“Onto the Ocean or Death!”

[Originally published at the Center for a Stateless Society, June 14th, 2010]

If you have read my bio since I have come to start writing for the Center for a Stateless Society you will have noticed that I am interning in Washington, DC this summer at a libertarian organization.

The 2010 crop of interns in my group recently arrived in Virginia for a weeklong opening seminar, which has been focusing primarily on public goods theories, efforts for libertarian reform through the American legal system, rights theories and applications, Hayekian spontaneous order, as well as other topics.  This group of about 80 interns is a solid mix of anarchists and minarchists.  These conflicting philosophies have been responsible for many stimulating and compelling debates so far.  However, I did have one that disturbed me.

On the first day we had a lecture which provided an introduction to the philosophies grouped under the libertarian umbrella.  After the lecture we had an opportunity to rise and bring up an observation or question.  I raised my hand and argued that one of the most compelling arguments against the state is that statists unjustly claim land arbitrarily and that their claims are not based on any rational principle besides might makes right.

I received what can be deemed a ‘nationalistic geoist’ response which intrigued me, especially so because it emanated from amongst this massively libertarian crew.  The gentleman proffered that in a democratic society the citizens are actually the state, and thus all land within the bounds of any nation state is the property of that state, and thus, of the collective citizens.  In effect, this is a collectivist version of the English common law principle from the era of feudalism dubbed fee simple absolute, which is still active in American law to some extent.

All British land under fee simple absolute was the property of the king, which he rented to those deemed politically valuable, namely, the nobles, and thus some property rights trickled down the British political economic pecking order.

In typing this I cannot help but draw the comparison from my hours of absorbing The Sopranos and observing the capos kick up their weekly tribute to Tony.

Since we were in a large group setting and I didn’t necessarily want to hog the conversation, I allowed the point and spoke with him directly later in the week.

With the nationalistic geoist argument, there are a few major problems that I observe, and I was sure to mention them during our conversation:

  • Why is only land subject to being the property of the state/the collective and not tangible removable property, and what of the people, as well as their bodies, which reside within the state’s bounds?
  • Since the borders of states are not bound by any principle such as homesteading or occupancy and use, they are only effectively limited by the amount of military force countries can muster and their willingness to forcefully assume ownership.  See my previous article, “Dibs!”: Lebensraum and Social Contracts,” for more on this argument.
  • If the borders are indeed arbitrary and determined only by violence, it seems far more sensible to endorse one single world or universal government rather than a plethora of localized states.

If one accepts the geoist argument as valid, it renders all libertarianism virtually impossible.  The logical conclusion of this philosophy is the systematic oppression and assumed ownership of every inhabitant by the government, which is essentially the arbitrarily defined territorial majority.  All arguments for rights aside and speaking from a purely consequentialist standpoint, this is absolutely terrifying.

Needless to say, I usually become a little frustrated with the idea that I am consenting to the aggression all citizens and inhabitants of states are the victims of by currently remaining under the rule of any government, as if one can choose no government instead of which government one wants to be ruled by. This always struck me as a sort of perverse ‘blame-the-victim’ mentality.

This week I’ve also had the argument presented to me that without statist political organization economies of scale would fail to develop and I would be doomed to inescapable poverty.  This is clearly a false dichotomy and an example of the tired assumption that homesteaders and secessionists want to be bearded mountain hermits and spurn civilization.  I enjoy big cities quite a bit.  I’ve lived in them previously, currently live in one, and have enjoyed my travels to many of them around the world. I am not aware of too many advocates of stateless society who seek less interaction between individuals and communities, as they mainly stress the abolition of the systemic, legitimized, and institutionalized initiation of force.

Even if one concedes that one would be hopelessly impoverished with statelessness, the rest of the argument that follows is a non sequitur: ‘it is thus acceptable to coerce peaceful people to develop economies of scale.’  This claim is generalized as, ‘it is morally permissible to use violence for economic gain.’  If you consider yourself a libertarian, halt!  This argument is overtly criminal.

If arguments like this are not defeated, not only will the secessionist/voluntaryist wing of the Free State Project fail, but Patri Friedman’s Seasteading Institute is surely doomed.  If there is no rational or moral principle guiding how territory is justly claimed beyond the dibs method, and we cannot win this argument on continental land, then the sea borders will eventually expand until there is no such thing as international waters to secede in and all of it will be claimed by states.

In this way, winning the battle on the high seas will face the exact same philosophical conflict that continental secessionists face, with the only possible advantage being the ability to claim that Seasteaders are not free riders on the supposedly public good of national defense.  It is doubtful that this case would even be compelling as one could credibly claim that national navies patrolling international waters is a collective good which Seasteaders benefit from.

As my geoist interlocutor so eloquently put it, anti-statist options are to “move onto the ocean or die.”  I wonder if he would feasibly permit my sovereign residence on the sea with Patri and reject the extension of states’ unlimited expansion of their arbitrary ocean boundaries claims, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, and maybe he would allow such a community to exist.  That said, what horribly challenging and inconvenient options in the pursuit of freedom for humanity!

If his territorial philosophy is ever consistently applied then the waters beyond the American continent could not reasonably stop state expansion.  In effect, the only true option that he gave me to be a libertarian from within his nationalistic geoist framework is my own death.

See you all on the other side.

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