Happy belated Fourth of July! This potentially-recurring column is about modern-day independence-seekers: charter cities, utopian communes, secessionist movements, and the like. I’ve always found these fascinating, and finally remembered that nobody can prevent me from talking about them.

I want to start by making it clear that, as the old saying goes, retweets ≠ endorsements. Some of these projects violate my ethical beliefs. Some of them are scams. Some of them are very nice, very earnest people, who will very earnestly all move to a godforsaken desert and then very earnestly starve to death. I’m trusting you all not to do the thing where you say “I saw it on a blog, so it has to be a good idea!”

Franklin Webster Smith’s proposed redesign for the US National Mall. A really neat project which was not, in retrospect, a good idea.

That having been said…

Maybe you’ve heard of the Free State Project. Some American libertarians, tired of always losing at everything, decided to all move to the same state, so they could be a substantial part of that state’s population and maybe win some elections or at least be able to commiserate with each other in person. They chose New Hampshire, 5000 people moved (with 15000 more claiming they’ll move eventually) and they managed to elect a dozen or so state representatives (including a friend of mine who has some amazing stories). In general the project seems to have gone well, plus or minus some bear-related snafus.

Now some Europeans are thinking: why not do the same thing in Europe? Europe has many countries, just as the US has lots of states. Libertarians always lose there too. If everyone went to the same country, maybe they could change it for the (?) better.

The “Free Society Project Europe” proposes Montenegro. It’s only got 600,000 people, it’s cheap, and it’s controlled by centrists (which is about as close to libertarian as Europe ever gets). Their site claims that “This project is not some abstract theory, but is already being realized by the first pioneers who have moved and begun to naturalize in Montenegro”.

Problem: Montenegro isn’t technically in the European Union, which makes it hard to move to (although it is expected to be accepted in soon). Also, if you did move there, you would be a resident and not a citizen, which limits your ability to influence the political process. Also, European libertarians are kind of like cryptids: often rumored to exist, rarely spotted.

And also, how real is this project? It’s getting signal-boosted by some big-name libertarians, but it was announced on a Medium blog with four followers, and everything I’ve seen is compatible with it being one very dedicated person. There’s a Discord server, but the invite has expired and I can’t find it. There’s a Telegram chat, but I don’t have Telegram and don’t want to get it to check it out. So it might be more of a cool idea than an actual plan that’s moving forward.

Still, it is a cool idea. Having a lot of influence in a country seems better than having a lot of influence in a US state. Montenegro has fewer people than New Hampshire. And digital nomadism and the aftereffects of the pandemic are making it increasingly easy to move places.

Also, Montenegro looks really pretty and maybe we should just take any excuse to go there.

On the other hand, countries are often associated with ethnic groups who like having their own countries. Also, if they decide you are annoying, they can just ban you from immigrating. Most likely the Free Society Project Europe never reaches a size where anyone in Montenegro notices it, but if for some reason it did they could sink it pretty easily (although it might become harder once they are EU members). FSPE notes that Montenegro is already multiethnic and maybe libertarians could slip in while everyone else is squabbling with each other, but “Balkan country with lots of ethnic squabbles” actually sounds like a pretty big turnoff.

Still, cool idea.

For a while now, the Charter Cities Institute has argued that donating to them (or to charter cities in general) might be one of the most effective things you can do with your money, maybe even orders of magnitude better than any other charity. Their argument, seen here, is based on the idea that charter cities might grow significantly faster than their home countries and lift hundreds of thousands of residents out of poverty. If a few million dollars can successfully lobby someone to start a charter city, that’s pretty cost-effective.

Now institutional effective altruism has evaluated those claims, in the form of an analysis by trusted EA think tank Rethink Priorities. They conclude that “it is unlikely that charter cities will be more cost-effective than GiveWell top charities in terms of directly improving wellbeing”.

They bring up the usual reasons to think charter cities are hard, but their most damning point is that even if a city gets successfully founded, it might not actually increase growth. There aren’t enough existing charter cities to draw firm empirical conclusions, but the closest existing analogue is Special Economic Zones. A World Bank study finds that SEZs don’t consistently grow faster than their host countries. Some very conspicuously do (eg Dubai, Shenzhen), but these are matched by a few that grow less quickly, and overall it’s kind of a wash. The study tries to analyze whether there are consistent features of SEZs which make some do better than others, but it can’t really find any.

Keep in mind potential biases - countries might make underperforming regions SEZs to fix their underperformance, or might make especially promising regions SEZs because they’re best placed to take advantage of better regulations.

It then fine-tunes some of CCI’s models, incorporating the sort of pessimistic assumptions about growth that make sense in the context of the World Bank study, and finds that although they are nice, they don’t reach the same level of cost-effectiveness as other GiveWell top charities, even on time scales of decades.

But they add a caveat: this is just the really direct, easy-to-model effects from the people in the city getting richer. There are still potential indirect effects from charter cities serving as “laboratories of government” (eg one of them might try a new policy, it might be great, and then bigger countries might adopt it). The obvious example is that the Shenzhen special economic zone did well enough that it convinced the Chinese leadership to try capitalism more generally, with world-changing results.

Mark Lutter of CCI broadly supports the research, but argues that the World Bank study might underrate CCI’s work. The study only investigated SEZs between 0.5 and 10 square kilometers. This is more like a neighborhood than like a real city (Central Park is 3.5 square kilometers, Manhattan is 87, Shenzhen is 320). But Lutter thinks that “a city is the smallest unit that can support economic development”. He also thinks the SEZs were comparatively weak - slightly lower taxes or something boring like that, compared to the total overhaul involved in charter cities. He comes up with a reference class that includes Shenzhen, but not a lot of SEZs that don’t work, and says this is the proper comparison.

