Polycentric Systems

“In every club, society, joint-stock undertaking, we submit to guidance; we give up a part of our views and desires to gain the more important object – yet when we do so, nobody accuses us of sacrificing our own guiding sense, or of being corrupt, or of entering into a hurtful and dangerous traffic. Yes – I should reply – but in all these voluntary associations you retain your own free choice; you can enter into them or leave them, as you think right; and that free choice in all these cases is the saving element.”

The Voluntaryist Creed ~ Auberon Herbert, page 18.

“The remedy is to Individualize the occasions for co-operation, leaving every one free to render or withhold his assistance, according to his individual views of the individual case now present in hand.”

True Civilization: an Immediate Necessity and the Last Ground of Hope for Mankind by Josiah Warren, quoted in Political Economy From Below by Rob Knowles, page 12.

Today I want to talk about free association, about working together with others while reserving for oneself the choice to break away from any group of which one is a part.

A societal system in which people have this ability I call a “polycentric system.” The word probably sounds to most people like it describes an incredibly complex idea, but I think it is an idea that is perfectly understandable to most. It merely goes, too often, unarticulated.

What is Polycentricity?

By “polycentric system” I mean a network of associations or groups of people with the following characteristics:

  1. Members of all groups in the network joined their respective groups voluntarily;
  2. Each individual has the ability to leave any group in the network at any time, for any reason, at no cost to them beyond sunk costs;
  3. Anyone can join an association of their choosing if the other members of the association agree to consider them a member.
  4. Anyone can create a new association and invite others to join them.
  5. If people wish, they can refuse membership in any group or association at all and attempt to go it alone.

The second principle, the perpetual and universally held ability to exit any association at no cost beyond sunk costs is the key characteristic that distinguishes polycentric systems from other sorts of systems, in my conception.

For example, the United States federal government requires their subjects, (us,) to relinquish our citizenship and physically relocate to somewhere outside of the area claimed by the government as their domain before considering us no longer bound by their edicts or subject to their punishments for disobedience.

The U.S. government claims more than three and a half million square miles of land as its domain, roughly 6% of all land on Earth. Moving somewhere else is costly.

In addition, there are multiple ways one may relinquish one’s citizenship. The main ways are: 1) go through the process of formally renouncing one’s citizenship “before a diplomatic or consular officer of the United States” and 2) bypass this process but become a subject of a “foreign state,” (and, for tax purposes, notify the U.S. government of one’s new status as a citizen elsewhere.)

If one takes the first route, going through the renunciation process set up by the U.S. government, one must pay the U.S. government $2,350 for the privilege of leaving the group. One can get around this fee by taking the second route, (at least if I have understood the rather complicated explanations correctly,) but, of course, to take this second route one must submit to the dictates of some other “foreign state,” which will likely involve paying some sum of money to obtain citizenship status from the government one begins living under.

That one must endure such costs in order to extricate oneself from the rule of the U.S. government, that the U.S. government claims for itself the right to rule over those living within its domain and those living without who, for whatever reason, still have citizenship status, these are the characteristics of the U.S. government for which I call the organization a “government.”

Many other organizations do not have these characteristics. One can, today, leave one’s church and join a different church, (if one belongs to a church to begin with,) without having to physically relocate or pay an exit fee. It may be easier to get to a different church on Sunday morning if the new church one joins is close to where one lives, but one will not be locked up or have one’s possessions confiscated by others in one’s former church if one leaves their church without moving to the other side of the mountain, much less to the other side of the continent or the globe.

One may also switch jobs without physically relocating, switch phone companies, switch car insurance providers… none of these organizations claim that they have any right to rule over anyone in a given geographical area, or to punish through physical violence anyone who ceases to associate with them but continues living in the same place. Historically, Mutual Aid Societies were able to provide impressive benefits to their members, (provide health, unemployment, and life insurance, run hospitals and orphanages, etc.,) while being run polycentrically, with membership being voluntary and people having the ability to switch from one Mutual Aid Society to another without changing where they lived. (David Bieto discusses such organizations in his book From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State.)

I think the phrase “at no cost beyond sunk costs” captures the differences discussed here decently. One may pay membership fees in a church, or invest time and energy into making friends with others in the group. To leave the group after doing these things is certainly costly, even if no additional cost is imposed, because one will no longer be able to gain the benefits of membership in the group. One may give up the potential return on one’s investment of time, effort, and other resources by quitting any association.

