Do you feel lucky? Well, do you, punk?
18 April 2014 09:29 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

The elusive libertarian enclave

  • Ivo Vegter
Get-togethers among libertarians are, for the most part, both entertaining and enlightening. However, they reveal as much about the political philosophy’s failures as they do about the aspirations of lovers of freedom. 

Whenever three or more libertarians get together – to paraphrase Leon Louw of the Free Market Foundation – you are sure to find three or more factions, which have contradictory views on important points of moral philosophy, politics or economics.

Each faction will likely also have a different proposal for the establishment of a libertarian enclave or “libertopia”, either by secession from existing nation-states, or by homesteading somewhere hitherto hostile to human life, like the sea or space.

I’ve heard many of them, and have written about a few, over the years. 

I once interviewed Douglas Shaw for the print edition of Maverick magazine. He has spent years negotiating to establish a private or charter city in Africa, to be named Libertonia. It would be exempt from many national laws, and his own extensive study of urban planning and economic freedom would hold sway. He hoped the lure of trade and employment would tempt governments of poor countries to grant the requisite dispensations.

For Brainstorm magazine, I’ve written about the Principality of Sealand, an unrecognised, self-declared independent state located on Roughs Tower, an old World War II fort located on the edge of British territorial waters. It is most famous as a data haven, where individuals and companies, for good or ill, can locate data centres they would rather not subject to ordinary national laws.

A more serious attempt at establishing a libertarian enclave is known as the Free State Project, which hopes to encourage at least 20,000 liberty-minded individuals to move to the US state of New Hampshire, in the hope that one day they can form an electoral majority strong enough to establish a libertarian state.

Real-world examples have always been limited, in one way or another, but several free economic zones have produced great prosperity for its citizens. Intriguing experimental lessons can be drawn from places as different as Hong Kong, Dubai, Somalia, Chile, Switzerland and New Zealand.

It has always been somewhat of a puzzle why, when given a political quiz based on the Nolan chart, so many people turn out to be in favour of both economic and personal freedom from government intervention, yet libertarian politics routinely fares badly at the polls. Even in electoral systems that aren’t obviously designed to result in two centre-leaning parties, advocates of freedom from government intervention seldom do well, probably because they also oppose government largesse, for both individual welfare or corporate interests.

There is another reason, to my mind, why libertarians do badly on the broader political stage, however. 

Since political labels are easily abused, misunderstood, or used as pejoratives, let us take a moment to describe what we mean by “libertarian”.

A libertarian is neither a “left-wing liberal”, nor “right-wing conservative”, agreeing on some points with both, and disagreeing on others with both. This is why a two-dimensional chart with social freedoms on one axis and economic freedoms on the other is a more instructive way to think about political convictions. Let us use the term “libertarian”, broadly speaking, to mean those who believe in individual freedom, in both the social and economic senses.

Another way to define “libertarian” is in terms of the “consent axiom”, as described by Trevor Watkins, the organiser of the recent 27th Libertarian Seminar in Grahamstown. It states that no action shall be taken that affects the life, liberty or property of another without their consent. (Disclosure: I was a speaker at the seminar in question.)

Yet another definition is based on the legal notion of subsidiarity, which says that no larger social grouping, be it a municipality, nation state or world government, is permitted to arrogate to itself powers that can be exercised by its smaller members, or were not duly delegated to it by those members. It finds expression in a libertarian manifesto written by Mario Oriani-Ambrosini, a member of Parliament for the Inkatha Freedom Party.

Among libertarians, discussions on points of law, philosophy, politics and economics are always fascinating and passionate, but in the vibrant discord it is evident that advocates of freedom are the least organised and organisable people on the planet. There are many reasons for this, and it isn’t only that they all have a soft spot for anarchy and an instinctive – even puerile – resistance to authority and conformity.

Some freedom advocates actively dislike associating with other freedom advocates, because they hold different philosophical views or moral convictions, which, though both would grant the other the right to hold, neither wants to share a room with. 

Some of those convictions, in fact, are enough to prompt suspicion of the very cause of freedom itself. To my mind, they underlie the failure of libertarianism as a political movement. And this brings us back to the notion of an independent enclave which is so popular at these libertarian confabs.

In South Africa, a rare example of a libertarian enclave is Orania. Established by disenchanted Afrikaners who wanted to form a self-governing region rather than submit to what they saw as the tyranny of the majority, anyone is free to become a member of this community, provided they consider themselves to be of “Afrikaner ethnicity”.

This example is a problem, politically. It suggests that libertarians are all racist throwbacks to the Apartheid days. But this is not true. Whether Orania residents are racist or not is irrelevant to the character of libertarians in general.

