Twisted Utopian Visions

by Ran Prieur

January 27, 2003

Creative Commons License
[Edited and annotated December 2, 2012]

I like to fantasize about laws I would make if I had absolute authority, but since I don't believe in authority, most of the following are not serious proposals, but mental exercises, intended to feed and grow a style of thinking compatible with the world I envision.

Full corporate accountability. If someone is killed or something is stolen through the actions of a corporation, then that corporation is tried for murder or theft, and if it's found guilty, then every stockholder of that corporation is sentenced as if they'd done the crime themselves! Anything less is profit without responsibility. Of course hardly anyone would actually go to prison, because if these were the rules, there would be no corporations, no stocks, and no businesses larger than a few people who really trust each other. Perfect!

Graduated sales tax. For a five pound bag of flour, no tax; for a $200 stereo, 10% or $20 tax; for a $3000 used car, 20% or $600; for a $50,000 luxury car, 50% or $25,000; for a $300,000 house (exempted if you live there yourself), 100%; and for a billion dollar corporate buyout, one thousand percent, or ten billion dollars tax! A nice side effect would be that people would get around the law by making and buying parts of things and assembling them, and we would all be more skilled in building the artifacts of our society.

Democratic total surveillance. We think high-tech surveillance is creepy because of course we expect it to be monopolized by cops and spies and bosses. But imagine if anyone could observe anyone at any time. If you're the president, you know millions of voters will watch you shit and have sex and (most embarrassing of all) make your political deals. The same thing will happen if you're famous for any reason. In such a climate, most people will avoid power and fame and try to be anonymous. But people will become known just by boldly being themselves in interesting ways. The most open, honest, and courageous people will tend to gain fame and influence. Conversely, those with serious things to hide will tend to become obscure and powerless.

[Now that we're heading toward this kind of future, I've become more cynical about contemporary human nature. People will become famous and powerful by being selfish and stupid in ways that ordinary idiots find interesting.]

Something more moderate:

Public interest surveillance. Many police cars are already set up with constantly running video cameras. We could broadcast every second of this straight to the public. I've heard rumors of the dreadful stuff that gets cut in the editing of COPS -- imagine if we could see it all. And it would be easy to put 24-hour publicly viewed surveillance on the president and cabinet and senators. And how about, for every product, retailers have to show a constant live feed of the conditions it's produced in. That would bring a quick end to factory farming and sweatshops.

Equal death attention. The media must give equal coverage to every death. So, for example, the millions of people killed by the medical industry would deservedly get millions of times as much coverage as the three or four rich white people killed by strangers. This would be practical only on the level of local news, but that would be enough -- in only a few days our consciousness would be radically changed. "Where is all the cancer coming from? Wow, cars are dangerous! And look at all the poor people -- I'd heard about them, but I never knew they were real."

$20 a gallon gasoline tax. This would effectively give only rich people the benefits of the internal combustion engine, and they can have it! They can drive their monster cars on the empty freeways and cower in their remote suburbs and buy dead stuff shipped halfway around the world, while the rest of us abandon our cars, quit any job we can't walk to, move out of anyplace not near food, and build cozy little economies of local crafts and fresh local food transported by horse and bicycle.

This would be disastrous if it happened all at once. But something like it is going to happen over the next few decades as the oil runs out. Even with electric cars, that electricity has to come from somewhere. I look forward to the time when there is no longer a cheap way to manufacture remoteness.

[I no longer expect a tech crash. Renewable energy is not coming online fast enough to replace cheap oil, so until it catches up it will be more expensive to move heavy things, and there will be terrible suffering and also more local self-suffiency. But mass production and container shipping are highly efficient and will remain part of life for most people.]

But if you think I'm simply anti-car, check out this one:

Reverse tow charges. If a car gets towed, whoever has it towed has to pay, not the car owner. Isn't it fair that the person who wants something moved should pay? Of course, you were the one who left it in the "wrong" place, but why is it anyone else's business where you set your things down? The problem is that our places are so inflexible and our things are so massive that our society needs laws like this to function.

