American elections in 2007 and 2008 were plagued by issues with the voting machines manufactured by Premier Election Solutions, formerly a subsidiary of the U.S. ATM manufacturer Diebold. Because of concerns ranging from hacker access to dropped votes, citizens were uncertain if their preferences for representatives had been properly recorded. Imagine, then, the panic that would have ensued if the voting had been not just for congressmen and city officials, but for entire methods of political rule.
This type of world, in which each citizen would be free to choose his or her own governmental system, is the subject of a new book by Zach Weinersmith titled “Polystate: A Thought Experiment in Distributed Government.” Weinersmith, best known as the creative behind the popular webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, is fascinated by the continual explosion of choice and customizability in human life as facilitated by technology. As 3-D printing enables custom-printed houses and online dating services let people easily sort through thousands of potential mates, he wonders how government will respond to the tendency toward personalized life experience.
“Polystate” represents Weinersmith’s attempt to work out one possible solution to this question. His hypothetical society consists of a collection of “anthrostates,” governments that proscribe laws and support institutions but have no geographical boundaries. Each citizen of a polystate would choose allegiance to an anthrostate, agreeing to be bound by its regulations and gaining the advantages of its services. Citizens of multiple anthrostates would coexist in the same region, with next-door neighbors possibly choosing to live under completely different systems. One family, for example, might pledge its loyalty to a collectivist society where taxes are distributed equally, while another on the same block might join a theocracy where tithes go to the building of churches and the attendance of religious services is mandatory.
Importantly, citizens would be able to change anthrostate on a regular basis, allowing them to experiment with different types of governance. He contrasts this situation to that of the current geopolitical climate, where people are born into “geostates” (traditional nations such as Mexico and Canada) and can only change their government with great difficulty, if at all. This sort of “permanent revolution,” the author contends, would swiftly remove support from unjust rulers and help eliminate corrupt systems. As he writes regarding the growth of North Korea, “It is hard to imagine that he [Kim Jong-un] would have this larger population if any of his citizens could have freely switched to any other government.”
Weinersmith argues that advances in technology would remove many of the obstacles associated with this sort of society. Digital currency and computerized money markets, for example, could alleviate the headaches caused by the unique financial systems of coexisting anthrostates, while improved artificial intelligence could help arbitrators navigate conflicting legal codes in now-common “international incidents.” Numerous benefits, such as the difficulty of waging war between nations with distributed populations, would also arise organically from the system. Yet the author does not shy from offering a realistic view of the problems facing a polystate, from international trade to the possibilities of tax evasion and cheating.
Although the author’s discussions of inter-anthrostate relations and personal choice in a polystate society are thoroughly fleshed out, the book leaves a number of vital issues unresolved. Weinersmith separates most of these “potentially insoluble objections to a polystate” into the short third section of the book, but they are (perhaps inevitably) some of the most interesting points raised. How might a polystate deal with contested ownership of sacred locations? How could anthrostates maintain continuing projects such as social security with continually fluctuating populations and demographics? And, most importantly, how would this society become established in the first place? A short story from the perspective of a polystate citizen (an idea briefly considered in a footnote) could have done much to bring the theorizing of the book to life, as well as grounded the work in the larger tradition of books such as B. F. Skinner’s “Walden Two” and Thomas More’s “Utopia.”
Still, “Polystate” provides a thought-provoking hypothesis of how the future of government may develop. As Weinersmith writes in the introduction, his work of “poli sci fi” is meant to encourage reflection on future possibilities, giving readers the chance to consider the implications of current trends. His “educated speculation” is well worth the time and is sure to spark discussion amongst thoughtful readers.