Distributism and the Just Deserts System

Distributism as a popularly discussed possible economic system which was never tried. It provides a convenient discussion point for comparison with both a potential Just Deserts system and the usual capitalism one.

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Distributism is a socio-economic system which is characterized by the wide distribution of ownership of productive property. Like any other socio-economic theory such as socialism, there are variations on the idea, perhaps wide ones, which keep some precepts but not necessarily all of them, and also possibly change the means of implementation of those that are accepted.

In its simplest form, Distributism says that productive property, such as agricultural land and factories should be owned by the employees, according to some rule. The theory behind the system originated over a hundred years ago, and then production was thought of as concerning material goods only; thus the distributists thought that property was easily divisible into productive and non-productive property. Leisure was not a good to be produced, and so a public park was not productive property and did not fall under the mandate to be owned and governed by those responsible for the activities needed to continue to provide leisure to the public. Neither was a transportation system thought to be productive, as the moving of goods and people from place to place was not a product. Nowadays that concept has been clarified and the legacy concepts of material-only productive goods has been generalized to other intangible goods. Distributist concepts are not particularly affected by the generalization of productive property for material goods to all property.

Distributism took as one of its benefits the increase in motivation of individuals that arises when their efforts are rewarded both with a wage or salary as well as an increase in the value of the property which produces the benefits. However, such an increase would not occur in a steady-state economy, and if the distributist system does not provide this benefit in a steady-state system, how might it be expected to work in the other two situations, where the economy is shrinking or when it is growing? There may be great value in distributing the ownership of property to the population, but motivation is not necessarily one of them. Perhaps Distributism sees workers as comprising three categories: those who will work industriously in any situation; those who will never work industriously on their own but will seek to do only the minimum forced upon them for survival by the system; and those who are motivated only by the opportunity to receive more benefits if they work harder and smarter.

If the third category is a substantial fraction of the total, Distributism will show a higher productivity if ownership of the means of production allows this category of worker to produce more. How might this happen? For a few classes of workers, they could spend more time if they owned their means of production, and could work themselves to exhaustion if they chose to. For workers in mass production, it is hard to see how an individual in such an operation, even if a part owner, could increase his hours of work except in some unusual circumstances. In those circumstances, it would make no difference if he was a part owner or not. The assembly line, or whatever the production method was, will not run extra hours simply because certain individuals wish it to.

Just Deserts as a socioeconomic system might result in the same arrangements, but for an entirely different reason. Distributism believes that the distribution of property to a large fraction of the population will improve the efficiency of production, and this is a sufficiently important issue that it should be done. Just Deserts believes there is no way individuals can legitimately earn enough to have huge differences in the amount of property owned, and so there is no way that such ownership disparity could happen, except by legacy ownership, and that would be gradually erased as the new socio-economic system were put into operation.

The question of how to arrange for ownership of things well beyond the ability of an individual to own is not clearly decided. Employee ownership is one example, but stock ownership is another, and community ownership yet another. All three are used extensively in our current economic arrangements, and all three seem to work well. For the first two, there are employee owned corporations that successfully compete with similar corporations where ownership is by the sale of stock; neither category seems to have an inherent advantage that propels them to dominate the other. Community ownership is used for certain classes of things, such as roads and schools, but there are certainly examples of roads and schools which are privately owned, by stockholders, and they seem to both work about the same. There are also, in some countries, extensive public ownership of utilities or even ordinary corporations, and they do not quickly crumble.

Long term effects might differ, but it would seem that a socio-economic system with a diversity of ownership types might have some advantages. The three categories of ownership might be originated in different ways. Just Deserts does not prohibit private ownership, but simply makes it impossible for someone to accrete sufficient unearned income as their wealth so that there would be orders of magnitude differences in the amount an individual would own, compared to the mean or mode. It might be that ownership was not by individuals, but by households, but this should make little difference in the way the society would function.

One of the major advantages of unfettered capitalism is the ease by which large quantities of resources can be amassed for the purpose of starting new businesses. There is a great tendency for those without large amounts of excess capital to use their income, perhaps totally, as the basis for their level of consumption. For Just Deserts to work, a mandatory fraction would have to be withheld for the purposes of amassing capital that could be put to the task of creating new businesses, when such were necessary. There would need to be other withholdings as well, such as for old age and disability insurance, health care insurance and other individual expenses. But in addition to these, there would have to be a capital fund withdrawal.

There is little obvious or immediate benefit to the individual from such a capital fund withholding. It would be subject to claims against it for consumption purposes. Some sort of social barriers are necessary to prevent this.

As any large block of capital, collected capital would be subject to corrupt use. Capitalism has few barriers to the corruption of government and internal agents of companies and corporations, such as supply officers, but in cases where there is no monopoly or cartel operating, there is competition. Competition eliminates some mis-uses of capital. Poor matching of supply and demand serves as another barrier to the poor use of capital. These would have the same effect under a Just Deserts system as under capitalism. One type of corruption in capitalism involves the obtaining capital under false pretenses or without the proper checking of the planned uses of it. This would also exist under Just Deserts, except that the source of the capital would be somewhat different. The source under capitalism might be an individual or a group of individuals with high wealth, whereas under Just Deserts the equivalent source would be an agency designed to make good use of withholdings from workers.

As noted before, the benefit from corruption under capitalism is to increase the income or wealth of the person causing the corruption; under Just Deserts the same could be true, but there would be a massive difference in scale. An individual or small group of individuals under capitalism could, if they were wealthy, engage in corruption whereas the group would have to be so large under Just Deserts, it would be unlikely to occur. Of course, if the scale of corruption goes down, it would be possible to have some, but the effect of it would be much less grand, meaning much less money would be diverted because of the corruption. Thus, Just Deserts makes corruption somewhat less likely, but by no means impossible. A Distributism system would have much less accumulation of wealth, as property, by some means, stays widely distributed. If a more general Distributism system were installed, so that not only productive capital was widely distributed, but all forms of wealth, then the same conclusions about corruption that pertain to Just Deserts also pertain to Distributism.

