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Seeking Self-Determination Is Not Selfish

June 2, 2009

Two hundred years and 25 days before I was born, some wise men wrote the following stirring words:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

And so the nation was founded on the principle of political self-determination via secession and settling the frontier. Not abandoning law for anarchy, not might makes right, not selfishness and greed, but the simple idea that a group of people who feel their government is not serving them and will not change have not only the right but the duty to create a new system which will better effect their Safety and Happiness.

It is this tradition in which seasteading was conceived, and this tradition in which libertarians want to use it. We are a small group with their own vision of a just society which is not shared by the majority, and thus we have little political influence in America. Like anyone else, we don’t like this, and would like to achieve political self-determination. If we are so passionate about this vision and so dedicated to it as to be willing to leave our home country to achieve it, then to mock and prevent us is at best churlish and at worst a form of political imprisonment.

Brad Reed somehow fails to connect these dots in his Alternet piece: Seasteading: Libertarians Set to Launch a (Wet) Dream of ‘Freedom’ in International Waters. With delightful candor, he states:

Before I continue, I’d like to point out that while I’m not a libertarian, I do value the contributions that they make to our political discourse. Think of libertarians as the short-sellers of state power — the people in the back of the room who reflexively call “Bullshit!” whenever the government tries to expand its reach. While I think they’re often misguided, their role as bipartisan skeptics of government intervention is a necessary and important component of any democracy.

That said, libertarians can get themselves in trouble when they fail to accept that they’re doomed to be a frustrated minority who only score points when the government tries to overreach its authority.

While I share his viewpoint that libertarians are “Doomed to be a frustrated minority”, it makes his later perplexity about why libertarians would want to expatriate rather baffling:

In the end, the strangest part about the seastead project isn’t its founders’ impracticalities but rather their base motivations.

Normally, when a minority of people want to break off from their homeland to form a new country it’s because of genuine oppression such as religious persecution, ethnic cleansing or taxation without representation. Thiel, on the other hand, lives in a society whose promotion of capitalism has let him grow rich enough to blow $500,000 founding his own personal no-girls-allowed treehouse in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

What exactly does he have to be angry about, again?

Now, I can understand him not finding the libertarian vision of a just society appealing. Most people don’t – that’s why libertarians are doomed to be a frustrated minority. But in a country founded on the idea that people should be free to determine their political destiny, what is strange about people who don’t feel they have that freedom wanting it?

I don’t agree with the types of oppression which the author has determined are “genuine”, on a practical or historical basis. First, his list neglects political self-determination, the principle that led the founding fathers to revolt, and one which modern American liberals have supported for a number of breakaway republics. And second, he includes “taxation without representation”, yet doesn’t seem to realize that someone in a tiny political minority in a democracy has little more effective representation than, say, a colonist ruled by a remote sovereign.  (Especially with FPTP voting).

If you have the good fortune to adhere to one of the two popular political belief clusters in America, try to imagine the situation of the libertarian.  Pretend that the only top-two Presidential candidate your party ever ran was way back in 1964, and he was crushed in one of the most lopsided elections in the nation’s history.  Pretend that your party is currently represented by a single Congressman, who had to run under a mainstream party to be elected to Congress, and who entered the Presidential primary, ran a massively successful campaign by your party’s standards, and still only got a few percent of the primary vote.  Can you see why you might be a bit down on democracy – at least with this set of voters?

There is something almost zen-like in Mr. Reed’s ability to simultaneously hold these two contradictory thoughts: to be outraged about the idea of women having no political influence in a democracy, while being outraged that libertarians might object to having no political influence in a democracy. Perhaps this is because he believes in the romance of democracy – that what matters is getting to vote, and not whether your vote ends up giving you a voice in government and giving you a country vaguely like the one you want. Or perhaps it is simply that he likes women and hates libertarians.

