BOOK REVIEW | The Unincorporated Man by Dani and Eytan Kollin Image

Justin Cord, protagonist of The Unincorporated Man (2010 Prometheus Award winner for Best Libertarian Novel) once quips that, “You often learn more about a situation from the questions than the answers.”

My highest praise for the book is for the questions it raises in the best tradition of social science fiction, questions that get us thinking about economic, legal, and even financial institutions in new ways. The book portrays a future society with a minimalist limited government, strong corporations, and a universal system of “personal incorporation.”

Each person is owned by a shifting combination of self and others through a joint stock arrangement set up at birth. Making corporations personal serves to amplify and universalize the conventional image of corporate titans maneuvering against each other for power and position. Everyone plays the “corporate game” and plays it with their whole lives, not just their jobs. Into this mix awakens one man from 300 years of suspended animation. Can he remain wholly self-owned? Will his ancient ideas of autonomy infect others and upset the new social order?

Taxation by Any Other Name

The future minimal state portrayed is said to lack the power to tax. It funds itself with a fixed share of the lifetime dividend stream from each “individual corporation.” Everyone is supposed to be incorporated at birth, but high-powered legal controversy soon ensues, generating a storm in the popular press. Will Cord, the anachronistic “Unincorporated Man,” be compelled to incorporate just like everyone else or can he retain his unique freedom?

He offers to just pay up in equivalent taxes (horror from the characters: do not bring back a precedent for taxes!). However, the true motivations of those who want him to incorporate soon emerge — they want to bring him under their firm control.

The authors take the time to portray the conventional wisdom of members of this future society as being in alignment with its novel socio-political system. Most of the people in the book believe that things have to be the way they are in light of (their interpretations of) key episodes in their history. Socio-political systems cannot long endure if most of the people do not believe in their ultimate necessity and correctness — however mistaken they may be. The authors portray potential shifts in the system as being intertwined with the outcome of potential shifts in popular opinion. However, the converse is not so clear. Not just any socio-political system can be considered realistic or sustainable just because people believe in it. Other dynamics operate, and public opinion is just one among other possibility limiters, a topic to which we return below.

Some readers might interpret the individual incorporation system as being somehow quasi-libertarian through a vague association with “ownership” and “market forces.” There is, after all, a lot of loose thinking in our world surrounding the nature of business and ownership, contemporary state-corporatism, and libertarianism. However, I would characterize the essence of the individual incorporation system as a novel means of implementing the core statist task of providing institutionalized processes through which people can “participate” in owning and controlling others — while being enabled to feel that they are doing so legitimately.

To most libertarians, meanwhile, any assertion of partial or complete ownership of other people is virtually the definition of social wrongdoing. The individual incorporation system could therefore be characterized, not as quasi-libertarian, but as a creative statist-corporatist mutant. As Cord himself points out to the members of his new society, it amounts to a system of partial enslavement.

Slavery by Any Other Name

The characters frequently debate moral distinctions among self-ownership, partial ownership by others (personal incorporation), and full ownership by others (classical slavery). With the exception of Cord, the characters were all incorporated at birth. The government gets a 5-percent slice of the initial stock issue at birth and, according to the constitution, cannot raise or lower that stake. Each parent also gets a large stake in his or her child’s stock at birth. Young people often trade away shares of their stock in exchange for financing educations (which helps align the interests of educational institutions with the expected future income streams of students), and one can enter strategic cross-shareholding alliances for work and social purposes. One such alliance is marriage. By tradition, the betrothed pledge modest, equal stakes of their personal stock to each other!

Young adults then begin to work and scheme toward the elusive dream of “personal majority.” Perhaps one day they can finally buy the right to more fully control their own lives by securing greater than a 50-percent stake in themselves. And the dream of all dreams is that they might someday gain a 70-plus percent stake for better insulation from hostile takeovers.

The feeling of being partially owned by others will appeal to many modern readers’ sense that their lives are directed onto predefined tracks in our own hyper-regulated statist-corporatist world. People feel partially owned by their parents, schools, state, and, yes, also their corporations — maybe even sometimes their spouses. The characters’ dreams of buying a majority stake in themselves resonate with modern readers’ dreams of “being free of the office,” “being one’s own boss,” and even “retiring.”

