Imagining and creating a free country within an unfree world – local secession and urbanization

Posted on January 19, 2011


The modern state is a monster of enormous and unnatural size made possible by the concentration of power at its center. Because it is unnatural, it is impossible to reform it to freedom. Instead, libertarians must seek to colonize a country by creating a patchwork of secessionist free towns within the state, integrating them into the local economy and society, and then gradually growing this patchwork to shrink the centralized state back to a natural size.

To most libertarians, the problem of liberating the state appears overwhelming and impossible. They cannot imagine that the liberation of a country such as the United States of America is possible because they begin with the assumption that only the whole USA can be liberated. This forces them into a strategy of electoral politics to take control of the center of power and defend whatever rights they have left, which brings them into conflict with established political powers and thus to compromise on their ideals. Worse yet, this involves endlessly debating the merits of liberty with political opponents who either do not have the imagination necessary to realize the benefits of pursuing their freedom, or outright take personal benefit from perpetuating the immorality of the established system. Clearly these people cannot be convinced to join a political revolution, and unfortunately these people consist the majority of the electorate necessary to seize power in a democratic republic. (Furthermore, liberation by political activism assumes agreement between libertarians over the shape of a libertarian state, which if it were not the case, would just cause the fracturing of any party into so many factions.)

Because the center of power by definition benefits from the moral error of power, there has not been a historical example of liberation through a political revolution in the center of power. Liberation has always come from outside the center of power, from a series of events that compelled the center of power to surrender some of its power against a movement beyond its control. That is to say, liberation occurs in small, marginal acts of separation from power. Free countries are created by pioneers, not by politicians. In fact, the enormous, hypertrophic size of the modern state is an unnatural consequence of the very power that libertarians oppose! It would be contradictory to their beliefs for libertarians to attempt to act upon a state of this size. The problem libertarians face is not how to organize politically to reform an abomination, but how to create their own country, separate and protected from the political world, and settle it, without at first disturbing the established order.

In the Impossibility of Limited Government and the Prospects for a Second American Revolution, professor Hans Hermann Hoppe proposes an alternative form of revolutionary marginalism. Instead of trying to marginally roll back government powers, either through electoral activism or the strategy of direct action, the revolutionaries should seek to declare total independence in very small, insignificant territories, in effect creating a micro-state. Each of these micro-secessions would pose an insignificant threat on the established states, particularly those undergoing comparatively severe crises threatening the legitimacy of established order. The long-term strategy would then be a multiplication of these microstates, governed by full market-based constitutions, forcing the collapse of governments by a fashion similar to a death by thousands of paper cuts, or a microbial infection.

The shape of a free country in the 21st century

Jewish settlements of British Palestine (from Wikimedia)

Historically, the colonization of North America unfolded as such a process, with the colonies being settled by groups escaping persecution in Europe or seeking greater economic opportunities, their settlements forming a gradual patchwork that progressively expanded inland along major communication routes (rivers). More recently, the state of Israel was created practically ex-nihilo by revolutionaries founding settlements amongst the major roads of Palestine, creating an archipelago of colonies where they could bring settlers and later on declare a revolutionary war against Britain, in an echo of the American revolution.

As we see, the path chosen by colonists was that which preserved the best trade relations with their homeland, yet was distant enough to allow them freedom from authority. The two most important aspects of a colonial liberation strategy are therefore economic integration with the homeland by remaining close to means of communications, and a gradual process of settlement that does not create a sudden and immediate challenge to authority.

While colonial America was quite obviously an agrarian society, and even Zionist colonization unfolded from a base in agriculture despite taking place late in the industrial age, in our day and age agriculture is a very small part of the economy. The population of even so-called third world countries is highly urbanized, but often the cities of the third world lack capitalist industries as were traditionally associated with 19th century urbanization. Capitalism has been extinguished or corrupted by powerful families. It is by explicitly focusing on the creation of a capitalist economy at the margins of urban areas that deep economic and social integration with the unfree world can be developed, and it is this way that not only will a liberated economy prosper, but that the unfree economy trapped within the state can be rejuvenated.

Building an economy

Urban enclave of Monaco

Hoppe cites as an example the port cities of Hong Kong and Monaco, whose land areas are occupied entirely with urban real estate. These cities are regional trading centers, providing low-constraint markets for much larger areas out of their jurisdiction. The latest such territory to experience a meteoric rise is the city-state of Dubai, which happens to have been built on utterly inhospitable desert and survives only as a regional trading and capitalist hub. Any secessionist microstate would have to set itself up in a similar fashion, starting with simple trading enterprises that do not attract much attention (merchandise that is outlawed in the region, such as drugs and firearms, would have to be excluded). Having one or many free cities ringing a metropolitan area would rejuvenate the economies of many moribund places, as it would allow the local population to commute daily in or out in order to seek economic opportunities that their state denies them, without abandoning their home in an economic migration. (Parts of France around the swiss city of Geneva and the principality of Monaco already serve as commuter towns into those free economies.) It would also mean that those who seek the higher quality of life of private city ownership could continue their employment in the government-dominated metropolis while setting up their residence in the free city. This means that the ideal strategy is not the creation of one central libertarian “free state project” in one corner of the world, but the settlement of an archipelago of free cities in every metropolitan area of the world. In this way, the settlement project is non-threatening to the powers that be, and even perhaps personally lucrative to politicians, until a critical mass has been achieved.