One proclaimed advantage of Distributism is that the dispersal of capital would make production more efficient, by motivating large numbers of individuals to work harder with the capital they had. Just Deserts has even a better claim to this, as not only is capital more finely dispersed, it is productivity which is rewarded with higher income, just as it is under capitalism. Under Just Deserts, the only way open to obtaining a higher standard of living is to earn more by producing more. Capitalism rewards hard workers, but it rewards the holders of unearned income even more, and allows rewards to accrue which are not connected with productivity. By focusing the attention of everyone on productivity and reducing the propensity for corruption, Just Deserts might be seen as the socio-economic system which actually generates efficiency in the economy, as Distributism and capitalism were reputed to be, but do not necessarily.

Law-Evaders Beat Law-Writers

A just deserts economic system, in which everyone is limited to their earned income, has inherent abilities to reduce corruption, largely because of the necessary economic transparency that is implicit in the system.

Everybody is somewhere on the spectrum between totally opposed to corruption, cronyism, nepotism and the like, and totally committed to tolerating a situation where certain people are using these political means to advance their own goals. You might say the extremes represent the optimists and the pessimists, with most people in between. At certain periods the center rises up to join the optimists, and some new laws get written for whatever system exists that will outlaw or make more difficult some form of corruption that was exposed. Then comes the long period during which the corrupt people figure out ways to evade the laws, come up with new ways for corruption to flourish, and after some time, things are right back where they were before the orgy of anti-corruption activity took place.

Law-writers work with an irremovable disadvantage, and perhaps more than one. Everything they do is open and clear to everyone, so that anyone seeking a loophole in the law can take advantage of them. The law is static and slow to change, but law-evaders can sometimes move quickly. They work in unseen ways, and can try anything they think of to evade the law.

Corruption is sometimes a ‘quid pro quo’ and sometimes direct nepotism. Direct nepotism is where a corrupt person with influence or decision-making authority decides that some individual will gain a benefit, such as a lucrative, do-nothing position, or a high-profit contract, or some other benefit where the personal slice is large. The individual chosen would not have received the benefit except for the actions taken by the corrupt person. In many cases, there would be no such benefit except for the actions taken by this corrupt person; in other words, the lucrative position was created solely for the purpose of satisfying the corrupt person’s wishes. This differs from a ‘quid pro quo’ example in that the person receiving the benefit receives it because of who he or she is, not because of what he or she will provide back to the corrupt person.

The other type of corruption is easily understood as a hidden trade of benefits. In the simplest instances, the corrupt person provides something to a donor, such as a tax break, a waiver of requirements for an activity that increases the profit on it, a pardon of some wrong-doing, a minimization of fines paid or time served, access to someone else corrupt, a re-writing of laws relating to monopolies or cartels or an order to not prosecute these, or any of a myriad of other things; in return the donor provides something to the corrupt person, such as a immense lecture fee, or a book contract with little requirements but a large advance, the ability to participate in a mock investment designed to be lucrative, the elimination of someone either physically or contractually, high-profit contracts for a company owned by a spouse, sibling or child, and many, many other options.

The last of these might be labeled indirect nepotism, especially if the beneficiary is not financially connected with the corrupt person, but it is better to draw the primary line between types of corruption between direct nepotism and ‘quid pro quo’ corruption as the distinction is more clear and more useful.

These are only the simplest options. There can be delayed benefits, such as a lucrative, do-nothing position for the corrupt person himself following his tenure in the decision-making role which affords him the opportunity for corruption. There can be three-way arrangements with a donor providing benefits for corrupt politician 1, who is the donor providing benefits to corrupt politican 2, who closes the loop by writing laws or making regulations or restricting law enforcement relating to the original donor. There is no limit on the variations in these schemes, and therefore, a group of law-writers who are interested in limiting corruption can outlaw some schemes, but more will immediately spring up. Where there are corrupt politicians, there will be corruption. Morality might prevent some individuals from corruption, but corrupt people will use corruption to replace these moral ones with others more amenable to the corrupt schemes.

Fortunately, the economic system of just deserts provides a substantial remedy for this situation. If total income is limited for every individual or household to some small multiple of the average income in the governed region, then there will not be enough in any single person’s pocket to make any substantial corrupt payoff. To see the extent and inherent limitations in this bulwark against corruption, it is necessary to consider how it might be evaded.

First, could there be small instances of corruption, where the amount involved was an almost negligible portion of the average income in the jurisdiction? This is certainly true, and indicates that what is done by a just deserts income limitation does not change morality, only the practical, over-all effects of it. Large corrupt contributions make the disparity between those only receiving their earned income and those who arrange systems within the economy to provide them with ten, a hundred, or a thousand times as much as any human being could rightfully earn. Morality is something effected by teaching people, often the young, about what is considered right and wrong within the society. Efficiency in the society is effected by establishing laws limiting income to earned income.

Second, could there be cabals which get together to amass enough resources for a large bribe, or its equivalent, which would allow them to receive some benefits beyond, perhaps far beyond, their earned income? The amassing of resources could certainly occur, but with a limitation of income to earned income, there are no avenues for moving large amounts of benefits to the members of the cabal. There are no avenues because to enforce a limitation of income, income must be known, as well as other data. This means economic transparency has to be universal.

Economic transparency has been the bane of corrupt people ever since there was central data systems which allowed it to be possible. There have been litanies of protest against economic transparency, by invoking trigger words such as ‘privacy’, but they do not amount to anything other than pleas to allow unearned income to be received without anyone being aware of it. Transparency does no good unless there is some means of using it for detection of prohibited income, and then taking some sort of action, judicial or otherwise, which overturns the forbidden process and reverses its effects. This means that there must be some agency which has the power to access this data, meaning that transparency is available at least to this agency if not to everyone, and which is motivated to find and reverse the results of prohibited activities.

