Free Cities

A New Place to Think About "Free Cities"

Can special economic zones and private cities morph to arenas for widespread, unprecedented market and regulatory liberty?


Are we on the cusp of new directions in more liberty-oriented policies across the globe in "free cities"? Mark Lutter is an economist with an interest in the free city concept (though other terms competing for market dominance include "startup cities" and "charter cities" and various Spanish-language acronyms out of Honduras, the country that might be closest to actually creating such zones). He has just launched a new blog for information and analysis of the concept.

It's worth bookmarking and is called "Free Cities Initiative."

Miroslav Petrasko (

From Lutter's inaugural couple of posts, explaining why the idea might be of interest to libertarians and political science-fictioneers of all stripes:

[F]ree cities can rapidly improve governance and spark economic growth in the developing world, as well as offer pockets of innovation to accelerate technological development in the developed world….

Consider the cities which have experienced the most growth in the post-war era. Of the top five, three are free cities, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Dubai. Their success was predictable and is replicable. Rule of law, property rights, and economic freedom are necessary, and arguably sufficient conditions for economic development. Unfortunately, history shows it is difficult for countries to rapidly improve their institutions on a national level.

Free cities offer an alternative. By taking land with few special interests or residents, free cities have little impact on the political equilibrium. This allows more rapid institutional improvement, and therefore economic development, than would otherwise be possible.

Any reason to believe progress in this direction can happen in the short term?

There are two trends which point to the emergence of free cities. First, the creation of SEZs [special economic zones]. While SEZs are not free cities, they are pockets of autonomy. The Economist writes that there are now more than 4,000 SEZs. Second, the emergence of private cities. Numerous multi-billion dollar private cities are being constructed. However, few have autonomy. Honduras passed a law to allow for the creation of ZEDEs (zonas de empleo y desarollo economico), a kind of free city. Should these trends continue they will likely culminate in free cities….

The New Cities Foundation gives the best overview of new cities being constructed. Their annual report from the King Abdullah Economic City forum profiles new city projects in the annex. Of course, cities which will grow organically are not included. However, the numerous multi-billion dollar projects suggest an opportunity for free cities. The new cities have capital, and some of them have the influence to receive a degree of autonomy.

But ideological activism is likely necessary to make sure new cities might be free(er) cities:

However, they do not appear to realize the importance of institutions in economic growth. The most recent report briefly mentions the legal side, only discussing taxes and business registration. While both important, ensuring long term growth potential for cities in developing countries requires thinking more radically about institutional reform.

With that being said, I believe the New Cities Foundation is slowly realizing the importance of institutions in economic development. Previous reports failed to mention legal autonomy. I suspect the next report will have more discussion on legal autonomy than the previous one.

For a survey of the past few years worth of ferment in this field from my reporting as it relates to Honduras: "New Republic Takes Weirdly Pants-Wetting Look at Honduran ZEDEs (Free Zones)," "Honduran 'Free Cities' Get One Step Closer to Reality," "Honduran Government Reported to Have Officially Published New "Start Up City" Law," and my long print feature on the history of the idea from 2013, "The Blank Slate State."

Reason TV on "How to Grow a City in Honduras":

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  1. Yeah, I’m sure as long as you have a big statist nation state with a huge well funded military that’s going to happen. You best have some nukes if you’re that city and the means to be self sustaining or you’ll be mowed down like weeds. You’ll obey or else, your federal god is a jealous god. That’s a nice city you got there, would be too bad if something happens to it.

  2. Are we on the cusp of new directions in more liberty-oriented policies across the globe in “free cities”?

    The problem being is that there are NO free cities. Go ahead and try it and let me know how that works out.

  3. Honduras, the country that might be closest to actually creating such zones

    Being that about 50% of Hondurans are now in the USA, we could just wait for most of the rest of them to arrive and then pull a well planned stealth mission to invade and claim the country. We’ll have about 5 minutes to announce to the rest of the world that we have nukes pointed straight at Moscow, Beijing and DC. Then we’re on our own for a while.

