The Charter Cities Debate and Democratic Theory

One of the hot topics today is the debate about Paul Romer’s idea of charter cities. One easy introduction to the debate is Romer’s TED talk with the full story on Romer’s website. Sebastian Mallaby also did a recent piece in the Financial Times as well as an earlier piece in The Atlantic on the topic. A similar and more explicitly (right-wing) libertarian idea is pushed by Patri Friedman substituting floating cities for Romer’s charter cities (thus solving the land problem) and is called “seasteading” with the story given at his website and his TEDx talk. Patri’s father is David and David’s father is Milton, in case one wondered about the libertarian parentage of these ideas.

One of the interesting sidelights of the charter cities and seasteading debates is how they “out” the lack of any necessary connection between liberalism and democracy. As Mallaby puts it in the FT article about Romer: “In mild professorial language, [Romer] declares that poor countries should hand control of these new cities to foreign governments, which should appoint technocratic viceroys. The better to banish politics, there must be no city elections.”

For classical liberalism, the basic necessary condition for a system of governance is consent. Consent could be to a non-democratic constitution which alienates the right of self-governance to some sovereign–which in the case of a charter city would be the technocratic viceroys, or their principals such as some well-meaning foreign governments. Consent plus free entry and exit suffice to satisfy the governance requirements of classical liberalism. Classical liberalism per se sees no moral necessity in democratic self-governance at all (with or without safeguards). Most modern libertarians are not “against” democracy; it nice if you have it (and it works well with safeguards) but it is also OK if you don’t have it but have a consent-based non-democratic governance regime with good rules and the possibility of exit.

To illustrate the point, I will paste in below part of a charter cities debate with a libertarian who had the courage and clarity to admit that he saw no necessary connection to democracy.


“Well said, David. I completely agree.

I believe I heard it attributed to Jonas Salk the simple moral rule “If it is good for children, then it is good.” While academic philosophers could easily cook up scenarios in which a policy was good for children and yet it was “bad,” for most moral decisions I find the Salk doctrine to be a pretty decent rough and ready moral guide.

If a governing entity creates an environment in which children are healthy and flourishing, then why should I care about the structure of the governing entity? It is certainly the case that some democracies have been good for children, but it is also the case that some non-democratic regimes have provided better lives for children than have some democratic regimes.

While it is perfectly clear that institutions that allow entrepreneurial capitalism to flourish result in prosperous societies that are good for children, it much less clear the extent to which the ritual of majoritarian electoral processes necessarily lead to improvements in the lives of children. If I can make my child’s life better by working in non-democratic Dubai, why shouldn’t I leave a democratic Kenya? Or if I can make my child’s life better by working as an illegal alien without citizenship rights in the U.S., why shouldn’t I leave behind my citizenship rights in a democratic Mexico so that I can make my child’s life better? …”


Why should one accept consent as the relevant question in determining the moral status of non-democratic government? In the history of political thought, that was the sophisticated way the legitimacy of non-democratic government was argued: a good and benevolent monarch, the “technocratic viceroy” in modern terms (or “good” owner) versus the Hobbesian war of all against all where life was nasty, brutish, and short. That Hobbesian choice can be very real in some situations which is why historically people often really did consent to living under benevolent despots (or being slaves to good owners).

And that is why ordinary liberalism, which takes consent as the sufficient condition for an acceptable governance system (where consent is registered in Romer’s scheme by the people voluntarily moving to the charter city), actually accepts the sophisticated arguments of the past (i.e., consent, invoking children or not) for good rulers, good owners, and the like–and thus sees no moral necessity to democratic governance.

Thus from the viewpoint of political theory, the interesting thing about the charter cities and seasteading debates is that they show how thin is the veneer of commitment to democracy in ordinary economics and in classical liberalism/libertarianism. My point is that most liberals trundle through modern life uttering all sorts of pro-democracy cliches until something like the charter cities debate comes along and it turns out they are still at the level of the “good kings vs. bad kings” debate as if the whole development of inalienable rights theory had not existed.

The theory of inalienable rights counterargument that descends from the Reformation and Enlightenment in the abolitionist, democratic, and feminist movements, shows why such contracts to voluntarily give up the rights to self-governance are inherently invalid. That theory was outlined in a series of earlier blogs ending here. The charter cities debate is great for helping to bring out these non-democratic aspects of classical liberalism and conventional economic theory not to mention right-wing libertarianism.