Of all 36 ways to get out of trouble, the best way is—leave.
One of the scandalous revelations of the COVID pandemic was just how many of America’s superrich—our digerati, venture capitalists, corporate monopolists, hedge fund managers—had long been planning to abandon their fellow citizens should a dire national crisis arise. While poorly paid EMTs and other frontline health workers were risking their lives caring for the desperately ill, wealthy Americans who had amassed their fortunes during our tech-driven Gilded Age were fueling their private jets and stocking their remote shelters in unabashed displays of their proudly vaunted libertarian creed.
Such plans of escape took two forms: one leading to the private hideaway, the other to the utopian settlement. In the case of the former, the billionaires themselves initiated the project, commissioning fail-safe residences in places such as New Zealand, which, remote from global turmoil and offering government policies hospitable to foreign wealth, has become a favorite destination for today’s digerati deserters. PayPal cofounder and aspiring philosopher-mogul Peter Thiel, who has said that he “no longer believes freedom and democracy are compatible,”11xPeter Thiel, “Education of a Libertarian,” Cato Unbound, April 13, 2009, https://www.cato-unbound.org/2009/04/13/peter-thiel/education-libertarian/. owns several properties on the island nation, having acquired citizenship in 2011. Other Americans who have purchased real estate there include Google cofounder Larry Page and the director of Avatar and other high-tech megahits, filmmaker James Cameron. For most of these owners, their properties are less residences or even vacation homes than standby retreats, investments against the calamity to come. Their unfamiliarity with these havens was exemplified in the early phase of pandemic panic when one American flew to his expensive hideaway only to discover that he had forgotten the combination that would let him into his doomsday bunker—a grimly comic scenario that could have been the climax to an episode of Twilight Zone.
Concerns about natural disasters or possible wars are not the only motivation for the most radical of America’s libertarians to secure hideaways or acquire citizenship in foreign lands. For this group of exiteers, paying taxes, submitting to government regulations, or simply living in a society made uncivil in part by the very technologies that have fed their wealth are burdens or dangers to be avoided. According to their credo of freedom über alles, to be a “man without a country” is not a punishment but a privileged exemption from the manacles of communal obligation. Rather than a role defined by duties as well as rights, citizenship for them is just one more consumer option in a competitive global marketplace.
Confounding the image of the survivalist as a loser driven by economic failure or religious fanaticism, other high achievers are prepping for the ultimate disaster in the United States. They have purchased remote properties in Idaho, Montana, and on islands off the coast of Washington State, stocking their retreats with food, fuel, and armaments, and investing in cryptocurrencies to insure their wealth against the imminent collapse of a financial order that has heretofore served them so well. Some preparations are more personal and particular: Reddit CEO Steve Huffman had Lasik surgery in 2015, not for appearances’ sake but out of fear that when our society collapsed, as he expected, he would be unable to buy contact lenses.22xEvan Osnos, “Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich,” The New Yorker, January 27, 2017, https:www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/01/30/doomsday-prep-for-the-super-rich.
Inevitably, entrepreneurs in the service economy have spotted ways to profit from the paranoid flight plans of the ultrarich. There are real estate agents who specialize in doomsday listings, construction companies dedicated to building tony bunkers, and security firms, staffed by ex-cops and former soldiers, that for a fee will defend these caves and castles of last resort. Some developers offer a full suite of goods and services, a pricey package deal. One of the biggest is Vivos, which owns large tracts of land in America and Europe, including subterranean sites in Indiana and South Dakota. The latter includes 575 decommissioned military bunkers, luxuriously updated. The company bills it as “The Largest Survival Community on Earth.”33x“Vivos xPoint,” Vivos, https://www.terravivos.com/vivosxpoint.php, accessed July 12, 2023.
Vivos’s website reminds each prospective client that “Earth Is An Increasingly Dangerous Place With Real Extinction Level Threats All Around Us.” The alarming words accompanied by an image of a nuclear missile ready to launch from its open silo. Not to worry, though, because the company insists that its “fully self-contained complexes [can] survive or substantially mitigate virtually any catastrophe,” including natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions, pandemics, and asteroid strikes, as well as manmade ones like nuclear explosions or terrorist attacks. Meanwhile, its more upscale site in Europe offers “bespoke” subterranean havens “comparable to a mega-yacht,” with potential amenities such as “pools, theaters, gyms,” and a “five star staff” that can include a chef, waiters, personal assistants, doctors, educators, and a well-armed private security team. “The possibilities,” Vivos promises, “are limited only by [clients’] personal desires”—and of course, though it goes unmentioned, by their bank accounts.44xIbid.