Either way, let us have no more of this facile musing about what the silly privileged libertarians might possibly have to be angry about. We are angry because we have no political influence and no chance at getting any via the current system, because we see through the (admittedly brilliant) mirage of the ballot box which makes everyone feel counted even when they never win.  Our movement is unusual in that it is based on beliefs, not ethnicity, and has no geographic center (though NH is trying), but just like any other secession movement, it is based on the desire for political self-determination.  We may be a frustrated minority, but we don’t have to be a doomed one.  Is that really so hard to understand?

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14 Comments
  1. June 2, 2009 10:18 am

    Wouldn’t lefties have liked the option to leave when Bush was president? I know I would have.

  2. Peter Twieg permalink
    June 2, 2009 2:14 pm

    Eh, I don’t think this argument exactly does justice to Moore’s points. It’s true that libertarians may always lose, but we’re not like the British colonialists in the sense that we do at least have in the abstract the same rights and privileges as anyone else when it comes to participation in the political process. Presumably the Founders wouldn’t have been so eager to revolt if they had been granted political participation and then just lost all the time.

    I think the implicit definition of what it means to be “represented” in a political process here is somewhat shaky. If I can’t directly choose a representative to my liking, am I not being represented? If my representative is drowned out by the representatives of others, am I not being represented? This conception of representation seems to be an ironically positive one given how dismissive libertarians tend to be of positive rights – at the least, it sets up a standard whereby no political process will ever meaningfully be “representative” and which leads you to just talk past your opponents, who are using a definition that allows political losers to still claim to be represented by “their” Congresspeople or whoever else.

    Discussions about the legitimacy of exit are interesting (Megan McArdle has had some posts related to these topics in the past few days), but I think we have to avoid various sorts of conflation.

    • June 3, 2009 11:46 pm

      I think the implicit definition of what it means to be “represented” in a political process here is somewhat shaky. If I can’t directly choose a representative to my liking, am I not being represented? If my representative is drowned out by the representatives of others, am I not being represented? This conception of representation seems to be an ironically positive one given how dismissive libertarians tend to be of positive rights – at the least, it sets up a standard whereby no political process will ever meaningfully be “representative” and which leads you to just talk past your opponents, who are using a definition that allows political losers to still claim to be represented by “their” Congresspeople or whoever else.

      You are falling victim to the romance of democracy, the idea that whatever the govt does to you is justified as long as you got a vote. If the majority votes to kill every man shorter than 5′ 6″, is my murder OK because I have a “representative”?

      I’m not claiming that these issues are easy, or that one can construct an ideal political process where everyone is represented. Pretty much everyone disagrees with everyone else, even with libertarianism, about the details, so there have to be compromises where people don’t get their way – lots of them. But I think that libertarians can meaningfully claim to be disenfranchised, despite having a nominal vote, due to having few to no actual representatives. This is the same reason why regions that are ethnically and culturally homogeneous but are inside a larger state frequently want to secede. The Kurds don’t feel “represented” in a simple proportional voting system in Iraq – can you really blame them?

    • Alan R. Light permalink
      August 1, 2009 4:45 am

      Actually, the British government held that the American colonists DID have full representation, as Parliament had representatives for all classes, including aristocrats, ordinary businessmen and farmers, and ordinary laborers. The fact that these representatives knew little or nothing about America and were not answerable to them was beside the point.

  3. Mike Gibson permalink*
    June 2, 2009 3:04 pm

    Update: I corrected the name of the author of the AlterNet piece. The post originally read Brad Moore. I’ve changed it to Reed.

  4. June 2, 2009 4:18 pm

    what is strange about people who don’t feel they have that freedom wanting it?

    Nothing, of course. I think the problem may be that this group of people is too dispersed to be visible to most others, including Brad Reed. After all, the instinct of most people who are dissatisfied with the political order isn’t to opt out (by immigration, seasteading, arctic steading, moonsteading, whatever). Rather, it’s to complain about the system until others start showing sympathy or one tires of complaining.

  5. June 2, 2009 6:39 pm

    I have to confess, Reed Moore’s argument does have a distinct Rand-ish twinge to it.

