Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Around a decade ago, when I was in grad school, a column I'd written in a student newspaper -- quite contrary to my pessimistic expectations -- helped a Libertarian, as he put it, "see the light." Said recovering Libertarian and I subsequently engaged in a back-and-forth correspondence that he initiated with "You'd make a good Libertarian," and ended with his saying, "Chalk one up to pamphleteering." Enjoying the exchange, but finding my time at a premium, I finally ended up recommending Peter Schwartz's Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty, and letting him read my copy.
I was on the verge of asking for him to return it after quite some time when I finally did hear back from him. Also, to my great surprise, he went on to found a campus Objectivist club which even had decent regular attendance. There wasn't a club before? I and a good friend were, I thought, the only two Objectivists on campus, and didn't see the point. My lesson on the importance of holding correct principles was more than repaid with one on the importance of communicating them effectively.
I recall this story, because something I encountered this morning at the web site of the New York Times reminded me of an email one of the members of this club once sent me about a libertarianesque scheme to build artificial islands in the middle of the sea and, with them, fully free societies out of whole cloth. That fantasy has never really died down and, thanks to new technology, it seems to be growing new legs.
Such dreamers aren't alone, or the first, as several articles note (links below). "For decades, an assortment of romantics and whack jobs have fantasized about fleeing the oppressive strictures of modern government and creating a laissez-faire society on the high seas," Wired observed earlier this year. "Over the decades, they've tried everything from fortified sandbars to mammoth cruise ships. Nearly all have been disasters."The pertinent question here is "Disasters? By what standard?" Certainly, technology makes us able to create artificial land more readily, but a society is much more than the land it sits on. I have argued repeatedly here that technology is no substitute for a rational culture (or thinking for oneself) among the denizens of any such society.
True, but one difference today is improved knowhow, as The Futurist notes -- be it in the design of floating utopias or built-up artificial islands (the latter a specialty of Dubai, above).
At this point, the casual reader might think I am making the same pessimism-inducing mistake I was making years ago by discounting this movement, but he would be wrong on that count. It is, in fact, the people who want to build such island-states who are the pessimists: They are the ones not developing a solid understanding of the theoretical basis and justification for freedom so that they can make its case to the rational people in their very midst. (They do exist.) The island-builders are the ones giving up without a fight (of the intellectual variety).
They are, in fact, deliriously and recklessly pessimistic.
One moment's thought about the viability of such islands as states should make the point. Even assuming one achieves a capitalist society on such an island, which is no trivial feat, what of self-defense? How would one stop the pirate island ten miles away from enslaving or laying waste to his? With weapons? Purchased from where? The now-socialist United States one fled? Before or after the pirates strike? Before or after Obama invades your island instead, seeing it as a threat to hope and change? You started out with nukes? How nice: So did the pirates. And Obama.
When dealing with other men, we all have two fundamental choices that technology will never change: reasoned persuasion or force. The island builders aren't even giving reasoned persuasion a chance, and are defaulting to force, and with a poor strategy at that. That is, if they aren't guilty of an even greater sin, which is basically pretending that conflict will pass them by if they pretend that other men don't exist.
Certainly, freedom must be won by guns, as the American Revolution demonstrated, but it cannot exist at all within a society that does not understand and value it -- as the same war and our misguided and fruitless occupation of Iraq both make clear. This is why it is important to make the case for freedom in America, and, incidentally, why fleeing to an island really isn't a guarantee of having freedom even there for very long.
Principles are like maps. If I had to flee an oncoming hurricane, I'd take a good map and a working Model T over a blindfold and a Lamborghini any day. The island-builders are spending too much time ogling fancy technology and ignoring the theoretical basis that makes it -- and their lives as free men -- possible.