I want to distinguish between these sorts of sunk costs and additional costs that a group may impose on an member on condition of letting them exit the group unmolested. Groups need not compensate any member who leaves them for their previous investments of time and energy into the group in order to be part of a polycentric system, they need only refrain from imposing any additional cost on members who wish to leave. Demanding that someone physically relocate or give up some of their own property are examples of these sorts of additional costs, and so by making such demands a group can no longer be considered part of a polycentric system.

Why Might We Favor Polycentric Systems?

Voluntaryists, of course, want ways to solve problems without the need to use force offensively, (as opposed to defensively,) against anyone. If we are to have associations, we want them to be voluntary associations. If we are to have organizations or institutions which we use to help us settle disputes, we wish for them to be voluntary organizations or institutions. We want these associations, organizations, whatever we choose to call them, to not use force offensively, to not aggress. Polycentric systems, in which any individual can join or renounce any group as they please, with the only limit being that others may also join with them or renounce them as they please, give us, in theory, the ability to work together to solve problems and meet each others’ needs while our relations remain, to the greatest extent possible, free, peaceful and consensual.

Resolution of disputes and mutual defense, in particular, are areas in which voluntaryists spend a lot of time and energy advocating for dissolution of existing governmental systems and creation of polycentric systems. A polycentric dispute resolution system would, (I argue,) be able to help us solve disputes without engaging in aggression against anyone, while the existing system of government can not. People could join groups in a polycentric system voluntarily, opt out whenever they wished, and reject the system altogether if they so chose. Such a system would give us the ability to maintain social order through purely voluntary, consensual, institutions.

Voluntary associations could be formed for mutual defense and resolution of disputes, and through these we could protect each other’s lives, physical safety, and possessions. A network of such associations could use force only defensively, and no person or group of people would need any special status or ability to violate our proposed ethos in an abortive attempt to enforce it. No one would need to be judged differently than anyone else, no division of people into “rulers” and “ruled” would be necessary. Thus we could stay in accordance with the philosophical principles I outlined in an earlier post while still enabling us to protect each other and respond effectively to those who would do us harm.

Voice and Exit

Beyond this, people would have a genuine voice in collective action… at least in theory. The reason is that people would be able to quit any association whose other members began going, collectively, in some direction they did not wish to go, or engaging in actions that were not in accordance with their own values.

With the U.S. government today the cost of exit is high. When the President calls for a drone strike of a village or Congress passes a law that forbids U.S. citizens from possessing marijuana and threatens to imprison anyone who does, many citizens may not approve of the actions of the people in power. They may wish to stop supporting the actions of those in power by no longer paying taxes to help them fund the military, the police, or the prison system. They may wish to no longer live under the rule of the U.S. government.

I wish these things. I wish I was not forced to support the government through income tax, sales tax, property tax… That by earning a living, buying groceries or owning a car I enable the government to harm innocent people is, well, oppressive. That I live in a society of people who call this state of being “freedom” is surreal.

Technically, I could opt out, in the eyes of the government, if I relinquished my citizenship and left the country. I contend, however, that the general populace would have far more voice if we lived in a society with a polycentric dispute resolution system than we do in our society today.

In both kinds of systems, people can threaten to leave a group if the group, (or a minority of the group who actually control it,) decides, through whatever decision making process may be in place, to engage in actions the individual disagrees with. However, when the cost of exiting the group is high the ability for people to actually leave a group they disagree with is proportionally low. The lower the cost of exit, the more the people making decisions have to persuade group members to remain, and the more they have to make decisions other group members agree with in order to succeed in persuading them to remain. A group that somehow makes a collective decision that does not satisfy enough of its members may find itself no longer intact; if enough people decide to leave that the group can no longer carry out the decision that was made, or even achieve the goals for which the group was formed and maintained, then the remaining members of the group may have to give up and disband the association altogether.

An Analogy from Game Theory

Consider an analogy, (one which I draw, with some adaptations, from David D. Friedman.) Say you are participating in a study at a university. You and ten other subjects are told, by an experimenter, that the experimenter has $100 which they can divvy up between you all. If you can all, unanimously, agree on how to divvy up the money, the experimenter will divide it among you in the way you all agree upon, whatever way that may be. If any one among you refuses to accept the arrangement, you all receive nothing.

