupt and/or society will collapse.
6) It is wrong to permanently deny reproductive rights to an innocent life, and government cannot be trusted with the power to make this decision.

Given these six points, I can only think of one stable solution.  The creation of sentient life should be taxed.  The creator should be forced to pay at least enough money to cover all of the costs that the state will bear from an additional citizen.  That way, the person who imposes a cost on the state, and not the innocent progeny, is the one who pays the cost.

This tax must be applied equally and fairly, covering all new forms of technology as well as 'old-fashioned' reproduction.  If this seems wrong to you, consider things from the point of view of an intelligent robot.  Why should it have to pay to reproduce when humans are allowed to do so for free?  Such institutionalized discrimination can only be destructive in the long run.

If the creator is unwilling or unable to pay the tax, then it is perfectly fair for the creator to be stripped of citizenship, and denied the ability to create more lifeforms.  The way that developed nations currently hand out the incredibly valuable resource of citizenship for free is unsustainable in the presence of advanced medical and computer technology.

7) In order for the standard of living of the society to increase, population growth must be less than economic growth.

Given this fact, and the potential ease of population growth, the number of citizenships handed out each year must be controlled.

8) Auctions are the best way of allocating scarce resources.

If you are not an economist, you might not believe this.  But it has been repeatedly shown that any other method of allocating things is inherently vulnerable to corruption, and generates loads of bureaucracy, inefficiency, and/or bad results for society.

So the constitution would have to create a mechanism for the government to put up for auction a number of citizenships based on recent economic growth.  These citizenships can be purchased by people who wish to reproduce, and also by people who want to immigrate into the country.  Note that while newborns of all types are assumed to be innocent, immigration can still be subject to the normal restrictions.  In order to get in, you have to buy a citizenship and also pass a background check to make sure you are not a criminal.

I also argue that it should be possible for people to sell their citizenship to anyone who meets a background check.  The government loses nothing by this, and it increases individual liberty.  The person selling the citizenship becomes a non-citizen, and presumably they did this because they have gained citizenship somewhere else.

This requires a rethinking of the concept of citizenship.  Currently, it is something that an individual possesses, usually from birth, that cannot be alienated from that person.  But with such a constitution, citizenship becomes something that can be bought, sold, and traded, like a share of ownership in a company.

Each citizenship would be eternal; it would be like a perpetuity that grants its bearer all the benefits of association with the state.  If the bearer died, the citizenship would be inherited like any other asset.

Note that a market for citizenships will develop.  The market price will be the net present value of being a citizen of that state for eternity.  This provides a powerful check and feedback mechanism for the government.  If the government passes a stupid law, then the market price of citizenships will fall.  This assumes that the market is sufficiently large and liquid to be efficient, but this will probably the case.  If the government makes a large portion of its revenue from selling citizenships, then legislators will have very powerful incentives to keep the value of a citizenship as high as possible.


Anonymous said...

I'll break this down into several comments for the sake of reading ease.

8) Would the '10 year' lifespan also apply to any constitutional amendments?

10) how do you put a price on damage from weapons? Is it the cost of losing a productive member of society? The cost of medical care? What? Is the monetary cost from a gun different from that of a knife?

Also, given the chance, anything can be a potential weapon. An equivalent- If... box-cutters started being used in crimes or just in one high profile crime, will box-cutters start being taxed for that damage? Oh, what about chemicals or biological agents that are also potentially damaging poisons or acids but crucial to industry/research? Taxing those could drive up industrial costs...

E said...

With citizenship being limited, would this not produce a two-part society of citizens and non-citizens? "May I see your papers?"... How would you prevent creation of an 'underworld' or separated society?

If citizenship is a asset/commodity that can be bought and traded, is it something that can for example be taken away when you cannot pay debts? What actions or consequences would lead to loss of citizenship? Unauthorized reproduction, and what else?
Also, stripping of citizenship for the parent- for humans, would it be BOTH parents/donors of chromosomes? Otherwise, that may disproportionately affect women. Or wait, are you assuming biological organisms would be born in vats by then? Well, even then humans still require 2 different sets of chromosomes, unless they are cloned...

E said...

What happens when/if economic growth dropped lower than can support the current # of citizens? Do you just sit tight and wait for enough to die off? What if no one dies off easily by then? Ask for voluntary auctions? Or would people be going elsewhere by that time anyway?

