A Brief History of Libertarians Building New Countries (On The Ocean)
A year ago, "working from home" was simply a polite euphemism for "I sell my used socks to perverts on the Internet and emerge at night to steal copper from construction sites." But thanks to Covid-19, more people than ever are realizing that there's literally no reason to go type in an office for eight hours a day, when you could simply do the same thing, pantsless, from anywhere in the world. And we do mean anywhere -- the work-from-home boom has reportedly sparked Silicon Valley interest in seasteading, which calls for the creation of floating islands in the middle of the ocean. But why go to all the trouble of creating a new island? Well, did you know that you still have to pay taxes even if you never leave your house?
Yes, libertarians have long been the main proponents of seasteading, seeing it as a way to seek freedom from governments and their tyrannical insistence on governing. The idea is to build a floating island in international waters, then use it to create an entirely new country, where a radical libertarian citizenry can live free from laws, taxes, oppression, and almost certainly deodorant. If that sounds ambitious ... it is. Over the years, every attempt has turned into a hilarious disaster, involving hurricanes, Papa Doc, sunken pirate treasure, the lost secret to immortality, Vanuatuan cult uprisings, llama-based gunplay, and just a whole bunch of financial fraud. Who could have guessed that trying to build the city from Bioshock in real life wouldn't always go well?
It all started with Werner Stiefel, an upstate New York soap tycoon who wasn't about to be out-crazied by a punk like Dr. Bronner. After reading Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, Stiefel became convinced that the US was about to become a brutal dictatorship and that it was up to him to launch a hidden new society for the freedom-loving elite, just like Spaceman Jimmy Atlas Shrugged did in the book. It's just a shame he didn't pick up Lord Of The Rings instead, since Saugerties would have some sweet new flaming eye towers right now. Instead, Stiefel set about building his advanced new utopia, which initially took the form of a cheap motel near his soap factory.
In 1970, Stiefel took out newspaper ads across the country inviting young libertarians to come live in the motel while they worked on "Operation Atlantis," which would ultimately construct an artificial island on a convenient Caribbean reef. To this end, the volunteers first built a giant geodesic dome, then used that as a base to construct an enormous ferro-cement ship, boldly resurrecting a style of shipbuilding mostly used when wartime nations run out of steel. This was to be their new base while they built the island. At this point, feel free to sympathize with any remaining motel employees who suddenly found themselves support staff for the dome-people of the Catskills. After months of work, the Atlanteans finally launched their ship into the Hudson River, where it promptly capsized. And caught fire. At the same time.
Undaunted, the Atlanteans relaunched their wobbly vessel and sailed it all the way to the Caribbean, where it was hit by a mild storm and immediately sank to the bottom of the ocean. Fortunately there was no loss of life, although presumably whoever designed the ship later passed away when he slipped on a banana peel, careened through a roller skate factory, and toppled straight down an old well. But Stiefel still refused to give up, even though paddling a raft of waterlogged Ayn Rand first editions away from a sinking libertarian super-yacht is the exact point where you should start to reevaluate some life choices. Instead, Stiefel moved the entire operation to the island of Tortuga, which was, at the very least, unlikely to sink on short notice.
The Atlanteans had hoped to use Tortuga as a base while they converted some nearby shoals into Libertaria. Unfortunately, Tortuga is part of Haiti, which was ruled by megalomaniac tyrant "Papa Doc" Duvalier at the time. Duvalier was never the sturdiest door in the carpentry school, and by this point he had become thoroughly unhinged, appearing in public dressed like a voodoo spirit and ordering all the black dogs in Haiti put to death in case one of them was a shapeshifting political rival plotting against him. Although the Atlanteans had permission to be in Tortuga, Duvalier became increasingly suspicious about what all these foreigners were doing in his country. And that's when the rumors of sunken pirate treasure hit.