It must be very obvious that if there is only one such agency, and only this agency has the authority to inspect economic data, they would be immediate targets for corrupt offerings. Once the agency concerned with ensuring has been ‘fixed’, then there is no further barriers to non-earned income enriching those who cause this corruption, as well as others. The situation would seem to be dependent on the degree of transparency, but it may not work that way. If the ability to examine income and other economic data is more widespread than just the agency charged with enforcing the economic rules of the society, and that agency does not take action, the population will very quickly come to realize that these rules are simple paper only, and have no meaning in the actual activity that underlies the society. The number of pessimists, as defined at the beginning of this post, will soon rise as more people become tolerant of what has become the unwritten rules of the economic life of the society.

So, if this agency is the keystone of any barrier against, not only corruption, but against any usurpation against the economic rules of a just deserts socio-economic system, how might it be shielded against corruption offers, as well as threats of a more diverse type? How might it also be protected against apathy, born of years of success in imposing these rules, both on the part of the enforcers, and on the part of the population? When a population passes through a revolution or a large change in the economic system, it might be largely enthusiastic about the new system, for a period of time, but then, as difficulties arise, or simply as years pass by, the enthusiasm dies away, and corruption begins to find a way to slowly infiltrating the system. Those who are in charge of enforcing the new rules grow tired of their tasks, and begin to think of the pleasures that a little unearned income might provide them. Thus, the aspects of disparity that were so striking and unappealing, which led to the imposition of a just deserts economic system, would fade away, and the very local considerations of a small amount of corruption seep in and begin the process of undermining the rules.

Thus, the problem of maintaining a just deserts, non-corrupt economic system may be just as difficult as the process of setting one up in the first place. Any effective socio-economic system must have some processes, like rotation of personnel, that militate against the boredom that would inevitably set in.

Corruption and its Cures

There are three main categories of corruption: political coruption, accepted small corruption, and individual corruption. Each can be mitigated.

It seems like a nice courtesy to define clearly and explicitly what it is you are writing about, as words are so slippery and full of alternate meanings. When a reader comes upon something that appears interesting, he/she may be carrying some baggage in experience, so that the meanings of the words, especially the topic words, may have different nuances or even serious differences in meaning from what the author intended. This means there is wasted time on both the author’s and the reader’s part, and we all despise wasting time.

By corruption I mean an individual with a hierarchical job to do, a job in a hierarchy, where he/she has a specific task to accomplish, altering his behavior so that some personal benefit will accrue to him/her or some one or some group that he/she favors. Consider some examples:

Example 1: A politician has input into tax laws and can insert a special clause favoring some tiny subset of people if he chooses, and it will most likely pass due to the methods by which laws are checked before being passed. The politician, in return for a contribution to his favorite charitable foundation, will insert a tax clause as requested.

Example 2: A judge in criminal cases has to choose amounts for fines for guilty parties involved with financial crimes. The amount could be equal to the amount gained or more, or with the right inducement, somewhat less, leaving a surplus for the benefit of the convicted criminal or his family, partners, friends, or whoever else was the recipient of the largess of the criminal before he was caught.

Example 3: A bureaucrat is responsible for completing forms for the public, relating to some function, like driver’s licenses, or registering a deed, or any of the hundreds of things a citizen might have to do. The bureaucrat ordinarily finishes his task within a month, or within a day if there is a gift included, such as a box of candy or a bottle of vodka.

Example 4: A building inspector has a long list of technical points that can be used to hold up construction projects, some for a long time and some expensive to change. For a bit of work on the inspector’s friends’ property, or some materials for such work, these technical points might be waived as insignificant or not safety-related or discretionary.

Example 5: A mid-level manager in a supply department of a large corporation has a selection of which supplier to use for some large purchases, but they are comparable. With the provision of an arrangement for a free dinner for the manager’s family in a top-level restaurant, the choice becomes straightforward.

Example 6: A professor is on the board set up to review new students’ applications, and for many students, a favorable choice by him/her will make all the difference needed between acceptance and rejection. Instead of sticking to academic or other university-related issues, the professor tilts his/her rating based on personal biases.

Example 7: A professional athlete manages to miss some key shots in a championship game, losing the match, which is much to the delight of a gambling syndicate. The syndicate is very generous in their expressions of gratitude.

Example 8: A fireman, finding a shoebox-sized metal container filled with currency, manages to get it away from the scene of the fire while the building burns down. The contents are not returned to the building owner.

These examples are only a few of the hundreds of possibilities for what might be included under the label of corruption. In the process of trying to find a viable new socio-economic theory which has more elements of fairness while not losing the positive aspects of older theories, what should be done about corruption? Which types of corruption should the system be designed to minimize? How should this be done, and what might be the cost to the system of having anti-corruption measures installed within it?

The first level, in the first example, might be referred to as political corruption. The quid pro quo by which a politician might be influenced can range over a tremendous domain, involving third parties in a variety of ways. All would be legal in the absence of a specific agreement to take some political action in return for some other action. Specific laws might be written to control some particular one type of action, but since there are literally hundreds of options, these laws can easily be outflanked. Only by going to the common core can they be controlled as a body. There must be laws of just deserts which control the common core, which is excess inequity of wealth and income, which makes possible political corruption. If wealth of any household is no greater than, say, five or ten times the average, there is no surplus available for corruption. If the income of any household is no greater than a similar ratio from the average, there is no opportunity for the products of corruption to be realized by a household that is a beneficiary of some potential corrupt political act. If these two measures do not exist, then corruption will find a way around any existing structures to make the inequality greater, and the feedback effect will take over and lead to great inequality.

The solution, in fact the only solution, to political corruption is the same as the regulations or laws or what-have-you that relate to income outside of corruption. With investment following a Churchillian directive, and unearned profits being taxed and used for the good of those whose work earned the benefits, and human labor being recognized as impossible to vary in value by more than a factor of five or ten, then corruption would be intrinsically controlled.