That's why reverse tow charges would cause such delicious problems. People could almost ignore parking restrictions, since the worst that could happen is they'd get a modest fee they could put off paying, and go pick up their car at the tow lot for free. Status-obsessed people would have to pay to have your unfashionably old car towed from their neighborhood, and then you could just go park it there again! Protesters could blockade a corporation -- or a freeway -- with thousands of parked cars, and the authorities would have to have them all moved at a hundred dollars each. Or they could call the bluff and leave the cars there, and see how long it takes before the drivers come get them, or before the parked-in drivers who want to get out fight the ones on the edges who want to stay, or before vigilantes start destroying the cars.

The key to this change is that it allows democracy: In the industrialized world almost everybody has a car or access to a car, and that's a 3000 pound piece of metal that can go 100 miles an hour and carries a huge tank of highly flammable liquid. What were they thinking? Cars, and people's mental habits about them, have to be carefully controlled to keep this enormous mass of personal power channeled so it continues to serve the ruling interests. And reverse tow charges would give car owners a weapon against an even more exclusive and powerful elite -- property owners.

No owning land. The biggest way money gets channeled from the poor to the rich in our society is through rent and mortgage payments, giant monthly fees charged under the dubious premise that someone else can own your home that you live in. In Medieval serfdom the owning lord only took around 25%. Some of my friends pay 80%. Some people use the medieval serf comparison to complain about 50% tax rates, but of course these people are so wealthy that one year of their income could support a subsistence farming family for a century. Maybe they should be taxed at 99.25%. The real modern counterparts of medieval serfs are renters.

I suggest that the only legal power anyone has regarding land is to occupy it. If no one's occupying a house or a field, you can just go live in it or build a cabin on it, and when you leave, someone else can move in.

This one seems difficult, and certainly there would be a lot of complications to work out, like making sure someone can't take over your house when you're traveling, and keeping some people from just trashing one place after another and moving on, and balancing farming against its ecological impact. But land ownership is a recent concept. We got along without it before, and we could again.

In the meantime, a good intermediate step would be to outlaw absentee landlords (and make apartment buildings collectively owned), or to simply outlaw rent. Either of these would take the exploitation value out of real estate, and greatly reduce the cost of owning your own place, plus it would make an abundance of vacant places for squatting.

[I wrote more about this issue in this post in 2009.]

No intellectual property. Owning ideas is an even newer and more perverse concept than owning land. You might think that as a writer I would support the "owning" of writing so I could make more money, but that would be selfish. In the present system only a small minority of writers make a living from writing, and they're making their publishers many times as much. By supporting intellectual property, the creators of that property are making a deal with the devil, and not a good deal, supporting a system that allows corporations to make enormous profits and wield absolute dumbing-down control over our entire culture, and all the creators get is table scraps, a small chance of taking a small cut of what their masters are taking from everyone.

With everything in the public domain, everything would decrease in scale and increase in quality. Nobody would spend $200 million on a movie since they couldn't make the money back without exclusive rights to sell it. But you could make a $1 million movie for an intelligent dedicated audience who would be sure to pay for your version and not someone else's copy. Authors with readers who paid attention could simply ask their readers to buy the edition from which the author makes money, even if it costs a bit more. Most people want to support the artists they like, and the kind of people who don't, nobody would make anything for them. Artists and audiences would learn to be more aware of each other and build closer relations.

Also, when you take high profitability out of any industry, you get rid of the assholes and phonies and suck-ups, the people motivated by money over love. Then what will we do with these people? Pay them subsistence wages to stay home and grow old and bitter instead of paying them millions to ruin our society!

[If an industry confers status, there will still be assholes and phonies and suckups even if there isn't money. But I think increasing automation will inevitably lead to a guaranteed basic income, which will weaken the case for copyright.]

We can easily make this transition if more and more artists simply declare their works to be in the public domain, and make money through performances or through loyal and attentive buyers. Eventually the old systems will wither through lack of creative talent. But even the system we have now is not all bad: Copyrights are more enforceable against big centralized systems than small autonomous ones, so you can stop a corporation from mass-producing something you own, but you can't touch people who copy it for their friends.

