Can Bitcoin Buy Freedom?

The U.S dollar value of bitcoin reached $5,659 as I began composing this post. (It will be different by the time you read this, to be sure.) Back in November 2013 I reported the then-surprising news of bitcoin breaking $500, a more than tenfold rise in value over the past four years. And it has seen to date likely the greatest, quickest asset value rise in the history of humanity.

The cryptocoin's popularity is rooted in libertarian/cryptoanarchist ideas about the need for a stateless, distributed, noninflationary currency, potentially more amenable to privacy, that took middlemen, governments, and central bankers out of the business of money.

Bitcoin use might make you directly freer in certain respects. But is the wealth that comes with bitcoin accumulation especially good for freedom?

As noted yesterday at Bloomberg, it can directly buy citizenship in the island nation of Vanuatu, officially the fourth happiest nation in the world according to rankings by the British New Economics Foundation's Happy Planet Index. Vanuatu is asking for $280,000 in U.S. dollar value, so check the latest hour's valuation news to calculate how many bitcoin that will set you back, but right now fewer than 50.

Interesting thing about Vanuatu: it was the site of a previous attempt to create a breakaway libertarian nation. The story of the first attempt was told first and best in the pages of Reason in 1980 in "Wun Niu Fela Kuntri" by Patrick Cox (though referring to the islands by the older name of "New Hebrides").

Now, Roger Ver (known as "bitcoin Jesus" for his many years of tireless evangelizing for the wonders of the cryptocoin) and Olivier Janssens, who have magnified their earthly wealth enormously through the accumulation of bitcoin, have announced negotiations with unnamed nations to literally buy sovereignty for $100 million of their money (and likely some other investors yet named).

See their press release from last month, and their website, under the aegis of the "Free Society Foundation." Janssens has been pushing this idea for many years, and allied with Ver within the past year, after they found themselves on the same side of controversies in the bitcoin community.

Ver and Janssens had more to say about the project in separate Skype interviews last month.

Neither will name a specific country they are negotiating with, though they insist such negotiations are ongoing, and not limited to just one country. Among the qualities they are seeking, according to their website, are:

  • Proximity to existing economic powerhouses (US, Europe, Asia)
  • Accessibility by water
  • A safe, conflict-free area
  • Stable existing government
  • Significant national debt
  • A flexible constitution that allows granting sovereignty
  • Acceptable minimum size for the land

Janssens stressed in the interview that what they need, and what they believe they can get, is not merely a "special economic zone" under an existing sovereignty, but genuine sovereignty. He says they have ideas about what a constitution for such a country would be like, though it isn't fully written and ready for public consumption.

"Everything will be private property, all based on the non aggression principle, and the whole country so to speak, you can compare to homeowner associations...People will buy land from us, and they will have to sign a contract, which will include the constitution" and all the property owners "will have to agree to the terms set" in that prospective libertarian constitution.

It sounds as if they hope whatever entity is initially the "owner" of the country will more or less cease to exist as they sell off its land to individual owners (though it also sounds like Ver, Janssens, or some entity they own might still own parts of the country outright).

Janssens admits, given how they are starting, the seller country will likely make demands it will feel required to honor—"no nuclear weapons will probably be a requirement I think," he says.

"I know the dream is for everyone to have full liberty," Janssens says, "but I think we are better off setting a great example" striving for that goal while "avoiding the biggest issues" that could put them in intractable conflict with the rest of the world's powers.

"We'll get in more trouble than it's worth, for example, to allow people to export weapons or drugs. Everyone is gonna target us" and "we'll fail as a libertarian country if we allowed exporting weapons and drugs. Maybe another iteration 10 years later can do that" but they want to be more careful in the beginning.

They will avoid certain international conflicts, Janssens says, by not doing anything that requires or demands United Nations membership, and they will likely avoid issuing their own passports and the complications that creates, requiring new citizens to keep their existing national identities and paperwork for international travel. As for kids born in the prospective new land, they too will have to start off officially citizens of one of their parents' nations.

Because what will arise in a truly free market is inherently unpredictable, Janssens doesn't want to say he's sure what kinds of businesses might find this new land congenial. He guesses high-tech, internet, and hospital/medical tech businesses might be early settlers, "technologies suffering from not being able to go faster" because of regulation.

The land they prefer to start with "ideally is not inhabited" Janssens says, though "really ideal is to have structures without people but that's a long shot." If populated, "we have to purchase the existing land or property from people and make agreements up front with them." If they want to stay, "they sign a deal to agree with the new constitution." But they don't intend "to expel anyone from their land or similar shenanigans."

Janssens insists this new country doesn't intend to place restrictions on who can own land beyond an ability to pay and willingness to abide by the libertarian constitution.

Ver says he's willing to personnally risk "a substantial amount" of that $100 million, the biggest risk that after taking their money, "the country will renege. But we'll be careful not to try to strike a deal with, say, North Korea," or similarly obviously untrustworthy players.

Ver supports the goals of others in the libertarian sphere to create countries, such as Seasteading or Liberland. The more different approaches to the idea of a new libertarian nation, the more likely one might actually work. He admits he doesn't "necessarily know" that his and Janssens' plan "is a better approach" than the others, but thinks it's worth trying.

While he won't discuss specifics or exactly how much of the proposed money is his—"traditional VC firms" have reached out to them about the free society plan as well, he says—it's likely "99 percent" of the wealth needed to make this happen will be crypto money.

If so, bitcoin's promise for a freer monetary system might extend its value, even to those who might never own or use the electronic money, because of the aspirations of those who got rich because of it.