    1. Are you proposing a libertopia?

      1. I am, but we better have lots of enriched plutonium and rocket scientists.

    2. I have some pretty fond memories of a trip I took to Honduras in high school.

      1. I was almost put on a boat headed for ‘onduras.

        1. Excuse me, ‘eaded for ‘onduras.

  4. Consider the cities which have experienced the most growth in the post-war era. Of the top five, three are free cities, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Dubai.

    Umm, what? Both Hong Kong and Singapore were part of the British Empire/Commonwealth after WWII: Singapore until 1965 and Hong Kong until 1997. True, the British were a shadow of their pre-war strength but well able to deal with minimal military threats in the region at the time (given that China didn’t really look too far outward at first). Furthermore, the British instituted border control in Hong Kong in the 1950s or 1960s. Both Singapore and HK are free cities now, but they weren’t for much of their growth periods.

    1. I don’t know much about the others, but is HK even a ‘free city’ today? Seems like China at least *tries* to intervene there quite a bit. And I don’t think the Chinese government is going to keep its hands off of HK forever just because of some pesky protesters.

      Or are we defining cities as “enclaves freer than their surroundings”?

      1. During British rule the Brits had a very strong hands-off policy regarding HK internal business – as long as the mainland Chinese stayed out they didn’t care about what happened inside. Its the place where a former governor refused to collect economic statistics under the theory that once you had the numbers some idiot would want to *do something* about them.

        Since turnover China has had a pretty hands-off policy as far as economics goes – similar deal with Macau. ‘One country, two systems’ is their official term for it. China will keep their hands off as long as a) the HK people pay open service to being *Chinese* and not a separate group and b) until and unless the mainland is sufficiently rich that HK is no longer an outlier so no longer can pay for special treatment.

        1. Thanks, Ag. Still, paying tribute of any sort seems to not really be a “free city” to me. Goes back to my point about how we’re defining ‘free’.

          1. I didn’t mean to imply that they’re paying tribute but rather HK is a major source of economic activity, foreign currency, and a convenient spot to quarantine to prevent excessive Western attitudes from infiltrating the rest of the country.

            They’re not paying geld so much as they’re paying taxes and as long as they don’t talk about being ‘independent’ they can be pretty independent. Its sort of like how the Canadians or Australians will do whatever their monarch tells them to do as long as she never actually tells them to do anything.

        2. China will keep their hands off as long as …

          Or until there’s a Chinese regime change and the new, improved chairman says, “Screw freedom, we’re doing another Cultural Revolution.”

          1. Well, Mexico will remain a sovereign state until the US decides that it would be more cost effective to put its border wall across the Yucatan – there’s only so much you can do.

    2. RN,
      I’m not gonna deal with the specifics of your comments, just ’cause I think a bit of research will tell you that the Brits (post WWII) pretty much allowed the most free ‘state’ the world has seen since the industrial revolution.
      Start here:
      “The Man Behind the Hong Kong Miracle
      Some of us just write about libertarian ideas. This guy actually made them public policy for millions.”
      Oh, for fuck’s sake, the URL is too long. Search “fee cowpertherwaite”
      For fuck’s sake wiki, cowperthwaite.
      Let’s try one more time to see if any source provides a link that doesn’t need massaging:…..waite.html

      1. Don’t disagree.

        I guess I was thinking more of the external issue. HK didn’t need to worry too much about defense b/c the Brits covered that for them. So, to my mind, a free city would work in, say Detroit (it’s been suggested by some) b/c, even with some kind of local sovereignty, it would be protected by its US location. I’m not sure a free city would succeed to the same extent in, say, Honduras.

        I confess mostly ignorance on the old idea of free cities in Europe. Did they defend themselves, or did they have implicit protection from someone else?

      2. I would also note that, although the article refers to post-WWII, the foundations of HK’s society were laid in the 19th century when it was part of the British Empire. Again, that doesn’t negate your point, but I’m trying to think through just creating a free city, from scratch, right now and wondering is a minimal internal government would be enough.

        1. Shit, “IF a minimal internal…”

          Damn Powers Whiskey.

    1. “This is what Mormons actually believe!”

