Don’t Threaten Anyone’s Homeland
IN JULY 2008, ROMER MADE HIS first trip to Madagascar’s bustling capital, Antananarivo. Madagascar’s government was anxious to attract foreign investment, and it understood that a credibility deficit held it back. In an earlier bout of openness, the island had lured in foreign garment firms, but then the political climate turned hostile and the firms fled; now the government was having trouble enticing them to come back. Faced with this obstacle, the Malagasy authorities were open to unconventional arrangements. To boost investment in agriculture, they were ready to lease a Connecticut-size tract of land to Daewoo, a South Korean corporation, for 99 years.
Romer made his pitch for a charter city, and Ravalomanana responded that he wasn’t sure one was enough; if Romer could identify two rich countries willing to play the role of government trustee, it might be better to launch two parallel experiments. The president and the professor agreed that the new hubs should be open to migrants from nearby countries as well as to locals. They rose to examine a map of Madagascar on the study wall. Ravalomanana suggested building the first city on the island’s southwestern coast, which was largely uninhabited because of its dry heat. To Romer, the site sounded very much like the coastal locations that appeal most to the world’s affluent as vacation spots.
Even as Romer was meeting with Ravalomanana, the president’s main political opponent was sniping at the proposed lease of farmland to Daewoo, and the idea of giving up vast swaths of territory to foreigners was growing increasingly unpopular. The arrangement was denounced as treason, and public protests gathered momentum, eventually turning violent. In late January 2009, protesters tossed homemade grenades at radio and TV stations that Ravalomanana owned; looters ransacked his chain of supermarkets. In February, guards opened fire on marchers in front of the presidential palace, killing 28 civilians. At this, units of the army mutinied. Soon, Ravalomanana was forced out of office.
The first action of the new government was to cancel the Daewoo project, and Romer’s plans in Madagascar were put on hold indefinitely. But the larger question was what, if anything, this disappointment signified for Romer’s whole approach. The riots appeared to demonstrate the explosive sensitivities surrounding sovereignty and land—sensitivities that are not confined to Madagascar. Indeed, versions of the Daewoo story have played out elsewhere. In the late 1990s, for example, Fiji’s government decided to bring in a British nonprofit to manage its mahogany forests, and an indigenous leader launched a revolt under the slogan “Fiji for the Fijians.” The rebellion was hypocritical: as the Oxford economist Paul Collier recounts in his book The Bottom Billion, the indigenous leader had himself backed a rival foreign bid to manage the mahogany. But the venality of the rebels’ motivation didn’t change the fact that a demagogue could easily attract support by railing against territorial concessions to foreigners.
I’ve already talked about this issue in my post Avatar, Property Rights, and New Nations, before the Madagascar example came to light. It is clear that humans have a very strong wired attachment to their land, and are very sensitive to anything that seems like taking their land away. While we see a general decline in violence in the world and in politics as we get wealthier and political shenanigans have less and less impact on people’s lives, making bloody revolution less appealing, the threat of losing part of one’s homeland still has the power to inspire violent reaction.
So this is a serious potential obstacle for any movement that aims to create a new country – it must somehow avoid pressing this button. For example, a frequent alternative strategy people propose to seasteading is to simply move a bunch of politically like-minded people (libertarians, say) into a tiny country and take it over. I think this is a horrible idea, because foreigners taking over a country is extremely likely to trigger a violent response.
It’s also a potential problem for movements like the Free State Project, although they seem to have avoided it so far by picking a state which is naturally sympathetic and so doesn’t feel like it is being “taken over”. (The tiny number of people who have moved so far, 829 as of today, is probably also a factor. Greater success would be more likely to trigger a backlash).
This is one reason why I favor approaches using empty territory. For example, Charter Cities specifically target empty territory, and will be built with the explicit permission of the host country. Ideally, as Michael Strong suggests, the host country will get a share of the profits via lease revenue or real estate ownership inside the Charter City, thus letting them share in the wealth, and feel like participants in the process. Unfortunately, as Bryan Caplan points out, the combination of homeland defense and anti-foreign bias can still kick in. This does not make Charter Cities impossible, it merely means they must be marketed in a sensitive way as a supplement, not a replacement, to the local community and culture.
And here we come to one of the great advantages of frontier solutions like my seasteading, or eventual spacesteading. By taking area which is not only unoccupied, but unclaimed, which no tribe has an emotional attachment to owning, we avoid pressing this button. By getting our sovereignty through the flagging system, where we add new “territory” to the flagging country, rather than a country giving up something it has (like in Charter Cities, buying an island, or secession), we avoid pressing this button.
This is not to say that seasteading is the best option – it has major disadvantages, like the high cost and difficulty of building on the ocean, and the lack of endorsement/monitoring by an existing country (which will give instant credibility to a Charter City, credibility seasteads must slowly earn over time). But it at least avoids this powerful pitfall – it does not threaten anyone’s homeland with an invasion of foreigners.