Judicial corruption, as illustrated in the second example, is almost eliminated by the same cure as political corruption. When no party to any lawsuit has excess wealth or income to use for corruption, and no defendant in a criminal case has excess wealth or income for use like this, there is little opportunity for corruption to exist. A related question concerns corruption involving corporations. Would the legal counsels for a corporation have motivation to do judicial corruption? Perhaps if their income might be diminished by a factor of two if they did not, they would. A corruption corporation might arrange to have a judge get a delayed promotion in return for a favorable or slanted verdict, so the possibility does not disappear, but only diminishes in range.

Transparency is often described as a mitigation for corporate corruption, including that which occurs around a court case, but just as individual corruption in a world where extreme inequality exists can find clever ways to occur, so might clever ways to disguise payoffs be found. Having independent watchdog agencies to monitor corporate finances and behavior is often touted as another means of curing corporate corruption, but the response to this is to corrupt first the process of monitoring as well as influence the regulations for transparency, thus enabling further corruption to go forward. Perhaps layers upon layers of watchdog organizations, which monitor transparency as well as behavior, might be necessary.

The remaining six examples are simply illustrations of individuals doing small-scale corruption of differing varieties. No high-level formulation of a socio-economic system is going to eliminate the possibilities that exist here, but there is one essential and very important difference. Examples 3 through 6 can exist in small numbers, as exceptions to the general way that people in these positions behave, or they can be the more-or-less accepted way of behavior, that no one quibbles with but just lives with and works around. To have a society that operates efficiently, and in which people are supposed to receive benefits according to the effort they expend and the talent they accumulate, then the routine acceptance of corrupt behavior on a small scale cannot be accepted. This means that not only will there have to be laws regulating it, there needs to be public awareness that such behavior is not accepted. There has to be methods by which it can be reported, and there must be organizations that are held to high standards that investigate it and work to diminish the amount of it until it only exists by exception, not by routine. Once this is done, the socio-economic system will be largely free from corruption.

It is much more important that political corruption be ended, by instituting just deserts taxation of excess capital gains and income, including all devices used to hide it. This type of corruption, once it becomes well-known, is like a poison in society, and would be used to justify all other types of corruption. The role of high-level examples in society can be great, and if there was transparency in this area, so that all political figures were known to be operating with no corrupt payoffs, neither to themselves or to those they favor, then low-level corruption would be easier to have reported and ended. So, from a top-down fashion, corruption is at least viewable as a curable disease, as long as the just deserts medicine can be made to be tolerable.

Unearned Income and Winston Churchill

Churchill wanted to put a tax on land sale profits, in a specific way, as he felt some were unearned and therefore more deserving to be taxed away. This concept is intriguing, but regrettably not the Rosetta Stone to a new system.

The term “unearned income” became famous with economists David Ricardo and Henry James, who used it to denote the appreciated value of property which was not from development of itself, but of the surroundings. The idea was that this was done without any significant contribution by the owner, yet he or she reaped the lion’s share of this appreciation. A very famous speech by Winston Churchill in 1909 is often quoted to define the problem, if there is assumed to be one, with a landowner making possibly huge profits on land without having exerted any effort whatsoever to receive them. Instead, Churchill spoke about the profit arising because of the labor and expense of the general community surrounding the property, near and far, who improved the potential utility of the land without any development of it having been done. Churchill favored that the unearned profits from the sale of such land be taxed by the state and used for the good of the community, whose efforts produced it.

The general principle of taxing unearned income more than earned income has received support from many quarters, and seems to be an acceptable principle upon which to base a taxation system. However, there has been no end of controversy and change in what is considered unearned income. This blog has as a goal, a better way of defining it, and a better way of taxing or otherwise regulating it.

It is a natural way of human existence to avoid tax, and tax avoidance mechanisms are as ubiquitous as tax plans and almost as prevalent as tax payers. Even more prevalent are the paid experts who promote the income and wealth of their sponsors as earned, or whatever label receives less opprobrium. The same experts are at the ready to explain or rather excuse any tax avoidance scheme in terms relating to personal choice or corporate advantage or professional practices or some other rationale for its use, other than stating it to be exactly what it is. In contrast, there are a few individuals who simply label tax avoidance schemes for what they are, and state they are proud to have located and made use of them. All this obfuscation makes it somewhat difficult to exactly define what is ‘unearned income’, if there is anything like this, and what should be done to tax or regulate it. To deal with this murky situation, some basic principles need to be enunciated.

The first point to be made is that unearned income does not exactly exist. All income is partially earned and partially unearned, and the difficulty is in deciding how much of it is one and how much is the other. The land value appreciation gain that Churchill spoke about is one of the easiest and simplest ones to describe as it is almost binary. In Churchill’s picture, the value gain is unearned if the landlord does not develop the property, but the development, if it appreciates, produces earned value. Things aren’t binary in economics, but quantitative. The landlord invests his money in a piece of property, and could have instead put the money into a CD or some other investment. The lack of interest paid for undeveloped land represents a loss, as compared to the interest from other investments. Annual tax, even if small, represents another cost of holding the property. Thus, taxing the gain of a piece of undeveloped property at 100% would eliminate all potential interest in such investments. However, a tax at 100% of the amount over some multiple of the average gain of investments, plus tax costs, would be a better approximation to the return of unearned income back to the community which created it. What multiple to use is debatable, but it should not be large, perhaps somewhere between one and a half and four.

Churchill also used the same speech to promote the annual tax on a piece of property, as distinct from tax on the appreciation recognized in a sale, as dependent on the potential value of the property, as opposed to its original value. Sometimes and in some places, the exact opposite is done; zoning is a tool for maintaining artificially low appraised values, and limits on tax appraisal changes annually is another. The taxation on an annual basis, as opposed to the tax on the sale profit, is simply a moving in time of the amount of the taxation, if the mathematics of tax rates is done correctly.