Fans of Caribbean history or seeing Johnny Depp get slapped in the face may recognize Tortuga as a once-famous pirate hangout, home to every scurvy knave and cutthroat seadog ever to knit a little eyepatch for their parrot. The waters between Tortuga and the Bahamas are rumored to be littered with undiscovered shipwrecks, each one bursting at the seams with treasure. Since the Atlanteans had plenty of experience with shipwrecks, gossip spread that they were using their island-building project as cover for stealing all the gold from a sunken Spanish galleon in Haitian waters. Stiefel's workers reportedly did find a couple of old silver coins, which only made things worse. Just as the Atlanteans were about to start dredging, Haitian gunboats appeared on the horizon and ordered them to hand over any cursed Aztec jewels and get the hell out of the neighborhood.
Stiefel actually tried again on the Misteriosa Bank, which sounds like something Doctor Doom would rob, but is actually an atoll halfway between Cuba and Honduras. Stiefel planned to build another base on an old oil rig the Atlanteans moored out there, except that it was almost immediately wrecked by a hurricane. Seriously, did somebody on this crew sleep with Poseidon's favorite dolphin-wife or something? Because the storms were really just following them around the Caribbean at this point. Stiefel actually tried a fourth time, but his efforts to buy an island off Belize bogged down in red tape, the hurricane of the land. He died with his dreams unfulfilled, but fortunately the torch was quickly taken up ... by the immortal Lazarus Long.
Lazarus Long was born Howard Turney, allegedly in Bowie, Arizona, although it's possible he just picked that because it's Rambo's hometown. From a young age, Turney became convinced he had "more intelligence than the average person," which he used to become a shady businessman. He bounced from scheme to scheme until his late 50s, when he experienced an epiphany after injecting himself with human growth hormones, which he obtained from a crooked Mexican doctor. According to Turney, he instantly de-aged by about 20 years, as his muscles exploded, his back pain cleared up, his hair grew back, and he no longer needed glasses. It was basically like getting bitten by a radioactive spider, except that he didn't even have to fistfight a collection of theater kids, alien juggalos and octopus incels.
With his business sense tingling, Turney quickly swung into action, launching a luxury clinic in Mexico, which promised to reverse the aging process itself with regular injections of human growth hormone. Turney himself became a minor celebrity, boasting about how HgH had restored his youth, leaving his muscles and certain other appendages bulging once more. He also changed his name to Lazarus Long after an unaging character created by science fiction writer Robert Heinlein. Hopefully he just admired the character's long life and didn't also hope to travel back in time to bang his own mother like a steroid-addled Marty McFly.
Sadly, the health authorities don't approve of using HgH to fight the aging process, simply because it "doesn't really do that" and has "terrible side effects." That's clearly code for "it will make you too powerful and sexy," but Lazarus was still forced to close his anti-aging clinic, which was raking in a fortune from desperate Americans facing down their third decade of midlife crisis. Outraged, he decided to form his own country, where nobody could tell an honest millionaire what glowing miracle liquid he could or couldn't inject between his toes. Crowning himself "Prince Lazarus," he turned to the good ol' Misteriosa Bank, which was to be the location of his capital: New Utopia.
The city would be built on a giant platform supported by concrete stilts and would be large enough to support around 4,000 citizens, with plenty of room to expand. The new state would have no taxes and would "out-Cayman the Caymans" as an international tax haven. But most importantly, it would be a center for bizarre medical experiments, including a mysterious new "immortality" treatment, which Prince Lazarus hinted was a retrovirus that could instantly "halt aging in its track," allowing patients to "live multiples of what we look at now as the maximum lifespan." As well as curing death, Prince Lazarus was also touting a plan to remove fetuses from pregnant women and cryogenically freeze them for later reinsertion, effectively allowing his clients to hit the pause button on pregnancy.
This would all inevitably have ended with the FDA buying a bunch of attack helicopters and launching an amphibious assault on an ocean fortress of genetically modified super-babies, but an ever bigger obstacle popped up: money. Prince Lazarus estimated that he needed $216 million to build New Utopia and started selling "government bonds" offering 9.5% interest, as well as citizenships for up to $500 a pop. This attracted a lawsuit from the SEC, who argued that New Utopia was clearly a scam and that Lazarus was illegally selling bonds. This effectively shut the project down (especially since, as Arrested Development taught us, the SEC has boats), although Prince Lazarus continued to sell passports online. He died in 2012, at the age of 81. He seems to have taken the secret immortality virus with him, which is typical.
