A Political Science Thought Experiment

Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex:

[I]magine a world with a magic artifact at the North Pole which makes it literally impossible to violate laws. The countries of the far north are infinitely orderly with no need for police at all. [NB: And Jews who don’t want to be marched into gas chambers are out of luck, since they can’t resist the edicts even if Nazis take power.] Go further south and the strength of the artifact decreases, until you’re at the edge of the Arctic Circle and it might be possible to violate a very minor law if your life was in danger. By the time you’re at the Equator, any kind of strong urge lets you violate most laws, and by the Tropic of Capricorn you can violate all but the most sacred laws with only a slight feeling of resistance. Finally you reach the nations of the South Pole, where the laws are enforced by nothing but a policeman’s gun.

Where would you want to live in such a world?

I don’t know, but that’s an awesome thought experiment. I wonder what would actually happen? I mean, in a world of well-meaning people, government would seem to be unnecessary. In a world with a mixed bag of people, I initially thought this: All the bad actors are going to congregate at the no-law place (the South Pole), thus ruining it for any well-meaning mellow pot-smoking anarchists who might just want to chill there.

But it’s not that simple. The game theory of the self-selection effect is fascinating. In the preceding paragraph, I was assuming that the “bad actors” range from garden-variety assholes who like doing mailbox vandalism, up to retail-level serial killers. BUT: The most evil people in history are not retail-level killers. They’re killers who got to the top of nations’ governments and implemented wholesale genocide, slaughtering people by the millions. These psychopaths would not gravitate to the South Pole. They’d gravitate to the North Pole, and do everything in their power to try to gain control of the laws.

Now where would you want to be?

A related thought experiment is this: To preclude any self-selection effects, imagine that the relevant regime is going to cover the entire planet. If you were the person who got to make that decision for the world, which regime would you choose for the planet?

That is not a trivial question, but I would choose the South Pole option, i.e., no enforcement but what humans themselves implement. After all, that’s what we have now, and even that is too much government.

Here’s a meta-question: Would you push a button that would randomly select a person from the world population to make this decision for the whole planet?

Me neither. A good case for limited-state democracy, with the emphasis on the “limited-state” part.

Another question: Just how are the laws to be made? I mean, are these unbreakable North Pole laws made by any dickhead who manages to cobble together a 5/9 majority of the Supreme Court? (Let’s be realistic about how our laws are actually made these days.) Or does it have to be at least a 75% – 25% majority in a popular referendum? Or what?


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