As reported by Douglas Rushkoff in his illuminating book Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires, a different kind of doomsday retreat has been initiated in the Northeast.55xDouglas Rushkoff, Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2022), 14–17. There, J.C. Cole—whose core concern is the loss of food security when, following the apocalypse, supply chains break down—is building a series of “Safe Haven Farms” where crops will be grown by his survivalist clients. Of his two retreats now in development, he keeps the location of one a fast secret, fearing that hordes of hungry people might storm its fenced perimeter when the expected calamity arrives. Yet even as he trains future clients in the use of firearms and frets online about gun control and the deep state, Cole is vocal about the importance of sustainable farming—a form of greenwashing if ever there was one. Indeed, the incoherence of his paranoia about gun control joined with his kumbaya commitment to communal agriculture raises an interesting question about these larger projects: When safety is sold as a luxurious commodity to a group of strangers who have in common only the privilege of their wealth and their fear of catastrophe, what kind of community can possibly evolve?
LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman has stated that, in the event of a disaster, he would opt for “some form of community” rather than a private shelter. “Being around other people is a good thing,” he said, adding that “I also have this somewhat egotistical view that I’m a pretty good leader.”66xOsnos, “Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich.” But among those enriched by our digital economy, Hoffman is hardly alone in possessing such an elevated view of his leadership skills. Whether underground, on an island, or at one of Cole’s haven farms, they would constitute an unlikely community of CEOs, each driven, to quote Mark Zuckerberg’s motto, to “move fast and break things” as they compete to run the show.
Castles Made of Sand
Despite the contradictions inherent in the desire to create a utopian community populated by radical individualists, several American-led attempts have been made to establish just such a place, all ending in failure. In Adventure Capitalism: A History of Libertarian Exit, From the Era of Decolonization to the Digital Age, historian Raymond B. Craib examines how wealthy activist Michael Oliver conceived, financed, and helped organize three of those futile efforts.77xRaymond B. Craib, Adventure Capitalism: A History of Libertarian Exit, From the Era of Decolonization to the Digital Age (Binghamton, NY: PM Press, 2022). Oliver’s personal history clarifies the likely origins of his zealous pursuit of a libertarian paradise. Born Moses Olitzsky, a Lithuanian Jew and the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust, he immigrated to America after World War II. Adopting a new name, he made his money in Nevada real estate and by dealing in gold and silver coins—commodities long favored by those who fear the sort of social unrest and economic collapse that preceded the war. Utopian true believers are driven by an extreme push-pull of antipodal expectations: a paranoid pessimism that anticipates the imminent breakdown of their social order accompanied by the hope that such a catastrophe will clear the way for a new, uncorrupted Eden. For Oliver, with his traumatic memories of a Europe beset by anarchic violence, the social unrest America suffered in the 1960s was an ominous spectacle that he presumed would end with a new fascist regime.
Oliver was hardly alone in worrying about the future of the American experiment during that turbulent period. With civil rights and antiwar protestors being beaten and murdered, race riots erupting in Los Angeles, Newark, and Detroit, John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. all losing their lives to assassins, and a few secretive left-wing groups turning to terror to overthrow “the system,”88x“According to FBI statistics, the United States experienced more than 2,500 domestic bombings in just 18 months in 1971 and 1972, with virtually no solved crimes and barely any significant prosecutions.” Eric Alter, “Remembering the Left-Wing Terrorism of the 1970s,” The Nation, May 4, 2015, https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/remembering-left-wing-terrorism-1970s/. the sixties and early seventies provided real reasons for concern. Yet rather than spark the revolution those groups sought, their violence helped spur a reactionary turn over the next few decades. Running on anticrime platforms while exploiting white Southern rage against desegregation, the Republican Party won five out of six presidential elections from 1968 to 1988. And the policies enacted during Ronald Reagan’s two terms in the 1980s—lowering taxes for the wealthy, easing regulations on corporations, and emasculating labor unions—were decidedly libertarian in cast.
Although those changes came too late for Oliver’s crusade, it is unlikely they would have reassured him even if they had arrived in 1968. A libertarian extremist and millenarian to the core, Oliver wanted not just lower taxes but no taxes, not just the loosening of corporate regulations but their abolition. Anticipating ongoing social turmoil in the United States and dismayed by what he perceived to be the omnipresent nature of America’s regulatory state, he looked abroad, aiming to secure virgin land where he and two thousand of his acolyte-investors might establish a tax-free haven for entrepreneurs. Oliver ultimately selected an uninhabited atoll amid the Minerva Reefs in the South Pacific. Constructing above the tideline an acre-sized mound from coral wrapped in wire and fused with concrete, Oliver’s group raised a flag on January 19, 1972, and proclaimed the founding of a new micro nation: the Republic of Minerva. They even created their own currency and chose a president, all before a single soul could assume residency.
