Pluralistic: 14 Jun 2022

Today's links

The cover of the PM Press edition of Raymond B Craib's 'Adventure Capitalism: A History of Libertarian Exit, from the Era of Decolonization to the Digital Age.'

Adventure Capitalism (permalink)

The 17th century philosopher John Locke is a key grifter thinkfluencer, and his "labor theory of property" is key to understanding the libertarian mind-palace.

Locke says that property arises when the empty, unimproved natural places are mixed with human labor. You own your body, so you own its labor and the fruits of its labor. No one owns an empty place, so when you influse your body's labor into a place, it becomes yours.

There's only one teensy problem with this: there are no empty places. Locke's empty places always – always – turn out to be either a commons, or a place that colonized people are slaughtered for.

In other words, "a place no one is using" can be "a place everyone is using" (a commons) or "a place brown people are using" (a colony – often also a place held as a commons). The labor theory of property always involves some mix of genocide and enclosure.

The Libertarian mind-palace is a place where there is no coercion, only agreements entered into by free people acting according to their own lights.

Now, maximizing peoples' ability to act according to their wishes is a laudable goal.

The mind-palace part comes in when you go through the intellectual contortions and outright fabulations necessary to find a place where Locke's labor theory can play out without the taint of coercion and conquest.

This is why junk science like Garrett Hardin's "Tragedy of the Commons" (a paper describing the universal collapse of commons, which presents zero historical evidence for its position) are so popular.

Not because they're true, but because Lockeans wish they were, because that means that all those Olde Worlde types who enclosed lands, declaring them exclusive property weren't stealing community lands – they were rescuing them from the "tragedy."

That's why there are still pathetic fools who claim enslaved people fought for the Confederacy, or that the Civil War was about resisting Big Government coercion. Otherwise, the present-day distribution of wealth is the result of a historic act of monstrous coercion.

It's why there's such a strain of white supremacy in Libertarian thought, because if the people who lived in the "New World" weren't really people, then taking their lands wasn't theft, an original sin that taints all the property rights descended from that theft.

Then there's the problem of economic coercion: the fact that we're all born with different amounts of wealth and opportunity means that some of us are willing to clean houses, and the rest of us can get our houses cleaned.

If our housecleaners, sex-workers, gardeners, soldiers, meat-packers and Uber drivers are only willing to show up for work because they were born without the chance to be on the buy-side of that trade, are we truly maximizing liberty?

Yes, but only if you believe in eugenics. If you believe in eugenics, then some of us are born with the built-in oomph that makes us able to rise above our stations, or maintain the station bequeathed us by birth.

The disembodied hand of the market rests on the planchette of an invisible Ouija board that swings towards those of us with the oomph and allocates capital to us so we can raise the general prosperity.

The eugenics part comes in when you explain away the male, high-born whiteness of the majority of oomph-havers as just the way oomph got distributed by genetic chance.

The absence of melanin or vaginas in the board room isn't evidence of discrimination, it's evidence of the typical oomph-shortage that accompanies vaginas and melanin. The rare exceptions are proof that if you do have oomph, you get to rise too.

All of this explains how a movement focused on "liberty" can be so anti-worker, so shot through with white supremacy, so pro-colonialist, so sexist – how its archdukes could condemn "coercion" and delight in Pinochet's death-squads.

Libertarians aren't (usually) stupid and this contradiction gets to them. They know they're on stolen land, reliant on coerced labor, and the freedom they cherish for themselves has most other people agitating for rules that move some freedom onto their side of the ledger.

That's the origin of the Libertarian Exit movement(s), separatist projects that seek to find a truly empty land, or a land that can be non-coercively acquired (through a free purchase from a rightful owner) and undo the original sins of property.

The history of these exits is beautifully and wonderfully documented in *Adventure Capitalism: A History of Libertarian Exit, from the Era of Decolonization to the Digital Age *, a new book by Cornell historian Raymond B Craib for PM Press.

