Viva Liberland?

On 13 April, Vit Jedlicka became the president of the new micronation of Liberland on a small disputed area of forest in between Croatia and Serbia. Here I will discuss the idea of independent communities in Libertarian theory and their practical implications. The notion that smaller, more independent nations can be the first major step on the road to a free society has considerable traction in the USA. It has become a significant concept of the circle of academics associated with the Mises Institute. The enthusiastic emphasis on secession by some American Libertarians ensures that it is worthy of commentary. But is it true? Is the best path to Liberty paved with cobbles of smaller, more independent nations?

Whether it’s the Free State Project, Galt’s Gulch, Liberland or the Condominium of Neutral Moresnet. Small separatist idealists clearly have a place in the complex milieu of ideas that make up modern Libertarianism. However, I will suggest here that for several reasons, the idea of ‘mass secession’ in itself can only ever be a limited solution for engineering freedom en masse, but micronations like Liberland have much potential.

It is obvious that Murray Rothbard has had an instrumental role in shaping modern Libertarianism, he was an animated writer, imaginative political thinker and respected economist. However, Rothbard wasn’t much of a historian. The historical question of secession seems to have led the otherwise insightful thinker to some strange conclusions. His take on the American civil war is part of a long and petulant tradition of Civil War revisionism amongst American academics. The folks at the Mises Institute unfortunately adopt the same pro-confederate cause. If you are at all interested in sadomasochism, you might try reading Tom Wood’s politically incorrect guide to American history. My point here isn’t to discredit Rothbard or the Mises Institute out of hand. My goal is to draw attention to a particular strain of reasoning; concerning secession, that sees Libertarians at their least academically credible.

When discussing micronations and independent polities, it’s usually not long before someone mentions Switzerland. I will leave a thorough description of Switzerland to one side at this time. For now let’s just accept that it is small, relatively prosperous and has a renowned federal style of government. Much vaunted by right-wingers, if only Britain could be more like Switzerland! As an Anarchist, I find it strange to think that somehow being part of a smaller country means democracy will be more intense. Surely in a tiny nation of only 1 million, a lone voice is effectively just as meaningless as in a big nation of 100 million? If the answer is no, then how many people specifically represent the right size of country for democracy to function? Surely the cultural norms, history and democratic structures matter more than population size. It stands to reason then that a big nation can potentially respect individual rights more than a much smaller country.

So what’s the point of secession? Is Mr Jedlicka wrong to walk onto a volatile border and declare a new nation? History shows quite clearly that Serbian nationalists are not a group of people you would want to upset. Yet, there is something extremely alluring about breaking off from society, with its injustices and frustrations, and being part of a new polity of like-minded compatriots. Nor are Libertarians unique in wanting to put their ideas into practice. Independent communities are a long established part of the communist tradition, from the Paris Commune in 1871 to contemporary Anarcho-Syndicalist squats in London.

Ultimately, unlike the times of the Paris commune just about every square mile of land on this planet belongs to one country or another. Furthermore, a hope of mass abandonment of entire nations doesn’t seem to be a realistic prospect anytime soon. Most separatist movements in Europe whether in Catalonia, Scotland, Northern Italy or Transnistria hardly demonstrate a triumph of Liberalism. However, I will argue that micro-nations and secession movements can and will succeed. As long as these places represent an idea they stand a good chance of flourishing. What separates a successful project like Freetown Christiania from a disaster like Fordlandia, is that they stand for something, they show that a certain vision of society can indeed prosper. It also helps a lot if these movements don’t antagonise any of their larger neighbours. As is becoming the case with Liberland.

The most widely known examples of micro- nations are undoubtedly the cities of Hong Kong and Singapore. I will resist the temptation to state that they are examples of ‘pure free market’ economies because their histories are much more nuanced than that. However, they have been governed much more on capitalist lines than their neighbours, which is why they stand out. Importantly, Hong Kong and Singapore show that with the right policies in place, a tiny patch of land can become a prosperous metropolis. On a positive note the future looks bright for micronations. Sea Steads are already a distinct possibility and the government of Honduras is thinking about establishing ZEDEs (Zones for Employment and Economic Development). If the ZEDE system works well, some cities in Honduras will be effectively independent and free to govern themselves. Of course, there is the prospect that these schemes won’t happen or will go horribly wrong but they are promising nonetheless. If run properly, the ZEDE could provide a useful model for the developing world.

Fundamentally, Liberland can work. In a recent interview on Anarchast Jedlicka outlined that both the Croatian and Serbian police have made it difficult to enter the area. But despite resistance Liberland has garnered a huge amount of media interest as well as thousands of applications for citizenship. Hopefully in the not too distant future we will see more Libertarians putting their ideas effectively into practice; illuminating the way for larger nations in the process.

 

 

 

Cross posted from Alternative Archetype.

  5 comments for “Viva Liberland?

  1. Jun 8, 2015 at 8:28 am

    The late Murray Rothbard was a good (very good) historian of economic thought, but as historian of events (what people normally mean by the word “history”) he was indeed awful – he relied (openly or otherwise) on terrible authorities. Beard on the period of the formation of the U.S. Constitution, Woodrow Wilson [of all people] on the issues of the Civil War, G. Kolko and Harry Elmer Barnes on the 20th century – all leftists and, more importantly, all terrible historians.