This situation presents us with a puzzle, whether we are subjects in the study or experimenters interpreting whatever results we observe.

We may expect that each individual in the group will want as much money for themselves as they can possibly obtain. However, if all ten people demand that they alone receive all $100, while the other nine receive nothing, then they are unlikely to come to an agreement at all. Each individual, if trying to gain as much money for themselves as they can, must make some proposal to the others that the others will actually be willing to accept. Otherwise, they risk failing to agree on anything and ending up with nothing. Even if they can not receive all $100, coming to some agreement in which they receive more than nothing is a better alternative than coming to no agreement and leaving empty-handed.

One solution to the puzzle, for the subjects, is to split the money up evenly between them. If they all receive the same amount, $10 a piece, then they will all get something and have some incentive to accept the agreement.

From the point of view of the experimenters, the puzzle is how the people in the experiment are able to come to any agreement at all. (If they are, of course.) One explanation is that the people involved understand that if they are to benefit from the collective decision then others in the group must benefit from the collective decision as well, otherwise the whole project may fall apart.

This situation is analogous to collective action in other cases when people have an ability to leave a group, and to stop contributing to it. The specifics change, but the principle is still in play. If a single worker leaves a company of 100 people, the other 99 may be able to carry on. Still, if members of an association benefit from persuading other members to remain part of the association, they have an incentive to try and shape collective decisions and collective action in such a way that enough people will remain with the group that the members of the group can accomplish their common goals.

Society in Part and in Whole

These principles depend less on the internal structure of groups than on the underlying structure of the society in which different groups exists. A society in which people can hop from one group to another as they please, in which the cost of switching groups is low, is one in which people can leverage their ability to exit a group in order to shape the group’s actions to better fit their own values.

Thus, for example, groups in a polycentric system need not necessarily make collective decisions through, e.g., majority vote. Nor do they need, necessarily, to adopt a formal process of making decisions by coming to a consensus. The polycentric nature of the system as a whole already makes the decisions of all groups within the network a form of “consensus” decisions; anyone who does not agree with a group’s decision may leave at any time. And, in a polycentric system, “you can always leave” does not mean “you can pay thousands of dollars to start your life over with little or no social network as a subject of a government other than the one under which you were born.” In a polycentric system, exiting a group means simply announcing that one has exited the group, or even, in some situations, ceasing to participate any longer in group activities without even the courtesy of communicating one’s resignation beforehand. The group can not impose any cost beyond this, that’s what “polycentric” means.

I, personally, expect groups in a polycentric system to adopt internal decision making structures that give their members as direct a voice as possible, and some sort of “direct democracy” or “consensus” system might work for this. I expect this for the same reason that I would expect a group of people participating in the laboratory study described above to agree to divvy up the money evenly between them, because both “equal share for everyone” and “equal vote for everyone, with the option that receives the highest number of votes being the one we go with,” are, I think, potentially useful compromises, (or, to borrow the term David Friedman uses, possible Schelling points,) which can enable group members to come to some sort of agreement that satisfies enough of them to keep the group intact, even if no one obtains the most they could obtain had they the power to mind-control everyone else in the group.

The principle I want to convey, however, is not merely that some internal organizational scheme might work better than another. The principle I want to convey is about the system as a whole. I do not merely suggest that we create organizations that look a certain way on the inside, I propose that we change society at large so that we can give or withhold our support from organizations as we choose. When all of us have this choice, then I expect that people will benefit from their associations with one another, because it is then that we will be able to bring into existence those associations which we expect to benefit from, and leave those associations which we find ourselves healthier living without.

Of course, “if” may be a more appropriate word than “when.”

Free Entry and Free Exit

Before concluding I want to remark on a question that sometimes arises in discussions of these ideas. Say a group of people agree amongst themselves to form an association, but that, as part of the terms of their agreement, they give up any ability to ever exit the association. They agree, in other words, to give up their ability to leave freely, and yet they, by stipulation, express consent to enter into the agreement at its inception, and do so while under no threat of compulsion against them if they refuse.

This situation is puzzling from a philosophical perspective. On the one hand, intuitively, we usually call agreements into which one enters while under no threat of compulsion a “free” or “voluntary” agreement. On the other hand, it seems counter-intuitive to call any association a “voluntary” one or a “free” one when any member of that association lacks an ability to leave it whenever they choose, without thereby incurring any coercive punishment from the others. (For that matter, it is somewhat counter-intuitive, as least to me, to even call such a group, from which members can not freely leave at any time and at no cost beyond sunk costs, an “association.”)

