Sunday, August 8, 2010

Ending Poverty, colonial style

The Atlantic has an article "The Politically Incorrect Guide to Ending Poverty" which is worth a read. This actually surprised me because it is a idea I have had for quite some time. Actually, it is a idea that a great number of people have had. It runs as such.

X is a really nasty/terrible/brutish place to live. Y is a well run place/country/corporation. If X were to hand over some small portion of their land as a colony of Y, then Y could run a colony in X. Call Y's colony in X Z. Because Y is so good at running things, it could run Z in X so well that it raises the quality of life and living for all people in X. Everybody wins.

There are of course a lot of details to work out. How autonomous is Z from X? Does Z operate on a completely separate legal code than X? Is Y a government, individual, or corporation? How are the incentives laid out? Will Z belong to Y forever, or does it someday revert to X? Does Z have the right to arm themselves? Many questions, very complicated.

But the idea is simple. If your country truly sucks, if the people are unhappy, if it could not run a lemonade stand without somehow purchasing weapons and jewelry for some despot. Then any change is kind of a good change. Ceding of portions of land, and allowing independent governments to run upon that land, might just be what you need to raise your nation out of its stupor.

The reason I like this idea is that I feel that poverty is often due more to a lack of options (choice) than a lack of basic care/goods/education/whatever. What is the point of saving wealth if your local warlord will take it away from you? What is the point of education if there would be no place to use it? I feel that what poor people really lack is a concrete way to figure out how to "build something up". I like the idea of city states (others might call them colonies) because it gives people choices. I don't want to force anyone to do anything, but I cannot see the harm in giving them a choice.

So, here comes the boy with the lego blocks and imagination! How would I build a city state?

In my mind the most important thing is preservation of wealth. People need to know that they can put their money away, and that there is a reasonable chance that it will be there tomorrow. They need to have the tax implications of making and storing their money be clear and understandable. They need to be confident in the salience of their money. They should feel comfortable leaving their money in the city state. You now have incentives to save, and to think long term.

Second most important thing is contract law. Within the walls of a city state, contract law must be enforced. Anyone who breaks a contract on bad terms is simply incapable of creating a new contract until they resolve the break. Contracts are realistically broken all the time, but usually good faith measures are made to make restitution from the breaker to the breakee.  There should be courts and judges that can quickly and efficiently resolve contract disputes. There should be mediators who can hopefully resolve contractual disputes without even having to go to court. The details are fun to think about but not too important. The important effect should be that if someone creates a valid contract within the city state, they should be reasonably certain that the contract will be enforced. You are now free to do business.

Finally, the third most important thing is the right of security. Within the walls of a city state, I would simply ban all weapons great and small. Tanks, RPGs, rifles, guns, knives, brass knuckles... umm, cowboy spurs... just about anything. I am a fairly pro-gun person, but we are talking about setting up city states in areas where coercion at the end of a rifle is common. No, you check any weapons you have when you enter the city. You agree to do no violence or physical intimidation within the city. If you break these rules, you are banned from the city (permanently if it is a bad offense). The cities own security forces are your only security. You should feel reasonably certain that the security forces are the only armed forces within the city. You should feel certain that your wealth will not be stolen, and that  your contracts will be enforced. You should feel safe and free to do business without needing to worry about the possibility of violence.

Do these city states address poverty for everyone? Absolutely not. Only people who want to and who choose to "use" the city state would actually benefit from them. It would not help the infirm, the disabled, the elderly, the young, and many many more. It would not help many people who need help. I recognize that many people need help who would not benefit from a city state, and I am not making any sort of judgement upon them. But a city state would help some, it would give them a choice where previously there was none. It would help those who can help themselves. It would help those who have the ability and the foresight to build for themselves. I think that would be a pretty good start.

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