The United States has traditionally been viewed as a bastion of freedom. Unfortunately, that ranking has slipped over recent years. According to Reporters Without Borders, the US freedom of the press ranking has slipped from 17th in the world to 49th since 2002. In regards to economic freedom, the US scored 81.2% in 2006 according the the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom, and has since fallen to 75.4%. During that time, however, Hong Kong’s economic freedom ranking remained constant at 88.6%, the disparity between the two growing from 7.4% to 13.2% over those 10 years. With the current US presidential contenders both seemingly vying for the position of worst on trade, economic protectionism, and taxes, that trend only promises to increase.
Thankfully, alternative approaches exist to the circus that is modern electoral politics. One of these ideas is the startup society, an experimental nation on a micro scale. The basic idea behind the startup society is to create a new system of order on a micro level as a testing ground for new ideas for societal structure. By starting small and focusing on creating something new rather than focusing on something old, the chances of failure vastly diminish, especially in corrupt countries and iron-fisted dictatorships.
I interviewed Thibault Serlet, co-founder of the International Coalition for Human Action, about the concept of startup societies, and what role, if any, they will play in the ever-changing global scene of geopolitics.
The Desert Lynx: To start out with, what is a startup society?
Thibault Serlet: A startup society is an attempt at creating a new society to test novel political ideas.
Like what kind of ideas usually?
TS: Usually people who start startup societies are either libertarians are leftists. I suspect that this is because certain factions within both groups believe in political autonomy.
Have there been any successful historical examples of startup societies?
TS: Yes, many. The United States was once a startup society. America was founded by Europeans who fled their home nations in order to secure greater political autonomy and freedom for themselves. It is no coincidence that the modern state was once a startup society. Economic liberty, religious freedom, and democracy originated in America.
And that’s not the case with America anymore?
TS: Compared to what? Compared to roughly half of the countries in the world today, America is certainly free. Compared to the historical governments that we had centuries ago, America is free. But America has fallen behind. Americans believe in the free market, but when you go to Beijing you can see what a truly free market looks like. New skyscrapers are being built on every block. Stores stay open all night. Americans believe that they have free speech. But the media is owned by 6 corporations and if you say the wrong things you can lose your job. Democracy is boring. It’s been around for 200 years. Now is the time to try something for the next step in human evolution.
How startup societies are established
What means are used to create a startup society? Simply declaring one exists, or are there other steps?
TS: The process varies greatly. Just declaring it is words. Not action. You have to actually get people to start living and building an economy somewhere. Either settle new lands, or completely reform the legal system of an existing territory.
Why would anyone want to try to create a new special zone to achieve their ends? Why not work through traditional political channels?
TS: There are many reasons for this but I’ll boil it down to three main ones:
1) If your ideas turn out to be stupid, and you reform everything on a large scale you can destroy your nation. Communism sounds great on paper, but the implementation is problematic. Had the communists had more experiments they could have fine tuned their ideology, and came up with a more viable version. They could have prevented all of the atrocities of the Soviet Union.
2) Working through the system is very costly and inefficient, while starting new societies is very cheap.
3) When you work through the system, you have to convince a majority of people People are scared by radical new ideas and like the status quo. So if you work within the system you will always be pushing back against a lot of built up momentum.
Convincing government to give up power
This sounds like asking government to give up power, and governments have been notoriously resistant to that. How can you ever get anyone on board with letting you carve out your own society?
TS: Most of the earth is empty. Most of the surface is sea, and there are seasteaders. And when you look at the land its mostly deserts, forests, tundras, etc. Also most governments are very weak and desperate for any semblance of order. If you pick a weak government, a chaotic society, wasteland, etc., it isn’t that difficult anymore. Many of these ideas dont take power away from governments either.
How is that?
TS: There is a type of startup society called a special economic zone, or an SEZ. SEZs are territories within a nation that are exempt from most of that country’s laws. The most famous examples are in China, like Hong Kong or Macau, but other countries have them too like Malaysia, India, or Russia. Governments do that when they have failing economies.
It sounds like SEZs liberalize economic laws, which includes less strict taxes and regulations. That sounds like a concession of government power.
TS: Depends. From the Euro-American perspective yes, because the power of the state in our societies means the power to tax and regulate. However other societies have a very different understanding of state power. For example, lets look at Mexico. In theory, Mexico is a single nation. When you look at a map, Mexico appears to be a large unified country. In reality, Mexico has broken down into a series of feudal narcostates. The central government only has control over a few major cities and regions. The governments agents in the countryside all serve the cartel. Imagine if Mexico were to create a special economic zone in cartel territory. On paper they would lose power, but in practice the government would strengthen its grip over what was formerly cartel territory, although there would be less laws and regulations. The government would be in a better position to actually enforce the remaining ones.
All this sounds great in theory. How , beyond just talking about it, do you intend to implement any of these?
TS: Depends on what you mean by “me.” The Startup Societies organization will never implement any. Startup Societies is finding other people who are building startup societies and connecting them. We want to focus on growing an ecosystem, and have identified over 2000 groups across the world already independently building their own startup societies. Some of these groups have billions of dollars by the way. Outside of Startup Societies I work for Neway Capital. Neway is a venture capital firm which invests in Startup Societies. I am personally involved in multiple projects around the world to build these societies.
His majesty Taboos bin Said Al Said, Sultan of Oman, is creating a multi-billion dollar port on the southeastern coast of his country. All businesses in the port get a 30 year long tax exemption and all existing government permits have been abolished. Tech giants have also thrown their hats down. Google has a mysterious project to building cities. So does Y Combinator. There are many separatist movements in Europe: Flanders, Venice, Catalonia, Scotland, Bavaria, etc. Now that South Sudan is a country, the Kingdom of North Sudan is pushing for independence. Anarcho-capitalist Somali warlord Mohamed Yusuf Saif wants to build a port in Somalialand. One of Ghana’s largest regions wants to abolish all taxes and declare SEZ status. Entrepreneurs are building a tech-oriented private city called Fort Galt in Southern Chile. There is really a lot going on in the space right now.