Maybe better to start from scratch?

Photographer: Ahmad Al-Rubaye / Getty Images

Don't Laugh Off Liberland

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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It started as a publicity stunt and continued as a joke. Yet the founding of Liberland, a new European nation, should not be taken lightly.

In setting up Liberland, libertarian Czech politician Vit Jedlicka was inspired by the example of American Jeremiah Heaton. Last year, Heaton traveled to an unclaimed stretch of desert between Egypt and Sudan, where he set up the Kingdom of North Sudan so his seven-year-old daughter could be a princess. Heaton researched the concept of terra nullius, or no man's land, which in previous centuries allowed empires to claim newly discovered territories, then looked for places where it still applied. The 800 square miles of uninhabited rock and sand known as Bir Tawil suited his purpose, and he went off to plant a flag his kids had helped make.

Jedlicka went Heaton one better: The land he claimed for his state on April 15, also by planting a flag, is much better suited for habitation, although no one lives there now. Gornja Siga is located on the Danube, between Serbia and Croatia, and it's been claimed by neither state following a border dispute. It's only 3 square miles of woodland, but hey, Monaco is smaller than a square mile and it's a bona fide country.

Jedlicka purportedly wants to build a libertarian utopia. He envisions a population of about 35,000, roughly the size of Liechtenstein, another dwarf European state. They will elect a small standing parliament but mostly make decisions by referendum, borrowing from the Swiss practice of direct democracy and the Estonian one of electronic voting. The country will use a cryptocurrency -- a la Bitcoin -- that doesn't require a central bank. In lieue of a traditional tax system, people will decide what they want from the state and how much they want to pay for it. Jedlicka is confident that a lot of what we think of as government services can be provided by volunteers: Firefighters, for example, don't have to be public employees. 

If this sounds half-baked, it is. Jedlicka started thinking about the details only after the interest in his stunt grew far beyond his expectations. Since he founded Liberland last week, 109,000 people have liked its Facebook page. He's been interviewed by Time and Fox News, as well as numerous European media outlets. Czech and Serbian journalists traveled to Gornja Siga (some were denied entry by Croatian border guards). People started calling with offers to set up Internet service and even a bank. Jedlicka jokes that he runs the busiest immigration office in the world: There are, he says, too many citizenship applications for his volunteer team of seven to process.

There is definitely demand for an experimental state in which libertarian ideas could be tried out -- a kind of Galt's Gulch from Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" (not to be confused with "Galt's Gulch Chile," an attempt to create an autonomous retreat for millionaires that some have decried as a scam).

Setting up a country on no man's land is not the same as cobbling together a commune on territory already run by a government. Even the residents of Christiania, the long-standing anarchist "free town" in Copenhagen, pay Danish taxes. Purity is a necessary condition for discovering how modern people would govern themselves if given the chance. Unlike our ancestors, explorers, pioneers and brutal colonizers, we've never had a chance to try. Perhaps we could do it differently than they did, given our technological advancement, broader views on race and gender and, one hopes, a more peaceful disposition.

Sadly, Jedlicka's undertaking is probably doomed to failure. Planting a flag is not enough to establish occupation of a terra nullius. People would actually have to settle in Liberland, something Serbia and Croatia are not likely ever to allow. Perhaps Jedlicka doesn't even deserve a country. His preparations for statehood are too chaotic.

Ironically, some form of governance is probably needed to make such experiments possible. One could imagine states voluntarily handing over bits of disputed or unoccupied land to a United Nations commission, which would consider applications for statehood from initiative groups. The would-be founders of new countries could work on development plans, crowdsource funding, present their projects on the Internet. The commission would take the popular support, expressed in Facebook likes and crowdsourced dollars, into account when allocating the land. Its main task would be to weed out extremist, religious and corporate projects. It would give a chance to any ideology with enough supporters to make a go of it.

The land could be granted to the enthusiasts for 10 or 20 years. If their project succeeded in establishing a functioning economy and government system, it would be eligible for recognition by other countries. If it failed, the land would go to a different group. 

Innovation doesn't stop in any other areas, so why should it be impossible in nation-building? The likes of Jedlicka and Heaton may not be convincing as kings and presidents, but then our countries' actual rulers sometimes aren't, either -- and they are for some reason allowed their experiments.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net