      1. They have this Wizard of Oz Emerald City thing going on in DC. Anyone else see that thing?

      2. Didn’t they build a whole state once?

        1. Utah? Is polygamy still legal there? Mormons are big daddy gubmit’s little bitches.

          1. As a practical matter, Utah can Make Polygamy Great Again and the feds won’t do anything about it. This isn’t the late 19th century.

            Yet the mainstream Mormons show no signs of going back to their polygamist ways, which is why the fringe sects split off from the Mormons on that very issue.

            If Mitt Romney isn’t marrying three cheerleaders, it’s not because the feds wouldn’t let him, it’s because he doesn’t want to.

            1. So anyone can just marry 3 people today and the government will not interfere?

              1. I said Utah can legitimize it and the feds won’t have the stones to stop it.

                1. Utah had to pinky-swear not to allow polygamy as a condition of becoming a state. I’m saying that the feds aren’t going to hold them to that promise if they break it.

                2. I don’t believe you, sorry.

                  1. Well, it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future (as Yogi Berra supposedly said), but that’s my best guess – Utah would be able to establish a system of state-recognized polygamy and the feds wouldn’t stop them.

                    And I can say, with somewhat greater confidence, that the Mormons no longer are afraid of the feds busting up polygamous households – absent welfare fraud or child abuse, which to my knowledge are frowned upon in mainstream Mormonism.

                    So if they’re not rushing to recognize the marriage Hiram and Hannah and Abigail and Deborah, it’s because they don’t want to, not because they’re worried what Washington, D.C. would do.

                    1. I believe some polygamous spin offs were busted specifically for food stamp fraud.

                    2. I’m sure it was because of the food stamps. Millions of people defrauding the system and polygamists get busted for it? Sorry, but polygamists are not on the list of officially sanctioned special oppressed snowflake victims.

                    3. Don’t call it polygamy. Call it polyamory.

                    4. Ok, slut.

              2. You can openly smoke pot recreationally in several states and the federal government is not interfering (much).

            2. If Mitt Romney isn’t marrying three cheerleaders, it’s not because the feds wouldn’t let him, it’s because he doesn’t want to.

              And perhaps that’s because having several wives was a lot more workable before women got the vote and started earning their own money.

              As the Bible says: “No man can serve two masters.”

    2. Nobody read the article. Heh.

      1. And they haven’t built the free cities, either.

  5. Of course, if you could create any libertarian zones today with resources (food, water, energy sources), you could be very successful. The problem is, is that there is nowhere on earth you can do that because of existing governments. Even if there was land unclaimed by any nation state, as soon as you were successful, you would have the jealous attention of all your neighbors, which would put you out of business very quickly.

    You will need the following (not meaning to sound redundant:

    Food, water, energy, all enough for self sufficiency because every nation on earth will be your enemy. And nukes because of the last point.

    1. Mars or bust.

      1. A mission to Mars will suddenly become the biggest budget item for spending by the US government.

        1. Asteroids can be de-orbited.

          1. Are you suggesting we wipe out our opposition (everyone) on our way to creating a libertarian state? Seems kind of ironic.

            1. We remind relevant people that we can do it, and we will if necessary. Does nobody remember the Cold War and MAD? Fucking millenials.

              1. Remember it? No. Familiar with it? Yes. And that’s a fantastic idea. I like the way you think.

                1. Sure, causing mass extinction on a global scale fits right in there with the NAP.

                  1. I’m pretty MAD about not causing mass-extinction.

                  2. If you can use violence to defend yourself you can use all the violence *necessary* to defend yourself. So yes, even genocide fits into the NAP.

                2. Everybody further up a gravity well has rocks as their primary weapon. Everybody downwell has nukes. These rocks are as good as nukes. And rocks are cheap, simple and plentiful out here. Do the math.

                  1. Well, Mars is not in the earth’s gravity well, so therefore…

                    1. Earth, Mars, and asteroids are in the sun’s gravity well. The equations are the same.

                    2. My math isn’t that good. Explain to me how you get your rocks from Mars to land on earth with minimum energy expenditure. Sure, from the moon, but from Mars, I don’t know how you will do this.

                    3. From the asteroid belt, which isn’t too far from Mars, one could *relatively* easily de-orbit an asteroid, as the dominant effective gravitational pull would be from the Sun. It’s all “downhill” from there.