The label ‘monopolist’ was used in Churchill’s speech, and this again is because of the nearly binary nature of land. There is little land created on the planet’s surface, and only by reclaiming wetlands, dredging dirt for use in artificial islands, or using polders to force back the sea. One can claim that a particular piece of land is held as a monopoly, if it is in a particular location that cannot be bypassed, but otherwise, land is somewhat fungible. The owners of all the land in some particular location might be said to have a collective monopoly, but so could all the owners of a particular stock or anything else. Supply and demand slides into monopoly as the owners form a cartel to dissuade individuals from selling before some process increases the price substantially.

A real monopoly would exist if some individual or band of individuals obtain rights to all of some land, just as they would if they had obtained all the rights to some resource, like oil, or some invention that was patented or some drug which was likewise limited. These monopolies have not been similarly singled out for extra taxation, as Churchill did with land, but they could be with similar justification. The basic point of the singling out needs to be clearly stated. Churchill felt that there was little justice in allowing unearned income to be lightly or inconsequentially taxed, but he felt that justice was done better with a mere 20% tax on land profits. Others have written that societies need to harness the labor, capital, land, and resources they have available to them so that these four quantities could be put to the best use in increasing the living standards of the population, or at least some of them. The Churchill 20% tax would not do that.

In designing a new socio-economic system, or even trying to see if there are any better ones possible, it is necessary to be specific about the goals of the society. Should this goal of increasing the living standards of some subset of the population be one which shapes all the tax and regulation policy of the governance mechanisms? This one, as are most others, has some appeal to it, but like all goals, it is arbitrary as well as being poorly defined. Should a socio-economic system be defined by setting down a few goals and then building up the details of the system to accomplish them? Soviet communism had a simple slogan, something about changing the distribution of the products of society to be based on needs rather than productivity, past and present. Other systems have had slogans as well. The alternative is to be more Churchillian, and stick with what we have but modify it a small amount in the direction we think would improve it.

These are just two of the many ways to conduct planning for a society or for a project or anything else. One is to set a destination, which might be listed as a set of goals, and then try to get there. The other is to keep doing exactly what is currently being done, and just make small corrections. Both work well in many instances. The first one is more appealing if the general opinion of the existing socio-economic system is negative, and then a new plan or a new set of goals might be chosen to break away from it. The second one, obviously, has appeal in the inverse situation, where the general opinion is that things are not so bad, and can be corrected. The second one also arises in the instance where it is recognized that no one at all can figure out how to design a new socio-economic system from scratch, and that any system should have some experience with it before it is adopted. Since one cannot experiment with a whole society, it means that there is no way to make a new socio-economic system that is acceptable to the population. Theoretical justifications as to how a system would work are not likely to be correct, as there is no body of experience and no general theory of sociology and economics which would assist a team of designers in figuring out the details of the new system.

Are these latter opinions justified? Is it indeed impossible to come up with a whole new system, and the best that can be done are minor course corrections, perhaps a large amount of them in an never-ending stream. How exactly would we know if minor course corrections will take us in a desired direction or steer away from it or lead us into unknown territories, if there is no competency in sociology and economics? The lack of experience and the lack of theory seem to be an inhibition to small changes, as well as to large ones. So, let’s just keep trying.

The Basics of Capital Formation

Capital formation has to be understood in order to be put into the proper place in a new economic theory. Just as with other concepts in economics, such as debt, there are details which obscure the actual nature of capital formation. These details need to be cut through in order to develop a good new economic theory.

Capital will be defined here as physical capital, including anything needed to increase productivity of labor. It includes a wide range of items, which are not usually lumped into one category. It includes tools for craft work, ranging from a hammer up to a robotic assembly line. It includes transportation items, including vehicles for transporting goods up to cargo aircraft. It includes communication, from post offices to communication satellites.

Many of these items are dual use, meaning they serve consumption uses as well as production uses. This is especially true with transportation and communication. There is not much difference between transporting a 75kg person on vacation and a 75kg person going to work and a 75kg box of commodities. Separating out these uses takes a little diligence, but that is a task for another day.

Besides physical capital, there is knowledge capital, which is the information needed to build the physical capital, to maintain it, and to operate it. It has to be generated and it has to be preserved before being put into use.

Both physical capital and knowledge capital have to be paid for, or “formed”. For a long, long time, the metric used to measure these has been labor. A field plowed in ancient times by humans pulling a plow might look the same as a field plowed by a plow pulled by an ox, but the custom is to say that there was more labor in the first field, and less but more productive labor in the second field. If there was some measure of the value of the plowed field, and the first one took six man-days to do it, old economic theory might say the value of the labor for a day was one-sixth of that of a plowed field, and if the second one took one man-day to do it, that the productivity of that batch of labor was five, induced by the capital of the ox and the associated ox-driven plow, together with the knowledge capital of how to maintain oxed and how to plow fields with them.

The simple example illustrates the ghastly mess that traditional economics finds itself in. There are no good metrics. Because so little can be comparatively measured, the task of measurement becomes a problem for society, and the introduction of money is treated as a solution for this. If there is a large enough community, and plowed fields become a category of exchange, there can be a translation of plowed fields into currency units. Then the value of the plowed field can be defined in economics as whatever someone pays for it. There are multiple obvious flaws with this system of valuation, and they undermine any theory of economics, and any discussion of capital formation. Some sort of market trading everything is a mandatory requirement for setting the value of things, and only certain types of markets will suffice.

The existence of a monopoly or cartel on any type of goods or services destroys the concept of value for necessities, as the holder of the monopoly or the cartel participants can choose a range of prices and have them paid, meaning the value of this good or service is not well defined. For goods and services that are not necessities, there might be said to be a tradeoff between alternate consumption items which fixes the transitional value of an item. If the monopoly controls a whole set of alternate consumption items, such as all foods, we are back to the lack of value situation.

Markets have only existed for certain items in history, typically long-distance trade goods. The distribution of consumption goods was handled in a different way, up to a few hundred years ago in some places, and up to a shorter time in others. Instead, there was a social hierarchy, and the responsibility of the higher levels was to ensure that the lower levels received a share of consumption goods. Let’s call this situation, a pre-market situation.

