Thursday, 14 July 2011

Human sacrifice or ice skating?

nationcrafting: human sacrifice or ice skating

Today is 14 July, Bastille Day in France. Every town and city is getting ready for fireworks and public celebrations.

Interestingly, this year, the day after Bastille Day is tax freedom day in France. No fireworks or public celebrations, but an interesting subject to ponder about while recovering from a hangover.

Tax Freedom Day: the day that separates the income you've earned this year which is confiscated by the tax man, from the income which you get to keep for yourself.

Much has been written about the Aztecs' custom of sacrificing something or someone dear to them to the gods, hoping in return for sufficient crops to last them through the winter season.

Taxes are a sacrifice of similar proportions today, with perhaps equally dubious outcomes: Europeans, every year, sacrifice six months of full-time work to the state, hoping in return for a roof over their head and food in their belly during the winter season of their lives.

As for actual human sacrifice, no Aztec gods ever demanded it in such quantities as the various states of Europe did throughout the twentieth century. Millions of their victims' names cover the monuments of our city squares. The 'morts pour la patrie' - those who 'died for the fatherland' - are actually the lucky ones: the unlucky ones were deported, gassed to death and turned into soap bars.

Let's see if we can improve this depressing picture. Let's re-frame the interaction between the nation and the citizen, by looking at the role of the state as that of a nation-services provider.

The first thing to strike us is fundamental: service providers do not normally kill or threaten to kill their customers, nor do they rely on coercion to get customers to keep on buying their services regardless of the quality of service provided. Customers are not forced to part with their money to purchase anyone's goods or services. There is no "buy this, or else...".

Instead, designers and product developers in competing companies have to make a great deal of effort to offer something different and better to attract customers. The interaction with the customer is done on a voluntary basis, making customers much more powerful than citizens.

Your phone service provider doesn't claim the right to send you to fight a war against other phone providers, killing and maiming their customers - whom you have no personal quarrel with - or being killed by them instead.

Your phone service provider doesn't force you to pay more because your neighbour cannot afford the service. You are free to pay for your neighbour if you feel it is your moral duty to support him using you own, personal set of values and human compassion.

Your phone service provider doesn't send you to jail if you judge the price or service to represent bad value for money and decide to spend your money on other providers, or even other goods and services instead.

The same cannot be said about most state institutions.

Let's consider, as an example, the famous case of Rosa Parks, the American black civil rights heroine who wouldn't sit in the back of the bus.

In a free market, Rosa Parks would simply have been an alternative customer. Bus companies would perhaps have labelled her a "niche market", and if the bus she was on prohibited her to sit anywhere but the back, another bus company would surely have seen the opportunity to cater for her segment of the market and advertised the fact that, on their buses, black people can sit anywhere they like. Problem solved.

Instead, Rosa Parks faced the inflexibility of a state which claimed the rules of interaction to be just fine as they were and, rather than seeking to improve the service it offered to the citizen, was so opposed to the idea of change that it sent policemen and soldiers to stop it from happening.

This is not that surprising: the state is, after all, a monopoly. There is no competition to it within its geographical space. The natural outcome of this state of affairs is that perfectly decent people have to go on hunger strikes, fight the police, be labelled criminals and even die before change can be effected. You see, change always comes from the outside: it arises when an external factor is applied to a balanced system, making it lose its balance and then to find a new equilibrium point that takes the new factor into account. If a geographical monopoly status exists, as it currently does in the nation services sector, then change can only really occur when customers vote with their feet, or when they apply political force. The external factors that would give citizens the power of customers simply do not exist. So, change and improvement cannot happen at anywhere near the pace we are used to seeing in other areas of our lives.

Let me be clear, corporations are by themselves just as keen as the state to maintain a status quo that is favourable to them. It's just that external factors are applied to their balance by other corporations that are just as keen to find new customers. In a free market, you just change providers. Customers who are unhappy with their mobile phone service will just switch over to another provider. Furthermore, where no good provider exists at a particular price, any customer can try to become a provider himself. As a result of this, a new provider will quickly arrive on the market, constantly offering better goods and services at lower prices to the consumer.

The moral case is even stronger: the free market model of competing nation-service providers is the only space today that makes possible, for example, the concept of civil disobedience, Gandhi's theory of individual non-participation with evil. Customers are, by definition, free not to participate in whatever project they consider evil and take their custom to a competitor. Even political change is sometimes effected via consumer mass boycotts.

Outside of the state, every sector of our lives is constantly being designed and re-designed, analysed and modified, rethought and relaunched, sampled and optimised for personal preferences, cultural bias and local prices.

Outside of the state, everything you see around you - from fragrances to furniture, from tableware to technology - has been designed to make you happy. Where it has failed to do so, an opportunity exists for new designers to improve things.

Outside of the state, economics and design are closely intertwined lovers: we give them the freedom to meet and play together, and they glide, pull and dance around each other, more perfectly synchronised than the most elegant pair of ice skaters, and more beautiful to watch than any Bastille Day fireworks.


  1. > Your phone service provider doesn't force you to pay more because your neighbour cannot afford the service. You are free to pay for your neighbour if you feel it is your moral duty to support him using you own, personal set of values and human compassion.

    Actually, price discrimination does occur in quite a few places - museums, amusement parks and the like often charge less to children, students and seniors because those demographics tend to be poorer. Also, back when the US had a real private health care system (rather than the insurance/employer-based mess they have right now) doctors would often charge less to poorer patients. This is not only out of charity - the providers actually maximize their profits by doing this.

    Minor nitpick, but I think this actually strengthens your point since it makes something close to proportional taxation (which most people support over a head tax) viable in a free market nation society.

  2. That's a very good point, selven. And, as you say, it even strengthens the case for government not interfering in sectors that are beyond its core functionality (e.g. the night watchman state), since it shows that many of the current 'redistributive' functions - which many people have slowly accepted as a positive aspect of big government - are practicable in different, citizen-customer types of interaction system too.