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The Commonwealth City
Inventing New Social Technologies
It is obvious to me that the most urgently needed inventions today are new social technologies.
Naturally, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking through what that means for the way cities and neighborhoods are built. Not just the physical layer, but the social and economic layers as well. Physical form follows from socioeconomic incentive structures, not the other way around.
So the question I keep asking is: What changes to today’s incentive structures and social systems would yield different, better outcomes for the people who live in them?
I love questions like this. More than asking the question, I love come up with crazy-sounding proposals in response to them. Enter the Commonwealth City. It’s a mash-up of several things. Georgism plays a big role, but so do some modern technologies and somewhat old ideas about organization.
This is not an idea for political reform or a direct criticism of cities today. It’s simply an idea for a new, more equitable and sustainable social technology. It’s a proposed invention, not a reform or complaint.
First, what is a social technology?
When archaeologists discover a sophisticated artifact like the Greek Antikythera mechanism, we conclude that some ancient societies may have been more advanced than previously believed. When we think of advanced civilizations, the image is usually one of advanced technology. Our civilization is advanced because we have rockets and nuclear power. Technology is the systematic application of knowledge, achieving goals that would otherwise be impossible. But not all technologies are material. The ability to organize human relationships, actions, and groups in organized and effective ways is itself a specialized form of knowledge called social technology.
Although people are relatively aware of the material technology that powers their lives, they are less aware of the non-material technology that influences them — namely, social technology. Just as HTTP is the operating protocol for the web, politeness is the operating protocol for our social interactions. Following the protocol will lead to predictable and desirable outcomes. Breaking the protocol will lead to inaccessible websites, or, perhaps, unwanted social awkwardness. Politeness, just like HTTP, can be documented and taught.
It’s important to note that all except the simplest social technologies are designed. Though many of our crucial social technologies seem like natural parts of reality today, this was not always so. At some point they required intentional construction and adoption. Many social technologies we take for granted, including the very idea of having such critical systems as currency, law, and government, were born from concerted human agency. It is for this reason that we call it social technology, rather than social “norms”, or take a more broad anthropological or philosophical approach. Much like material technology, social technology is designed, adopted, and scaled. It is proceduralized and documentable.
Social technology is a tool that directs people to knowingly or unknowingly take certain actions, and in so doing it has the ability to shape an extremely broad range of human action.
New ways of organizing people and resources don’t require any new physical technologies, though they often go hand in hand. They can unlock tremendous value for societies when they are successfully designed, implemented and then copied.
As an example, the corporation is one of the most important social inventions in history. It is not a physical technology like a microprocessor. It is a set of rules and norms that bring people together towards some common objective.
In its 400+ year history, the corporation has achieved extraordinary things, cutting around-the-world travel time from years to less than a day, putting a computer on every desk, a toilet in every home (nearly) and a cellphone within reach of every human. It even put a man on the Moon and kinda-sorta cured AIDS.
It’s kind of wild to think that the corporation is partially responsible for all of these things, but it’s true. If the social technology of the corporation had never been invented, people would have lacked the coordinating mechanisms to work together to achieve these things.
This is an important point about social technologies: they are invisible. We take them for granted. Physical technologies are tangible and ever-evolving; a new iPhone is released every year. Social technologies are completely foundational and influence everything that’s built on top of them.
Land & Property
The most foundational idea of the Commonwealth City is Henry George’s idea that land value should belong to a community as a whole rather than private landowners.
Everyone reading this essay likely accepts the idea that individuals should be entitled to the fruits of their labor and ingenuity. Basically, the idea of private property. If you earn money at a job then you should not have to worry that someone can arbitrarily take it from you.
(I know, I know taxes, but those are not arbitrary even if they might not always be the most efficient. I’m talking about someone random just removing money from your bank account without punishment or recourse.)
The reasoning then goes: People are entitled to the fruits of their labor and ingenuity. Land is not made by individuals and only has value because of the activities of the community around it; no individual person gives land its value. The value of land should therefore belong to the community as a whole.