In a pre-market situation, capital goods had to be provided for out of the share of consumption by those making the divisions. Those making the divisions could simply order the distribution of labor to be such that capital goods were produced by some fraction of the population or by some fraction of the population’s labor time. Alternately, some fraction of produced goods could be saved and given over to a subset of the population for the purpose of supporting their efforts at capital formation.

In the market situation, capital goods were part of a market, and so some consumption goods could be used for the production of more capital goods, by the choice of those who participate in the market. In both the pre-market and market situations, capital formation was subtracted from current consumption. The decision making as to how much of what capital was formed depended on the vision of the decision-makers, who implemented their decisions either through a command hierarchy or through a market choice, or a combination of both. The combination occurs when a leader of a group, call it a company but it could be any group, participates in a market to obtain some precursor materials, brings them into the company, and then commands some of those in the group to produce capital goods out of them instead of producing consumption goods.

Markets are not necessarily better at deciding on value than command decision-makers. Those who participate in markets are limited by the information they possess, by their ability to consider the variability of future events, by their personal preferences, and certainly other factors, just as are command decision-makers. Markets in stable situations might tend to produce some values for items, perhaps optimal in some undefined sense, but in stable situations experienced command decision-makers also do much better. Monopoly effects ruin markets, and a large command hierarchy might avoid this peril, but it has its own perils.

There would seem to be a different source of values, and that would be the preferences of those who make command decisions or who participate in markets. Their vision as to the utility, in the longer-term, of capital formation has an important influence on the growth of capital within some area. A decision-maker who sees some utility in more capital formation can use a market or the command hierarchy to attempt to form this envisaged capital. Having such a vision distorts the market somewhat, and influences the remainder of the command hierarchy.

Thus, capital formation happens, not by some magic in a market, but from a vision of a high-level decision-maker, who does two things mentally. One is to envision the result of diverting current production from current consumption into capital formation and to see that the longer-term result is preferable. The other is to assess alternate uses of diverted current production, for example into inventory to average out production over some future period, and to compare this use with that of capital formation. The decisions are all about long-term benefits versus current consumption. The decision-maker must also assess the needs of the population he takes responsibility for and their desires as well, and make a decision as to how much current consumption can be reduced to pay for either capital formation for enhancing long-term productivity or other expedients for easing potential hardships such as the maintenance of an inventory.

Sometimes the vision of a particular decision-maker might be accurate, sufficiently, to produce some long-term benefit from the diversion of current consumption. Alternately, the result could be desultory and produce little for future consumption. This is often denoted as the risk involved in decision-making.

Decision-makers can make inaccurate decisions, however we might measure inaccuracy. If they have advisors who have more, and more diverse, experience, there could be an improvement in accuracy. One of the advantages of the last century stock market is that investors would seriously investigate a company before buying stock in it, and the stock price then represented information for the decision-makers in the company that they might use. The institution of the board of directions might have been founded for just such a purpose. Of course, stock markets can just become a means of gambling, satisfying whatever emotional needs gamblers have.

For a new economic theory, what has been discussed here is important. It means that the choice of decision-makers and advisors is critical to the success of a society following the new theory. These decision-makers make continual decisions as to the allocation of current production, into a variety of possible capital formation options, as well as many others. How the consumption fraction for this allocation is obtained is less relevant, as it might be from something labelled a tax or a mandatory investment or a mit’a, a mandatory labor allocation used by the Incas, or temporary conscription, or something else. The principal issue is the selection of the decision-maker, their education and experience, and the domain over which they make decisions, and the scope or depth of their decision-making in the hierarchy. Just as debt is only one means of allocating current production, mit’a and other mechanisms are just particular means of forming capital. What matters in an economic theory is not the details of the mechanism, but how the current production is allocated. A good economic theory is one in which the best decision-making for this allocation is ensured.

Centralization and Decentralization

Centralization of decision-making has obvious advantages but also some serious catastrophic failure modes. How can the degree and extent of centralization be managed in a socio-economic system?

In designing a new socio-economic system, hopefully free from some of the built-in catastrophes of previous inventions, one important question relates to the centralization of decision-making. The opposite is decentralization, but there is actually a continuum of alternatives lying between these two extremes. The continuum extends in two dimensions, both in the degree of decentralization, meaning the level in a governmental hierarchy where decisions are made, and the scope of decentralization, meaning the number of different decisions that are being considered for centralization. The oversimplified answers are to centralize everything to the highest level or to decentralize everything to the lowest level, and like all simple solutions to complex problems, they are designed to ensure the built-in catastrophes will happen. To minimize them, something different is needed.

What goes wrong with centralization of decision-making? The same problems exist with any monopolization of control. The person or persons at the top, making the decisions, don’t make them well, and then everyone affected suffers from the choices. The first reason that centralized decisions might be poorly made is uncertainty. If the information necessary to make the best choice is not available to the decision-makers or their subordinates or advisors, then they are forced to make an arbitrary choice. If the decision-making were decentralized, there would be many different choices made, and after a period of time, the results of these different choices would be available for comparison. The best could be evaluated, and more information used for future iterations of the decision-making. This would imply that decentralization might be a good temporary expedient to use until the data was in and the best choice was clearly visible, but the counter to this is that conditions change, and therefore what constitutes best might change, meaning evaluation via decentralization is needed again. The conditions might not be the thing that is changing, but the alternatives might be, as new ones are devised and made available for widespread use. Thus, in a stable, unchanging situation, centralization might be a good decision from the single point of view of efficiency, but not otherwise.

The second problem with centralization of decision-making is the drive to uniformity when uniformity is not the best solution. It is easy for a centralized decision-maker to do some sort of evaluation and make a choice that will be implemented everywhere. However, this is based on the assumption that there is a universal best choice. What is best for one area or for one group or for one time might not be best for another area, group or time. This is referred to as the local conditions situation. For centralization to work well, there would have to be knowledge of how local conditions affect the outcomes of a certain decision, and that local knowledge would have to be available to the centralized decision-makers. Efficiency takes a hit here, as the evaluation of a set of alternatives would have to be done considering the variations in local conditions. Uniformity has a great appeal, as do all simple solutions, but it is often a totally false assumption that uniformity would produce the best results in all conditions. Even what is defined as best may differ when different locations, groups or times are considered, and if the definition of best varies, then uniform solutions cannot hope to achieve this local best except in fortuitous circumstances.

