imaginary family values presents

yesh omrim

a blog that reclines to the left


A is for Anonymous

15 July 2004

[A few years ago, on my old static Web site, I started a series of essays describing political systems of imaginary countries. I’m revising those old essays and posting them here, and God willing, I’ll continue the series in the weeks and months to come.]

In the United Nations Statistical Handbook, the entry for Vespucci Island has no entry for “population.” Nor does it say anything about the country’s Gross Domestic Product, its fertility rate, its literacy rate, or a dozen other statistics. The Vespuccian government, bound by a constitution with the world’s strictest privacy clauses, maintains no such information about its population, and Vespuccian citizens are proud of their government’s ignorance.

All Vespuccians have the right to keep their biometric information (their photographs, fingerprints, retina prints, etc.) strictly apart from their financial information (their assets, debts, account numbers, etc.). Since these two kinds of data are most easily linked through a person’s name, this translates to a right to be anonymous. A Vespuccian driver’s license has a photograph of its owner, an inscription certifying “this person is licensed to drive any automobile under such-and-such a weight”, and all the other usual accoutrements of driver’s licenses—but no name. A Vespuccian can open a bank account anywhere in the country without providing any kind of identification, using any name that he or she wishes. Vespuccian passports do have names beside their photographs, but only because other countries refused to accept anonymous travel documents. If an 20-year-old man asks for a passport made out to “Marilyn Monroe, born January 1, 1700,” the Minister of Foreign Relations will happily issue him one.

Even when ignorant of its citizens’ lives, the Vespuccian government manages to collect money from them. Its chief sources of revenue are the court tax, the weight tax, and the heat tax. Whenever people sign a contract or convey property to one another, and they want their agreement to be enforceable in court, they need to pay a tax in proportion to the maximum that any party could win from a lawsuit. Factories, warehouses, and retail stores have to record the weight of all goods they bring in for processing or sale, and pay an excise tax on the weight. The heat tax is based on the temperature of the waste water coming out of a building, and on satellite images showing the temperature of the surrounding air; it is charged to the property’s owner of record.

Both a progressive income tax and a traditional welfare system are impossible on Vespucci Island. There is no way to tell, by inspecting a bank’s records, the difference between five poor depositors and one rich depsitor using five aliases. However, the government does pay a monthly stipend, sufficient for food and shelter, to every citizen who wants one. On the first day of the month, you can show up at your local Welfare Office and have your picture taken. If the picture does not match any file photographs of foreign visitors, or of people who have visited a Welfare Office earlier on the same day, then you can receive your stipend as cash, or as a check made out to the name of your choice. At the end of the day, the file of photographs used to prevent double-dipping is erased.

As various money-laundering interests sought alternatives to Switzerland and the Caymans, some alighted on Vespucci Island, and the attention of larger countries’ governments followed them. After acrimonious debate, the legislature made an exception to its privacy laws: Anyone who brings foreign currency into or out of Vespuccian territory must have his or her picture posted, along with the amount being transferred, on the government’s Web site. This was enough to make the gangsters lose interest.