And a good thing no one had. The king of Tonga, leader of an archipelago nation to the northeast of the republic, objected to its encroachment upon his watery realm. After gaining the support of other nations in the region, including Fiji, Australia, and New Zealand, he claimed all the Minerva Reefs for his kingdom. Armed forces supplied by his allies subsequently landed on the artificial island and tore down the flag of the fledgling republic. Just eight months after its founding, the Republic of Minerva (always more notion than nation) was gone.
Oliver’s first “city upon a hill”—a refuge as insubstantial as a castle made of sand— aptly captures the delusional character of most utopian flight schemes. His next attempt, on yet another island, was not just delusional but lethal. Involving an alliance with a band of rebellious Bahamians, it ended tragically, with the deaths or imprisonment of some of those insurgent islanders, even as Oliver’s group of Anglo-American pseudo pioneers, which included ex-CIA operatives, soldiers of fortune, tax dodgers, and arms dealers, all escaped unharmed.
The Illusory Eden of Digital Freedom
However inept, Oliver’s misadventures in utopian libertarianism are instructive, an extreme illustration of a mindset that would dominate Silicon Valley in the years to come. In rebellion against laws, traditions, taxes, and all corruptions and superstitions of the past, the radical libertarian seeks virgin territory, where he will be free to apply his superior intellect and entrepreneurial talent to building the ideal community. But as Oliver’s initial choice of a remote reef demonstrated, one of the challenges facing his and subsequent generations of utopian exiteers was the paucity of unclaimed land on an overpopulated planet. By the 1990s, however, a new frontier was being discovered, a virtual space as yet unlimited by traditions, regulations, tribal affiliations, or any of the other ties that bond as well as bind.
It is difficult to exaggerate the hyperventilating hubris that prevailed in Silicon Valley during the early years of the Internet, a fervid delirium aptly captured in John Perry Barlow’s “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” Presented in 1996 at the World Economic Forum at Davos, the annual retreat of the global elite, just as the European Union and the United States were formulating the first laws to regulate the Internet, Barlow’s manifesto was at once a libertarian protest against those laws and an in-your-face boast intended to humble the supposedly moribund powers-that-be. Its oddly mixed tone of grievance and haughty disdain is established in the opening paragraph:
Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.99xJohn Perry Barlow, “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyperspace,” Electronic Frontier Foundation, February 8, 1996, https://www.eff.org/cyberspace-independence.
This digital “global social space” in the making was “naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us,” Barlow continued, because “the only law that all our constituent cultures would generally recognize is the Golden Rule.” In this new “home of the Mind,” the old “legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context did not apply.” They didn’t apply because all such concepts were “based on matter, and there is no matter here”—because “our identities have no bodies.”1010xIbid.
The age-old Gnostic revolt against embodiment could not have been more purely expressed—nor more magically achieved. Capitalized as if deified, the Mind, it seemed, had been freed at last from the prison of the flesh, and from the limits and laws of the material world. Escapism of some sort had always been a tendency of the libertarian temperament, an itch to “get out from under” this or that impediment to personal freedom. But Barlow was now declaring the arrival of the ultimate liberation: a self-generated freedom from both the human condition and the state of nature.
However implausible his claims, Barlow remained a lifelong proselytizer for the utopian potential of the Internet, but true believers like him were not running the real show. It would be “curated” instead by a new generation of entrepreneurial high achievers, including the founders of Apple, Google, Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, and Twitter, who would determine the true moral character and cultural impact of cyberspace. Despite Google’s early corporate motto “Don’t be evil” or Sheryl Sandberg’s make-nice claims about the happy global village Facebook was creating, the ruling moral law for those corporate honchos was the same one followed by the “weary giants” of industry who had preceded them: not the Golden Rule but the profit motive. And after successfully lobbying against most government regulations, these new tech titans went about aggressively, if covertly, regulating the lives of their own customers. Even as they touted, à la Barlow, the empowering freedoms of their offerings, they engaged in the favored technique of old-time industrial management and every tyrannical regime: perpetual surveillance.