In the latter stages of such a strategy the first microstates would become exceedingly dense urban areas surrounded by large, still government-dominated suburbs. The contrast between the two areas would resemble the face-off between West and East Berlin. As large masses of people would desire to live in the free zone, and the real estate of this zone would be extremely valuable, restrictive residency (immigration) policies would have to be practiced in order to forbid overcrowding. The merchant elite of the free cities would desire to set up shop in a new free area by repeating the operation of land purchase and secession, an operation that they would now be sufficiently experienced in to succeed without much effort. As well the many free states of the world would be bound together by mutual insurance contracts, and their collective economic power would make them strong enough to bribe or defend against the world’s most powerful hegemonic states.

This process would in effect be the creation of a new Hanseatic League, an alliance of merchant cities that leverages its wealth to grow new cities in new territories, but which does not attempt to forcibly remove the established powers in these territories. With its immense wealth would come the power to indirectly support revolutions to abolish governments in weak or failed states, creating more markets for their insurers and arbitrators.

Acquiring land

How would an enterprising revolutionary start this process? The first task is to ensure that whatever territory is going to secede be clear of any resistors to the secession. Those resistors would provide ample excuse for the local state to intervene in the conflict over the secession. In order to successfully secede, the secessionists must own all the property in the area, and it is preferable that this property be of low value. This means that the first microstates would have to be created from empty land of no value. Shipping in and out products is the entire point. A place like Hong Kong, for example, must ship in everything it consumes. Here is what it looked like a hundred years ago, and here is what it looks like today. Monaco is even more barren and useless, but it still supports one of the wealthiest and densest populations in the world. Land value can be cultivated, and the best environment to do that is a pure free market.

When the first colonists came to America, the operation was usually based around two groups of people. The backers financed the colony and imposed some rules upon the colonists, while the colonists were hired to build the colony for their specific skills. For most libertarians there will be no role to play in the development of a colony in the short term, however the organization of libertarians into like-minded development companies to pool their capital is the first step in the process. Most people cannot afford to quit their jobs and uproot their families to pursue such a project, however they can contribute (and profit!) with their entrepreneurial and militant skills by joining together. Eventually, a liberated town will come to their region and they will be able to set up residence there, and perhaps their job will relocate or be created in one such town.

The first such liberated towns will of course seem quite absurd to the majority of the population, which makes it even more important for them to be the smallest possible viable size (one square mile, the size of a Midwestern urban block, is more than enough). As they become successful, they will engage with the corrupt politicians of their regions who will be desperate to re-capitalize their crumbling cities. Competition between free towns will have produced a solid model of city ownership, and this can be proposed to the taxpayers of existing cities as a solution to their dire predicament. As many cities and counties are very quickly falling to bankruptcy, their infrastructure tearing up at the seams and collapsing, and their taxes skyrocketing, a direct appeal to taxpayers, combined with the proper bribes to the political class, to transform the central city into a shareholder corporation from its current commune system would appear to be an easy salvation, even though it may not secede the city from the state as such. The process of secession would continue piecemeal, with small neighborhoods and perhaps buildings redefining their relationship to the central state, leveraging the precedents set by the first colonists in their opposition to power.

Historically the first Hanseatic League cities were on the coast, but many more later appeared inland on the major rivers. This means that having access to trade routes is most important, but in our time that is not exclusively waterways. If we were to create secessionist territories along the U.S. interstate highway system, the potential for trade would be enormous. As the transportation networks controlled by governments inevitably decline and collapse into bankruptcy, the expansion of the secessionist cities could be extended over the transportation system, and important travel spaces, such as airports and highways, could be purchased from the bankrupt administrators in desperate need of cash. The archipelago of free cities would then be connected into a seamless, power-free country, although one whose shape is fractal instead of contiguous.

Creating a league of mutual protection

It is important to note that the people who would reside in the free towns would not be a community of anarcho-capitalists. Most of the people who would live there would do so only for material reasons and wouldn’t care about ideology so long as they can live their lives. The anarcho-capitalist class would be limited to the entrepreneurs who developed the land and security industries initially. Those libertarians who had joined up into the initial cells, ready to invest and secure the freedom of the small territories, would remain the owners and protectors of the towns, but they may be dispersed geographically. They would likely remain the same extreme minority of people that they currently are, and in fact that success is possible even with only an extreme minority of the population involved is what makes this strategy so appealing.

Another caveat consists in defining the locality of the project. Because each town is an independent venture, it will be founded by a group of like-minded libertarians that may disagree with other groups over the rules of public life in their respective towns. This was also the case for colonial America. However, despite having disparate preferences with regards to public life, the common interest in defending their property would result in each colonial “cell” forming mutual protection relationships with other cells, and coming to each others’ aid when the state attempted to take back some of its power. When that web of fealty is complete, the state will be unable to threaten the colonists anymore, and its final collapse and disintegration back to its natural size will unfold precipitously.

While this scenario fires up the imagination, there remains an obstacle to the initial secessionist act. How is it possible to neutralize the state’s power and force it to tolerate a free town within itself? This will be the subject of an upcoming post.

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