Libertarian History/Philosophy

Liberland: Disappointing Reality or Encouraging Fantasy?

You probably can't make a libertarian paradise in a Croatian marsh. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't try.

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The New York Times Magazine has profiled in very great length a figure on the exotic fringe of libertarian activism, Vit Jedlicka, a Czech market analyst and political activist, who has proclaimed himself (with the democratic vote of his girlfriend and a pal) leader of a proclaimed nation, Liberland, in a no-mans-land in the Danube River on the border between Serbia and Croatia.

The story details the engineering feats on the river and resulting shifting of pieces of territory away from the contiguous landmasses of Serbia and Croatia that led neither nation to currently, officially claim the crummy piece of land.

Still, neither country gives Jedlicka's proclamation any credence. Croatian police began arresting would-be Liberlanders trying to enter, including their leader Jedlicka, and the Times reporter Gideon Lewis-Kraus witnesses such an arrest during his time dogging Jedlicka around the globe.

It's all theater, of course. No one lives there, and no one I doubt that many people would want to live there—the "there" that is an actual piece of land on planet earth.

Small, cramped, hard to get to and leave, mosquito-riddled, barely space to actually make anything if one wished to do business making things, difficult to find customers if one is providing a service that requires meeting people in person, lacking huge amounts of storage if your business requires owning and shipping inventory.

And if everything you are doing can be done no matter where you live, via the wonders of the Internet, you probably don't want to park your body in the middle of a marshy mosquito-riddled river in Croatia with no pre-existing shelter or civilized services.

Besides, to get along with the community of nations who Jedlicka thinks will accept him, even Liberland will not allow certain things that community of legit nations insists its members bar, like "money laundering" and the sale of certain drugs.

But 40,000 people finished the online application for citizenship in Liberland (of 330,000 who at least started, 87,000 of them Egyptians), and a picky Jedlicka, taking seriously the dictum that rather than letting the people select a new government the government must select the proper people, has provisionally approved but 130 of them as fit for Liberland.

So clearly people might want to live in the idea of Liberland, and it has been surprising how seriously many in the media are taking this whimsy. Lewis-Kraus is not mocking the idea out of hand, even though as a practical reality on earth, it is likely worth mocking. And no doubt the serious tone with which he reports the diplomatic mission through mosquito bogs in a boat overloaded with documentary filmmakers, and the flying around the world to consult with dodgy members of Liberland's far-flung diplomatic corps, is meant in its very seriousness to be ironically mocking.

The Times feature is very very long and details many interesting machinations and personal details about Jedlicka and his efforts to win points in the gamesmanship of the peculiar rules of sovereignty, including trying to get a Czech diplomat arrested by Croatian cops for what was technically just moving from one part of Serbia to another. The story also tells of Jedlicka's various dreams for how actual Liberlandian government would function, including a currency based on efforts toward making the government work. 

It's mostly a story about following a self-important man around the world meeting with small groups of supporters and dreaming dreamy dreams of sovereignty. But it is a very long story, and at worst treats him like an eccentric like someone building a scale model of the Taj Mahal out of Popsicle sticks, and not like an eccentric trying to trap and kill stray dogs.

Jedlicka is the newest part of a checkered but fascinating history of what is known by some in the libertarian world as "libertarian Zionism": trying to create a small polity self-selected to be occupied by libertarians and run on libertarian principles. Recent actuations of this tendency that I've profiled here in Reason include the Free State Project (trying the less radical task of shaping an existing polity in a libertarian direction, in their case the United State of New Hampshire) and the Seasteading movement.

I wrote at some length about previous efforts at libertarian landbuilding, such as "Operation Atlantis" in 1968 (boat sank) and building an Island called Minerva in the southwest Pacific in 1972 (conquered by Tonga), and later in the 1970s  making common cause with rebels in the Bahamas and New Hebrides (like most indigenous rebellions, didn't really work out in a libertarian direction) in that Seasteading story, and at more length in my 2007 book Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.

However impossible Liberland is, it represents a feeling growing faster and stronger than the states of the world want to recognize. It has had remarkable traction with both media and would-be supporters, far more than any previous such attempt.

Of course, Liberland has the power of the Internet, by which everyone communicates with everyone else everywhere about everything at something approaching costlessness. Operation Atlantis, for its part, tried to give birth to its aquatic nation in a world of mimeographed newsletters that had to be mailed to the small group of people who somehow learned about it through word of mouth, the very rare mainstream magazine mention, or subscribing to other tiny-circulation mimeographed newsletters.

Placing any more weight on the attention Jedlicka's gotten then just that it strikes people as amusingly bold and absurd might be a mistake. Still, it does feel, to someone following these ideas for decades, that they seem inchoately more cool and admirable than insane and stupid to lots of people nowadays.

Jedlicka could argue, rightly, that all nations are "proclaimed," in their way, made real by a combination of legitimizing threats of force and whatever it is in a human that makes him want to proclaim fealty and obedience to a land-based system of abstract rule. (Whatever that is, trying to change society by completely denying that emotion or tendency exists isn't likely to get you very far, human nature being what it currently is.)

