Just go with me here: one day, you wake up tied to a bed, in a room you’ve never seen before. You feel woozy, and when you try to speak, the only thing that comes out of your mouth is a series of incomprehensible sounds. There’s a window to your right. You’re in the middle of the desert; nothing but sand as far as you can see.
Someone enters the room and tells you they’ve kidnapped you, drugged you, and taken you to their private compound. The effect of the drug is unusually long-lasting, and although it gradually wears off, it will be a process of years before you can walk, talk, and take care of yourself. Your kidnapper tells you that as a member of the compound, you must abide by the compound’s rules, and you will be punished if you disobey. If you produce anything of value in the compound, the compound leaders will take some of it for themselves. This is only fair, since the compound is also providing you with so much care—letting you use the roads between buildings, and the library, and don’t forget the years of assistance you’ll require while you’re still in this tricky and unproductive state, being redeveloped into a good and productive member of the compound (it’ll take 12 years, most likely).
“But I didn’t ask for any of this!” you say, or at least you would say if your tongue didn’t feel like a fat lazy worm in your mouth. Your kidnapper seems to understand you, though.
“So? You’re here now, and you have a responsibility to obey our rules and pay your dues. It doesn’t matter if you don’t want to use the roads, the library, the educational center. This is our society. You were born into it. You’ll obey us whether you like it or not.”
“What if I want to go somewhere else?”
“Well, there are other compounds around here. But no matter which one you go to, you’ll always be under someone’s control, and will need to obey their rules, pay their tithes. And if you want to reject all of them, and walk out into the hostile unknown, by yourself, with no help? Well, good luck with that. Don’t let me stop you.”
Feels unjust? If you ask a libertarian, this is what it means to be born and raised under the tyranny of the state.
Not all libertarians, of course. Some libertarians love the state, or at least their particular state. (It’s all “don’t tread on me” this and “small government that” until someone disrespects a favorite flag or police force. Then, all of a sudden, it’s “let me lend you my boots so you can stomp even more stompily.”) Other libertarians dislike what they deem to be overreaches of the state (workplace safety regulations, child protective services, age of consent laws) but grudgingly accept that the state must have at least some powers, such as the ability to enforce contracts or mobilize against outside invasion, in order to ensure that people can safely practice their (primarily economic) freedom. However, there are some who take the principles of libertarianism, and ask a truly radical question: How can you be truly free, if you are forced from birth to submit to the authority of a state you did not consent to be part of? How can you be free if you can’t even leave this state without getting permission to be a resident in another state, abandoning one tyrant in favor of another? Pretty much all land on earth has been claimed by someone. Where can you go if you wish to be truly free?
Paddy Roy Bates was simply not built for a quiet life. Born in London in 1921, he spent his youth fighting dictators. According to his family, he joined the International Brigades in Spain at age 15, then fought in World War II in North Africa, Italy, and the Middle East, rising rapidly through the ranks and eventually earning the title of Major. In the 1960s, he took an interest in the flourishing new subculture of pirate radio. At that time, many British DJs were growing frustrated with the restrictive culture at the BBC’s radio stations; its crusty, uncool managers seemed uninterested in the exciting new wave of pop and rock music, and promoting lesser-known artists was heavily discouraged. So the DJs came up with a rather unorthodox solution: buy boats, and broadcast from the sea. Close enough that the signals could be received in the United Kingdom, but floating just beyond the limits of the U.K.’s territorial control.
Bates began his own pirate radio station a few miles off England’s east coast, setting himself up on a disused naval defense platform that the government had failed to dismantle after World War II (which, conveniently enough, still had the necessary radio equipment left on it). But the radio project was short-lived, and plagued with problems. Bates did not have the funds to keep the station going on his own, and he had to deal with rival pirate stations broadcasting from the same area and disputing his right to the platform. What’s more, the U.K. government finally had enough of the likes of Bates, his fellow radio pirates, and their devil-may-care approach to legal loopholes. In 1967, Parliament passed the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act, which forbid British citizens to participate in illegal broadcasts, even if they were outside territorial waters. Naturally, Bates responded to this hostile action the way any of us would—he declared that the disused naval platform was actually an independent nation named the “Principality of Sealand,” and that the U.K.’s law could not touch him. The land he was on did not belong to the United Kingdom, nor did it belong to France, the Netherlands, or any other supposedly more legitimate state. He was on terra nullius—no-one’s land. Or at least, it had been terra nullius. Now it was terra Bates.