The Sovereign Individual
Published in 1997, just a year after Barlow’s declaration, The Sovereign Individual: How to Survive and Thrive During the Collapse of the Welfare State, by the American investment writer James Dale Davidson and the English journalist William Rees-Mogg, provided a more elaborate interpretation of the digital revolution then underway. Its analysis included the same disdain for regulation, aversion to taxation, and disingenuous celebration of the entrepreneur found in Oliver’s work. Pitched with the same volatile mix of pessimism and hopeful promise, it provided the savvy reader with advice on how to survive the impending chaos—and to thrive beyond it.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was commonplace to predict the demise of the world’s authoritarian states, which were presumed to be too rigid to adapt to the new digital economy. Borrowing from communications theory without ever citing it, Davidson and Rees-Mogg were prescient in realizing that the same economy was threatening the liberal democracies as well. That threat, however, was welcomed by these authors who, like most libertarians, loathed the welfare state and disdained the neediness of its supposedly unproductive masses, whom they dismissed as lazy. In their revisionist history of the West’s liberal-democratic economy, taxation was a rationalized form of thievery, labor strikes were “extortion,” and capitalists were society’s victims, egregiously “exploited” by their ungrateful workers. The authors applauded the coming decentralizing effects of digital communications, which, among other boons, would make the regulation of commerce difficult. And the “cybermoney” that was sure to come would make it easy for the ambitious capitalist to evade all taxes.1111xJames Dale Davidson and William Rees-Mogg, The Sovereign Individual: How to Survive and Thrive During the Collapse of the Welfare State (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1997), 15, 151, 146.
Though the transition would be turbulent, the coming collapse of the welfare state would eventually “unleash” the Sovereign Individual—an idealized figure always treated as a proper noun, like Barlow’s Mind—who would achieve “increasing autonomy through market mechanisms.” In the heady days to come, the digital revolution would lead to “the commercialization of sovereignty and the death of politics.” Democratic “citizenship [would] go the way of chivalry,” as the oppression of the state would cede control to the invisible (but infallible) hand of the marketplace.1212xIbid., 23. Borrowing the rhythm of Marx’s happy end to history while inverting its victors, Davidson and Rees-Mogg were predicting a golden era when their grievances would give way to glory with the arrival of a Capitalists’ Paradise of taxless liberation.
Nowhere in Davidson and Rees-Mogg’s analysis will you find the inconvenient fact that capitalists have always depended on government to secure their welfare, beginning with England’s Enclosure Acts, which, to turn the authors’ own logic against them, licensed the uncompensated seizure of public lands for conversion to commercial ownership. Nor will you find any reference to the horrific working conditions of those, often underaged or enslaved, who have toiled in fields, factories, and mines to create the wealth of nations. Nor do Davidson and Rees-Mogg admit the importance of both labor unions and government in ending, or at least mitigating, the worst forms of exploitation. And of course they never acknowledge that the free market itself is an idealized fiction whose conditions can be approximated only through government intervention. As a consequence, they ignore the actual history of corporate capitalism, which, whether in the form of US Steel, Standard Oil, Microsoft, or Google, has repeatedly produced markets that are not competitive but monopolistic.
Strangely, the book lacks any detailed definition of the Sovereign Individual. Linking its identity solely to financial worth and capitalist know-how, the authors ignore the inherently social character of human beings and their need for a cultural identity that transcends the merely economic. Surveying the long history of governance in the West, they never consider the degree to which the radical individualism they favor is itself a historical artifact, one primarily shaped by the proliferation of a print literacy whose cultural dominance was already passing in 1997. Shrewd about many of the economic changes the digital revolution was creating, they nevertheless missed how it was rendering their idealized notion of the Sovereign Individual as extinct in our time as the chivalrous knight became in early modernity.
Which is why, despite all its historical research and economic analysis, The Sovereign Individual ends up reading like nothing more than a survivalist manual for the wealthy individual, complete with tips “for achieving financial independence” during the chaotic transition to the Information Age. Since they believe US citizenship poses “the most hindrances in the way of becoming a Sovereign Individual,”1313xIbid., 373. the two authors advise Americans to make plans to flee their country by parking their money in tax havens overseas, maintaining homes in multiple national jurisdictions, and hiring armed guards to protect their wealth and property—the very strategies adopted by today’s flight-inclined digerati and financiers. It is little wonder, then, that the preface to the 2020 edition of the book was drafted by none other than Peter Thiel.
