A Billionaire’s Utopia or How to Run Away From Your Problems

 

Letting go of a dream:

18m4nob9ni1cijpgTHE SEASTEADING INSTITUTE was the toast of tech entrepreneurs when it received financial backing from venture capitalist Peter Thiel in 2008. Its mission was to build a manmade island nation where inventors could work free of heavy-handed government interference. One early rendering shows an island raised on concrete stilts in eerily calm waters. The buildings atop the platform resemble nothing so much as the swanky tech campus of an entrepreneur’s ultimate dream: No sign of land or civilization in sight. The island, despite appearing strapped for square footage, has room for a full-size swimming pool with deck lounges.

It’s an enticing idea though hardly an uplifting one, a pricer version of the escapist Free State Project. Yet the underlying rationale behind those fleeing to New Hampshire, or trying to establish civilization in the middle of the ocean is the same: We’ve lost the battle for freedom at home.

This defeatist mentality is common among refugees. It is also understandable among those whose countries have fallen into dictatorship and civil strife. America is neither a dictatorship nor on the verge of a second civil war. Adam Smith observed that there is a great deal of ruin in a nation. It will take more than eight years of Barack Obama to fell the most powerful nation on earth.

There’s a strange irony with projects like Seasteading and the Free Staters. The type of people naturally attracted to these movements are hardly weak willed or easily deterred. A list of advocates for setting up some small piece of libertarian paradise reads like a Who’s Who of Silicon Valley. Men and women who feel confident enough to creatively destroy entire industries but, somehow, feel incapable of winning a political argument against those often less intelligent and accomplished than themselves. There is more than a whiff of nerds being intimidated by the cool kids.

The dream of running away and creating a perfect society, or at least a better one, is hardly new. It must have been in the minds those early colonists who spread across the Mediterranean in the wake of the Greek Dark Age. It was, of course, the impetus for British settlers to establish their colonies in North America and the Antipodes. There are times when the only sensible thing to do is leave.

The cost, however, is enormous. Creating a new society, even while carrying the best of Western Civilization, is a dangerous and incredibly complex undertaking. It took the thirteen American colonies more than a century and half to reach anything like a critical economic and political mass. This is the basic flaw in Seasteading, even leaving aside the enormous cost of building the infrastructure. Societies are not computer software, they cannot be programmed or adjusted at will. They must evolve organically over time if they are to survive. This is why many Seasteading proposals come off as pitches for high-end hotels and conference centers. The social element is missing.

The Free State Project, which proposes to encourage 20,000 liberty minded people to move to New Hampshire, has the merit of being more immediately practical than Seasteading. However it still runs up against the problem of trying to re-create a society. While the good people of New Hampshire are known for their ornery libertarianism, the economy beyond the narrow strip bordering Massachusetts is slim pickings. Even 100,000 libertarians are unlikely to swing the politics of the state all that much, assuming the new arrivals could get jobs or start businesses.

Leaving aside the impracticality of either approach it’s the hopeless attitude I dislike most. We can’t change things here so let’s go somewhere else. There is a moment for that. This isn’t that moment. As the son of immigrants I understand the urge, believe me I do, but a time and a place for everything.

One of the great values of studying history is that it gives the attentive student’s perspective a longue durée. The challenges that face modern America are formidable, they are however no more formidable that those that faced the Founding Fathers, the Abolitionists, the settlers of the West or those who fought World War Two and built the post-war economy. It’s been much, much worse and we have far less right to complain than we often suppose.

Take a step back. This isn’t the time to run. That time may come. It ain’t here yet. There is plenty of chance to stand and fight.

There are 15 comments.

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  1. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @

    It’s not just Peter Thiel who has some longings for escapism. I’ve long thought both Rod Dreher’s move back to small-town Louisiana and his exhorting of Social Conservatives to fall back and build some intellectual, Bible-based alt culture (whatever that might be) were obvious signs of wanting to run away. Even though running away in that fashion kills cultures faster than either standing and fighting, or merely accepting the change and working from there while staying.

    Thomas Wolfe (early 20th century novelist, not cocaine-white suit wearing novelist) was very much right with his posthumus novel You Can’t Go Home Again. Which is why it is imperative to, when the time comes, to Salute the Flag. Respect the Badge. Society needs you to be ready to pick up the pieces and clean up when the pendulum swings disastrously too far, which it will always do.

    • #1
  2. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    Great post.

    On the Free Staters, I’ve friends in New Hampshire who’ve run afoul of them — or at least one of their subgroups — and what I’ve seen has been very, very ugly. Basically, imagine folks who talk our Fred Cole, but who act like a lefty trial lawyer the morning after his third wife filed for divorce.

    Think of all the worst stereotypes of libertarianism and marry them to litigious activists and you’re close.

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  3. Look Away Member
    Look Away
    @LookAway

    Excellent piece. Thank you. And Brad2971, with respect I disagree, you can come home.

    • #3
  4. Fredösphere Member
    Fredösphere
    @Fredosphere

    Excellent points, but I think there are counter-examples. How about the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock? That turned out pretty well, didn’t it?

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  5. Ricochet Contributor
    Ricochet
    @TitusTechera

    People who are good at business need not be good at politics. There’s no better reason to take political advice from Silicon Valley techies than from Mr. Hawking or Einstein. They are not usually really alive to human things. It’s one thing to be a billionnaire, another to rule people.