In the present essay I have defined the term “polycentric” explicitly so that groups from which individual members may not leave without incurring any cost beyond sunk costs can not be part of a “polycentric” system. One may still, however, ask whether voluntaryists must, in order to achieve a voluntary society, advocate for polycentric systems as I have conceived of them here, or whether it may be sufficient to ensure that people join associations freely, without compulsion, even if in joining they give up the ability to leave at no cost beyond sunk costs, the ability to leave without physically relocating, or the ability to leave so long as they live.

It may be necessary for me to write more on this to persuade voluntaryists to commit to polycentricity, but I believe my own view is close to that expressed by Benjamin Tucker. Over a century ago this same basic question was asked of him, and I think his answer is still relevant to the discussion today.

I reproduce here the relevant parts of the discussion, from Resistance to Taxation, A Puppet For a God, and Mr. Perrine’s Difficulties:

Frederic A. C. Perrine:

It seems to me that we owe our taxes to the State, whether we believe in it or not, so long as we remain within its borders, for the benefits which we willingly or unwillingly derive from it; that the only right course to be pursued is to leave any State whose laws we can no longer obey without violence to our own reason, and, if necessary, people a desert island for ourselves; for in staying in it and refusing to obey its authority, we are denying the right of others to combine on any system which they may deem right, and in trying to compel them to give up their contract, we are as far from right as they in trying to compel us to pay the taxes in which we do not believe.

Benjamin Tucker:

Mr. Perrine’s criticism … is based on the assumption that the State is precisely the thing which the Anarchists say it is not, — namely, a voluntary association of contracting individuals. Were it really such, I should have no quarrel with it, and I should admit the truth of Mr. Perrine’s remarks. For certainly such voluntary association would be entitled to enforce whatever regulations the contracting parties might agree upon within the limits of whatever territory, or divisions of territory, had been brought into the association by these parties as individual occupiers thereof, and no non-contracting party would have a right to enter or remain in this domain except upon such terms as the association might impose.

But if, somewhere between these divisions of territory, had lived, prior to the formation of the association, some individual on his homestead, who, for any reason, wise or foolish, had declined to join in forming the association, the contracting parties would have had no right to evict him, compel him to join, make him pay for any incidental benefits that he might derive from proximity to their association, or restrict him in the exercise of any previously-enjoyed right to prevent him from reaping these benefits.

Now, voluntary association necessarily involving the right of secession, any seceding member would naturally fall back into the position and upon the rights of the individual above described, who refused to join at all. So much, then, for the attitude of the individual toward any voluntary association surrounding him, his support thereof evidently depending upon his approval or disapproval of its objects, his view of its efficiency in attaining them, and his estimate of the advantages and disadvantages involved in joining, seceding, or abstaining.

But no individual to-day finds himself under any such circumstances. The States in the midst of which he lives cover all the ground there is, affording him no escape, and are not voluntary associations, but gigantic usurpations. There is not one of them which did not result from the agreement of a larger or smaller number of individuals, inspired sometimes no doubt by kindly, but oftener by malevolent, designs, to declare all the territory and persons within certain boundaries a nation which every one of these persons must support, and to whose will, expressed through its sovereign legislators and administrators no matter how chosen, every one of them must submit. Such an institution is sheer tyranny, and has no rights which any individual is bound to respect; on the contrary, every individual who understands his rights and values his liberties will do his best to overthrow it. I think it must now be plain to Mr. Perrine why I do not feel bound either to pay taxes or to emigrate.

Frederic A. C. Perrine:

The first position to which I object is your statement that voluntary association necessarily involves the right of secession; hereby you deny the right of any people to combine on a constitution which denies that right of secession, and in doing so attempt to force upon them your own idea of right. You assume the case of a new State attempting to impose its laws upon a former settler in the country, and say that they have no right to do so; I agree with you, but have I not as much reason for assuming a State including no previous settler’s homestead and voluntarily agreeing to waive all right of secession from the vote of the majority? In such a State I claim, then, that any member becoming an Anarchist, or holding any views differing from those of the general body, is only right in applying them within the laws of the majority.

