Markets and the Good   /   Fall 2023   /    Essays

No Exit

The Uncivil Folly of Libertarian Flight

David Bosworth

THR illustration.

Of all 36 ways to get out of trouble, the best way is—leave.
—Chinese proverb

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, 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.

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