    Those who start communities or the settlers or colonists are different. They do know what they want out of life & how to get it. That’s called being practical; technology or science often isn’t…

    On that manmade island–who has authority to shoot people?

    Back to the business with running away–in an individualistic regime, how can you say to someone, stay? Appeals to self-interest are bound to fall flat; everyone judges for himself. Who has anything to offer to people who are unpersuaded? What will scare them? The Puritans–they were families, associations, not individuals. They thought life depended in some way on God, independent of human powers or wishes. You can see the strength of community there, for hope & persecution both. It’s not clear to me who will say to Americans who feel they are left out that they should do anything for a common thing of which they have precious little experience.

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  6. user_189393 Member
    user_189393
    @BarkhaHerman

    Peter Thiel made a very small donation to this project, and gets more questions on this than most of his other projects – one example being his 20 under 20 project.

    As for the Seasteading, I’ve been following it for a while.

    The United States introduced ideas of liberty and spread it to other places.  Finding new places to “start” an experiment in Governance is not new.  And depending on the circles you move, you see “escapism” or “optimism” for new endeavors.

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  7. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @

    Look Away:Excellent piece. Thank you. And Brad2971, with respect I disagree, you can come home.

    The natives of Dreher’s Louisiana hometown beg to differ somewhat:

    http://contrapauli.blogspot.com/2013/05/natives-react-to-rod-drehers-ruthie.html

    If that’s coming home, I’m better off in the hostile wilderness.

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  8. user_138562 Moderator
    user_138562
    @RandyWeivoda

    I don’t think of this as defeatist at all.  A defeatist will hang their head and put up with whatever is handed to them.  Setting out to create a new “country” requires a lot of optimism.

    If someone is a conservative living in California or a progressive living in Texas, it makes a lot more sense for them to switch places than for each one to try to persuade the overwhelming majority of people in their original state to reverse themselves.

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  9. Asquared Coolidge
    Asquared
    @ASquared

    Brad2971:

    Which is why it is imperative to, when the time comes, to Salute the Flag. Respect the Badge.

    Please stop saying this.

    • #9
  10. user_989419 Member
    user_989419
    @ProbableCause

    It all boils down to fight or flight.  Fight gets all the good literature, while flight gets short shrift (“and so, the fellowship chucked the ring into the Anduin and sailed for Tarshish; all except Boromir that is, who decided to stay and go for a swim…”).

    It is ironic to hear a rousing call to stay and defend America, a nation settled by those who “ran away” from Europe.

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  11. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    I always felt that creating a off-shore libertarian community was painting a target on their back.

    I figure that there are going to be bad actors, like drug lords, would want to take advantage of the libertarian attitudes toward drugs to set up shop and a lot of outsiders would see it as a sanctuary for those folks, who’d probably want to do something about it.

    Beyond other complications, if it isn’t done right, it is an invitation for trouble.

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  12. Asquared Coolidge
    Asquared
    @ASquared

    Probable Cause:It all boils down to fight or flight. Fight gets all the good literature, while flight gets short shrift….

    It is ironic to hear a rousing call to stay and defend America, a nation settled by those who “ran away” from Europe.

    Yeah, I’ve been on the “It’s time to find a new home of Liberty” since I first moved outside the US in 1997.  All things being equal, I would prefer to live outside the US, but my job for the moment is here.

    As Lincoln said “When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty-to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.”  I think we are precisely where Lincoln feared we would be, though I think he contributed to that outcome far more than he intended.

    Oddly enough, in 1997, I move to the Former Soviet Union, though not Russia proper.  At the time, I told several people I was moving from the former home of capitalism to what might be the future home of capitalism.  Unfortunately, Putin killed that capitalist dream, but I still think the former Communist countries have more hope for the future of capitalism than America does.  As for liberty, the last best hope of mankind might just be a barge in the middle of an ocean. I would move there in a heart-beat.

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  13. user_989419 Member
    user_989419
    @ProbableCause

    There’s also an idea rumbling around (I can’t remember where) of taking over an existing, small fixer-upper country.  Not sure how much money it would take to buy off the local ruling cartel.  The only thing vaguely similar that comes to mind was the Chicago boys helping Chile get their economic footing after the coup.

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  14. Ricochet Contributor
    Ricochet
    @TitusTechera

    Asquared:

    Brad2971:

    Which is why it is imperative to, when the time comes, to Salute the Flag. Respect the Badge.

    Please stop saying this.

    I think the guy simply does not understand that nobody cares for his imperatives & that he is absolutely devoid of authority. I saw in the other thread–people got mad. That surprised me–sounds like an enthusiastic newbie whistling in the dark. That should be fun, not any cause of anger.

    • #14
  15. user_494971 Contributor
    user_494971
    @HankRhody

    Richard Anderson: Leaving aside the impracticality of either approach it’s the hopeless attitude I dislike most. We can’t change things here so let’s go somewhere else. There is a moment for that. This isn’t that moment. As the son of immigrants I understand the urge, believe me I do, but a time and a place for everything.

    Ok, so explain how we’re going to change things here. You’re telling us that we shouldn’t leave because it betrays a hopeless attitude, and that it’s not the correct time. But you’re not telling us why we ought to hold out hope, and what would constitute the correct time.

    You can’t just tell me that emigration is difficult. You’ve also got to show me that there are other, better options.

    • #15

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