    “Don’t you dare vanish, Hank Rearden! America needs you! You wouldn’t be so selfish?” amirite?

  6. June 5, 2009 4:35 am

    Folks, FYI, something from a [leftish] sci-fi novel:

    From “Green Mars” (the 2nd novel in Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Mars” trilogy), pp. 328-329, 1994 Hardcover edition:

    “”The transnationals have collapsed down into the couple dozen largest of them,” he said in response to one question,” all of which have enterred into development contracts with more than one national government. We call those the metanationals. The biggest are Subarashii, Mitsubishi, Consolidated, Amexx, Armscor, Mahjari, and Praxis. The next ten or fifteen are also quite big, and after that you’re back down to transat size, but these are being quickly incorporates into the metanats. The big metanats are now the major world powers, insofar as they control the IMF, the World Bank, the Group of Eleven, and all their client countries.”

    Sax asked him to define a metanational in more detail.

    “About a decade ago we at Praxis were asked by Sri Lanka to come into their country and take over the economy and work on arbitration between the Tamils and the Singhalese. We did that and the results were good, but during the time of the arrangement it was clear that our relationship with a national government was a new kind of thing. It got noticed in certain circles. Then some years ago Amexx got into a disagreement with the Group of Eleven, and pulled all of its assets out of the Eleven and relocated them in the Philippines. The mismatch between Amexx and the Philippines, estimated in gross yearly product to be on the order of a hundred to one, resulted in a situation where Amexx in effect took that country over. That was the first real metanational, though it wasn’t clear that it was a new thing until their arrangement was imitated by Subarashii, when they shifted many of their operations into Brazil. It became clear that this was something new, not like the old flag-of-convenience relationship. A metanational takes over the foreign debt and the internal economy of its client countries, kind of like the UN did in Cambodia or Praxis did in Sri Lanka, but much more comprehensively. In these arrangements the client government becomes the enforcement agency of the metanational’s economic policies. In general they enforce what are called austerity measures, but all government employees are paid much more than they were before, including the army and police and intelligence operations. So at that point, the country is bought. And every metanational has the resources to but several countries…”

    ****************************************************************
    This scenario is obviously being depicted as a “bad” thing (there is something of an exception to that, though…), but I’m guessing this scenario connects in some ways to some of the ideas/thoughts/issues discussed on this site. (I wish I had been able to post this beneath the “Free Zones” post or the “Innovation and Letting a Thousand Nations Bloom” post….)

  7. kurt9 permalink
    June 5, 2009 7:37 pm

    The “seasteading” thread on Alternet is a perfect example why I do not read liberal-left blogs. The commentary there is so infantile that it is senseless to make any reasonable responses to it. Even their discussion of libertarian seasteading is in and of itself very infantile. They don’t like libertarians and obviously have no interest in seasteading themselves. If a bunch of libertarians do manage to pull it together enough to make seasteading work, it would not affect them anyways. So, the fact that they are ranting and raving about it is infantile.

    The cognitive dissidence’s of liberal-left people are really quite immature. They preach and go on and on about tolerance of racial and cultural diversity. However, their belief in tolerance does not include political and economic diversity.

    • Jambi permalink
      June 7, 2009 5:35 pm

      cognitive dissonance

      The liberal left are among the most cognitive dissonant, and yes, they are often immature (literally)

    • August 20, 2011 6:50 am

      We on the left think libertarians are infantile and immature as well. Thus it isn’t surprising that you think left/liberal discussion about seasteading is infantile. You aren’t mature enough to understand it. Your complete lack of maturity explains why you percieve what you call “cognitive dissidence” from the liberal-left about tolerance. Liberals have long considered racial and cultural tolerance a very important value. Political and economic diversity? No, not so much. Even if we did does that Alternet article and the comments show that liberals are intolerant of libertarians? Of course not, but libertarians (and conservatives) don’t seem to get this. I’m not sure if they truly don’t or just pretending to. Either way they seem to think tolerance involves never criticizing, question, or just plain making fun of a persons beliefs or actions, It doesn’t.

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