Like that episode in which Homer Simpson tries to run a car company, Donald Trump has once more shown that on some level he means well but doesn’t quite get it. This month, he proposed creating “Freedom Cities” during his hypothetical second term as president, areas that would be carved out of existing federal land and set aside to be redesigned by a handful of contest-winning American citizens.
That he doesn’t envision doing all the planning himself is a good sign, but it’s ominous that the models of “innovation” he invokes in announcing the plan are really impositions of federal planning on an otherwise spontaneous, organic, complex society. He invokes big schemes such as Lincoln’s railroads, Teddy Roosevelt’s parks, and Eisenhower’s federal highway system. Not the worst things that ever happened, but none of these things are products of real American freedom, which is the voluntary interaction of individuals trading their parcels of private property without any government plan.
Beware government subsidies masquerading as free-market activity, such as bailouts for banks favored by panicked tech bros, or the 19th-century railroad and bauxite-mining subsidies that quasi-libertarian technocrat columnist Megan McArdle has retroactively praised. And you just know that Trump’s own pet projects—such as the VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) craft about which he’s newly enthusiastic—would somehow end up getting government subsidies in the whole process. Markets, not government, should shape innovation.
In fact, instead of piddling Freedom Cities, we could live in a whole Freedom Universe just by getting government out of the way. Libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick, author of Anarchy, State, and Utopia (one of many rational and academically-respected writers who turned me into a libertarian despite all the recent leftist propaganda suggesting we were all produced by racism and family wealth) used the word “utopia” somewhat ironically, since he didn’t want some blueprint for living handed down from on high, as in utopias from centuries of prior philosophical literature. He thought “utopia” occurs when each individual is able to make his own plans and fulfill his own dreams without stomping on everyone else’s.
It’s no coincidence Nozick was also ahead of the curve in contemplating the pros and cons of creating a pleasant, individualized, Matrix-like computer simulation and in hypothesizing that the most expansive form of multiverse—perhaps an Oscar-deserving one—would be a proliferation not just of divergent personal histories but of all logically possible worlds.
If we want to approximate that infinitude of endless possibilities in the world we know, instead of relying on a few planners (amateurs or professionals) we could just get rid of the many government controls already interfering with people’s individual futuristic visions. Don’t just eliminate taxes and regulations, though that would be a good start; get rid of borders and let the influx of immigrants (or anyone else) homestead the vast amounts of unowned (that is, currently government-controlled) land out west. See what they can build.
It was in a similar spirit in the 1990s that I found myself thinking that the closest I’d want to come to utopian planning might be putting my old employers at Disney in touch with the libertarian Koch family and encouraging them to create complete city-privatizing franchise plans along the lines of Disney’s gated communities. Or perhaps I should encourage Native-Americans to expand upon the slight leeway they have in exempting themselves from, for instance, some U.S. anti-gambling and anti-drug laws (peyote being sacred and all that) to turn reservations into beacons of laissez-faire freedom amidst an otherwise regulation-burdened U.S., an apt if long-delayed revenge for all the oppression those peoples have suffered at the federal government’s hands.
But the point is that neither I nor any other one person (or committee) should be deciding what free communities will look like. It’s up to free individuals. And if my old Disney-centric vision still sounds too authoritarian, as perhaps it was, keep in mind things could and likely will be worse: Probable 2024 Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis has worked to reduce Disney’s freedom from Florida’s tax and regulatory rules, perhaps a victory for equality under the law but certainly no unleashing of private utopian impulses.
Luckily, you can logically eschew socialist-committee planners (we all want to avoid things like Boston subways lately running at half-speed because government bureaucracy lost the safety-inspection paperwork needed to prove they were ready for full speed) without pining for one Master Planner as the alternative, just as you can eschew socialism without growing fond of fascist leaders.
Now, something like Elon Musk’s emerging private town Snailbrook in Texas is fine—weird as a company town partly imagined by Grimes might sound to some—but that’s because free individuals can opt in or opt out of it as they choose. It’s just a big parcel of private property. By contrast, telling people on their own land, land you don’t own, what they can do, where they can move, or how they can do business is where you have to draw the line (a property line) when you’re dreaming up big plans. If Kang the Conqueror stays in his own little Chronopolis at the heart of the Quantum Realm in Ant-Man 3 and doesn’t bother anyone, that’s great (assuming his handful of minions are there voluntarily). When he starts deciding what to do with the lives of trillions of people across the multiverse against their will, he’s a menace, no matter how clever he is with technology.
Be a Howard Roark if you like, but don’t use government to force everyone to live in your Megalopolis.
And obviously it’s not just conservative or capitalist visionaries—nor real estate developers—who impose plans on others. Far from it. Joe Biden, when he’s not pushing a $7 trillion federal budget and hiking taxes, pushes for an array of expensive new roads and bridges, and his colleague Barack Obama, sounding even more Trump-like, dreamed of turning a handful of U.S. cities into “innovation hubs” that would get various federal subsidies and regulatory favors. Unfortunately, “infrastructure” has long been a catch-all for wasteful government spending, the biggest of all forms of pork. It’s not so unlike China pushing its “belt and road” projects across half the globe, essentially highways to yet more central planning.
I’m not saying Rome didn’t build some great roads, but if you make the mistake of encouraging government central planning instead of decentralization, secession, competition, and spontaneity, don’t be surprised if you eventually end up with rebellious characters from the hinterlands—perhaps dressed like the J6 “Shaman”—showing up in your capitol to undo all your clever plans.
—Todd Seavey is the author of Libertarianism for Beginners and is on Twitter at @ToddSeavey