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Exit Builds Genuine Community

February 26, 2010

Throughout 400 years of American history, some of the strongest communities have been those which made the most of exit. The earliest settlements with the greatest success were those with a strong religious element. The trend continued somewhat out West in the 19th century as well. I would bet that Seasteading, at least in its infancy, will pick up where these pioneer communities left off.

It’s easy to see why. To forgo the benefits of urban life and mutual cooperation only makes sense if the returns to exit are higher. And so in all these historical instances we see a blend, among those who have exited, of like-minded idealism and self-interest.  Taken to the frontier, life is on the threshold of being nasty, brutish and short. But it is precisely because of this difficulty that solidarity builds further. Whatever vital functions a government had performed in society before, now these must be assumed by individual pioneers.

I think this is what De Toqueville had in mind when he wrote about how weakness leads to stronger association. The Frenchman says:

Amongst democratic nations, on the contrary, all the citizens are independent and feeble; they can hardly do anything by themselves, and none of them can oblige his fellow-men to lend him their assistance. They all, therefore, fall into a state of incapacity, if they do not learn voluntarily to help each other.

The flip side of this theme was picked up by Charles Murray in his book called In Pursuit. When men can oblige others to lend assistance, association atrophies:

Communities exist because they have a reason to exist, some core of functions around which the affiliations that constitute a vital community can form and grow. When the government takes away a core function, it depletes not only the source of vitality pertaining to that particular function, but also the vitality of a much larger family of responses…

“If you don’t do it, nobody will” is a powerful motivator for solidarity. Whereas “if you don’t do it, the government will” is a charitable and fraternal buzz kill. Murray says, and I agree, that people tend not to do a chore if somebody else will do it for them. Philanthropic free riding is the irrational voter by another name.

The power of exit relates to this in two ways–: it pushes people closer to a situation where “if you don’t do it, nobody else will” applies. And that is the great community generator. For the pioneer community, the exigencies of life in the wild will foster a greater reliance on others. For the society left behind, the more people exit, the less philanthropic free-riding occurs among those who remain present. If enough people leave, you are the government and the two slogans become one and the same.


  1. kurt9 permalink
    February 26, 2010 11:08 pm

    The demands required to build a new community necessarily selects for competency and efficacy on the part of individuals. This selection process is necessary for the emergence of true community because such can only arise among individuals who have true respect and admiration for each other. Established cultures, based on the worship of mediocrity and ineptitude, can only engender a loathing contempt and hostility on the part of more competent individuals. This, of course, makes true community impossible.

    • Mike Gibson permalink*
      February 27, 2010 3:09 am

      When I set up this debate, I focused on the individual’s right to leave. But it’s worth emphasizing that historically, the right of exit has been exercised by groups and communities. I wonder how that compares to today. My guess would be that emigration out of the US is more individualistic. Well, not completely–I’d bet those who leave do so for family and for work.

      Immigration to the US is another matter. Here I would guess it’s more communal. But I don’t have the data sets.

      • kurt9 permalink
        February 27, 2010 7:29 am

        The creation of an ocean city-state will involve considerable finance and engineering work, necessarily involving many individuals. In a sense, this makes it a group or collective endeavor. Instead of loner individualist libertarianism, think of a Heinleinesque libertarianism that reflects a common dream shared among a group of like-minded individuals.

        We are not creating the “perfect” libertarian utopia. We are creating something that offers greater freedom than what we have now. A Singapore without the draconian drug-laws or a Hong Kong without the government ownership of the housing would be “libertarian” enough for most of us, including myself.

  2. kurt9 permalink
    February 26, 2010 11:03 pm

    This is all very true. The Mormons created a successful community in the form of Salt Lake City, which remains one of the more livable cities in the U.S. Indeed, the original European settlers (Pilgrims, etc.) were also religious groups. I believe the primary reason why religion remains popular in the U.S., instead of its decline in the rest of the West, is because religion in the U.S. is associated with this pioneering instinct and is viewed in a positive light. I believe these attributes are more reflected in the Mormon culture than, say, in the Catholics or Baptists. The Mormons tend to be more educated, more into entrepreneurship and self-employment, and tend to be more functional on a more personal level (less drug and alcohol abuse) than, say, the Catholics, Baptists, or Pentecostals. Settling a frontier and creating a new community is more difficult and demanding, on a personal and collective level, than just staying home. This alone selects for greater competency and efficacy, both individually and collectively.

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