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The Trouble With Liberty


The last best hope for Libertopia may be the ocean. There’s a long, not-so-proud history of seeking freedom at sea. In 1972, Nevada real-estate developer Michael Oliver built an island in the southwest Pacific by dredging sand near an an existing reef, which he called the Republic of Minerva. The nearby Kingdom of Tonga quickly conquered it. A proposal in the late nineties to create a “Freedom Ship” nearly a mile long that would house 50,000 people never got past the planning stage.

That hasn’t stopped Patri Friedman, grandson of libertarian hero Milton Friedman, from trying once more. Friedman founded the Seasteading Institute in 2008 with the goal of creating a floating society free from government’s grasp. While seasteading communities would start small—just a bunch of family-size platforms floating off the coast—Friedman imagines them harvesting energy and growing food.

What distinguishes seasteading from pure fantasy is money. Peter Thiel, who co-founded PayPal and bought a stake in Facebook back in 2004, has become the Johnny Appleseed of futurist libertarians. Since 2008, he’s given upwards of $750,000 to the Seasteading Institute. He recently announced that he will offer twenty grants of up to $100,000 each to teenagers who want to start their own tech companies—a proposal that drew liberal scorn. Thiel is unapologetic about his disdain for government. “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible,” he wrote in a 2009 essay. He’s not alone. Silicon Valley has produced a whole cadre of libertarian entrepreneurs, including longtime Sun Microsystems president Scott McNealy, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, and Cypress Semiconductor CEO T. J. Rodgers.

It speaks to the breadth and versatility of libertarianism that it unites Teva-wearing California entrepreneurs and flag-waving tea-partyers under the same banner. The aesthetic is different, but the ideas are the same.

Over the TSA airport pat-downs, the whole political spectrum seemed to be in agreement.

And yet, for all of libertarianism’s diversity, the libertarian movement—those who feel so strongly about live-and-let-live that they want to make you live and let live, too—still prizes doctrinal purity. In 2006, a Cato scholar named Brink Lindsey wrote an essay for The New Republic called “Liberaltarians,” in which he argued that liberals and libertarians have more in common than they think. Both support civil liberties and gay rights. Both want to end the two wars. There’s also a growing willingness among some liberals to embrace libertarian ideas like school vouchers. The cold-war alliance with conservatives has situated libertarians too far to the right, Lindsey argues. It’s time to start reaching out to the left.

While the project drew attention in the D.C. wonkosphere, traditional libertarians took a dim view, especially when Lindsey and his colleague Will Wilkinson proposed writing a book. “There were a lot of people at Cato who didn’t very much like the book,” says David Boaz, executive vice president of Cato. The final straw was Lindsey’s scathing review of a new book by Arthur Brooks, head of the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI). In August, Cato and Lindsey parted ways. Wilkinson left soon after. The Cato exodus was a reminder that for all of libertarianism’s supposed ecumenism, there’s still an Establishment that does not brook dissent any more than its conservative counterparts. AEI pushed out former Bush speechwriter David Frum in March after he repeatedly criticized Republicans. Frum described his and Lindsey’s departures as “very similar situations, unfortunately.”

W hen I was in high school, I owned a book by Penn & Teller called How to Play in Traffic. It’s mainly a series of jokes, gags, and madcap yarns by the magic-comedy duo. But it also channels the libertarian id of Penn Jillette. “I sincerely don’t want to offend any of our readers, but I’ve got something to say,” he writes. “It’s very simple, but a bit controversial: The United States of America does not have a problem with terrorism. We just don’t.” Airport security is not worth the hassle, he continues: “Hey, we’re alive, there’s risk. Some planes are going to go down like falling twisted burning human cattle cars and there’s no stopping it. No one can make any form of travel 100 percent safe. We’ll take our chances.” As for the victims of a security-free transportation system? “Let’s consider those terrorism victims heroes,” he writes. “Let’s say they died for freedom. They didn’t die for us to have our phones tapped and have our time wasted at airports.” He then describes a prank where you create a screensaver for your laptop that looks like a countdown to detonation.

Jillette might choose his words differently today. Everyone knows going through airport security sucks, even without “porno- scanners.” But few dispute the need for some line of defense. More-efficient, less-intrusive security would be great. But none at all? Jillette’s tract is a good example of how libertarianism ventures down some fascinating paths but usually ends up deep in the wilderness.


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