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18 June 2013

The libertarians finally get their fantasy island

Writing for Salon, Michael Lind has a tricky question – tricky, that is, if you’re a libertarian:

  • “Why are there no libertarian countries? If libertarians are correct in claiming that they understand how best to organize a modern society, how is it that not a single country in the world in the early twenty-first century is organized along libertarian lines?
  • “It’s not as though there were a shortage of countries to experiment with libertarianism. There are 193 sovereign state members of the United Nations... If libertarianism was a good idea, wouldn’t at least one country have tried it? Wouldn’t there be at least one country, out of nearly two hundred, with minimal government, free trade, open borders, decriminalized drugs, no welfare state and no public education system?”

Well, there’s always Somalia – but, to be fair, there’s quite a difference between violent anarchy and proper libertarianism.

There was a time when, if you didn’t like the way your own country was being run, you could always found a new one – and, in a small way, that is what some libertarians are still trying to do. The Seasteading Institute, for instance, was founded by the internet entrepreneur Peter Thiel in support of projects to establish offshore micro-nations free of the curse of government.

These days the world is sadly lacking in unclaimed islands, so the idea is to use some form of artificial floating or fixed platform. At least, one example already exists – called ‘Ephemerisle’ – except that it’s more of an annual festival than a micro-nation. It isn’t really off-shore either, it’s an island of sorts in California’s Sacramento Delta.

Reporting for n+1, Atossa Abrahamian went to take a look:

  • “The island was made up of two rows of houseboats, anchored about a hundred feet apart, with a smaller cluster of boats and yachts set off to the west. The boats had been bound together with planks, barrels, cleats, and ropes, assembled ad-hoc by someone with at least a rudimentary understanding of knots and anchors. Residents decorated their decks with banners and flags and tied kayaks and inflatable toys off the sides... Dirty socks and plastic dishes and iPads and iPhones littered the decks. An enormous sound system blasted dance music, it turned out, at all hours of the day.”

Sounds lovely.

  • “After overseeing the first Ephemerisle in 2009, the [Seasteading] Institute handed over responsibility for the festival to the community in 2010—it turns out a raucous floating party costs too much for a tiny think tank to insure—and last year, the group consisted of 300 amateur boaters, intoxicated partiers, and a committed clan of Seasteaders.”

Abrahamian’s visit was an eventful one. Buffeted by high-winds the floating community started to come apart:

  • “By mid-morning, the two main cities had fractured into a half dozen stranded units floating alone in the turbulent waters. The West had vanished entirely—one of the boats had drifted off and gotten stuck by a nearby levee, while most of the others took off to other parts of the river. There was no reliable form of communication between the boats… Transport, as always, was limited.”

There's an obvious metaphor in this tale – except that the remaining residents of Ephemerisle managed, quite literally, to pull themselves together and carried on as before.

Furthermore, no one can claim they weren’t warned:

  • “‘There are no tickets, no central organizers, no rules, no rangers to keep you safe,’ reads the Ephemerisle mission statement. It’s ‘a new adventure into an alien environment, with discoveries, adventures, and mishaps along the way.’”


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