If the Principality of Sealand was a joke, it was one Bates took very seriously. Following its declaration of independence, Sealand’s military forces—”military forces” here meaning Bates and his son, Michael—ruthlessly defended its territory, repelling boats from both rival pirate radio stations and the U.K.’s Royal Navy with guns and petrol bombs. (The U.K. courts found that they could not try the Bates family for these violent acts, since they were not in U.K. territory at the time). Although the United Kingdom refused to officially recognize the nation of Sealand, the whole “petrol bomb” thing suggested that on balance, they felt it was better to leave the Principality alone, and from then on, the isolated micronation was allowed to exist in a queasy state of semi-nationhood. Although Bates died in 2012, Sealand continues to exist, under the benevolent rule of his son. Its motto is “E Mare Libertas”—from the sea, freedom.
Looking at Sealand’s official website, it is easy to dismiss it as a kitschy little novelty. (If you wish, you can visit sealandgov.org and even purchase a title. Becoming a Duke or Duchess of Sealand will cost you £499.99, while Lord/Lady is a bargain at £29.99. You can also buy commemorative coins, keychains, or an “I ❤ Sealand” t-shirt). But the cutesy P.R. hides some grueling truths. It’s no easy feat to found a state in an age where most hospitable land is taken and new attempts at settler-colonialism are frowned upon, and those who attempt it can often find themselves encountering a whole host of troubles from unexpected places.
For starters, Sealand is an uncomfortable place to live. Although Sealand has issued about 150,000 passports in its lifetime, only a handful of people have ever spent significant amounts of time there, given that it’s, well, a platform in the middle of the sea. The Bates family have fashioned the interior into a reasonably cosy home, but anyone who stays there relies heavily on stockpiles of tinned food, and needs to travel to and from the mainland either by helicopter or by a small boat that has to be lifted onto the platform via an intricate pulley system. (Roy Bates’ son, the reigning monarch Prince Michael of Sealand, lives primarily in the United Kingdom.) Furthermore, Sealand’s existence is contingent on the fact that the Bates family have the privilege of retaining their British citizenship, and can come and go as they please whenever they need food, fuel, or to see the latest Marvel movie. Realistically, Sealand could easily be crushed if it were ever considered a real threat, but as the situation stands, it’s mostly thought of as the mere art project of a grouchy eccentric, and therefore its existence is generously permitted. While the creation of Sealand makes for a fun story, it also offers a glimpse into how enormously difficult it is for a state to have true and absolute independence. After all, even “real” states depend on others for trade, and those that reject international ties and attempt total self-sufficiency, such as North Korea with its Juche ideology, do not yield encouraging results. Those who wish to create their own state find themselves in a bind: either they must enter into a sort of devil’s bargain with a “real” state—usually either their state of birth, or whichever state is close by and reasonably tolerant—or they must submit themselves to being truly alone (and probably starving). If you are a free-spirited individual, and you are angered by the shackles of your statehood, the case of Sealand raises some important philosophical questions. What is the point of going to all the effort of creating, declaring, and defending your own sovereign territory if you’re only going to end up reliant on other states anyway? What’s the difference between being subject to the whims of your home country’s policy within the state’s borders, versus outside the state’s borders…except that outside the state’s borders you’re very cold and can’t get Wi-Fi?
The creation of Sealand caused other problems, too. After the mid-1970s, Bates Sr. turned his damp and salty kingdom into a cottage industry, handing out positions in the Sealand “government” and selling those Sealand passports. Some of these went to genuine enthusiasts for the project, such as Bates’ close friend Mike Barrington, who helped set up much of the infrastructure. But not everyone who took an interest in the Principality had peaceful intentions. In 1978, a crew of German and Dutch mercenaries attempted an armed invasion of Sealand, approaching the platform on jet skis and by helicopter. They had been hired by Sealand’s then-prime minister, a German national by the name of Alexander Achenbach, who desired to turn Sealand into a luxury offshore casino. There was an armed struggle, and the invaders were taken hostage and eventually released after several weeks of negotiations between Bates and a German diplomat. In addition, it was eventually discovered that Sealand passports were being sold to finance an international drug trafficking ring. As it turns out, managing a state can get a little stressful once the novelty of picking out a flag and a crest has worn off.