I know this sounds a little weird. A way to understand it is to compare it to a carbon or pollution tax. A carbon tax says: “the air/atmosphere is a common resource, and all humans should have equal right to it. Specific individuals or companies do not have the right to pollute it without paying the rest of us for degrading our air/soil/water quality”)
George’s ideas are no different. It says: “the land is a common resource that was not made by any individual human. Further, land has value because of the community that lives on and around it, not because someone happens to have title to it. The value created by the community should therefore belong to that community, not an individual who happens to own the land.”
We accept - insist - on this fact holding true when it comes to money and personal property. But weirdly, we accept our hard work being taken from us in the cities we live in. Why are we cool with that?
I think the main reason is that we’ve never had a good way to actually implement this idea.
Henry George’s original proposal was to implement a Land Value Tax that would eventually replace labor and capital taxes. I’m skeptical of the ability of modern political systems to implement this at any meaningful scale today.
Instead, I think we need to invent a new social technology that takes the idea underlying George’s work and implements it in a different way.
The Commonwealth City
The legal structure of the city is more like a corporation (or cooperative) than a traditional municipality. Every resident owns shares in the Commonwealth City, which in turn is a corporation that holds everything else like land and infrastructure.
This is functionally equivalent to what Henry George proposed: The value of the land to be held in common by all people.
Anyone who wants to build something must lease a piece of land from the city. The revenue from these land leases serve as the primary source of revenue for the city. Anything built on the leased land is the full property of the owner. Remember: ownership of private property is critical so people are incentivized to build and invent useful things. We just want the value of the land - the thing that wasn’t created by any human - to belong to the community as a whole. The house you construct on the land belongs to you alone.
From these ground lease revenues, the city pays its operating expenses.
Any surplus left is then available for either:
Reinvestment into the city’s growth
Distribution to residents in the form of a Universal Basic Income.
Early on, I would strongly favor leaning heavily to 1. to start the process of compounding within the city as quickly as possible . This is no different from fast growing companies retaining all profits to reinvest in the business.
Further, to seed initial development, land leases would initially be priced very low to encourage individuals and companies to start building.
Have you ever seen a city doing an infrastructure project and thought “Well that just doesn’t make sense at all?”
Today there is absolutely no incentive for municipalities to behave in a smart way when it comes to investment because there is no mechanism or incentive that allows for surplus to be shared with taxpayers. Surplus in government can actually be a bad thing - it often means you got too much money and therefore will have your budget reduced. What an insane way to do things!
Under this system, the city’s residents would be able to balance the needs of investment in infrastructure in a much healthier way. They would build only what is truly needed because any leftover revenue would be distributed back to the residents of the city in the form of a Universal Basic Income. As a general rule, when people have skin in the game - facing upside for good decisions and downside for bad ones - things work better.
I Don’t Know, Let’s Find Out
I saw this on Twitter the other day:
I don’t see why we shouldn’t take the same approach to ideas for new social technologies. We can ask:
Are the residents of cities who participate in this model become better off? Is their daily life better? Are they able to pursue whichever ends they want without worrying about how they will eat or find housing? Does their city grow in a more sustainable way?
It’s possible to have ideological arguments about things like this until the end of time. I hate that. At some point, you just have to roll up your sleeves and try it out. Some discussion and theorizing is healthy, but it’s often an excuse to avoid actually taking action. Eventually you have to stand up from your desk and just do it live.
If it is successful, this model will compete directly with the model of land ownership and municipal growth and governance we use today. My favorite part about this idea is that it is actionable.
It says to people: “If you are unhappy with the system you currently participate in or feel it does not adequately serve you, here is an alternative. If it works, you can be part of inventing a new, better model of human existence.”
This is not an idea for people who want to troll on Twitter. It is not a left or right idea. It is an experimental idea. It is an idea for people who think we can do better than we currently do, and gives them a path to experiment with new solutions.
Personal Note: This essay I’ve been working on on and off for a few weeks. As I was biking home the other day it started to put itself together in my head. That has never happened before, and I think this is a good sign that the benefits to writing every day and publishing every week are beginning to compound. There’s a lot of room for improvement, but it’s nice to notice progress.