By any of the definitions of libertarianism given above, such a self-governing community, no matter what its nature, is unproblematic. In fact, libertarianism explicitly does not impose beliefs from the top down, but accommodates a wide spectrum of individual views, provided they don’t materially impose on the rights of others.

In the case of Orania, nobody has to become a member of the community, and if someone does choose to do so, they freely enter into an agreement to abide by the community’s rules. There is nothing inherently antithetical to individual freedom about it. Orania recently demonstrated that it is not averse to external relations and trade, either, by signing a cooperation agreement with Mnyameni, a Xhosa community in the Eastern Cape.

Having said that, it remains true that the exclusivity of Orania – just like the entirely legitimate exclusivity of gated security complexes – rankles, given South Africa’s fraught history of racial segregation.

When the notion of a libertarian enclave inevitably came up in discussions at the abovementioned Libertarian Seminar, one of the group mentioned the so-called Republic of Hout Bay, and suggested that an ideal enclave might include surrounding neighbourhoods like Kommetjie, Noordhoek, Camps Bay and Constantia. Another suggested St Francis Bay, because it has a single access road that can easily be barred against incursion by an invasive state, or anyone else. The idea was that for practical reasons, it would be better to start with a wealthy community when forming a free enclave, Monaco-style.

Since the idea of a libertarian enclave is not only to create a community for like-minded individuals to “live free or die”, as the saying goes, but also to demonstrate to others that economic freedom is good for you, this proposal seemed laughable to me. What would it demonstrate? That rich white people can survive in a gated community without government intervention? Well, fancy that. Not only would such an enclave set a very low bar for success, and thereby demonstrate very little, but it would be politically offensive in the context of South Africa.

If a libertarian enclave is to be established, I’d prefer to see it start on the other end of the economic spectrum. Pick a region that is tired of waiting for so-called “service delivery”, is fed up with government corruption, and has had enough of poverty and despair. Say, the Eastern Cape. If libertarians want to prove that their ideas are good for everyone, that their policies can create prosperity no matter the circumstances, and that their principles can accommodate everyone even while tolerating isolationist, exclusionary communities such as Orania, I can’t think of a better place to start than the Eastern Cape.

The perception that libertarians speak for the rich only, and cannot truly represent the poor, is an age-old conundrum. Art Carden, writing for Forbes, eloquently addressed the issue last year in a response to a critique published at the delightfully named blog Bleeding Heart Libertarians of a previous article of Carden’s. These essays are required reading for anyone who is unsure whether it is true that libertarians don’t care about the poor and oppressed. 

However, given that this perception is widespread, it would be counter-productive to propose, as a first attempt at creating an enclave of freedom, an area that is already rich and largely white. Sure, libertarians pride themselves on not being politically correct, but this isn’t so much a case of being politically wrong as being politically stupid.

As Carden notes, “libertarians offer proposals to infuriate everyone”, by attacking sacred cows of both the left (minimum wage laws, green subsidies, progressive taxes) and the right (anti-immigration policies, military spending, legislated family values). All these proposals are designed to help people work their way out of poverty and oppression and into prosperity and freedom, but all of them are hard to sell, politically.

If you’re convinced a libertarian enclave is the only way to demonstrate the transformative socio-economic power of free markets and free people, you’re entitled to your view. But when even your serious proposals are likely to encounter political resistance, it doesn’t do to give critics soft targets like entrenched privilege and prejudice to shoot at.

Personally, I prefer to rely on existing evidence in support of the benefits of economic and individual liberty, such as this survey, based on the Economic Freedom of the World index. Then, advocate policies that can benefit the entire country. 

Sure, this can’t hope to achieve the philosophical purity of a libertarian utopia scratched out on a blank slate, but that is in any case mere intellectual navel-gazing, about which even committed libertarians can and do spend entire weekends disagreeing.

As Otto von Bismarck once said, “politics is the art of the possible”. It is valuable to indulge in idealistic thought experiments. It is instructive to take principled positions defending the undefendable (to borrow the title of Walter Block’s free PDF book). Politically, however, libertarians should advocate the possible, and be sensitive to the historical and social context in which they do so. 

No doubt, many of the libertarians I know and love will disagree, and that is fine by me. DM

  • Ivo Vegter
IvoVegterBW

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He approaches issues from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He grew up in the deep south of Johannesburg, and learnt his politics reading the Weekly Mail and Vrye Weekblad at Wits University during the early years of the country's transition to democracy. He recently left the city for the lower cost of living of Knysna, where he continues to write about everything under the sun. He is always right.

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