Paradoxically, my marination in libertarian history made me a little less interested in this Liberland story as it first broke, less so perhaps than a reporter who could see it purely as colorful, maybe even zany, but of clear human interest with a sharp political edge. It struck me at first as just a wearying repetition of something clearly impossible to make work, at least the way Jedlicka was trying. How could he expect other nations to recognize or take him seriously and deal with him as a fellow sovereign? And how many people really want to live on that piece of land, no matter its governance?

As Reason.com editor-in-chief Nick Gillespie sharply noted back in 2005, even a libertarian should recognize that strictly political concerns don't always dictate where we choose to live. Economic freedom indexes needn't give libertarians moving orders.

We, just like normal people!, value climate, culture, land itself, civic amenities, or family perhaps more than the abstract laws or taxing systems dominating our land mass. I can recognize both that the Free State Project is a neat idea and that I really enjoy the company of most Free Staters I met, and still not want to submit my poor mammal body to New Hampshire weather, far away from most everyone in life I care about. California is a terrible state for taxes and regulations. But because of the land, and the people, and the culture, and the weather, here I stand.

And given the U.S. government's tendency to make sure it grips you when it comes to taxes and regulations if you were born here no matter where your actual body or technical citizenship lies (see Reason editor-in-chief Matt Welch on FATCA), there didn't seem to be much beside cocktail party talk at stake in claiming your citizenship in Liberland. When 30,000 people start building homes there, then Liberland's time has come.

We can already, in terms of fellowship, entertainment, commerce, do a surprising amount of living essentially in what the kids used to call cyberspace. Communication and commerce are two big pieces of the human puzzle, and physical location and citizenship already don't matter that much for those things, as long as you have access to effective shipping services (another thing unclear about Liberland).

The idea behind Liberland is solid: a country governed the way it imagines being governed would be an interesting place to live, do business, earn an income. 

But more than that, I think the attraction, especially to the people profiled in the Times who are actually going there, or to Croatian prison in the attempt, and to the people opening their Liberland embassies in England and France, is not living in Liberland, or even dreaming of it. The attraction is the bizarre and comic political drama of trying to make it real.

The same is likely true for earlier attempts at libertarian zionism. The adventures of being on the ferrocement boat sailing to the Caribbean with fellow Randians or anarchists trying to make a new Atlantis; of making common cause with Vanuatan rebels; of trying to build a seastead; these are not really political efforts.

They are more properly seen as life adventures, that simple and that complex, inherently rewarding experiences here on Planet Earth, regardless of whether those experiences ever had any hope of producing a nation with no taxes or import duties.

While I was never one of those people, I imagine the experience of trying more than justified itself, whether or not anyone doing them even expected the plan could "really work." What seems to outsiders, or sells itself as, political action is very often a consumption/entertainment expense, leisure at its edgiest, striving for a lived experience that makes the spine stiffen, blood rush, eyes open in wonder, lips form a satisfied smirky smile. You are making a libertarian nation! 

Maybe, but man, it's fun to try!

The always-optimistic libertarian Jeffrey Tucker on the promise of the very idea of Liberland:

We live in a digital age that is gradually but systematically breaking down the central relevance of borders, traditional nation-states, and arbitrary lines drawn on a map that politicians call countries.

Technology permits new forms of geographically non-contiguous engagement in commerce, communication, and law. A territory of only a few square miles can indeed become a viable nation: a refuge for those who seek freedom, a nimble competitor to stagnant mega-states, and a model for the rest of the world to follow.

Liberland might indeed fail in the short term. But its ideas and its dream have long-term viability. Old-style political systems and political maps will not rule forever. Change is possible, but it takes visionary steps (perhaps steps like as Liberland) to help push us forward to a future of liberty. 

To me the real relevance of techno-modernity to the libertarian project is how it creates the possibility of meeting needs and evading government control without necessarily having to physically move or politically change one's citizenship.

Technology also, as the NSA shows us, has the danger of making such under-the-radar life even harder. Ultimately, I am optimistic that the technologies of privacy and liberation can outpace the technologies of control; more optimistic than I am that the community of nations will welcome a libertarian-loophole state such as Liberland.

I am not optimistic that any libertarian Zionism—creating an actual small libertarian polity in a non-libertarian world—can ever work. The original Leonard Read (founder of the Foundation for Economic Education) mission for the libertarian movement still seems ahead of us: that we will have libertarian government when enough people have been educated to want a libertarian society.

It does not seem like the existing set of nation states leaves room for one, on an island, boats, or isolated chunks of riverine land in Eastern Europe without shelter or running water but with plenty of mosquitos.

But to the extent people yearn for it, work for it, and are forced to think about how such a nation can work, the efforts are encouraging, and should be encouraged. Though perhaps one ought not rely too much on them actually working.

Elizabeth Nolan-Brown introduced Reason readers to Liberland back in April.

Update: The piece has been edited to remove some earlier infelicities of phrasing in the first posting.