The Libertarian Island: When Theory Becomes Reality

November 30, 2011

Political action, Political Theory


Libertarianism as a political philosophy is concerned with promoting freedoms. Proponents claim that society would be more efficient with less government regulation in business and personal affairs. When taken too far, however, this tends toward anarchy. One need only read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle to understand the dire need for regulation and to see the darker side of the free market. Personally, I don’t want human parts in my meat. I feel that this opinion would probably be shared by the vast majority of society.

That said, it is interesting to theorize whether a workable, truly laissez-faire society could exist. There have certainly been many instances in the past of attempted society building, where a small group decides to create their own enclave free of the restrictions of the society around them. Some have been rather successful; the Amish come to mind. Others have been an absolute disaster, such as the Jonestown incident in the ’70s (the infamous origin of many a Kool-Aid reference). I personally find these endeavors to be fascinating, so naturally my curiosity was piqued by this article. This time, the founder of PayPal is interested in building his own island for the purpose of creating a libertarian polity. The obstacles are great, but technically it might be possible to achieve if enough money is invested. The interesting aspect here is the fact that there would be relatively few laws on the island. As far as I know, no truly libertarian society has ever successfully survived the test of time. Given the fragile nature of a manmade island and the obvious restrictions in terms of space and natural resources (aside from seafood, essentially nonexistent), the outcome of this potential project seems already decided. The mention of loose restrictions on weapons seems particularly ominous, and if it weren’t for the seriousness of this project, quite humorous.

The way these sorts of projects are imagined in media is fairly interesting. There is actually a videogame based around this concept called Bioshock. The plot involves a man named Andrew Ryan who builds a city underwater for the same motivations that Peter Thiel probably has in his dream of an above water utopia. The concept is of course asinine, as it would never actually be realistically achievable, but the parallels are readily apparent. What happens in the game is that the people who flock to the city of “Rapture” find it substantially different from the free utopia they had envisioned. Because there is no regulation of anything, the whole city inevitably turns to chaos, and the oppressed hordes rise up against the few who hold all the wealth. The plot plays out like Metropolis, and the imagery and philosophy repeatedly espoused by Andrew Ryan are indirect references to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

Foreboding entertainment media aside, the question remains of how this society could be realistically sustainable. Who would willingly choose to live and work on the island? I suppose people who work in Asian factories making a small fraction of our minimum wage might be desperate enough, but it seems that there would come a point where they would be reduced to nothing more than slave labor. With the ready availability of automatic weapons and a starving, incensed mass of people looking for opportunities, a billionaire protected only by private contractors is an enticing target. Even if Thiel exhausts all of his finances on extensive protection, he will lack the means of sustaining the infrastructure of the island without a source of national production; seafood and tourism can only go so far. If one were to use the U.A.E as a model, with their man-made palm tree islands and luxury resorts, it would be easy to see this working out. The operative factor there of course is the presence of oil, without which that area would be nothing more than a sandy stretch of coastline. It will be interesting to see what happens to the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait in the next century as the oil runs out and they lack any other comparably valuable natural resources to exploit. It seems like a collapse is almost inevitable.

The interesting question, however, is what factors would need to be in place to make a libertarian society successful? Abundance of natural resources and beneficial geography are actually irrelevant as they are a necessary component of any society, regardless of its structure. The factors that seem in my mind to be most important are the size of the society, the inequalities present at its formation, and the presence of useful human capital (i.e. engineers and doctors, as opposed to a group of individuals with no particular skill set). If a society was small enough for everyone to know each other, and everyone was of a similar economic class with unique skills in demand by the whole, a Utopia might emerge. The probability of this occurring is quite slim, of course, and it is arguable that natural circumstances would inevitably cause the accumulation of wealth, overpopulation and proliferation of unskilled individuals.

What do you think? Is it possible to create a sustainable society in which everyone is free to do as they will, aside from murder and theft? What would the structure of that society look like and how large would it be? What factors would be necessary for its success?

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About Brian Hall

I'm a sophomore at UM studying German, Arabic and Linguistics, and am pre-law.

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5 Comments on “The Libertarian Island: When Theory Becomes Reality”

  1. nluongo Says:

    This is a very interesting post. I have played Bioshock and drew parallels myself between the game and some of the libertarian experiments that are attempted from time to time.