The third problem is actually a set of problems collected under one label, and the label is corruption. It is so much easier to have corruption in a centralized system than in a decentralized one, as a monopoly of control can be exploited by the individual making the decisions at the center of power. Corruption does not simply mean that the decision-maker takes some benefit in order to make a decision favoring a particular party. This is only one of the many facets of corruption, and perhaps the most well-known and appreciated one. However there are more. A centralized decision-maker can have a different agenda that the one appropriate to his position. The centralized decision-maker might have his/her own interests at stake, and therefore seek to have some benefits received for making a particular decision. The ways in which this could happen and even be disguised are manifold. But the agenda the centralized decision-maker has might not be oriented around maximizing his own benefits. After all, benefits are asymptotic in that more and more of something often produces less and less enjoyment and appreciation. They are psychological individuals who feel good about counts of things, but for many individuals, they obtain their enjoyment other ways and tilt their decisions according to these ways.

One is simply the human lust for power. The ability to control aspects of the lives of others provides enjoyment to others, and has for the entire history of humanity. This might explain the desire for the monopolization of decision-making, but it does not portray the whole spectrum of agendas that a centralized decision-maker might have. One is a hidden antipathy to some location or group. Decisions can be made which disfavor the location or locations or group or groups that the antipathy is directed toward. The more subjective the decision, the more that antipathy can be concealed.

The inverse is just as possible. Nepotism toward one’s family or friends might be fairly obvious, but nepotism toward some location or group, the opposite of antipathy, can also be easily concealed.

Furthermore, it does not have to be simply antipathy or nepotism which drives the decisions of a centralized decision-maker, it can be a preference for control of some particular aspect of the lives, of everyone affected or of some subset of the population. Decisions have side-effects, sometimes dramatic ones which in the long-term diminishments overwhelm any short-term benefits. A corrupt decision-maker can promote his preference of opinions by shifting the choices he/she makes. Over the long-term, these effects would be felt.

Self-benefit, antipathy, nepotism, and side-effects are not simply present in top-level decisions in a centralized decision-making arrangement; they can appear at any level. If decisions of a certain category are decentralized to some lower level, the exact same phenomena can appear at that level. It would not have the wide-ranging effect that a single monopolistic decision would, but it would still have a local effect. Preventing this might be seen as one justification for centralizing decisions. Local corruption is overridden by higher-level control. Unfortunately, the higher-level control is just as prone, or possibly more prone, to corruption. There are other means that a newly designed socio-economic system can mitigate corruption.

One is transparency. Transparency is easier to obtain at small local levels, where interpersonal contract is common. Knowing someone as an individual is more likely to reveal their tendency toward corruption than only hearing about a decision via some disseminated ukase. Establishing transparency at high levels of concentrations of decision-making power might be very difficult, and can be countered by having specialists at providing deceptive façades for the justification of all decisions. Investigation of such decision-making by other specialists, perhaps self-appointed ones, can be made difficult by the denial of access or simply by having a unified front of interface people, all of whom are familiar with the façades.

Thus, there are tremendous disadvantages to centralized decision-making, but there is one advantage that is similarly huge: efficiency. If the same decision has to be made thousands of times, as opposed to once, it stands to reason that the same level of attention and scrutiny to the details of the decision cannot be afforded. A centralized decision-maker can have a large staff devoted to a single decision, and even with this, the costs of making the decision once are much smaller than making it at the lowest level of governance. To make a decision properly, in a complex situation, there might be much academic or otherwise collected information and theories to be located and digested. It might be necessary to hire a specialist with a background in some certain area to review this data, and it might even be necessary to have a team appointed to do this. The costs of a decision are not the same at the lowest level and the highest level, as there is considerably more data to analyse when considering a decision that would be implemented on a very wide scale, but the costs do not scale up proportionally with size, perhaps increasing instead only logarithmically. It might well be that at the lowest levels, the cost of an objective decision are simply too high, and some subjective choices would need to be made. Perhaps the solution would be to copy some other location’s decisions, or to keep the prior decision barring some obvious failures, or to simply make a haphazard choice based on incomplete information and inadequate models and interpretations.

There are some clear antidotes to the poison of corruption and the poison of inefficiency. One is to make decisions at the lowest level where the resources would be available to make a thorough decision, perhaps not at the highest or lowest levels, but somewhere in the middle. The other would be to invent methods of ensuring transparency, and of training sufficient specialists that there is no shortage of people able to investigate decisions. Perhaps jocularly, another solution would be to raise everyone up in the society to expect corruption of various types to pop up everywhere, as well as inappropriate subjectivity. People tend to be raised in a trusting environment, without adequate warning and training for the situation that exists in the real world, and countering that some formal way might provide another mitigation for the problems of centralization and decentralization.

In the Valley Between Libertarianism and Communism

It seems that only extreme libertarianism and extreme communism are studied and expounded. This is an error, as there are many alternatives other than these two polar extremes.

Both libertarianism and communism have supporters and detractors, and all of these fine people have reasons for their opinions. But there does not seem to be many who think half and half of these makes a good combination. The two poles attract interest because of their implicit simplicity, and the ease with which they can be explained and justified.

Libertarianism, as we use it here, means there is minimal government interaction and individuals make agreements with one another to enable sharing of work, trade, and everything else. Communism, as we use it here, means there is maximal government interaction, and the government makes rules by which work, trade and everything else is conducted. Furthermore, libertarianism allows inequity in the extreme to exist, and communism does not allow inequity to a great degree.

