Or, why I am really a "geo-mutualist" and why I think you should be too!
The revolution has begun. In fact it’s been building for at least twenty years. When history looks back it will not probably be able to identify a particular date, but it could do worse than choose Christmas Day 1990, the day a humble academic computing geek communicated with his server in something nobody had really heard of called "hyper text". Finally there was something useful to do with the "internet" that would eventually draw in users from well outside of the ivory towers and military research facilities that developed it. Users in every corner of the world; users of every age and race; users of every background.
And what will history say about this revolution? Will it be seen as a great leap in human freedoms, capable of finally fulfilling Cobden’s vision that "peace will come to earth when the people have more to do with each other and governments less"? Or perhaps that it heralded an era of unprecedented interference in our lives by governments?
Actually, I think it is a one way bet; that eventually it will be a revolution in human freedoms, in co-operation and in innovation. Such are the players in this brave new world; hackers working to bust the Great Firewall of China and liberate a fifth of the world’s population for example; Kenyans being the first to be able to make payments quickly and simply by mobile phone; privacy technologists working to keep us one level of information security ahead of the law; game players investing ever more realistic virtual worlds; their individuality and very lack of co-ordination in many cases makes it inevitable.
What politicians can do, however, is either to make the transition long and painful, or to smooth its passage for the "good of mankind" so to speak. We can choose to stick by the state and try and keep it working just as its citizens are less and less tied to it, which will inevitably lead to more and more monitoring and restrictions; or we can choose to look at how to build alternative civic institutions and mechanisms to fulfill our needs in an era when the state has much less power to intervene at least without the force that is endemic in state action becoming more and more obvious to the point of rebellion against it.
So what is the great weapon of mass destruction that is going to bring low the state as we know it? Why, tax, of course. I’ll let you into a little secret: in order to function a state needs to be able to tax: in order to tax it needs to have the ability to track transactions or peoples’ wealth and changes therein. And from the taxpayer’s point of view, there is every incentive to try to minimize their tax liability. Up until now, or very recently, it has been only the global super-rich who have had the means and sufficient incentive to take advantage of loopholes and allowances that enable them to choose the lowest tax jurisdiction in which to crystalize out their tax liability.
But thanks to the global and interpersonal nature of this most recent communications revolution we are on the cusp of mechanisms being easily available to the big majority of people that will enable us to minimize our "financial footsteps". When most of us only ever relate to the majority of our money through pixels on a screen or numbers on a bank statement – a small minority of trade now relies on real metal or crinkly coloured paper currency – what does it matter what those pixels are called; pounds, dollars, euro, yen? What about a completely new, essentially fictitious currency perhaps, like the "Linden Dollars" of "Second Life"?
Add e-Bay and Tesco to Second Life for example and one could imagine a world in which most of your financial transactions are conducted entirely in cyberspace, in virtual worlds that know no territorial boundaries or tax regimes (or at least that could be relocated into a sympathetic tax jurisdiction quickly if necessary), but with delivery of goods and services in the physical world. That’s not to say giants like Tesco and e-Bay would necessarily be best, or would necessarily even survive the upheaval.
Those widespread international (and local) interpersonal (and business-to-business) mechanisms for sophisticated modern-day barter are now within reach and threaten the very raison d’etre of many of our longest standing institutions – banking and currency, transnational corporations built in an era when intermediaries were necessary to trade with far off lands, and ultimately the basis on which the state is founded – its monopoly of taxation. At the same time we can form non-geographic communities of genuinely voluntary co-operation in which we can build trust relationships, quasi-legal ways of dealing with disputes and so on that make trade possible with people a few short years ago we would have never had a hope of even communicating with.
So, which side are you going to be on – freedom and co-operation or ever more intrusion, regulation and restriction? And how long have we got?
Some of these technologies fall into the category of "overestimated penetration at 2 years, underestimated at 10 years." I think the state will be lucky if it has another decade of relatively easily collected taxes based on productivity, sales and incomes. If people want the state to be able to function beyond that, without increasingly authoritarian intrusion into our economic lives, we need to be looking now at how to make it pay its way through user fees for any value for money services we want it to provide. And as soon as it does of course it must also open itself to competition – else it’s a monopoly again whose only rationale is to use its discretionary power to rip off the very people who both fund and use its services.
Unsurprisingly any of the various forms of land value tax will do to start with and would be especially beneficial implemented soon, near the bottom of the crash in land values currently underway. The present situation in financial markets offers an ideal opportunity for new means of trading without the sort of money so invidiously inflated and deflated by the banking cartels. Again, these alternatives could operate either on a local scale or in an international, or non-geographic trading community. Land has the singular benefit of being immoveable. You can’t virtualize land as easily as you can income – for we all still need to have a base somewhere.
There’s another major reason for helping this process away from the power of and dependency on nation states rather than fighting it – the state is expensive. The sort of redistributive measures required to ensure that everyone gets a fair crack at opportunity – the level playing field – are getting more and more expensive. Our interventions into the affordable housing market for example, in the form of subsidy, will continue to rise when land values rise, subsidizing the already-haves in the name of assisting the have-nots. Far better to try to ensure the fairest of level playing fields for all than trying to play uphill on a steepening playing field.
So, when you find me criticizing the state and its acolytes, it’s less about what has gone on in times past – I would say times of missed opportunity for sure – but more on how we will be able to live in future, a future I think is pretty inevitable, in which the very idea of a state with the power to tax fairly will be severely compromised. The elephant in the room needs to be dealt with, and dealt with soon. Will it be freedom, or more desperate attempts to maintain the ailing state structures? You choose!