Think twice before founding that free-market utopia, researcher warns
It’s a strange fantasy: pack your things, hop on a plane and escape to a remote island or maybe even a small country of your own, where you can live unburdened by the constraints of society.
What could go wrong?
A lot, according to Raymond Craib, the Marie Underhill Noll professor of history at Cornell University College of Arts and Sciences. In his new book, “Adventure Capitalism: A History of Libertarian Exit, from the Era of Decolonization to the Digital Age,” to be published July 5 by PM Press, Craib examines the questionable track record of such utopian, free-market experiments.
From building private, sovereign platforms — or “sea cities” — on the ocean to establishing free private cities, which attempt to do the same on territory ceded to settlers by a government, “the promoters of these plans are all driven by the desire not only to escape taxes and regulation, but to build a community where life is completely structured by market transactions,” Craib said. These tricks often have disastrous consequences for the local population.
Craib spoke to the Cornell Chronicle about the book.
Q: Some people might be tempted to write off libertarians as comedic or delusional. What are the consequences of the actions of the exciters?
A: These projects have serious consequences. I look at the case of exiters in the 1970s in places like the Caribbean and Southwest Pacific, and their plans wreaked havoc on communities trying to emerge from the shadows of colonial rule. In the case of the New Hebrides, for example, exiters financed and armed a secessionist uprising that they hoped, if successful, would facilitate the establishment of a libertarian community and free trade zone. In other cases, the mere prospect of exit arrangements created enormous political and social stress as communities worried about land loss and new forms of colonization.
Question: A recurring character in your book is Michael Oliver, who has his own country ‘founder’, the short-lived Republic of Minerva in 1972. What makes Oliver such a great case study?
A: Oliver’s story is compelling: Jewish, from Kaunas, Lithuania, he was the only member of his immediate family to survive the Holocaust and was 17 or 18 when he was rescued by American troops outside Dachau concentration camp. He then immigrated to the US and made a home for himself in Nevada. His experiences understandably made him hyper-focus on his political environment, and he was concerned about the threat of totalitarianism, which, like many American liberals and conservatives, he associated with communism as much as with fascism. (This resulted in a convergence between libertarianism and social conservativism that is central to how we should understand American libertarianism.) By the 1960s, fearing social change and inspired by the writings of hypercapitalist proponents such as Ayn Rand and Friedrich von Hayek, Oliver self-published a small book (“A New Constitution for a New Country”) and began exploring places to build a new country. He was highly strategic, focusing his efforts on places attempting to decolonize, as well as reefs and seamounts such as Minerva Atoll in the southwestern Pacific Ocean.
Q: Why were the 1960s and 1970s an especially ripe time for exit projects?
A: These decades in the US were shaped by the rise of libertarian, anti-government politics as much as the activism of the New Left. Libertarians rallied against Roosevelt’s New Deal and the regulatory state, while simultaneously mounting fears of environmental, demographic and monetary collapse. Just think of some of the famous writings of the time: Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb” (on overpopulation and famine), or Garrett Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons” (on resource overexploitation), or even Ian Fleming’s ” Goldfinger” (in which Auric Goldfinger plans to bring down the global economy by irradiating the gold supply).
At the same time, the wealthy tried to escape their social responsibilities – think white flights to the suburbs and flight plans to oceans and islands. It wasn’t a big leap to imagine a gated community on the high seas instead of Orange County, or a capitalist commune on a remote island instead of Northern California.
Q: How do the original examples of libertarian exit compare to the like-minded efforts of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs today?
A: Recent exit strategists (the Seasteaders, the proponents of free private cities, and the initiators of Start-Up Societies) have a lot in common with the exiters of the 1960s. They too are free market fundamentalists and want to create new countries, and have similar intellectual influences. But the differences are also worth noting. Perhaps most notably, they’ve chopped up the more Nietzschean aspects of Ayn Rand’s work more closely than their predecessors. What I mean by this is that their projects are not driven by fear of the masses and totalitarianism – in fact, they seem indifferent to the general public and express contempt for democratic politics – but by an urge, a will, to manipulate reality to put. design. They try not only to escape the state, but also to rearrange them in their own image.
Q: Are there examples of successful and responsible exit projects? What could that even look like? Or is their premise part of the problem?
A: The premise is part of the problem. The hyper-capitalist orientation of the people I study sets them apart from other types of exit societies one might find in the historical record: auburn communities forged by runaway slaves or by peoples fleeing conscription and slavery from the state or autonomous territories, such as the one founded by the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico. All of these can be considered experiments in territorial exit, but they have little in common ideologically and structurally with those of Michael Oliver, of seasteaders, and of free private city advocates.
Form should not take precedence over content. Any analysis of exit must understand what people are trying to leave, but also what they are trying to build up. Exile communities created through collective efforts to reduce exploitation that have grown organically from the ground up cannot be compared to escape plans that favor property acquisition and individual sovereignty and are usually planned in advance and designed from the top down. These contain different, and largely incomparable, conceptions of what is freedom and what is oppression.
A rebranding of ‘freedom’?
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