Is creating your own state worth it? That probably depends on your motivations. While many micronations are the work of committed eccentrics looking for fun, and others are little more than publicity stunts, some are born out of an attempt to make a serious political stand. Many of these are laudable and arise from clearly valid complaints, such as the Sovereign Yidindji Government, an indigenous nation that seceded from the Australian government in 2014 and claims part of Queensland. Others are somewhat less sympathetic, such as the short-lived Outer Baldonia, formerly located on Outer Bald Tusket Island off the coast of Nova Scotia, which seems to have existed primarily as a vehicle for the founder to vent his frustrations about his wife. (Outer Baldonia’s constitution promised “[t]he right of freedom from question, nagging, shaving, interruption, women, taxes, politics, wars, monologues, cant and inhibitions” and “the right to sleep all day and stay up all night.” Perhaps the money spent on minting coins might have been better spent on a couples therapist.) But even micronations that seem at first glance to have been created out of pettiness sometimes shed light on real problems. In 1977, the small Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye was declared an independent kingdom by local bookseller Richard Booth. Although tongue-in-cheek, the declaration was a response to Booth’s frustration that the town was being neglected by multiple levels of indifferent government. As a result of Booth’s “kingship,” the town gained attention and tourism, the local community was strengthened, more businesses were built, and today the tiny town (population: around 1500) is nationally famous for its bookstores. At other times, people have declared their homes to be states in an attempt to defend themselves against eviction, or to protest decisions by local government that were having deleterious effects on their lives. Although these strategies are hit-and-miss in their ability to protect an individual against their government, one does have to admire the stubbornness of a person who creates nationhood out of thin air, just to prove a point.
And then, well, there are the libertarians.
There have been many attempts to create a libertarian state. (Well, the term state is perhaps a little tyrannical. A libertarian community. A libertarian area. A libertarian freedom space.) There was the Republic of Minerva, which was going to be built on a Pacific coral reef—this one had a good start, with its founders even managing to construct a steel tower on the reef in 1971, before their claim was crushed by the Tongan government. There was New Utopia, a piece of underwater land claimed in the 1990s by Howard “Prince Lazarus” Turney, a businessman obsessed with becoming physically immortal (he has since died). There have been less ambitious projects that did not attempt secession from existing states, but merely peaceful co-existence. There was Glenn Beck’s “Independence, U.S.A.,” a planned self-sufficient city for freedom-loving Americans, the plans for which were quietly dropped not long after it was announced. And there was Galt’s Gulch Chile, the Ayn Rand-inspired community built by four libertarian adventurers in 2012. Unlike most libertarian communities, Galt’s Gulch Chile actually got off the ground, before swiftly devolving into Real Housewives-style drama, in which all the founders accused each other of being grifters and sociopaths. Many would-be residents and investors were furious to learn that the parcels of land they’d bought were not properly zoned, their water rights were not secured, and the founders had, in general, not done their due diligence. (No doubt this will come as a shock to anyone who has encountered libertarians before.)
It’s easy to mock these obviously doomed, self-important projects. (Fun, too.) But laughing at failed attempts to explore new ways of living might also be a way of avoiding some difficult questions. If someone really wishes to live in a manner that is incompatible with the state they belong to, and is not causing any major harm to others, why can’t they renounce that state and form a new one? Why do existing states make it so hard to escape their grasp? It is possible to renounce one’s citizenship, but being gifted citizenship of another existing state is not guaranteed, and the lack of hospitable terra nullius makes it almost impossible to form a true state that is recognized internationally. And is it actually fair to assign someone a state at birth that they cannot consent to? From a practical perspective, it’s hard to see any way around it. Babies can’t take care of themselves, and someone has to be responsible for us in our infancy; still, there’s a great deal of danger in allowing parents absolute autonomy over their children, and most countries have decided that the state is responsible for ensuring that children’s rights are protected. But how can one justify tagging a newborn child with one statehood or another? A baby has no stated values or preferences. To assign a baby a certain statehood is to determine their entire life: their constitutional rights, their responsibilities, the range of services and lifestyle they can expect to have, where they will be able to travel once they are old enough. From a pragmatic perspective, it’s hard to imagine any other way of doing things. But from a principled perspective, it’s almost impossible to defend.
This is not to suggest that babies should form their own microstates. Although our publication has praised microstates in the past, it is not, and never has been, the position of Current Affairs that there should be a “baby nation” (despite the demands from literally dozens of readers that we reconsider our stance on the matter). But even if you are unconvinced that the difficulty of forming new states is proof that we live on a tyrannical planet, these questions do open our eyes to some of the absurdities within our system. Why should a French or a German citizen be born with access to world-class services and well-protected rights (actual implementation on the basis of minority status may differ), while a Somalian citizen is not only denied those things, but also faces huge obstacles in becoming a citizen (or even a resident) of anywhere else? If you are born a citizen of Japan, there are 190 countries you can travel to freely without a visa; if you are a citizen of Afghanistan, there are only 25. If you are born a U.K. citizen, and feel like a change of scene, you can pay $7 for permission to go to Canada, hop on a flight, and stay for up to six months without anyone bothering you. If you are born in a refugee camp, it can take years before you even get a chance to live in a place like Canada. So how can we possibly consider ourselves to be people who care about freedom and autonomy, when thanks to borders our destinies are practically assigned to us at birth? Is it absurd to form your own state? Or is it more absurd to have states in the first place?