                    4. A Class II civilization could de-orbit a planet into another’s gravity well. Libertopia would quickly become Class II without all the fucking EPA regs.

                    5. We’re talking about rocks and all of the sudden it’s planets? Stop that already. If we (libertarians) had the ability to hurl planets at the statists, the discussion would be over already. I agree we beat them through technology, but we can’t skip several degrees of technological advancement to get there.

              2. +1 Quincy gets it

            2. Umm, no. I’m suggesting our opposition knows that we have the ability for mutual self destruction. Otherwise, our experiment will only have one possible ending, and we won’t like it.

              1. Nuke Mars, the thrusters nudging asteroids eccentric and Earth upfucking are still out there. Forget retaliation in 15 minutes as we all feared during the cold war. A century from the original dispute on Mars, a rock on a precisely engineered orbit will intersect and? Boom.

                Don’t fuck with Mars.

      2. No Mars, damnit. what’s up with you people and your planet obsession? Once out of the Earth’s gravity well you want to throw yourself right down another. Lassie’s getting tired of this crap Timmy.

        Seriously though – Mars is not going to be any more habitable than a spacegoing habitat for several hundred years at best (and that’s assuming a massive and costly terraforming project – bringing in comets for water, nukes to release atmospheric gases, genetic engineering of organisms to survive).

        Better to build a space habitat. Then strap some engines on it if you want to go somewhere.

        If you *must* have a planet, think ‘fusion candle’ – double ended fusion drive inside Jupiter or Saturn’s atmosphere.

        1. 1. Build a fusion candle. It’s called a “candle” because you’re going to burn it at both ends. The center section houses a set of intakes that slurp up gas giant atmosphere and funnel it to the fusion reactors at each end.

          2. Shove one end deep down inside the gas giant, and light it up. It keeps the candle aloft, hovering on a pillar of flame.

          3. Light up the other end, which now spits thrusting fire to the sky.

          4. Steer with small lateral thrusters that move the candle from one place to another on the gas giant. Steer very carefully, and signal your turns well in advance. This is a big vehicle.

          5. Balance your thrusting ends with exactness. You don’t want to crash your candle into the core of the giant, or send it careening off into a burningly elliptical orbit.

          6. When the giant leaves your system, it will take its moons with it. This is gravity working for you. Put your colonists on the moons.

          1. Except Europa, attempt no landings there.

            1. I’m naming my daughter Europa.

                1. Shit, the rate I’m going she’ll be lucky to own the clothes off my back.

          2. Hah! “think “don’t build houses on this side””

    2. The problem is, is that there is nowhere on earth you can do that because of existing governments. Even if there was land unclaimed by any nation state, as soon as you were successful, you would have the jealous attention of all your neighbors, which would put you out of business very quickly.


      1. That’s a nice little raft you got there, be a shame if anything would happen to it. You didn’t build that raft.

        1. And you could ask Prince Bates what happens when the nearest large government decides to push the ‘territorial waters’ limit out to past where you’ve decided to build.

          When Sealand was colonized the limit was 3 nm, later it was pushed out to 12 nm. Do you think the UK came to some accommodation with Sealand or did they simply decide that Sealand was no inside their territorial waters and therefore was once again part of the UK?

          Hint: The latter.

    3. Not to mention the UN and the non-military pressure from liberal governments. A libertopia that tolerates drug production and distribution? That has no or minimal regulations on scientific procedures? That hosts an organ market?

      Forget tax money / tribute or the jealousy of neighboring states. ‘Enlightened’ states would, at a minimum, embargo such a community for bucking these conventions.

  6. What happened to Liberland?

    1. Coke, hookers, EU application fees. More coke.

  7. If you’ve noticed today’s Google Doodle, it honors a fanatical birdwatcher.

    This is from a hagiographical article in Vox:

    “Snetsinger’s chase for birds was obsessive. She missed her mother’s funeral and her daughter’s wedding while on birding trips. No matter the tragedy, personal or political, her reaction was always about the birds: She noted that she visited Rwanda in the “nick of time” before the genocide…”

    1. “and her first question about friends kidnapped in Colombia was what birds they had seen…”

      1. Good thing she’s a woman or Vox might not have been a big fan of her behavior:

        “But being the best in the world nearly always requires obsession. Few would blink at a male athlete or CEO who missed family events in the pursuit of excellence. And when Snetsinger died, she was the best in the world at her chosen pursuit.”