    The particular example that you present with the floating island seems ironic to me. One of the big draws of this type of society is that along with less regulation it would aspire to have lower taxes than other places. However, the very nature of the environment demands high taxes in order to literally keep the whole operation afloat.
    I can also see how problems would arise with things like building regulations. We would have an example of the Tragedy of the Commons in which, in the absence of any regulation, people would try to construct larger buildings than the island can support and end up causing catastrophic damage.

    In terms of how to make this kind of society possible, I think you’re right that the size would have to be very small so people would be more able to work out problems between them instead of relying on a government to be the arbiter. I disagree about the abundance of resources, though. I think that a society in which necessary resources are scarce has a much higher chance of descending into chaos than one in which there is plenty. True, this is applicable to any type of society. But in a libertarian utopia there would be no strong central force to keep people in line and stop them from ransacking the houses of the rich and taking what they want. I think it is interesting that it is usually the rich who most favor this type of society while they are probably the ones who are protected most by a strong government like ours.

  2. antuck Says:

    I can answer all of the comments in your last paragraph with just one word: Somalia.

    Most of Somalia has lacked a central government since 1991, with warring factions constantly fighting for control over land. The results provide a fairly convincing argument for a strong central government: healthcare and education are in terrible condition, and 43% of the population lives on less than 1 US dollar per day. And I’m sure everyone is aware of the pirate problem.

    What we see in Somalia is what Hobbes would describe as a state of nature. Although I’m sure everyone has gotten sick of reading this description over and over and over again, it seems to describe life in Somalia perfectly: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. Hobbes, it seems, was correct. Somalia (and dozens of other African countries with weak or incompetent governments) is not exactly a paradise, even by a libertarian’s standards.

    Somalia is a good case study of what can happen in a truly libertarian society. An article entitled “Somalia: When Theory Became Reality” would probably be a good counterpart to your post, as it seems to address many of the questions you ask.

    Well-researched article. Also, +1 for the reference to Bioshock. :)

  3. alexwillard Says:

    First off good post. To answer some of your questions I think when discussing a truly librarian society you could draw the conclusion that this is the state of nature which Rousseau discusses, prior to the invention of property and social contracts. It seems that in order for their to be a truly libertarian environment there cannot be properties or rules that enforce the acquisition of properties and protection of properties, for this is what Rousseau says causes inequalities. If there can be no property than there can be know means to amass large amounts of wealth/ power and no inequality. I personally do not think this is feasible and people on this man made island will try to acquire some type of property. I also enjoy my right to property so I am not a huge fan of it. But if enough people abided by the rule that there is no property, and did not succumb to the temptation of greed, I believe that this could be successful.

  4. Austin Telling Says:

    A libertarian society could only succeed if the “non-aggression principle”, or NAP for short, is followed by all. The NAP basically states that a person cannot infringe against another’s rights. These rights include both protection against physical aggression, as well as the protection of one’s property. Any action that is deemed to directly affect a person’s claim to free will and a right to self-determination. The NAP is the driving principle of libertarianism, and even more extreme forms of political thought such as anarcho-capitalism.

    Note that a “libertarian society” does not necessarily mean absence of government. My understanding of the term libertarian is the bare minimum of government, which only exists to enforce the NAP. I think this society is somewhat feasible, and can be defined as “minarchy”. In a minarchist society, the only legitimate functions of government is to protect the liberties of its citizens, and allow for the defense of those citizens from outside threats. What a minarchist government could not do, however, is enforce victimless crimes or be economically interventionist.

    We have some essences of minarchy in our country’s history, and thus it’s not fully out of the question to assume that a libertarian, or minarchist, society could flourish in our world.

  5. phillipschermer Says:

    From my point of view, I find it hard to believe that people would consider libertarian solutions to the current set of problems facing our society today. That Ron Paul is even relevant in the Republican Presidential campaign discussion is ridiculous. A laissez-faire attitude toward the markets is exactly the attitude that landed us in the Great Recession. This laissez-faire attitude is what caused the United States economy to lose trillions of dollars in a matter of months. This laissez-faire attitude is why unemployment and underemployment are at their highest levels in my lifetime. I am not suggesting that a system with a ridiculous amount of government intrusion is the solution. Rather, I am proposing that a discussion that suggests that a libertarian solution to today’s economic woes is legitimate, is inherently a ludicrous discussion.

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