Raymond Craib: Rich Tech Libertarians Have Fantasies of Escape, but a Desire for PowerHistorians in the News
tags: inequality, libertarianism, tech
Jacob Bruggeman is a PhD student in history at the Johns Hopkins University and the editor in chief of the Cleveland Review of Books.
Imagine if Ayn Rand had written a novel that imported the basic attitudes and ambitions from her famous protagonist John Galt into a steel-willed detective who gallivanted around the Caribbean in an attempt to turn a coup d’état into the stateless society of tomorrow. Her protagonist would probably resemble a collage of the real-life adventurers, financiers, ex–CIA agents, abject European nobles, and gunsmiths who mounted several profit-driven attempts at “exit projects,” or plans to create stateless and market-oriented micronations in the decolonizing world of the late 20th century. In his new book, Adventure Capitalism: A History of Libertarian Exit, from the Era of Decolonization to the Digital Age, author and professor of history Raymond B. Craib demonstrates how Rand’s vision of “Galt’s Gulch,” the libertarian safe haven in Atlas Shrugged, actually served as a source of inspiration for so-called exit projects. But unlike Rand’s bestselling novel, every exit project has flopped.
The repeated failure of these projects, from immigrant Michael Oliver’s attempt to create a micronation on the Minerva Reefs, to Peter Thiel’s Seasteading Institute, will likely prompt readers of Adventure Capitalism to nod in agreement as they learn that Murray Rothbard, don of radical libertarian theory and an inspiration for Oliver, derided exit projects as “cockamamie stunts.” Rothbard instead advised the founders of would-be micronations to “come back to the real world and fight for liberty at home.”
Few heeded Rothbard’s call to check the aspirations of political imagination with a dose of political reality. Peter Thiel, for example, took the position that the libertarian project requires “an escape from politics in all its forms.” In contrast to Rothbard, as well as thinkers like Friedrich Hayek, who advised that the work of liberation reform should be made through society’s existing channels of governance, and saw freedom as less of an ideal state than a shifting equilibrium between the market’s emergent order and a minimal government, Thiel now proposes a wholesale abandonment of the democratic project. Forget improvements forged at the intersection of coalitional interests, like the growing YIMBY movement. The real solution, according to the Startup Societies Foundation—“the Center for Decentralized Governance”—is withdrawal: “Don’t argue. Build.”
What should we make of exit projects, past and present? I spoke with Craib about this question, the paradoxes these projects contain, colonialism, and the way the sea represents freedom. The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
JACOB BRUGGEMAN: Gunsmiths, CIA agents, the Koch brothers, Southern segregationists, the kings of Pacific islands nations. This is a small sample of the characters included in Adventure Capitalism. It’s a motley crew connected by what you explain as attempted libertarian “exit projects.” What were these ventures and who pursued them?
RAYMOND CRAIB: “Libertarian exit” is the phrase I use to designate a set of projects, pursued by various individuals in the wake of World War II, to escape or exit the nation-state by creating new countries organized almost entirely through contractual, market relations. The 1960s and the 1970s were decades in which such projects proliferated. Inspired by Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises, and Friedrich Hayek, the individuals who pursued such projects can fairly be described as libertarian in the midcentury American sense: they were hyper-capitalist, opposed to the regulatory and welfare state, radically individualist, and equated freedom with private property rights. They were not, in other words, libertarian in the classical sense (i.e., anarchists).
These individuals experimented with an array of projects, most of which took place either in the ocean or on islands or archipelagoes that were struggling to be free from colonial rule. The figure I focus on most closely is Michael Oliver. Oliver was born Moses Olitzky in Lithuania and was the only member of his immediate family to survive the Holocaust. He arrived in the US as a young man in 1947 and established himself in Nevada, where he soon achieved success as a land developer and coin dealer. In the 1960s, he feared the US was turning toward totalitarianism, and he wrote a book called A New Constitution for a New Country, in which he laid out the rationale and plans for exiting the country. Between 1970 and 1980 he tried repeatedly—with the aid and support of various libertarians, including University of Southern California philosophy professor John Hospers, Ayn Rand’s acolyte and lover Nathaniel Branden, investment guru Harry Schultz, and investor John Templeton—to bring his dream to fruition. He first tried to build an island on the Minerva Reefs in the southwest Pacific, between Tonga and New Zealand, then linked up with former OSS and CIA agents in an effort to colonize the Abaco islands if the Bahamas, which were slated for independence, and then helped foment a secessionist rebellion on the island of Santo in the New Hebrides. In each case, these efforts came to naught, but they wrought havoc in the regions where they were undertaken and upon local populations, all of which were in the process of decolonizing.