Craib's work focuses primarily on Michael Oliver, a Holocaust survivor who made a fortune selling gold coins to American preppers who shared a mass delusion that the end of the gold standard meant impending civilizational collapse (Oliver shared this belief).

Oliver mobilized his sizeable fortune – and those of his friends in the Libertarian Exit movement – in a string of doomed, chaotic bids to create a Libertarian free state in various basket-case dictatorships and decolonizing islands and reefs.

These efforts sparked chaos in the lands where they were tried, including a civil war in the Solomon Islands. Oliver's tale reads like a Libertarian version of Heart of Darkness, as a man's driven quest for "freedom" puts him in the company of assassins and gunrunners.

It sees him aligned with ex-US spooks who ran dirty wars and dirty ops, and even ends with trafficked Vietnamese indentured slaves coming to a "free island" paradise to work as farm-hands – all in the name of "liberty."

Oliver was smart, there's no question of that. Smart people are great at talking themselves into terrible deeds, and Oliver and his fellow libertopians were no exception, espousing the absolute morality of noncoercion while engaging in great crimes against humanity.

When all you've got is John Locke's hammer, everything looks like empty lands. The thought-experiment of a coercion-free life where the marketplace of free exchange produces the most wealth and freedom our species can create always founders on reality's shores.

In reality, such a system favors those who coerced their grubstake from others with land-seizures and genocide – or it favors their descendants. The sprinkling of arrivistes from disfavored minorities in the top decile of wealth distribution doesn't change that.

Craib's final chapters deal with Oliver's progeny: seasteaders, space explorers, cryptocurrency secessionists. In these chapters, we see the same tragedy play out, as gross inequality at the game's start is reinforced as soon as play begins.

We see that the platonic ideal of a place where you can swing your arm as hard as you like without ever having to worry about bopping someone else's nose is a fantasy: your cryptocurrency roasts my planet, your seastead needs to import workers subject to economic coercion.

And, of course, your Mars colony will need janitors. This was the theme of my novella "The Martian Chronicles," in which the second ship of Libertarian Exit Mars colonists hit apogee and receive a shocking communique from the first ship's personnel.

That first boatload has landed in an empty place and mixed their labor with it, so it's now theirs, and if the second wave expects to live there, they're going to have to do all the menial work the first wave disfavors. How else? TANSTAAFL, baby.

(Escape Pod recently dramatized that novella in a two-part reading by Adam Pracht):

Right on schedule, Elon Musk has proposed debt-based financing for Mars colonists – colonists who will doubtless find themselves in the offworld descendant of a Tesla factory:

A dangerous workplace where human workers try to escape being maimed by janky robots while enduring vicious union-busting and absolute disregard for epidemiology, overseen by a "founder" who paid the actual company founders to stop calling themselves that.

The original sins of property – genocide and enclosure – can never be washed away. The desire to found a land where your luck (of achievement and/or birth) is untainted by coercion is understandable, but doomed.

Every time someone tries to live this dream, they take a bunch of bystanders down with it.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Yes Men crash oil expo, propose turning corpses into fuel

#15yrsago Record exec to academic: stop criticizing us or I’ll tell your university

#10yrsago Why the ebook you want isn’t for sale in your country

#10yrsago DRM in the projector booth – destroying the village to save it

#10yrsago Error Code 451: an HTTP error for censorship

#5yrsago Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland’s DODO novel mashes up D&D, time-travel and military bureaucracy

#5yrsago Grenfell Tower: just last year, Tory landlord-MPs rejected Labour’s tenant safety law

#5yrsago Leaked tax-haven data shows that the super rich are way, way richer than suspected

#1yrago Highway to Hell: The infrastructure "compromise" is just funny accounting

#1yrago The Rent's Too Damned High: A podcast of my Medium column on the long con of asset appreciation

Colophon (permalink)

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