    But let us leave the “Rothbard question” aside – and concentrate on two more important questions.

    Can secession, in some circumstances, be lawful?

    And.

    Can secession, in some circumstances, be a good thing – from the libertarian point of view?

    I think the answer to both these questions is YES.

    Say most people in Scotland had wanted to secede from the United Kingdom would secession by lawful?

    Clearly YES – even the government in London accepted this.

    Would this secession have been a good thing from the libertarian point of view?

    Most likely not – as the Scottish National Party wanted a bigger government, not a smaller one. But this was not inevitable, a secessionist regime might want a smaller government.

    Say Texas (now NOT in 1861) seceded – government in Texas might well be smaller and more restricted than the American government is (the American government is actually, contrary to what most British people think, very big in both size and scope).

    That leads us to the “defence question”.

    Could Texas defend itself without the United States – against the rising power of China (as well as the Islamic world). China was a joke power when I was young – but I am no longer young and Chinese military power is becoming (step by step) very real.

    Possibly Texas (perhaps in alliance with other States) could defend itself – it has a vastly greater population and economy than it did in 1861.

    Texas would not be a joke “Liberland” – a bit of forest. It (and allied places – in some new alliance) might be rather impressive.

    Remember the reasons that Governor Sam Houston opposed secession in 1860-1.

    He did not oppose it on theoretical grounds.

    He opposed it because the real reason for secession was (contra Rothbard) slavery – a bad reason to secede (the motive was not good – not worth dying for).

    And he opposed it because Texas has a small population and resources and could not hope to win.

    Neither of these reasons apply now.

    (Of course a bankrupt United States (in fact if not in law) would also massively change the situation.)

    Hong Kong? Already under Chinese domination – their economic freedoms could be removed in a day (if there was some change in the wind-from-Heaven) and there is nothing they could do about it.

    Singapore – too small, open to nuclear blackmail.

    But Texas – perhaps in a new alliance of Southern and WESTERN States, that is a different matter.

  2. Jun 8, 2015 at 6:21 pm

    Indeed Paul, I really think that in the right circumstances a large and populous territory like Texas could function as an independent nation. As far as I’m aware, if California were to be independent, it would have an economy the same size as Italy. That means the California could be in the G8- not bad for a subnational entity.

    From a Libertarian perspective, secession is an adequate, and in some cases viable road to greater freedom.

    However I would like to argue that (as you point out) that secession is not a goal in it’s own right. It very much depends on the characteristics of those wishing to secede.

    Liberland stands a chance of flourishing if it becomes a standard bearer for truly Liberal values and policies. Perhaps becoming a sort of ‘Vatican City’ of Libertarianism. The limits of Mr Jedlicka’s ambitions have yet to be seen.

    But secession is very difficult and fraught with barriers. It can only really be a limited solutions to the world ills. For those of us who don’t fancy heading into the Forrest and declaring a new country ( which is pretty much all of us), better to demand change closer to home.

  3. Mr Ed
    Jun 8, 2015 at 10:36 pm

    The well-establish Baarle-Hertog/Nassau situation on the Belgian-Dutch borders (for there are many) is a great example of how two states can co-exist cheek-by-jowl, and by extension, how one can have competing governments (and hence voluntary government i.e. submission to a legal system). It has several advantages:

    1. History, it has been there for hundreds of years, and no one there knows any ‘better’.
    2. Language commonality, Dutch/Flemish is the language, so there are no linguistic barriers.
    3. The rule of law is fairly well-established.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baarle-Hertog

    However, here we have someone sitting in the now cool tinderbox of the former Yugoslavia and on the EU external border, all good reasons in many eyes for it to be squashed. It is however, heartening to see this sort of bravery.

    • Jun 9, 2015 at 4:58 pm

      I wasn’t aware of Baarle-Hertog/ Nassau thank you for highlighting it for me.

      I definitely agree that Vit Jedlicka’s decision to pick a spot on the Croatian/Serbian boarder is a risky one. Only a decade ago, terrible atrocities were unleashed in that part of Europe over such borders. But it does strike me as slightly amusing that until this point, no country had claimed that area of forest until now.

      Apparently Liberland is prioritising Croatian and Serbian people who apply for citizenship. Whatever you think about the Liberland project, it’s evident that there are a extremely dedicated and competent team behind it…. Which is more than can be said for lots of other breakaway projects.

  4. Jun 23, 2015 at 1:19 pm

    California does indeed have an economy bigger than Texas (because of a much larger population) – but California is living on past glories, a credit bubble economy. It is not a good candidate for secession.

    The key thing is defence – an alliance of Texas and like minded States would (now) have enough economic strength to have military forces (including nuclear forces) to deter China and other powers.

    The United States appears to be heading towards de facto bankruptcy – cultural as well as financial. 2016 will be the last chance for the United States of America.

    If an establishment candidate wins yet again (a continuation of Bush-Clinton) the situation will become hopeless, and it will be time to take fundamental steps.

    Shrugging off the whole corpus of Federal “law” and the Federal “justice” system.

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