The Absence of Libertarian Countries

Salon has a rousing piece of claptrap provokingly titled The question libertarians just can’t answer. Fortunately, without building up any suspense (which would in this case be correlated with reader annoyance), the author, Michael Lind, comes right out with it:

Why are there no libertarian countries?

Associated with this question, which must be profoundly perplexing to those robbed, through compulsory government schooling, of their imagination to consider alternatives, Lind also delivers a secondary question, aiming to emphasize the first.

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?

Of course, not even two hours passed before the erudite Tom Woods delivered a series of ripostes, each one highlighting a specific failure of the state following the same formula: If your approach of statism is so great, then why really horrible thing X? While not directly addressing the original question, I think Tom has successfully lampooned the faulty logic in Lind’s reasoning. Which leaves me with only one further task; to elaborate the answers that I’ve used in response to this rather frequent question.

Firstly, we have a large number of historical societies that have worked quite well under various different forms of organization. I find that most libertarians are actually minarchists, and would keep the state around for certain items like roads, courts, and national defense. But, if I’m going to make the case for out-and-out unfettered freedom having been tried to various degrees in different arrangements, then my position won’t work without a list of Historical examples of Anarchy without Chaos.

Iceland stands out as a particularly strong example, having had a quasi-anarchistic legal institution which lasted from 930 to 1262 as recounted by Robert Long in The Decline an Fall of Private Law in Iceland. Interestingly, the institution of geographic tithing to a parish, forcibly exported from England, finally unraveled the ordered anarchy by allowing corrupt administrators to first value land as a rent-seeker and then to use the rent to fund armies in fights over it.

However, Lind clearly wants a more modern example. I am not a mind reader, but I speculate this might be because he thinks that modern technology and economic complexity makes some kind of fundamental difference. Without jumping the gun immediately, let me just point out that in our own United States that was America, the area now called Pennsylvania, maintained beautifully ordered anarchy for nearly a decade! As described by Rothbard in Pennsylvania’s Anarchist Experiment: 1681–1690, we see that existing regimes, focused on collecting taxes for government operation, saw the peaceful anarchy as a case of “colonists suffering from excessive liberty”. Eventually, due to long-standing coercion, the government council, which previously refused to meet, resumed session because some members were tempted by the power of government and gave in to that corruption.

I don’t wish to be accused of cherry picking from history, even though the list there is tragically short (anarchic regions tend not to keep records of their operations), so let’s also turn to one of the more difficult recent cases: Somalia. Remember, it would not be fair to compare today’s Somalia to how nice things are in the developed world, because of its disadvantage from having been under dictatorship for so long. Rather, we can only see if unfettered freedom works by tracking how rapidly Somalia can improve once the oppression of government has been lifted. Five years after the fall of government the UN finally gave up trying to impose a new one. Once this interference stopped and the people were finally able to self-organize, conditions improved immensely. In Better off Stateless, P.T. Leeson reports positive growth on 14 different metrics tracked by UNDP. The only aspects in decline are GDP (likely due to lack of government spending), access to water (which remained unchanged), adult literacy rate, and combined school enrollment. Before jumping on these few declines as indicative of anarchy’s failure, let’s give the Somalians the benefit of doubt and assume that they prioritized their investment in electricity, telephones, televisions, physicians and sanitation. After all, nobody forced their resource allocation. Somalia’s not a paradise, but anarchy did give it opportunities for rapid improvement unachievable under government. So much so, that they can now claim the cheapest international phone rates of any African country.

With these examples, I hope that you can see Lind’s restriction on the time period “early twenty-first century” artificially limits the scope of the discussion in his favor. Is it really the fault of libertarianism that every land mass during that time was under government control? Why won’t any existing governments allow the libertarian experiment? Should we read into this circumstance a revealing pattern: that government is so insecure it can’t permit competition?

To show my case, let’s now recall a few times where some entrepreneurial individualists have tried to build a libertarian society. In the 1970’s the micronation Republic Of Minerva was chased of a shoal they had dredged into an island by the King of neighboring Tonga, who claimed homesteading privileges on the fishing grounds and surrounding reef. More recently, the Seasteading Institute, recognizing a lack of land in which to run the libertarian social experiment, has proposed platforms and modular islands, but has had difficulty funding the projects, due to the logistical expenses. Because land is still the best resource on which to construct communications and building infrastructure, the most recent and most promising attempt is to create “free cities” in Honduras. Unfortunately these have been shrugged off by a government justice system (which would more accurately be spelled as “just-us”).

The bill to allow the creation of such cities passed the Honduran Legislature nearly unanimously, by a vote of 126 to 1. But not everyone is on board with the project. Left-wing Hondurans have filed a complaint before the Honduran Supreme Court, arguing that the free cities project violates their constitution and treats “national territory as a commodity.”

Private city in Honduras will have minimal taxes, government by Maxim Lott

In truth, as libertarians seek their utopia, they have made one tragic mistake of strategy: a consistent moral framework. All the libertarians I know live by the non-agression principal. Which means that none of the libertarians I know are willing to use the conventional tactics for acquiring that plot of land needed to carry out the experiment. We won’t conscript an army to take the land by force, as government has done before and to us. The Government mob wantonly takes advantage of this bedrock of consistency, further preventing libertarians from embarking on the experiment by existing government policies. We begrudgingly pay taxes to stay out of jail even though this forces us to retain less capital with which to invest in purchasing galt’s gulch. Let’s not forget to mention also, that government uses law to grant itself monopoly over the land, preventing any declaration of independence.

In summary, there are no libertarian countries because

  1. those that did exist historically eventually met their end through statist corruption.
  2. all the land is currently claimed by existing monopolistic states that won’t let go.
  3. widespread statist mentality won’t allow the experiment to take place.

These answers are long-winded and do not serve well during a heated debate. If you find a statist trying to corner you with “Oh yeah? Then why aren’t there any countries like that today!?”, rather than launching into a history lesson making the above points, try turning the question around with one of Tom Wood’s replies or simply channel Michael Bolton from Office Space and retort “No way! Why should I leave? Government’s the one that sucks!”.