Decision-making is decentralized in libertarianism, as each individual makes all the decisions involving himself. Decision-making is hierarchical in communism, as rules are made by whoever is doing governance, and then are implemented down the levels of a hierarchy. There are thousands of details in a society and this is no place to make long lists of what those details might be and how the two polar opposite social systems differ in each of them, but instead, something of a big picture needs to be obtained.

Two of the features of a socio-economic system that make a difference in its feasibility are motivation and disparity. Libertarianism tries to maximize motivation, so that each individual is responsible for his/her own future, and goes out trying to be maximally productive, thereby securing the most of society’s benefits for him/herself as possible. Communism tries to minimize disparity, so that those without much capability to fend for themselves, temporarily or permanently, are not deprived of society’s benefits. Strict libertarianism has the less capable being taken care of by the choices of the productive. Strict communism motivates the productive by training people to work hard to support the society as a whole and by exhorting individuals to be as productive as they can.

All societies from the earliest human hunter-gatherers to now have this dichotomy between self-interest and altruism, and somehow have to integrate these two impulses. All successful societies have a solution for this, and it might be a complicated one, as opposed to the simple ones included with the two polar extremes of libertarianism and communism. One solution is to have moral strictures taught to the young, with the expectation that the majority will follow them. The two categories of these moral strictures involve working hard, the motivation category, and taking care of the less capable, the compassion category. Different arrangements of these moral strictures are certainly possible and different ways of teaching them and enforcing them are possible.

One way societies enforce these moral strictures is by shaming and ostracising violators, another is by having specialists for enforcement who seek to locate those violators and pressure them or punish them. The point is not that there is only one way to have these two contrary impulses balanced in a society, but that there are many and choices can be made. There is no best way, only multiple options.

If you think of pure libertarianism and pure communism as unobtainable mountaintops, then in between these two peaks is a huge valley of possible ways of organizing a society, and all of existing and past societies are somewhere in the valley. Extremism in favor of either peak is amusing and entertaining, but doesn’t really work to solve any of a society’s problems. What needs to be done is the development of the means by which these two human impulses of self-interest, and pariochial interest, and altruism, widespread or narrowcast, can be integrated.

There is no best solution to amalgamating the two impulses, as the definition of best depends on personal preference, and that varies with the person and even with the experience of the person and even further with how the questions eliciting a preference are couched. Beyond that, the definition of best depends on what you do with the answers you get. If there is a headman, do you simply ask him/her? If there is an elite, do you simply ask them and average over the responses as much as possible. Do you ask all the adults, and define the adults as those over 30 or 40 or 50? There is simply no single answer.

Those whose thinking revolves around anecdotes can certainly find competing anecdotes to justify almost any point of view. Trying to extract some truth from anecdotes is chancy, as the anecdotes one hears is a tiny subset of possible ones, and the selection is subject to the biases of those who spread them. There is simply no simple solution to the design of a society.

Suppose you try to think of some metric to use. Perhaps persistence is a possible metric, and you want to come up with a social arrangement that will last for decades, or even centuries. You would need to consider the environment that the society lives in. Is it marginal, meaning that life-sustaining substances are in short supply, and you need to maximize the incentives for those who have the capability to obtain or produce them? Is it affluent, meaning that there is abundant life-sustaining substances, and the difficulties that arise come from the monopolization of them by those who figure out how to do that within the social arrangements that exist? You would want to find a choice nearer the peak of libertarianism for the first, marginal society, and one nearer the peak of communism for the second, affluent society. If the society drifts from marginal to affluent and back again, depending on the vicissitudes of weather, international relations, wars, external trade or what-have-you, you might need to make a flexible society.

If the society is extremely marginal, meaning there is much early death and disability due to shortages of critical substances such as food or water or shelter, the interactions of the society would have to be designed to preserve those who can obtain the most of these substances in the worst of the times, and to maintain their capability to obtain these substances both via provisioning them and by maintaining their spirits in a situation of great adversity. If the society is extremely affluent, it would be necessary to design in the moral strictures to prevent too much decadence and dissolution, which would lead to a self-limitation and social collapse. If the fluctuations were extreme, and the time scale of the fluctuations was within a human lifetime or even a fraction of it, the ability to adapt itself would have to be built in.

The design of a social arrangement can not be based in the fantasy of someone as to what they think they would like to live in. People’s specific preferences are largely conditioned by their experiences, or even what stories they were told as little children, or the preferences of those who raised them and taught them. While a person who has developed such a fantasy is not harmful, if they have the ability to influence others through persuasive writing, they could be quite misleading and if extremely persuasive, could cause social change that was not in the best interests, however that might be defined, of the society as a whole. The alternative is a careful, widely based discussion of social arrangements.

Besides persistence, living standards is often used as a metric for societies. One can define it in many ways, and many very different ways. Living standards could be the access to life-sustaining substances and activities of the majority, perhaps 90%, of the population. Living standards as a metric could be some number, denominated somehow, of the median individual or household or other living group. In defining living standards, there is a clear distinction between measuring life-sustaining substances, also known as necessities, and anything else. A society which has a huge amount of trinkets can be compared to one which has a robust inventory of food; which is the most desirable, or ‘best’, one?

Someone who is psychologically prone to altruism might seek to define living standards as the amount of life-sustaining substance received by the lowest 10% of the society, however this percentage might be defined. Someone who is psychologically prone to self-interest might seek to define living standards as the amount of trinkets, plus some measure of services if needed, of the highest 10% of the society. Neither is particularly dominating, and some middle ground can be found, but what?

People who grew up, having been deeply inculcated with some strong moral strictures, can use these moral strictures to help them define what would constitute the best possible social arrangements, and those who grew up to think of everything abstractly can continue to think of metrics and environments in which to evaluate them. This is the condition in the valley between the two extreme points of social arrangements. Once the simplicity of these unobtainable ideals is abandoned, the huge valley of options presents itself, without any clue as to where a definition of best might be found. Perhaps the first thing to do is to recognize this situation, and to realize that the deafening discussions of social arrangements can not lead to any results, as there are none. A huge number of possibilities can be utilized and comparisons are very, very difficult to find bases for.