The Archipelago, Part 1: Introduction

Part of a series on the Archipelago: Part 2, Part 3

Summary: Introduce Scott Alexander’s Archipelago Communitarianism and highlight it’s potential as a system of governance.

Scott Alexander’s piece Archipelago and Atomic Communitarianism identifies a tension between the liberal principle of “Do as you will, so long as it harms none” and the reality that people are strongly influenced by their local culture, making it hard to view legal choices (e.g. allowing pornography) through an individual choice lens. Alexander then suggests a solution. He outlines a world where a new Archipelago is discovered, and the land is opened up to anyone who wants to gather a group of friends and start a self-sustaining colony:

And so the equivalent of our paleoconservatives go out and found communities based on virtue, where all sexual deviancy is banned and only wholesome films can be shown and people who burn the flag are thrown out to be eaten by wolves.

And the equivalent of our social justiciars go out and found communities where all movies have to have lots of strong minority characters in them, and all slurs are way beyond the pale, and nobody misgenders anybody.

And the equivalent of our Objectivists go out and found communities based totally on the Strict Principle of Harm where everyone is allowed to do whatever they want and there are no regulations on business and everything is super-capitalist all the time.

And some people who just really want to lose weight go out and found communities where you’re not allowed to place open boxes of donuts in the doctors’ lounge.

Usually the communities are based on a charter, which expresses some founding ideals and asks only the people who agree with those ideals to enter. The charter also specifies a system of government. It could be an absolute monarch, charged with enforcing those ideals upon a population too stupid to know what’s good for them. Or it could be a direct democracy of people who all agree on some basic principles but want to work out for themselves what direction the principles take them.

He then goes on to discuss several important ways to strengthen this system by creating an overarching government which controls all of the sub-governments. For one, this government has to prevent violence between the states. For another, there needs to be a system for dealing with externalities. For example, if one nation’s pollution is harming others, there needs to be a way to stop them. Third, people should be free to leave communities whenever they want and move to a different one (this is a crucial point). Finally, this overarching government carefully regulates the education of children in the Archipelago, making sure no community brainwashes children into staying in a community they dislike.

This system is special for a few reasons. First, it allows each person to choose the kind of community they live in, one which reflects and reinforces their values, encouraging them to become the kind of person they want to be. For example, people who want to live an active lifestyle could join a mini-state which is all about exercise, helping to reinforce their exercise habits.

Second, it creates beneficial competition to create the kinds of societies that people want to live in. This encourages governments to be rational and effective. For example, a government which taxes too much and provides poor public services will soon see its population (and tax revenue) fall. Conversely, states which provide for their citizen’s wellbeing will see their population grow. Just like a market, states will form to provide high quality governance which meets the diverse needs of the populace.

Third, it creates diverse approaches to society which can better innovate, handle shocks, and avoid tyranny. One could imagine a pandemic hitting the Archipelago, with some states dealing with outbreaks better than others (ahem). Having a diversity of governance structures makes the system more dynamically stable. A single government only has to make one mistake to cause total collapse, but many, diverse countries are much harder to topple. Additionally, the states that perform better can induce imitation, with each state testing out new ideas in governance.

In some sense, this already exists. Many countries like Switzerland or the U.S. allow sub-states to have significant control over their own laws as well as free movement between states. But in these cases the central government still wields too much power by imposing federal regulations and taking significant tax revenue. The choices of individual states are restricted by choices at the national level and states are dependent on resources from the federal government, creating more homogeneous laws and culture.

So, how do we get to a true Archipelago? There are some exciting early steps, such as the Charter Cities movement and Seasteading. Additionally, simply allowing freedom of movement across the globe can induce similar beneficial competition and diversity. This is one of several reasons the Open Borders movement has promise. Regardless of whether you believe the Archipelago is the right end goal for society, it is still probably useful to figure out how we can move towards it.

For me, the Archipelago represents a practical approach to utopia. Or at least something to strive for. It is a little disheartening that Scott Alexander (quoting himself) doesn’t think the same:

“Even aside from the international problems of gaining citizenship, dealing with a language barrier, and adapting to a new culture, people are just rooted – property, friends, family, jobs. The end result is that the only people who can leave their countries behind are very poor refugees with nothing to lose, and very rich jet-​setters. The former aren’t very attractive customers, and the latter have all their money in tax shelters anyway.

So although the idea of being able to choose your country like a savvy consumer appeals to me, just saying “exit rights!” isn’t going to make it happen, and I haven’t heard any more elaborate plans.

So although the idea of being able to choose your country like a savvy consumer appeals to me, just saying “exit rights!” isn’t going to make it happen, and I haven’t heard any more elaborate plans.”

I guess I still feel that way. So although Archipelago is an interesting exercise in political science, a sort of pure case we can compare ourselves to, it doesn’t look like a practical solution for real problems.


Alexander does go on to argue for becoming “becoming more Archipelagian on the margin” and talks about having more cultural norms which favor Archipelagos. He also expresses hope that internet communities and virtual reality will help create online spaces independent of government, an Archipelago of sorts.

Developing independent internet communities and VR would be good, but Alexander gives up too quickly on the possibility of a real world Archipelago. I also believe that moving frictions are a major problem, but they shouldn’t stop us from working out the theoretical and practical difficulties with the Archipelago, and then, perhaps, implementing it.

In the next posts in this series, I will do just that, anticipating theoretical and practical issues as well as new ideas in implementation.

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