Book Reviews

The Quest for a Libertarian Island Paradise

Raymond B. Craib's new book recounts how Michael Oliver repeatedly tried to create a new country with a government funded entirely by voluntary contributions.


Adventure Capitalism: A History of Libertarian Exit, from the Era of Decolonization to the Digital Age, by Raymond B. Craib, Spectre/PM Press, 304 pages, $24.95

When Michael Oliver was a teenager in Lithuania, the Nazis shipped him by train to a series of concentration camps in Poland. He was the only member of his Jewish family not murdered during World War II. It does not take an overly capacious imagination to grasp why a man who experienced that might yearn to live under a government that would never casually wield such life-and-death power over its citizens.

In Adventure Capitalism, Cornell historian Raymond B. Craib relates how Oliver, who immigrated to the United States in 1947 after two postwar years in a displaced persons camp, self-published in 1968 a libertarian manifesto called A New Constitution for a New Country. With wealth earned as a land developer and precious metals dealer, Oliver then tried over and over to create a new country with a government funded entirely by voluntary contributions.

After scoping out possibilities around the end of the 1960s in at least eight island nations, Oliver's first serious effort involved hiring a dredging vessel in August 1971 to create an artificial island around a couple of reefs in the South Pacific at the cost of $10,000 a week. Oliver's legal consultants agreed that as a private citizen on "an artificially created and uninhabited area on the high seas," he might be able to get away with asserting sovereignty. He built an organizational structure and a mailing list of nearly 15,000 interested parties. In January 1972, Oliver and his board of directors declared the island to be the Republic of Minerva, sending a letter announcing such to more than 100 existing nations, none of which recognized it.

The announcement drew the ire of the nearby kingdom of Tonga, a recently liberated former British protectorate, which decided to build its own artificial islands on the reefs the Oliver crew was claiming. After "a naval show of might at the reefs," the Tongans made Minerva theirs.

Oliver's second big effort drew some notorious arms dealers, mercenaries, rebellious British barons, and former CIA wetworkers into the mix. In 1973, Oliver and his associates leveraged secessionist feelings among some Bahamians getting out from under British rule in an island area known as Abaco, population around 6,500.

Many Abaco residents, especially the whites, would have rather stayed British, but Oliver and his shadowy team hoped they'd settle for not being under the control of the post- colonial Bahamian government. He used the promise of land giveaways to the existing population to sell them on the idea. An attempted invasion, with copies of Ayn Rand's For the New Intellectual shipped to the island along with shortwave radio parts, fizzled as local enthusiasm for the struggle waned and as Oliver grew disenchanted with the more colorful soldier-of-fortune types involved. He later tried to assure a libertarian audience in the pages of Reason that nothing that unjustly violated individual rights was part of his plan.

Oliver thus never got the chance to transform the former British public lands, which most of Abaco consisted of, into a private libertarian paradise. Oliver knew this might sound like "another banana republic," but he swore it was "a moral experiment, a place where we'll try to keep individual freedom alive even if it doesn't survive in America." His most notorious associate, arms dealer Mitchell WerBell III, was more interested in launching a weapons plant in Abaco. A reporter with experience in Fidel Castro's Cuba covering all this as it unfolded became convinced the people surrounding Oliver were genuinely dangerous as they pressured him and his editors to spike his story.

Oliver and his newly formed Phoenix Foundation then helped support a separatist movement in Santo. This was part of the southwestern Pacific archipelago known then as the New Hebrides and now as Vanuatu, which was in a slow process of decolonizing from a dual French/British protectorate. Oliver's man in the New Hebrides was Jimmy Stevens of the Nagriamel movement, which Craib credits as "the most important Native-led anticolonial movement on the islands." Stevens' group wanted to recognize traditional native land rights without necessarily expropriating or expelling Europeans.

Oliver and Stevens were united by opposition to the New Hebrides National Party (NHNP), a socialist-leaning organization coming to dominance. While Craib can't be entirely sure how influential Oliver was (and he did extensive archival and even Freedom of Information Act work on this poorly-reported-on series of events), Oliver did meet with Stevens in December 1975 shortly before the latter declared independence for Santo. Craib makes the case that Stevens' team was more authentically indigenous than the NHNP, whose "base was in the Anglophone Protestant Church" while Nagriamel's "tended to come from the bush" and embraced islanders' ancestral ways.

While Oliver ended up barred from legal entrance to the New Hebrides for his alliance with rebel Stevens, he and his Phoenix Foundation continued to supply money ("possibly" hundreds of thousands, Craib concludes), radio equipment, and a libertarian constitution to the Nagriamel movement. Stevens' rhetoric started sounding more libertarian after he teamed up with the Phoenix crew. The area seeking independence accounted for "nearly 90 percent of all exports from the New Hebrides," so the NHNP was not prepared to let him succeed.

Stevens also set himself up as a contact for westerners wanting to buy land in the area he wanted to control. Craib, in fact, sees Oliver's efforts as less like creating a nation and more like establishing a homeowners association, with property owners allying to jointly provide certain services.

In May 1980, Stevens' crew conquered the local police force and seized the radio station and airport in Santo. Craib does not take agency completely from Stevens' group and its native concerns, but he writes that "the Phoenix Foundation, with its money, its arms, its electronics, and its grandiose visions played a central role." Copies of a potential constitution for Stevens' nascent nation—partly composed by philosophy professor John Hospers, the U.S. Libertarian Party's first presidential candidate—were seized from an Oliver confederate at a Hebridean airport during the whole mess. Oliver proudly told People magazine that his Nagriamel allies were "the most disciplined people I have ever seen, not like those hippies in Berkeley."

In the end, with the help of Papua New Guinea, the postcolonial New Hebridean government quashed the insurrection, with more than 2,000 arrests—though only a handful, among them Stevens, suffered more than a couple of years of prison time.

Craib is not a libertarian. He believes that even if Stevens had created his independent island republic, it would be not a world powerhouse of liberty but "a patchwork landscape of private fiefdoms worked by a dispossessed class" of island natives. But even these criticisms—which mostly take second place to chronicling the story itself—reveal that Craib gets the point, at least partially. He recognizes these efforts are not merely mercenary attempts to, say, avoid taxes or get rich quick. He recognizes the libertarian fervor that inspired them as a "moral experiment," since "most individuals involved in such schemes had the necessary resources" to find far easier tax havens.

After the gripping tales of Oliver's failures, Craib pivots to Oliver's modern descendants, differentiating them by noting that these newer libertarian experiments are rooted in "a certain social progressive outlook (polyamory, drug legalization, and the like) and are strongly influenced by the techno-utopian world of Silicon Valley, neither of which figured in the designs of Oliver."

The rest of the book, then, focuses on seasteading and the efforts to create "free cities" (especially in Honduras), both examples of the political science division between "exit and voice" as strategies for political change. Craib condemns "exit" since it cannot guarantee that everyone is equally equipped with the resources to actually "exit." That's true as far as it goes—no such guarantee exists. But that doesn't prove there is no value in trying to forge new places to practice it.

Craib notes suspiciously that "free cities" and some seastead plans rely on alliances with existing sovereignties. But that doesn't mean libertarians are hypocrites or wrong about the benign possibilities of escaping or competing with those existing sovereignties. Even those who would like to exit must still live in our world, where everyone everywhere must accommodate themselves to a government.

Governance, to advocates of exit, is better seen as service than as sovereignty. The former treats human beings as customers to be catered to, the latter as means to be manipulated. When states get locked into that latter mentality, what happened to Oliver's family during World War II becomes possible. Quests to evade such ends are worth respectful consideration.