Inheriting citizenship:
How is it tracked? By numbers, in order of creation? I'm assuming there would be some sort of tracking, in order for the state to know how many citizens it can boast having... just thinking of the potential for something like 'legacy' citizenship to come into being, perhaps even give higher social status (in growing societies). Also, for instance, if there were non-changeable IDs associated with each citizenship, recycled citizenships that come to the auction block with lower numbers, or associated with certain people may fetch higher prices.

Alleged Wisdom said...


8) Given the increased difficulty of making amendments, they should probably be permanent.

10) Both. You find all the medical costs and deaths caused by something, add up the value, and divide by the number of things sold, to come up with the tax per item. The value of a life is determined by the choices average people make for themselves, like insurance coverage and the extra salary they demand for risky jobs.

Taxing things that have a low-probability chance of causing a lot of damage is tricky. But if the numbers support it, it would be fair to drive up industrial costs if it means making potential chemical or biological weapons less accessible. Our current regulations have that same effect, and they are much less fair and transparent than a simple unit tax.

Alleged Wisdom said...


Everyone who is born gets a citizenship. Either your creator paid for it, or your creator's citizenship is taken away and given to you. Sorry I didn't make that clear.

In the case of natural birth, then only the father would be stripped of citizenship. The mother and child remain citizens, unless you can prove that the mother willfully got pregnant with a non-citizen. Presumably the society would have the genetic records of everyone on file. Specific details would be left to the legislature.

The government is free to make whatever laws it wants regarding what crimes mean a loss of citizenship.

Loss of citizenship could imply imprisonment, deportation, or living in the country but being denied state services. Those decisions are best left to the government to revise as necessary.

Remember that there are other countries around, so you can go there if they are willing to take you.

If economic growth stagnated, it would be perfectly fair to stop population growth. The only other alternative is a Malthusian trap.

I never thought about people valuing some citizenships more than others. I think that the market would only work well if all of them were identical commodities. So the ID numbers should be changed each time they transferred ownership. You can scrub the history details while still making sure the right amount is in circulation.

E said...

btw Anon & E are one & the same- sorry, accidentally clicked 'anon' for the first comment...

Curious- What's your reasoning for revoking father's citizenship?

so wait, if everyone who is born automatically gets citizenship, then...

if one reproduces without a second parent, and without paying the tax, why would their citizenship be taken, and yet the offspring becomes a citizen? Does this mean the state takes over care of the child? Would that really be more cost effective? (I would guess not). This might not be a problem for beings that don't have the need for gestation or development like humans, but for future 'humans' this may be problematic unless they're keeping the offspring in a vat until full grown. If that's the case, then again, the concept of 'family' has probably already been radically redefined, so... then back to the 'which parent?' question: why choose to make only the father an alien if the mum no longer is the traditional 'bearer?

It may be less problematic to make a choice like that if you instead take ALL creators involved and revoke citizenship, then offer them the option to get it back at a later date through the auction. Presumably they would either take their kid and leave, either forever or until citizenship were reinstated, or the state would take care of the kid until they returned. Birth control and family planning/support better be a helluva lot better and accessible for everyone then (bet that'd weed out lots of religious fundamentalists right there), but I still cringe at the idea of the state imposing involuntary controls on births though (I keep thinking of forced sterilization...)

Right, scrubbing the history was the solution I also considered to prevent citizenships becoming socially stratified.

ooooh, with citizenship becoming a commodity as well as a privilege, what does that mean for the existence of citizenship tests? No more? Before you enter the auction?

Alleged Wisdom said...

Making the father pay for natural births or get kicked out is the better default option, because women are 'paying' more of the costs already, are more likely to be the primary caregiver. Also there are the potential problems associated with rape or coercion; you don't want to punish women further if they didn't really have a choice. It seems fair to make the man financially responsible.

In nontraditional births, the donor of genetic material (who may not even know about the procedure) is less important. The person operating the vat is held responsibile.

In this country, I imagine that there would be a large supply of people willing to adopt children. Give the child to whoever is most qualified to raise it.

I wanted to keep the number of citizenships constant no matter what people did. One loss, one gain. Of course, you have a problem when one person grows twenty clones of himself in vats. Still, it seems wrong to destroy two citizenships for the creation of one life. But I guess joint liability/punishment could make sense, and give the state some spare citizenships.

The whole point of this is to prevent involuntary controls on birth. You can do whatever you want, assuming you are willing to pay the costs, and there are costs associated with adding people to the state. You can leave at any time and go somewhere that does not have the laws.

Immigration can still be subject to the normal restrictions, like passing a test and a background check. After you win the auction, you have to pass the check. If you fail, you put your citizenship back on the market.