Libertarian Petri Dish

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Libertarians who are fond of so-called states' rights like to imagine that "data" produced from the success or failure of government schemes imposed by the various states will somehow, deterministically lead to more freedom when such schemes fail. As I have indicated in the past, all the data in the world is useless without analysis, and, in turn, all the analysis in the world is useless (or worse than useless) without the guidance of proper principles. That's too bad for them and their close cousins who fantasize about establishing "Libertarian islands", because a recent article in Ars Technica provides an enormous amount of data on the failure of just such an "experiment" in government.

The article is a lengthy look at the the dabblings of a former pirate radio operator in turning an abandoned naval facility off the coast of England into the "Principality of Sealand" and later, from this paradise of freedom from the laws of established countries, providing a base for a shady Internet content hosting company. Unsurprisingly, this micro-nation failed to protect the company from itself, much less provide it with the stability of being able to operate under rule by known (let alone proper) law.

The final straw came in May 2002, when Sealand's advisors decided against allowing HavenCo to host an unlicensed streaming-video service. (The scheme, which involved buying DVDs and streaming video from them to one customer at a time, bears a striking resemblance to the recently-enjoined Zediva.) [HavenCo's Ryan] Lackey saw it as exactly the sort of service HavenCo had been created to host, but the Sealanders decided that it risked undermining Sealand's relationship with the United Kingdom. A deal was negotiated, under which Lackey would be repaid the $220,000 he had put into HavenCo and continue as a reseller of HavenCo services but turn over day-to-day operational control.

Lackey was barely off the platform when the deal broke down. In his view, HavenCo had been "nationalized" by Sealand. This locked him out, physically and virtually. The company even confiscated his personal computers. The newly reorganized HavenCo issued a statement that Lackey was no longer an employee, and it adopted a new and much more restrictive acceptable use policy. The next five years were a sad study in decline.  [links dropped]
In addition, "Sealand" was also plainly unable to provide real protection from foreign invaders or any halfway sophisticated criminal enterprise, for that matter:
Even if Sealand were "officially" its own country, independence isn't worth much without allies. Any nation with warplanes -- no, make that any nation with an inflatable boat and an outboard motor -- could blow the place up. The only thing stopping it would be the United Kingdom's displeasure at explosions in its territorial waters. Any protection offered by Sealand's larger neighbor, however, would presumably come with enough strings attached to raise the question of why the servers should be on Sealand rather than onshore. The United Kingdom has been leaving the Bateses alone since 1968 mostly because they're such clever chaps that ousting them would be more embarrassment than it's worth.
This all sounds remarkably like a point I once made:
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. 
In that same post, I went further about the premise behind such islands:
... 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).
The author of the piece on Sealand sees at least a glimmer of this lesson:
Legal systems are like Soylent Green: they're made out of people. If you want to protect civil liberties using law, you need to get people on your side who share your vision of what law stands for. That's why the SOPA protests were so effective. They converted an argument about justice into real-world political power.

One more story from pirate radio history illustrates the paradox at the heart of HavenCo. In the summer of 1967, the pirate radio ship Laissez Faire radioed a distress call. Two factions on board were fighting. There were threats of murder. The authorities did nothing, explaining that the pirates "had deliberately placed themselves outside the reach of the law." Touché. [link dropped, bold added]
Government, properly delimited, is necessary for the functioning of a human society and is, as such, a good thing. Escaping its long arm may be difficult, but attempting to create a society without it -- or reinvent it without understanding what it is and why it is needed is impossible.

-- CAV


Vigilis said...

Excuse me Gus, either you fail to see the obvious with regard to " states' rights", or I have failed to note (Ayn Rand's) Objectivism's loathing of such rights (would not surprise me, as I am more scholarly in the Federalist Papers than in the works of the former woman.

The rights of individual states are now all that prevent the federal government from asserting U.S. subservience to the United Nations (or any successive one-world entity).

Many of us are not prepared to sacrifice the liberties guaranteed by our unique U.S. Constitution for anything less.

Will you kindly identify for your readers the specific problem(s) you believe Ayn Rand had with the rights of sovereign states to govern themselves?

Finally, please clarify how elimination of our sovereign states' rights, in your opinion, would promote any of the personal liberties you may now espouse or promote.

Gus Van Horn said...


Regarding your request, I'll provide the following two Ayn Rand quotes. (Follow the link for citations.)

(1) "The constitutional concept of "states' rights" pertains to the division of power between local and national authorities, and serves to protect the states from the Federal government; it does not grant to a state government an unlimited, arbitrary power over its citizens or the privilege of abrogating the citizens' individual rights."

(2) "[George Wallace] is not a defender of individual rights, but merely of states' rights -- which is far, far from being the same thing. When he denounces "Big Government," it is not the unlimited, arbitrary power of the state that he is denouncing, but merely its centralization -- and he seeks to place the same unlimited, arbitrary power in the hands of many little governments. The break-up of a big gang into a number of warring small gangs is not a return to a constitutional system nor to individual rights nor to law and order."

As I've noted here several times in the past (but with less word economy), too many people have a George Wallace-like view of states' rights and would happily replace one tyranny with fifty.

Yes, states' rights do -- often by accident -- protect some Americans from improper federal laws, but whatever rights states properly have ultimately depend on individual rights. From the standpoint of cultural activism, it is crucial to make such a point lest fighting the Federal Leviathan state lend false credibility to the George Wallaces of our day (on the left AND the right).

Our problem isn't merely that the Federal government violates our rights: It's that, at all levels of government, individual rights are being violated because voters seem to have forgotten about them or support governmental programs that violate them.


Jim May said...

"States' rights" is the bizarre conservative notion that one fights tyranny by localizing it. Like many other conservative talking points, it relies on ignorance by its audience of pre-1776 history.

In this case, the damaging facts lie in the fact that prior to the Enlightenment, Europe was ruled according to precisely this -- a system of highly localized authority and relatively powerless central government. It was called "feudalism". I refer Gus' readers to my article on this topic here.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks, Jim, and I like your summary of the position as "fighting tyranny by localizing it".