[I still think the total abolition of copyright, while not perfect, is the most elegant position. But we still need trademark, because while ideas can only be copied, credit can be stolen. So if someone copies your stuff, the law should require them to credit you and not present it as their own.]

Legalize resisting arrest. Let's start with something more extreme: Imagine if police and non-police had exactly the same rights. If they can shoot you in self-defense, you can shoot them in self-defense. If they can legally run from you, you can legally run from them. If they can confiscate property, anyone can! If they can take you prisoner, then anyone can take anyone prisoner, or chase each other at high speed, or invade each other's houses. Or if anyone can't, then no one can.

This will never happen in the context of the present society, but it's worth thinking through. Who would be a cop under terms like these? I would! If they didn't have a monopoly on force, police would actually earn the respect that they now think they deserve. They would be real heroes all the time, instead of doing good only when it's consistent with their primary role as over-armed enforcers for the owning interests. They would all have the full support of the community because the bad ones wouldn't last a week.

But there are deeper issues. In such a system, what's the difference between a cop and a vigilante? Aren't we all effectively being cops for each other, and if so, why pay anyone to do it? Wouldn't it turn into a war of all against all, and then people would form gangs, and the gangs would fight until one was supreme, and that gang would employ armed thugs with a monopoly on force, and then liberals would place half-assed restrictions on the thugs to keep the people from revolting, and then we'd be right back where we started?

But again, police are a recent invention, and we've had peaceful societies without them for a very long time. It all hinges on the underlying culture: If it's selfish and competitive and secretive and disconnected and authoritarian, you have destroying gangs under one name or another; and if it's empathic and cooperative and transparent and aware and autonomous, then you don't need anything like police.

And in a transition to a healthy culture, we might pass through having police under terms that now seem unthinkable, like taking their guns away, or legalizing resisting arrest.

Age equality. I'm not talking about old people but very young people. Childhood is a recent concept. In a healthy culture, people of all ages do the same stuff -- run around playing and practicing the skills to autonomously stay alive and comfortable. But since our culture requires older people to be numb and predictable and do tedious meaningless chores all their lives, all humans have to be broken to make them behave like adults, and in the time before they're broken their behavior and roles are radically different -- thus the idea of childhood. And of course, for this system to perpetuate itself, adults must have power over children so the adults will convert the children and not the other way around.

Reverse it! Make all ages equal in legal rights and physical power, which, since young humans are smaller, would require some affirmative action, like giving them all electric stun guns! I'm not really serious about this. The main problem, aside from political impossibility, is that our kids are already half broken before they can walk, largely through isolation -- in healthy cultures an infant is cared for constantly by an extended family, instead of being snatched away at birth and then spending much of infancy behind the bars of a training prison or watching TV. We are in a deep hole, and the way out is to treat young people more and more like our equals. This is one power transfer that has to be slow and consensual.

Negative interest. That means if you borrow money from a bank, they pay you interest, or in practice, you pay them back less than what you borrowed; and people with savings accounts pay the bank interest, so that their accounts gradually shrink.

It sounds absurd, but why not call it natural and call positive interest absurd? The difference is, the present concept of interest channels money from the poor to the rich, increases differences in wealth, and concentrates and centralizes power. Also it demands that the total "wealth" keep growing exponentially, which drives an economy that destroys the earth and enslaves people so it can turn more and more life into money. An opposite concept would do the opposite -- equalize wealth, diffuse and decentralize power, and make the dead money economy shrink and give back to the living world.

There are precedents. Ancient Egypt was especially prosperous during a period when they had negative interest through currency backed by grain with storage charges. In Medieval Europe, under the negative interest Brakteaten system, people didn't sit on money -- since it decreased in value -- but spent it on things that increased in value, including some of the best cathedrals.

We wouldn't even need a law for negative interest, just a new way of thinking, a custom enforced by social pressure. And it isn't even a new way of thinking, just the way we already think about everything else except money: If I hoard a bunch of wheat instead of putting it in the ground, it doesn't grow -- it slowly dies. If I'm not using a hammer, and you borrow it, and continue to use it, it gradually becomes yours.

[I wrote more about this issue in this post in 2008.]