Personal incorporation creates a cross-shareholding environment that makes everyone beholden to others. Its defenders in the book say this creates a universal social-accountability and sanction system that is independent of a legal-remedy system. One has to do more than follow the law; one has to keep an eye out and notice how one’s personal stock price reacts to one’s behavior, life decisions, and related events.

True, a healthy free society requires social pressures, cultural expectations, and informal sanctions. The book presents personal incorporation as a mechanism that formalizes social pressures to constrain behavior in a post-village world where local reputation and informal sanctions are no longer enough.

This is an interesting attempt. Yet besides the obvious problem that Cord identifies — personal incorporation is a nuanced slavery mechanism in disguise — there are also some practical moral-hazard problems with such as system. Why would a person not just save money, work hard to make their share price go down, and then put in a massive buy order to win self-majority when the shares are at rock bottom?

One answer the book offers is that if people are behaving too self-destructively (driving down their own share price), their shareholders can trigger a “psychological audit.” In good sci-fi form, this is not just any audit. It is an electro-chemical brain-scan and reform treatment that often causes personality changes and partial memory loss. It is portrayed as a sort of sophisticated futuristic lobotomy. So if you want to avoid a psych audit, you had better just tow the corporate line, follow your fiduciary duty to your shareholders, and do what you are expected to do.

Dani and Eytan Kollin

Defining Away the State?

What might at first appear to be a great libertarian victory — a constitutionally limited minimalist government — may come across to some modern libertarians as being about as believable as classical science fiction’s proverbial little green men from Mars. The level of unrealism involved in this aspect of the story makes it difficult for anyone who has read contemporary libertarian accounts of the state — for example, Murray Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty, Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s Theory of Socialism and Capitalism, or Robert Higgs’s Crisis and Leviathan — to “suspend disbelief” in the fictional political arrangement portrayed.

Once a government exists, the inherent dynamic created by what it is means that it will tend to grow well beyond attempts to limit it. Hopeful Enlightenment-era talk of limiting such a creature through constitutional restrictions faded into talking points used to persuade doubters. This is what the Hamiltonian Federalists did in winning approval of the US Constitution from skeptical Jeffersonians. That document established institutions that have in fact produced not so much the “limited government” advertised, as the largest and most powerful government in the history of the world. It is hardly ironic that establishing such a powerful central government was the Hamiltonians’ actual goal and that they have in the long run “succeeded” even beyond their own wildest expectations.

Unfortunately, the Kollin brothers portray substantive constitutional limitations working just as advertised over the long term — something that has proven much more elusive in reality. For example, readers are supposed to accept that the 5-percent stake in each person that the government gets at birth has not risen in many, many decades since the new constitution was established! Compare this to the actual history of rates of taxation, such as income taxes and VAT, which tend to start out extremely low (to assuage initial critics) and then go upward over fairly short periods of historical time by factors of 10–20 or more.

A substantial intellectual shift has occurred in the libertarian movement over the past several decades, generally away from the classical liberal image of a constitutionally limited “night watchman” state and toward the vision of a fully private-law society with no “public law” granting of exemptions to basic principles of justice to state employees or anyone else. The Kollin brothers seem to try to move somewhat in this direction. However, what they do is simply assert that in this future world, justice and court services are open to competition — with the minimal state still there, but as merely one provider among others — and that this minimal state lacks the constitutional power to levy “taxes” (though it does get plenty of cash from those involuntary personal stock dividends, unlike its “competitors”).

The problem with this is that the authors define away what a state is — the final monopolist of dispute resolution and the power to tax in a given geographic area — and then claim to have made a minimal state that lacks these characteristics. In this definitional sleight-of-hand, however, the authors have not limited the state; they have merely rendered the word “state” free of denotative content.

Conceptual Interest, Weak Execution

The book thus offers a great deal to chew on in social science fiction terms, all of it creative, some of it lacking in intellectual rigor, especially the naà¯ve constitutionalism. The hard technology elements, such as laser-driven ballistic transportation systems, smart nanomaterials, and IT systems are interesting and generally well handled. However, the weaknesses of certain aspects of characterization and dramatic structure almost cancel out this goodwill.