From Saving the Day to Fleeing the Field
Consciously or not, the paranoid anticipation of an imminent catastrophe by today’s digital exiteers has been induced, in part, by dystopian stories they read or watched while growing up,1414xWhen J.C. Cole, the founder of Safe Haven Farms, wanted to make his case to Survival of the Richest author Douglas Rushkoff, he included a link to an episode of Twilight Zone. Rushkoff doesn’t mention which one but given Cole’s fear of hungry hordes breaking into his survivalist farms, it was most likely “The Shelter” (1961), in which the only private bomb shelter in a suburban neighborhood is stormed by its owner’s former friends. And though it goes unmentioned, the anxiety that drove Steve Huffman to Lasik surgery may have been modeled after another Twilight Zone episode, “Time Enough at Last” (1959). and the fictional works that have most influenced their libertarian mindset are two novels by Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957). As an anticommunist immigrant from Russia, Rand developed a philosophy that mirrored the absolutism of Leninism while inverting its moral poles. According to her, individual selfishness is an unalloyed virtue, government regulation an absolute evil. The entrepreneur emerges as the ideal hero, while the masses touted by Marx are reduced to moochers and losers, parasitically exploiting that hero’s productivity. With their two-dimensional characters, binary plotting, and endless speeches ventriloquizing Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, the novels are agitprop for the radical individualism that would inspire so many major figures of American libertarianism, from former Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan, whose advice helped shape federal financial policy for thirty years, to former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who made Atlas Shrugged required reading for his congressional aides.1515xJonathan Chait, “7 Ways Paul Ryan Revealed His Love for Ayn Rand,” New York Magazine, July 10, 2014, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2014/07/7-ways-paul-ryan-revealed-his-love-for-ayn-rand.html. But if Greenspan and Ryan’s somewhat tempered Cato Institure variety of libertarianism valorized the individual above all else, it did not turn its back entirely on the body politic or on politics itself. The state, in this view, needed to be constrained but not abandoned. It would take a new wave of extremists similar to Oliver or Davidson to declare the state moribund beyond all saving.
What is most notable about Rand’s fiction is how thoroughly it undermines Americans’ traditional understanding of the heroic figure, as it was first formulated in our myth of frontier settlement and depicted in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Leatherstocking Tales (1823–41). As a frontier scout and solitary bachelor who lives in the wilderness, Cooper’s hero, Natty Bumppo, is a romanticized embodiment of pure self-reliance. Yet in times of crisis, he always arrives to save the day for the Anglo-American settlers whose company he neither wants nor needs.
But according to the credo of the radical libertarians who seek to emulate characters out of Atlas Shrugged, the American hero has no obligation to the community. In times of crisis, heroic virtue no longer requires self-sacrificial acts rooted in the social affections of loyalty or gratitude; it has been reduced instead to pure self-interest. When the alarm sounds, the first shot is fired, or a pandemic erupts, these self-crowned sovereigns are inclined to flee the field, shedding citizenship like the uniform of a losing army, retreating to their hideaways in the Rockies, silos in South Dakota, or subterranean havens on the Kiwi islands.
Radical libertarians were not alone in retreating when COVID first struck. Many of us withdrew into whatever form of sanctuary we could afford, whether a vacation cabin or just the priviliged privileged status of being allowed to work from home, and antisocial behavior as mild as hoarding hand sanitizer and as severe as scapegoating Chinese-Americans also emerged. But it is especially worrisome when some of the wealthiest leaders of our economy adopt a philosophy that not only rationalizes but reconceives as righteous plans to desert their country in times of crisis.
As those who formulated our old frontier myth intuitively grasped, such a turn toward a personal liberation free of social obligations is finally unsustainable. Without serious reforms, our democracy is unlikely to survive the combined effect of the growing inequalities in wealth and the algorithm-driven divisiveness our tech-based economy has so directly contributed to. Surely, some of the panic implied in the exit strategies now pursued by those who have most benefited from that economy is rooted in their recognition of that scary fact. Even when terrified by “progress” in their own field, as many high-tech execs profess to be about the social implications of artificial intelligence, they seem unable or unwilling to intervene. Indeed, one of the motives behind Elon Musk’s obsession with establishing a colony on Mars is to provide an escape route for humanity, an extraterrestrial haven from the devastation threatened by AI.1616xMaureen Dowd, “Elon Musk’s Billion-Dollar Crusade to Stop the AI Apocalypse,” Vanity Fair, March 26, 2017, https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2017/03/elon-musk-billion-dollar-crusade-to-stop-ai-space-x.
But should you be tempted to purchase in advance a ticket-to-ride on Musk’s escapist enterprise, you might want to consider these facts first. Mars’s atmosphere has next to no oxygen, the planet’s average temperature is -81 degrees Fahrenheit, and its distance from Earth is 133 million miles.1717xFor conditions on Mars, see “The Planet Mars,” National Weather Service, https://www.weather.gov/fsd/mars, accessed July 12, 2023. Best not to get locked out of your doomsday bunker there, nor expect a frontier scout or an underpaid but dedicated EMT to arrive from afar to save your day.