        1. she was the best in the world at her chosen pursuit.

          Seeing what cats missed.

                1. Um, you’re welcome.

                  1. I’m actually not passing myself off as a welder, it’s a political philosophy, see my handle.

                    1. You lost me at credo. Win me back in one sentence.

                    2. Distilling the best of the Western tradition, we find that freedom and virtue are two sides of the same coin.

                    3. Okay, I’m ready to subscribe.

                    4. Speaking of the best of the Western tradition, this isn’t it, but it’s catchy.

                    5. I didn’t think you were making Helium atoms energetically instantiate themselves in a magnetically controlled environment.

                    6. Yeah, sure.

                    7. I just don’t feel like it, is all.

            1. You’d think a cat might better try his luck with pigeons than parakeets.

                1. 5-dimensional chess, I can keep track of several conversations at once.

              1. Pigeons are gross.

                Anyway, Sylvester isn’t the brightest bulb in the socket, if you catch my drift.

                1. It’s a lot of effort to put into something he’s going to deliver to his owner’s mat.

                  When I was eleven or twelve, the family cat managed to sneak into my sister’s room and leap onto her birdcage, and wrench the head off of the baby sparrow we’d saved from a similar attack months earlier, whom my mother, an English teacher, had dubbed Fleance. (“Fly, good Fleance, fly, fly, fly! Thou mayst revenge.”)

                  1. Are you the commenter with the awesome mother from yesterday?

                    1. The awesome mother with the Alpo can? Unfortunately not, upon coming of age we had no stairs.

                    2. Let me clarify that I was referring to a story about the superior parenting skills of the commenter’s mother.

        2. Few would blink at a male athlete or CEO who missed family events in the pursuit of excellence

          I call at least partial bullshit on that. And, if said male was off watching a football game instead of going to his daughter’s wedding, he’d be pilloried from one end of the land to the other.

          Her attitude toward Rwanda reminded me of this:


  8. Mexico’s new libertarian party

    Once they’ve sent all their statist to the USA, they’ve got it made. Brazil also has a large libertarian party, probably the largest outside the USA. Maybe liberty will arise somewhere again, but not here, we’re headed too fast in the wrong direction. Other countries are not obsessed with the madness and suicide of white privilege.

  9. Good for them.

  10. Spot the Not: Everyday Feminism headlines

    1. 8 Signs Your Yoga Practice Is Culturally Appropriated- And Why It Matters

    2. Yes, You Still Have Thin Privilege If You “Worked For” Your Body- Here’s Why

    3. Dear White America: You Are All Responsible For Trump

    4. Why Owning a Gun is no Different Than Being in the KKK

    5. 5 Rules for White People with Black Friends

    6. 4 Reasons It’s Oppressive to Discuss Gender and Sexuality Without Naming Race

    1. 4, not because it’s dumber but because it’s less jargony.

    2. 5, there are actually more rules than you can count

      1. Probably rule #1 is that not everyone wants to role-play Devo’s Whip It.

        /just a guess

        1. Play the other one.

            1. No, not that one. The other one.

                  1. Wasn’t that show called “we’re bailing on The Simpsons before it really starts sucking and doing a Future Simpsons?”

                    1. To clarify: “we’re bailing on The Simpsons, before it really starts sucking, and we’re going to do a Future Simpsons”

                    2. I can’t even.

                    3. Never mind me, I’m filling in for AC, spouting any random nonsense:

                      “We will spare for no wit, I warrant you; here’s that shall drive some of them to a non-come: only get the learned writer to set down our excommunication and meet me at the gaol.”

      2. 5, because white people shouldn’t be allowed to have black friends.