First, Cord at times seems to be planted there 300 years in the future mainly to highlight for the reader issues with this future society by contrasting them with some of his old-fashioned (our current) perspectives and values. He lacks some dimensions that could have been brought out further to deepen the character as well as reader empathy with him. He seems for the most part “okay” and stoic with the impact of entering this new and not entirely friendly future and losing what and who he left behind. Cord talks about all these issues and changes, but I too rarely felt with him about his situation. He could still have been stoic on the surface, but a deeper characterization might have shown still more of the interior impact of exterior events, culture shocks, and unmet expectations. The chief antagonist, meanwhile, is far too melodramatic as the one-dimensional stereotypical embodiment of amoral corporate power lust.

Second, there are substantial sections, some of which are quite interesting in themselves, that end up seeming too disconnected with the central plot. The longest is an account of a future-history incident called the VR plague, in which immersive, brain-linked virtual-reality fantasy simulations offered such realism and psychological draw that large sections of the population became pathologically addicted to them, many losing interest in real life. This helped give rise to a global collapse and a subsequent banning of VR, with a strong cultural stricture against even so much as talking with PDA-like AI agents in public. This was a well-written and poignant section, so it is too bad that it had so little to do with the plot of the novel! It nearly came across as an included short story. It could have been slipped in as a much shorter world-descriptive aside and character-bonding episode, but as it was, it took up a great deal of space, and should therefore have been either greatly shortened or integrated more tightly into the main structure.

The Unincorporated Man was an interesting and original attempt from an intellectual perspective, but given some of the political-economic unrealism in the premise and some weaknesses in structure and characterization, I have mixed feelings about whether to recommend it. If you read many books quickly, you might want to pick this up and see for yourself what the authors have come up with. There are some interesting parts and many good opportunities for doing counterfactual mental aerobics on social-system issues. If you pick your books more carefully, however, and only read a select few, this one could probably be skipped.

3.5 / 5 stars     

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About the Author

Konrad Graf

Konrad Graf has long been interested in discovering misleading paradigms in social and other sciences and replacing them with better ones. He is the author of Action-Based Jurisprudence, which argues that praxeology and the apriori of argumentation together form the basis for a new school of deductive jurisprudence. He has lived in the United States, India, Japan, and now Germany.

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • hammodius March 23, 2013 @ 5:27 pm | Link

    Nice review. I tend to agree that this book is worth a read in a zip-right-through-it mode, but not for someone very choosey. I like to read all kinds of things, mostly fast. I’ll slow down for something particularly well written, which this wasn’t, though it was a lot of fun.

    The VR section of the book is not unrelated to the rest of the plot. Thematically, it grapples with the central question. (SPOILERS FOLLOW) Why does the Chairman support Justin? Because the Chairman deems incorportation a long-term evil for humanity, “a dictatorship of the content. It’s a creeping, smothering form of tyranny because it works so well and makes everyone so happy…on the surface.” (p. 448) This theme was earlier stated by Sebastian at the avatar council, “The rate of innovation in new ideas is slowing down. […] both races should soon die of peace, contentment, and boredom.” (p. 345)

    I believe the Virtual Reality segment illustrates its moral lesson in order to increase the reader’s sympathy for Justin Cord’s stand, particularly as presented in his argument with Neela. Neela points to all the benefits of personal incorporation, but Justin says the benefits aren’t worth the cost. VR is pure entertainment/pleasure–which robs the individual of the power of choice. It’s insidious, because the individual is complicit. Giving up the power of choice is, after all, a choice, or at least a default. A parallel can be drawn, and I believe was implied by the authors, between VR and personal incorporation, aka slavery. Personal incorporation has its surface charm (peace and prosperity), which makes the loss of personal choice, ie the loss of freedom, seem palatable.

    I don’t think the Kollin brothers completely succeeded at it, but I do believe that’s the general thrust of how the VR segment relates to the book’s overall message.


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