Member, Public

Dialog #1 — Discussing cantons around the coffee table.

Jill was fussing over the snacks of various kinds that filled the center of the coffee table. Tom was sitting in his chair, going over his notes. He had called several people from the town to meet at his home this evening to discuss his ideas for a new form of municipal government, one that included representation of every taxpayer, but without elections.

Shortly before 7 the doorbell started to ring, and by 7:15 the living room was full. Tom began his pitch. 

“It seems to me that representative government is supposed to mean that the ‘people’ are represented. What we usually see instead is a town council composed of people who represent the special interests who paid for their elections rather than the people who voted for them. So, what I am going to outline for you this evening is a new form of representative government that will represent every taxpayer, and all done without elections.”

“The primary feature of this new form of government is a group called a ‘canton’. A canton is similar to a political party in that its members are united around a specific set of principles and values. Rather than having to choose between only two major parties, the number of cantons would be limited only by the diversity of the citizenry. Once a year, each taxpayer logs into a secure website and selects their canton from the list. That’s their canton for the following year. Each canton has a member called the ‘champion’. The champions of all the cantons will then serve as the town council.” 

Tom looked around the room. No questions yet. 

He took a breath and started again. “Okay, so that’s the easy part. This next part is a bit trickier, especially for those of us who are mathematically challenged…” A couple of chuckles. He pressed on. “Each champion, so each member of the town council, represents a specific canton. That canton has a specific number of members. The town has a certain amount of revenues that it can spend during the coming year. What I am suggesting is that each champion gets to spend a proportionate part of the revenues based on the numbers of his canton’s membership. So, let’s say that the total revenues comes to $10 million, and the total number of taxpayers as of September 1st (for example) was 10,000, then you divide the 10 million by 10,000 to get what each taxpayer, on average, has contributed (since the vast majority of the revenue comes from local taxes). Multiply that number, the average amount per taxpayer, times the number of members of a particular canton, and you’ve arrived at the amount that the champion is able to contribute to the various expenses of town government.”

“What about those taxpayers who don’t want to select a canton, for whatever reason?” Bill asked.

“I’ve thought about that too,” said Tom. “You can’t really force someone to choose a canton, any more than you can force someone to vote. But they can still be represented. Here’s how. On each September 1, the day all selections must be made, you can then determine what the percentage of all those who have selected a canton has chosen each canton. You also then know the number of taxpayers who did NOT choose a canton. You divide that total number by the percentage of … wait a minute.” In his nervous condition he had forgotten to pass out his example sheet. Pages were passed around, and he spent several minutes going over the examples until everyone at least understood it enough to move on. In short, the way to deal with the taxpayers unwilling to select a canton was to assign them in the same proportion the members of each canton represented among all those who had chosen a canton.

Tom continued. “Each champion, as a member of the town council (made up of all the canton champions) determines how his allotted revenues are spent, all based on the shared values of his canton. In order to get any funding, the particular budget item must be approved by a majority, not of champions, but of the number of people each approving canton represents. Let’s pick an easy example. The line of the budget has to do with the police department. Each champion represents the total number of his canton’s members. To figure out a majority you simply add up the member counts of all those cantons whose champion voted for funding the police department. I’m pretty sure most of the budget line items for the police would get approved, and the funds from those approving champions would be directed to fund the police.”

Tom looked at the faces in front of him. They were clearly working very hard to understand all this, and at the same time, there was a certain amount of skepticism. Finally, the silence was broken by Alex. “So, what is the benefit of all this? It seems just another way to fund local government. Honestly, I don’t get it.” 

“Well,” said Tom, “here’s what I see as the benefits. First of all, since there are no elections for town council members, the influence of special interests can be greatly weakened, while the influence of the taxpayers is what it really should be — everything! Second, because the champions are spending the people’s money based on the values of their members, you have a town government whose policies are actually shaped by the values of the people. In addition, the values of each taxpayer is respected, because their champion only spends their money on things of value to them. Notice that this is not ‘majority rule’ in that everyone must contribute based on what the majority decides. The majority only determines what things are actually getting funded, but the funding comes only from those cantons who approve of the particular project. This is what I call funding by a ‘coalition of the willing’.” A few heads nod their understanding. 

“But there is one more benefit I see, and I think this is the real kicker,” Tom continued. “What happens if a champion, at the end of the year, has not used all the revenues allocated to him for budget items? My answer to this is that the money gets returned proportionately to the members of that canton. Now remember that the cantons are in competition with each other for members. One of the things a champion can boast about is giving their members good value for the money spent on their behalf. Is that happening today?” More chuckles and heads shaking. Local government does not have a reputation for careful spending.

Andrea, an amateur student of government, asked, “So what are the safeguards to make sure all this works?” 

“Good question!” Tom responded. He was getting his second wind. “Each taxpayer gets to choose his canton once a year. There would be a cutoff date for the coming year, such as September 1. But during the year, if they have issues with the way their champion is acting, they can go to that same website and choose another canton. In this way you have a market for cantons, similar to a stock market, where you could track the ups and downs of each canton during the course of the year. Remember that the influence of each champion is based on the number of their members, so, as I said, the champions are always in competition with each other for members, and the best way they can improve from one year to the next is by being loyal to the principles of their members, and spending their members money wisely.”  

“I’ve got regular and decaf coffee in the dining room,” Jill said. “Anyone prefer tea?”