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?