Libertarianism is an ideology of the frontier.
Most political ideologies are built to answer, in some fashion, the question of how to get along with our neighbors. It may be through democratic persuasion, or melting-pot cross-pollination, or shared notions of duty and tradition. Libertarianism alone makes the assumption that you don’t have to get along with your neighbors. You can limit your interactions with other people to whatever trades you find advantageous, and if you’d rather not deal with them, you can just move and start over somewhere else.
But this relies on an assumption that there will always be somewhere to go that suits your desires. It assumes that there’s always virgin land to be settled, always another horizon they can move beyond to start over. Even if they don’t say so, this tacit idea is like a thread woven into their mythology.
Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged makes this metaphor concrete with Galt’s Gulch. It’s the ultimate expression of the frontier mentality: a secret society of capitalists who retreat from the world and its politics, living in blissful rustic simplicity. What’s more, it seems to offer infinite land and resources. Despite being populated by rapacious industrialists who hate trees and love open-pit coal mines and smokestacks, it’s not a cratered hellscape. It remains inexplicably pristine and gorgeous no matter how much lumber they chop down or how much ore they extract.
But the real world isn’t so obliging. There aren’t any open frontiers left; just about every livable acre on the planet is claimed by someone. What happens when you run out of places to dump your trash, or when you can’t avoid bumping elbows with someone no matter where you go? What’s a libertarian to do when there’s nowhere left to move?
The answer, at least for some, is to retreat into increasingly absurd strategies to carve out a free fiefdom in a noisy and crowded world.
One of the more notable liber-utopians is Peter Thiel. You may remember him as the anti-democracy, anti-woman-suffrage billionaire who also funds legal warfare against the media. But in his spare time, he dreams of creating brave new worlds where little things like taxes and laws won’t apply.
In an essay titled “The Education of a Libertarian“, he longs for “some undiscovered country” that offers “an escape from politics in all its forms”. One option that he proposes is space colonies, but even he grants that “we also must be realistic about the time horizons involved”. So, his preferred-for-now alternative is “seasteading” – utopian communities on ships that roam the oceans, beyond the reach of pesky national laws.
Granted, this isn’t a totally unprecedented idea. There are groups like Women on Waves that get around restrictive anti-abortion laws by ferrying women to a hospital ship in international waters. But there’s a big difference between this, which is really just another kind of medical tourism, and building a permanent, self-sustaining community with no ties to dry land.
But if there’s anything libertarians are known for, it’s dreaming big. Thiel has backed a “Seasteading Institute” that supposedly plans to build a “floating city”. There’s also a now-defunct startup called Blueseed, as well as the so-called “Freedom Ship“. As of yet, none of these plans have advanced beyond grand vision statements.
The idea of seasteading presents obvious practical problems – where would they grow food? who would do all the manual labor needed to keep the ship running? what industries would make up their economy? – that I’m not going to address, since its backers clearly haven’t either. Instead, I want to point out the absurdity of the idea that such a community could possibly be free in the sense that libertarians value. As noted by China Mieville, the plans for Freedom Ship imply that it would actually be, well, a Dictator Ship with a private police force and an absolute ruler:
On Freedom Ship there will be a jail, a “squad of intelligence officers,” and a “private security force of 2,000, led by a former FBI agent, [that] will have access to weapons, both to maintain order within the vessel and to resist external threats.” And while technically the law applied would be that of whichever state lends its flag, Freedom Ship officials make no bones that “the captain’s word will be final.”
Even Ayn Rand found the idea of seasteading ridiculous (as opposed to her totally plausible utopia with perpetual motion machines), but some other utopians have been thinking in more terrestrial directions. For instance, there’s Liberland, a tiny alleged state founded on a supposedly unclaimed patch of boggy, mosquito-infested ground between Croatia and Serbia. As with many of these micronations, its existence depends on how long neighboring countries are willing to indulge the stunt.
Indeed, you could tell this story about most of the liber-utopian dreamers. They spin grand fantasies of setting up their own minimalist society, free of the oppressive grasp of the government, only to discover that the state provides services they can neither ignore nor do without. No less than other innovations, the state is a technology – one that permits people to solve otherwise-insoluble problems of cooperation and consensus-making. Those who attempt to dispense with it without understanding why it came into existence in the first place inevitably find that their plans run aground on the shoals of reality.