Of course, not every crazed 1970s libertarian wanted to build their own island. Some thought that it would be way easier to take over an existing island. Take Robert Vesco, the Wall Street mega-crook who fled America after embezzling so much money from his mutual fund that Forbes actually put him on their list of the world's richest people (under "Occupation" they just wrote "thief"). Vesco spent the next few decades as a kind of roving Caribbean supervillain, launching crazy scheme after crazy scheme before ultimately dying in a Cuban prison, having embarrassed Fidel Castro by tricking his nephew into marketing a phony cure for cancer.
But in 1984, Vesco was in Antigua and Barbuda, where he tried to persuade the government to downgrade to just "Antigua" and let him turn most of Barbuda into the "Sovereign Order of New Aragon." This was supposed to be an independent libertarian utopia that would basically act as a safe zone for organized crime, offering facilities for money laundering, gambling and tax evasion. Its governing structure was inexplicably based on the Knights Hospitaller, medieval rivals to the Templars, who ran an independent pirate-hunter state on Malta until Napoleon booted them out in 1798. Vesco planned to sell off knighthoods to the highest bidder and grant himself diplomatic immunity from the FBI agents who kept trying to kidnap him from his yacht.
This was all news to the people of Barbuda (population 1,500), who had long felt oppressed by neighboring Antigua (population way, way more) and were very much not on board with selling half their island for cocaine smugglers to do medieval cosplay. But Antigua was under the rule of the corrupt Bird family, who had a soft spot for crazy schemes, like the time Antigua's tiny defense force (less than 100 guys) bought 10 tons of Israeli submachine guns, which somehow ended up being sold straight on to the Medellin Cartel. So they were very receptive to Vesco's pitch, which presumably involved everyone leaving the meeting with a surprisingly heavy complimentary briefcase. Instead, New Aragon was destroyed by legendary Italian film heartthrob Rossano Brazzi, known for starring in hits like South Pacific and The Barefoot Contessa.
Brazzi was Vesco's partner in the Sovereign Order, which he promoted heavily in Italy. Unfortunately, Brazzi was then arrested and charged with helping the Mafia run an international weapons smuggling ring, because sure, why not. The bad publicity meant that the Antiguans backed away from the deal and Vesco moved on to other shenanigans (including a brief attempt to take over the Azores). Meanwhile, the Antigua-Barbuda tension came to a head in 1989, when the Birds tried to rent the island out as a quarantine zone for importing exotic animals to the US. Hearing rumors that the island would soon be overrun with diseased tigers, the Barbudans charged down to the dock and fought a physical battle to prevent a shipment of 268 llamas from disembarking, exchanging gunfire with armed police officers and successfully holding back the fluffy invaders.
Even more sinister than Vesco were the iguana-brained lunatics at the Phoenix Foundation, whose deranged plots have been extensively covered on Cracked. Radicalized by an early attempt to build a new island in the Pacific, which failed when the King of Tonga personally led a tiny fleet to kick them out, the Foundation's elite team of insane-o-nauts started trying to foment armed uprisings in various small islands, offering to fund wannabe rebels who swore loyalty to libertarian principles. The Phoenix Foundation's dreams finally died in Vanuatu, where they backed a robe-wearing cult leader named Jimmy Stevens, who hoped to seize control of the island of Espiritu Santo. Unfortunately, the Vanuatuans simply called in aid from the world's police force: Papua New Guinea. The revolt was crushed and the Foundation has yet to rise from the ashes.
But the dream of Libertarian Island remains alive and is currently being backed by billionaire tyrant Peter Thiel, who funds the Seasteading Institute, which has been repeatedly stymied in its own efforts to launch an island paradise in French Polynesia. In 2019, a bitcoin investor affiliated with the Institute did briefly launch a floating house exactly one mile outside Thailand's territorial waters. This impenetrable legal forcefield apparently failed to impress the Thai government, who promptly sent the navy to destroy the house and charged the inhabitants with infringing Thailand's sovereignty, a crime punishable by death. Fortunately, they managed to flee before being arrested and hope to try again off Panama. Based on the movement's track record, we look forward to them somehow getting eaten by kelp.
Top image: Seasteading Institute