As you prepare for Voting Day (in the U.S.), check out this idea from one of the coolest Belgian thinkers you’ve probably never read. This is from 1860 — one year before the start of the U.S. Civil War:
Do you know how a civil registry office works? It is just a matter of making a new application of this. In each community a new office is opened, a “Bureau of Political Membership”. This office would send every responsible citizen a declaration form to fill in, just as for income tax or dog registration.
Question: What form of government would you desire?
Quite freely you would answer, monarchy, or democracy, or any other.
Question: If monarchy, would you have it absolute or moderate …, if moderated, how?
You would answer constitutional, I suppose.
Anyway, whatever your reply, your answer would be entered in a register arranged for this purpose; and once registered, unless you withdrew your declaration, observing due legal form and process, you would thereby become either a royal subject or citizen of the republic. Thereafter you would in no way be involved with anyone else’s government — no more than a Prussian subject is with Belgian authorities. You would obey your own leaders, your own laws, and your own regulations. You would pay neither more nor less, but morally it would be a completely different situation. Ultimately, everyone would live in his own individual political community, quite as if there were not another, nay, ten other, political communities nearby, each having its own contributors too.
If a disagreement came about between subjects of different governments, or between one government and a subject of another, it would simply be a matter of observing the principles hitherto observed between neighbouring peaceful States; and if a gap were found, it could be filled without difficulties by human rights and all other possible rights. Anything else would be the business of ordinary courts of justice.
Can you imagine? No more titanic tug-o-war elections. Political parties would be like clubs competing for members (customers). We would still get big partisan ads. But we would get beyond territorial chauvinism — that is, the idea that political power should attach to great swaths of the earth. Conflicts between people or parties would be settled in courts. No, it would not be anarchy. It would be “panarchy” or “polyarchy.”
But we are unlucky that Paul Emile de Puydt suggested this system when he did. Across the pond in the U.S., the victors of the Civil War not only got to write the history books, but to stain any idea resembling secession for more than a century. Yes, secessionists can have ugly, illiberal and immoral policies. But so can those bent on federal territorial power. In any case, slavery became associated with a form of self-determination and decentralization. Nevertheless, it’s now time to start thinking about how people can more easily vote with their feet.
As Arnold Kling writes:
In my view, the “exit” option works much better than the “voice” option. If a local grocery store does not carry the produce I prefer, the best solution is for me to go to a competing grocer. I feel the same way about schools and local governments. Compared with choosing a competing supplier, it strikes me that writing complaint letters and participating in elections is a feeble way to try to bring about change.
It is interesting to note, then, that today there are people in Belgium who want to secede. De Puydt must be smiling somewhere.