Reply to Moser on Innovative Governance

It was a pleasure to read Sarah Moser’s thoughtful response to my essay. Though it was critical, I found myself agreeing with much of it.

Her essay as makes four important points. First, innovative governance projects already exist. Second, innovative governance has potential downsides. Third, the conditions responsible for China’s success are relatively unique. Finally, “total freedom” isn’t feasible, and governmental institutions are important.

Moser writes, “the new types of city building, governance, and urbanization of the ocean that startup societies describe are already underway.” Moser is correct in noting that innovative governance projects are underway worldwide, though they remain under-researched. Part of my goal with the Center for Innovative Governance Research is to jumpstart a wider conversation about innovative governance projects and capture new audiences.

I was first exposed to innovative governance via techno-libertarianism. However, over time I became frustrated with the lack of progress, as well as my realization that techno-libertarians were missing the wider context of innovative governance. This is not to suggest that they have nothing to offer to the conversation. Systematic thinking and willingness to experiment, two attributes commonly associated with techno-libertarians, are valuable additions to innovative governance.

Regarding the potential downside of innovative governance, Moser writes, “there is a wide range of negative impacts that deserve careful study.” I agree. While I believe the expected value of innovative governance is positive, we should not be blind to the risk involved. I share concerns about ecological damage, the property rights of indigenous or otherwise marginalized people, and the disappearance of welfare as governance becomes more of a service.

The proper tool to understand both the potential negative and positive impacts of innovative governance and to avoid falling prey to the nirvana fallacy is comparative institutional analysis. The alternative to innovative governance is rarely liberal democracy, but dictatorships, autocracies, or other forms of illiberal government. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, it costs on average 50% of a person’s yearly per capita income merely to legally register a business. Such unnecessary constraints on entrepreneurs are one reason Africa remains impoverished.

Moser’s third point focuses on China. She writes, “the success of Chinese SEZs cannot be celebrated in isolation from broader demographic factors and economic history.” I agree that innovative governance should not be thought of in isolation from larger demographic and geopolitical trends. While governance is important for the economic success of a city, it isn’t sufficient. One of the reasons I am most optimistic about innovative governance in Africa is the high urbanization rate which necessitates the construction of new cities.

Moser’s last point is that “total freedom” isn’t feasible. If by “total freedom” Moser means a Rothbardian property rights system, then I agree — territorial governance is not necessarily helpful. My interest in innovative governance is not to construct ideologically pure libertarian societies, but rather to build governments within the real world which improve human flourishing. I attribute much of the lack of success of libertarian innovative governance projects to their utopianism.

Charter cities, and innovative governance more broadly, are tools for governance reform, not for escaping government. One of the understudied benefits of innovative governance space is how charter cities can be used to improve state capacity.

Countries often remain stagnant because of regional states which are unable to control violence or provide basic public goods. Reforming these states internally could take decades by conservative estimates. However, charter cities can serve as catalysts to spark improvements in state capacity, bypassing existing government structures which might resist such improvements.

I appreciate Moser’s essay; it raises important challenges about the potential for failure in innovative governance projects that prioritize idealism over pragmatism. However, while she is pessimistic about the future of charter cities, I remain cautiously optimistic. We are in the early stages of a global revolution in governance. Given this, we should be aware of, and minimize, the downside risk. However, if managed correctly, innovative governance has the potential to improve hundreds of millions of lives on global scale. This is a future worth fighting for.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Mark Lutter points to the success of China’s Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, and of many others like it, as a model for the extension of economic liberalization elsewhere in the world. While economic reforms could not happen nationwide, their demonstration at the local level built support for new ways of thinking and doing business.

Response Essays

  • Prof. Sarah Moser is skeptical of libertarian interest in special economic zones, startup cities, and seasteads. She notes that many of these projects as undertaken in the real world are being run by untrustworthy and illiberal regimes. It is therefore doubtful that they offer prospects for better governance in the long term. And it is unseemly for the self-described advocates of liberty to go begging favors from such regimes. The success of China’s Special Economic Zones is unlikely to transfer elsewhere, owing to demographic and geographic features unique to China and to certain of its regions.

  • Tom W. Bell says that in special economic zones, the secret to success is competition in governance. There’s no magic to being a special economic zone; zones may be governed either better or worse than other areas. But when the zones have to compete for residents and businesses, they will have to answer some tough questions about what sorts of legal and public service options the public really wants. And there is an incentive to improve.

  • Lant Pritchett doubts that charter cities can do much to help the developing world. If a developing state already has good institutions, the model is useless; if it has bad institutions, then it will plunder or otherwise undermine the experiment. Total factor productivity has been a difficult problem for economists, and much about it remains mysterious. But China appears to be the only place in the last forty years where special economic zones have worked, and this suggests that they are not as promising as their proponents think.