    1. Next you’ll tell me DWS will endorse Clinton.


      1. I bet she can just *taste* that federal judgeship.

    3. Smoke’em peace pipe, let Obvious Squirrel be your spirit animal guide.

    4. And then take it back later?

  12. If you’re already on the ballot in 50 states, I’d recommend going for zero name recognition. These mobs aren’t running towards people to give them a hug. Be the, “I’d rather vote for a @#%$! piece of #%$@!! than either of those two.”

  13. More hilarity from Everyday Feminiderp:…..y-liberal/

    1. OK, this is it: the *dumbest* article on Everyday Feminism:…


      1. “As feminists, we need to politicize even the seemingly mundane things in our lives, like the food we consume.”

        …and the mask is flung down and danced upon.

    2. “What you libertarians fail to realize is that the criminal justice system messes with the poor! How could you not be aware of this?”

      1. Well, those feminists sure are dumb, but at least they don’t think social and fiscal issues are separate and distinct from each other.

  14. AC isn’t here, so I’ll sign off with this:

    “God ‘ild you, sir. I desire you of the like. I press in here, sir, amongst the rest of the country copulatives, to swear and to forswear, according as marriage binds and blood breaks. A poor virgin, sir, an ill-favored thing, sir, but mine own. A poor humor of mine, sir, to take that that no man else will. Rich honesty dwells like a miser, sir, in a poor house, as your pearl in your foul oyster.”

  15. So they’ve found yet another standard of conduct for judging the Hillary email issue. Now it’s “did anyone compromise a drone strike?”

    U.S. officials said there is no evidence Pakistani intelligence officials intercepted any of the low-side State Department emails or used them to protect militants.

    Now, that’s an oddly specific objection to the whole email scandal. In true Clinton fashion, with each new revelation they move the goalposts just a little farther away. We first saw this with Bill’s draft status. Remember how he never got a draft notice, then he did but didn’t get a second notice, then he did, then he didn’t get any special help, then he did, but he got a deferment, but it wasn’t legit because he was supposed to be at Arkansas… well, you remember.

    Anyway… Hillary has a dozen versions of the whole email server thing. And now we are down to “but no Pakistani intelligence official intercepted her communication and protected militants”. So what, it was a military official? Or they didn’t protect the militants? Or it wasn’t a Pakistani? Where’s the Clinton overly-legalistic weasel word that makes this one not a lie?

    1. Are they saying that her private email server did contain State Department secret information that could have been useful for the Pakistani military to protect militants?

      1. Pretty much exactly this. The new word is that the CIA needed real-time collaboration on drone strikes, and State Dept. was using their internal (less secure) email network to discuss this – sometimes. This is the justification for Hillary – since the practice of using regular state-dept. email to discuss drone-strike approvals was widespread at State, Hillary using her personal server at home was A.O.K.

        Of course, this hits the papers on Friday. Actually, a little surprising that they didn’t wait until after Friday’s deadlines. Either way, I’m sure the story will be buried by Monday. Obama endorsed Hillary! That’s a much, much bigger story.

        BTW, this would put the big lie to “they weren’t marked classified at the time”. There’s no way in hell anyone could have mistaken discussions of pending drone strikes as remotely unclassified.

  16. Uh, doesn’t Dubai more or less employ slave labor? That’s not exactly free

  17. Another fake scandal. The Sourcefed guys are saying that google is cooking their search suggestions to favor Hillary.

    I’m a skeptic, and I’m pretty sure every political charge is bullshit. So I tested it out myself.

    Definitely shenanigans. Try the Rose Law Firm billing records.

    Hillary Clinton Billing Records is a suggested search on Bing. Doesn’t even auto-complete either word on Google.

    Hillary Clinton Vin – Bing suggests Vince Foster. Google …. Nothing after you get to Vinc. Definitely suppressed.

    Hillary Clinton Br – Bing suggests Bribes and Bribery. Google Goes dark after Brib

    Hillary Clinton Corr – Google suggests “corruption Reddit” after “correct the record, while bing suggests: Corruption, Corruption List, Corruption Charges, Corruption Investigation … after only “cor”. No Corruption Reddit to be found on Bing’s suggestions.

    Ok Sourcefed, I think you’ve made your case.

  18. Why do we need more free cities? We already have Somalia

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