Such seems to me to represent the condition of these United States; there is very little, if any, record of any man denying the right of the majority at their foundation, and, in the absence of any such denial, we are forced to the conclusion that the association and the passage of the majority rules were voluntary, and, as I said before, resistance to their government beyond the legal means by an inhabitant is practically denying the right of the others to waive the right of secession on entering into a contract. The denial of any such right seems to me to be irrational.

Benjamin Tucker:

When I said, in my previous reply to Mr. Perrine, that voluntary association necessarily involves the right of secession, I did not deny the right of any individuals to go through the form of constituting themselves an association in which each member waives the right of secession. My assertion was simply meant to carry the idea that such a constitution, if any should be so idle as to adopt it, would be a mere form, which every decent man who was a party to it would hasten to violate and tread under foot as soon as he appreciated the enormity of his folly.

Contract is a very serviceable and most important tool, but its usefulness has its limits; no man can employ it for the abdication of his manhood. To indefinitely waive one’s right of secession is to make one’s self a slave. No, no man can make himself so much a slave as to forfeit the right to issue his own emancipation proclamation. Individuality and its right of assertion are indestructible except by death.

Hence any signer of such a constitution as that supposed who should afterwards become an Anarchist would be fully justified in the use of any means that would protect him from attempts to coerce him in the name of that constitution. But even if this were not so; if men were really under obligation to keep impossible contracts, — there would still be no inference to be drawn therefrom regarding the relations of the United States to its so-called citizens. To assert that the United States constitution is similar to that of the hypothesis is an extremely wild remark.

Frederic A. C. Perrine:

Will you please explain what safety there may be in an individualistic community where it becomes each man’s duty to break all contracts as soon as he has become convinced that they were made foolishly?

Indeed, as I have said twice before, you seem to me to deny to others the right to make and carry out their own contracts unless these contracts meet with your approval.

Benjamin Tucker:

Mr. Perrine should read more carefully. I have never said that it is “each man’s duty to break all contracts as soon as he has become convinced that they were made foolishly.” What I said was that, if a man should sign a contract to part with his liberty forever, he would violate it as soon as he saw the enormity of his folly. Because I believe that some promises are better broken than kept, it does not follow that I think it wise always to break a foolish promise. On the contrary, I deem the keeping of promises such an important matter that only in the extremest cases would I approve their violation. It is of such vital consequence that associates should be able to rely upon each other that it is better never to do anything to weaken this confidence except when it can be maintained only at the expense of some consideration of even greater importance.

My own way of putting the issue, (though I doubt I shall be able to express myself as well as Tucker,) is that I propose adoption of voluntaryist principles, and advocacy of free contract and voluntary association, as strategies, and not as ends in themselves. As such I propose that we shape the principles by the ends we hope to achieve through them, that we conceive of “voluntary association,” in so far as we advocate for such a thing, in such a way that the principles will, as we conceive of them, help us achieve our goals. We will then be able to settle disputes over what counts as “voluntary” and what does not, according to our adopted principles, (e.g. the dispute over whether or not voluntary association entails an ability, and socially recognized and respected “right,” to secede,) by examining the evidence available regarding what principles it is most prudent for us to adopt, i.e. what it is most prudent for us to regard as “voluntary.”

Voluntary association seems to enable us to cooperate with each other for mutual gain even when, (perhaps especially when,) our own individual estimations of gain differ from one another’s. We can have different fundamental values, (as I suspect may be nearly inevitable among human beings,) and yet we can come to some agreement through which we can still manage to benefit one another through our interactions.

I believe that the extent to which voluntary association enables us to work together in this way is proportional to the extent to which we, in so associating, respect the ability of each associate to exit the association and go their own way. The more costs imposed upon any one of us who choose to part ways with others, the less association enables us to work together for mutual gain. I believe that, to the extent that we attempt to require anyone to join hands with others, we destroy society, if by “society” we mean association and the benefits thereof, while in order to achieve the benefits gained by being part of society we must, to the greatest extent possible, respect every individual’s ability to disassociate from us and go their own way rather than ours.

It is for these reasons that, puzzles aside, I suggest we voluntaryists advocate for polycentric systems, for voluntary association in both the sense of association voluntarily entered into and in the sense of association voluntarily maintained, from which any individual can leave when they choose.

2 thoughts on “Polycentric Systems

Leave a Reply