Breakaway Freedom: States, Towns, and Micro-Nations

Posted on 2010 December 17


In many ways, Americans’ personal lives are increasingly governed from Washington, D.C. The Feds tell us we can’t smoke marijuana; we must buy health insurance; we can’t hire someone without forcing them to rat themselves out on their immigration status; we can’t gamble online; we can’t get a court hearing if they arrest us for certain homeland security reasons; we have to submit to body searches to board airplanes; and on and on.

Many Americans have become disgruntled, and some are trying to extract themselves from all these new restrictions. (Not that everyone else is completely gruntled, but our concern here is with the greatly perturbed.)

Tea Partiers are the latest, and most political, case of a “Don’t Tread on Me” movement. Earlier examples include the “states rights” rebellion of the 1980s, not to mention hippie communes, religious retreats, white supremacist enclaves, and various cults. And let’s not forget the Civil War, where a whole collection of states up and left the country altogether. For awhile, at least.

In fact, it was that war that put shackles on the power of states to determine their own destinies. Now, slavery was abominable, and there’s an argument for the North’s fight to free the slaves, but the Civil War established that once a state joins the Land of the Free, it can never leave. And if you can’t withdraw from America, you don’t have much leverage when the central government decides to burden you with overweening laws.

So what’s an American freedom lover to do? Well, several approaches are being tried as we speak:

1. Move far from the big cities.

2. Get control of a local government.

3. Start a town with unique rules.

4. Ignore the Civil War and threaten secession anyhow.

5. Found a micro-nation.

6. Go your own way.

“Start a micro-what?” Just relax, have a beer, and let’s get to each item in order.

Move far from the big cities. A friend once lived in Tujunga, a remote enclave tucked away at the edge of Los Angeles. I commented on the charmingly eccentric houses out there. She said, “Back in the day, it was too far to drive from City Hall to Tujunga, so the inspectors just left them alone. And homeowners got away with a lot.” This is why, over the decades, the idea of moving waaay out of town has inspired communes, religious retreats, white supremacist groups, cults, and just-plain loners who want to be free from the bureaucrats.

There’s a revival of this trend today. Idaho and eastern Washington and Oregon, for example, are home to many who got tired of city life with its ethnic tensions and political squabbles. Many of these ex-urbanites are out-and-out racists, but they do keep themselves far from the African Americans and Latinos with whom they might get into fights, so give them some credit. After all, they wouldn’t dare walk into a bar in South L.A. at 10:30 on a Saturday night and ask for service, unless they had a yen to learn how the asphalt of an alleyway tastes.

Meanwhile, lost amid the starkly beautiful deserts of southern Utah and northern Arizona dwell Mormon families who still believe in plural marriage, a practice long outlawed by the Salt Lake arbiters of their religion. But they’re too far out in the boonies to bother with — the occasional newsworthy arrest notwithstanding — so mostly they’re left alone.

Get control of the local government. Remember Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh? He was the eccentric East Indian guru who established a retreat near The Dalles, Oregon in the early 1980s. He trucked in supporters who stuffed the ballot boxes and tried to overthrow the conservative ranchers who controlled the area, hoping to rewrite local laws to favor the Bhagwan’s ashram. That little putsch didn’t get very far, but the idea of turning a small jurisdiction to one’s own purpose has a long history in America.

The Mormons, of course, used the “move far away” principle, then established near-complete control over the territory they colonized. To this day, Utah law is heavily influenced by Mormon practice and belief. Farther east, in New Hampshire, the Free State Project has taken a page from the Bhagwan and is trying to get 20,000 libertarians to move there in the hope that they can win elections and shift the state to their cause. New Hampshire has a deep tradition of respect for individual liberty, so perhaps the results there will be more convivial than with Rajneesh’s Oregon fiasco.

We also should salute San Francisco and Berkeley, two California cities famous for sometimes Draconian rules that favor their liberal base. They prove, for better or worse, that large municipalities can be run with distinct political flavors, so it’s not merely small, conservative towns that can offer succor to the politically disenchanted.

Start a new town with unique rules. The Latter Day Saints did it in the hamlets and cities of Utah, applying their beliefs to civic life as far west as San Bernardino, CA, which was largely Mormon at first. Planned communities became popular after World War II, with Levittowns in several states, Leisure World retirement centers, and even the Disney-run development, Celebration, in Florida. Each has distinct ways of handling civic matters.

Threaten to secede. From time to time, citizens of northern California get fed up with the way Los Angeles County dominates state affairs, so they petition to split the state — hoping, perhaps, to keep the Sacramento Delta water they’ve been handing over to Angelenos.

But the real split would come from Alaska, whose ex-governor — 2008 vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin — is married to a man who once belonged to the Alaskan Independence Party, which promotes secession from the United States. Naturally, the Feds would look askance at any such action. Perhaps party members are hoping the “move far away” principle will give them an edge the Confederate States didn’t have. But don’t count on it.

Start a micro-nation. Here’s where freedom seekers bump against the future, when the very concepts of “nation” and “freedom” get warped out of all recognition. Micro-nations are, for the time being, sovereign mainly in the minds of those who create them. They can exist on a small island or remote plot of land, but most survive as Websites on the Internet. The purpose of a micro-nation is to break away, as much as possible, from the rules of society, and then create a miniature utopia based on the ideals of its founders.

For example, Torhavn is a micro-nation that seems to be an odd combination of democracy and genial dictatorship; it favors sound ecological principles, wolfpack-like loyalty among its members, a preference for the Esperanto language, and a zesty interest in freewheeling discussions on varied topics. (Bring your own whisky.) Torhavn is currently in merger talks with another micro-nation that happens to own property somewhere in the American Southwest, so it looks as if they might try to put their ideas to the test in the real world. I assume the “move far away” principle will be in effect so that they can experiment with little interference. (I happen to know the owner-ruler of Torhavn, who’s as interesting in his own right as the micro-nation he leads, and I wish him well.)

The wildest notion of all comes from computer hackers and science fiction writers who wonder whether it would be possible for individuals somehow to transfer their personalities electronically onto the Internet, where they could roam freely, exempt from the rules and regulations of ordinary human life. Well, as they used to say, if God had meant people to fly, he would have given them wings. (And if God had meant people to live inside the Web, he would have given them computers.)

Even within such a Matrix-like electrical world, there might be plenty of Mr. Smiths and other enforcers who could make life difficult for the rebellious. So a futuristic life inside the Net might still suffer from the same political problems we mere mortals face everyday.

Go your own way. Fleetwood Mac’s song aside, the point of this essay is to stimulate thought about options already open to people who, for whatever reasons, feel displeased with Federal incursions into their lifestyles. Some of these ideas have worked better than others, but all are worth pondering. As a presidential candiate once said, there are free nations in an unfree world and free people in unfree nations. Your options are limited only by your imagination, and there’s no requirement that you get others to agree with you before you march off on your own path, searching for ways to be more free.

I recommend the book How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World by Harry Browne (the above-mentioned presidential candidate), which you can get hold of here, at, and elsewhere.

Posted in: Politics