The Fundamental Right of SecessionJeffrey Tucker
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What is the world’s smallest country? Monaco? Nope. Malta? Too big. Even Vatican City with a mere population of 770 is huge in comparison.
It’s called Sealand, founded and ruled by Paddy Roy Bates, a remarkable man who died this week at the age of 91. He was the original pirate radio operator and the Prince of Sealand, a tiny barge six miles out of the east side of Great Britain, outside the territorial waters of the UK.
From his self-created nation, Bates broadcasted Radio Essex in 1965 and 1966, playing rock music at a time when the BBC frowned on it, and generally showed the world how to communicate beyond the bounds of what the law allowed.
We are talking about a serious pioneer here, a man who showed the way toward the Internet of today. In those days, doing this took real guts and vision to do what he did. He effectively seceded from the nation state to establish his own as a way of guaranteeing his freedom to speak and make a contribution to life in his times.
His new nation had a constitution, a flag, a national anthem, and he did a brisk business in passports (apparently 150,000 have been issued!). The nation’s motto: E Mare Libertas. From the Sea, Freedom. As a self-appointed Prince, he was once arrested by British courts, but the courts threw the case out because his barge was outside UK territory. He won his freedom through serious trial and effort.
Reading through a 2011 interview with his son Michael, we find not wackiness but entrepreneurial genius at work here, a real legacy. For example, I had no idea that Sealand had been represented at hundreds of sporting events all over the world! This is because athletes the world over have elected the affiliation at fencing events, minigolf, and even football. There is even a Sealand coin.
It’s the real thing. I know what you’re probably thinking: make me a citizen now! Well, you can actually go the the website and buy a title for yourself such as Lord, Lady, Baron, Baroness, Count, and Countess. This is capitalism at its best: marketing royalty!
It’s hard for us to imagine what was required in those days when Sealand was first founded. Nowadays, anyone can broadcast to the world just by talking into a smartphone and using the right podcasting software. We think nothing of it. We take the right to be heard for granted and use every technological means to see it happen. I can broadcast live from my office here and show you in real time everything that is happening (presuming that you really want to see what kind of coffee I’m brewing right now).
But back then, it was by no means clear that individuals had the right to just broadcast what they wanted. Television and radio were government monopolies. Governments controlled the content. Nothing unapproved was ever heard over the airwaves. It took pioneers like Prince Bates to show us the way and prove that the world would not fall apart if people could say stuff and heard stuff that the government had not authorized.
We got over our phobias about pirate broadcasting — everyone is a pirate broadcaster today and the world hasn’t fallen apart — but what about the larger point of this entire episode: political secession? That’s what Bates had to do in order to push the world forward a step or two. But today, people recoil at the very notion of secession. But why? If the costs of being governed outweigh the benefits, why should institutions and individuals be forced to maintain the relationship with their governors?
If the government is truly confident that that services it provides us are just fabulous for our well being, why not put it to the test and let people opt out if they regard the costs as too high?
We do this all the time with other services. Let’s say we contract for a pesticide service for our home and it works fine for a time. Then suddenly bugs start appearing all over the place. We call but the bug guy doesn’t come. They don’t return your phonecall. The bug situation gets worse and worse. You try to give the company the benefit of the doubt. But at some point, you throw in the towel and cancel the contract. If enough people do this, the company’s bottom line begins to suffer. It either has to change its ways or go out of business.
We should have the same system for government. Under the current system that doesn’t allow us to cancel the contract — even worse, there is no contract! — the government has no reason to improve. It just keeps dinging our credit card and ignoring our protests. We try to cancel but no one listens. This would never fly in the commercial sector and yet we put up with it every day in the government sector.
The old classical liberals, most famously Thomas Jefferson, saw the right to secede as a matter of human rights. People should not be forced into association with government that does not serve their interests. But there is also a practical matter here. We need some way to check government’s power. Nothing else seems to work. We’ve tried constitutions. We’ve tried “checks and balances.” We’ve tried the whole voting thing. Nothing works. The right to pull away and seek out other arrangements to protect human freedom might work where everything else has failed.
Even if secession doesn’t accomplish this goal, at least it achieves another main objective. The seceder is rid of the problem of paying for a service that doesn’t live up to its billing. That alone serves the cause of human dignity.
Does that mean that we would need to go live on a barge in the ocean? If we choose to do so, that’s fine. But digital technology has actually gone a long way toward breaking down physical barriers that separate us. Today I can enjoy mutually productive associations with people from all over the world. We are all finding out that we have much more in common with each other as people than any of us have with our governments. We can work with this model and, if we were allowed to, accomplish secession without ever leaving our chairs.
It is more technologically feasible than ever before. In fact, people are working toward secession in so many ways today — which is to say, people are struggling to get out from under the boot on the neck. Governments laws have become so burdensome and ridiculously cumbersome that billions of people the world over have decided to go around them in the interest of making something of a life for themselves. This is a safe form of secession.
Secessions have been an important part of the history of liberty. People who break away give liberty a fresh start. That’s what happened to end the Soviet Union’s stranglehold. And it’s what happened in 1776 to establish the new nation called the United States.
The only problem with secession is that the idea is rarely taken far enough. It’s great that the South seceded from the Union but so too should the states of the Confederacy been allowed to secede from the new central government and, in the same way, slaves should have been allowed to secede from their masters. The right of secession is an individual right.
It could happen again today. We still have so much learn from the life of the great man Paddy Roy Bates. He was ahead of his time. He showed us in the physical world what is possible in the digital world. Of course they called him a pirate. Governments are always behind the curve. He was really a pioneer and prophet of the world to come.
Jeffrey Tucker, publisher and executive editor of Laissez-Faire Books, is author of Bourbon for Breakfast: Living Outside the Statist Quo and It's a Jetsons World. You can write him directly here.