The Rethink Priorities analysis is a great mathematical model, and a good counterbalance to inflated estimates of charter city donation cost-effectiveness. But like all models, it’s only as good as the assumptions that go into it and the degree to which desirable effects can be easily quantified, and right now both of those are iffy enough that I doubt it’s the final word on the matter.

Model cities are usually associated with libertarians, but that doesn’t have to be true. Anyone can make a model city. You just have to try hard and believe in yourself! Well past the point where it becomes delusional!

Black Hammer believes in themselves. They are a US group which describes themselves as “a symbol of hope for the colonized working class”. Their enemies describe them as “a cross between racial reparations and multi-level marketing”, which is a heck of a thing to describe people as, but, well, see their website:

Are you white? Do you want to help? Do you want to be a good person, on the right side of history?

The only way you can wash the blood off your hands is through following the leadership of African, Indigenous, and Colonized people and paying reparations for all that’s been stolen in your name.

Right now, Black Hammer Organization is offering several ways to pay reparations […]

Mao Level – $199 minimum

Sign up for the entire 8-week bootcamp and get fully certified as someone who is united under Colonized leadership. By completing this level, you’ll get the chance to provide your skills to the organization a nd be an active recruiter to make sure that other people are continuing to pay reparations and support the masses of poor and working class Colonized people. Upon completion, you will also receive a Reparations Corps uniform!

Mao Level + : Pay an additional 25% in reparations and receive an exclusive piece of Black Hammer gear!

Sankara Level – $99 minimum

Sign up for the 4-week bootcamp and get halfway there to falling under the leadership of Colonized people. Although you won’t be able to contribute to the organization at this level, you will still receive valuable skills necessary to help advance anti-colonialism and organize people to return and liberate the land of Colonized people around the world. If you wish to continue the full 8-week bootcamp, simply pay reparations for another Sankara Level bootcamp.

Sankara Level + : Pay an additional 25% in reparations and receive an exclusive piece of Black Hammer gear!

Che Level – $40

Sign up for a single session of the bootcamp and get a view of the experience and work it takes in order to disunite with your people’s worldwide acts of genocide and terror. Take that first step into creating a world where no one lives at the expense of another and show others that you have what it takes to make a material, not just ideological, difference in the lives of others.

The next 8-week bootcamp will begin on March 12th, 2021! That means you need to sign up today to claim your spot and begin YOUR journey.

GROUP PRICE – Does your organization/company, activist group, or group of friends want to pay reparations and learn about anti-colonialism or anti-racism in the world and in the workplace? Contact us directly at reparationscorps@protonmail.com for pricing options!

What are they going to do with this money? One of their projects is Hammer City , a city with “Jobs, housing, food, healthcare, no cops, no rent, no Coronavirus, and no white people.” The plan is to locate it in Colorado and pay for it with crowdfunding (so far they have $90,000 of their $500,000 goal). Here are some pictures of how it could look:

Hammer City

two earth houses in the sun

And here’s its proposed constitution, which is big on denunciations of things but short of details on how anything will actually be governed - the closest I can find is “the council and residents of Hammer City will establish a method for elections”.

The latest progress report is this tweet:

…but there are continuing requests for donations from as recently as last week on their Twitter account, which incidentally is a work of art:


I am sure they will rule their new domain peacefully and with great sagacity.

Getting back to CCI, Mark Lutter thinks The State Of Charter Cities Is Strong.

I mean, of course he would say that, it’s his job. But hidden in between the platitudes is a bit of a warning.

In his response to Rethink Priorities (mentioned above), Lutter said the World Bank’s study on SEZs wasn’t applicable because charter cities were going to be bigger and better than SEZs’ 0.5 - 10 km^2. But two of the most promising existing charter city projects, Prospera and Ciudad Morazan, are starting on land of 0.25 km^2 (though they could get larger). Lutter is suitably concerned:

Both Próspera and Ciudad Morazán are closer to charter towns than charter cities. Their medium-term target populations are in the thousands. The benefits of charter cities come from both the charter/governance, and the city/agglomeration. The benefits scale quadratically. One charter city with 100,000 residents is better than 10 comparable charter cities with 10,000 residents each […]

Paul Romer’s original case for charter cities included the fact that cities are the smallest unit which can have sustained economic growth. Will Ciudad Morazán with 10,000 residents be a better place to live than San Pedro Sula? Probably! Will it generate widespread economic development for Honduras? Probably not.

He goes on to express optimism that at least Ciudad Morazan can scale (Prospera seems to be trying to attract remote workers, and it’s harder to see how to leverage that into agglomeration effects).

Residence – Ciudad MorazánCiudad Morazan is aiming at a more down-to-earth and scaleable kind of development than the snazzy high-tech island city of Prospera.

But also:

Broadly speaking, [charter city] governance can be split into the propertarian camp and the state capacity camp. The propertarians define the relationship with the government and residents in a contract, clearly defining the rights and responsibilities of both. The state capacity followers believe that property rights are important, but a strong state is also crucial for building a successful city and generating sustained economic growth […]

The state capacity approach defines the rights and responsibilities of both residents and the government but offers a wider range of flexibility in dealing with unforeseen challenges. The emphasis is not on the state as a contractual service provider, but instead on the state as a positive actor in the development of the city. The Singaporean government, for example, plays an active role in Singapore’s development, building industrial parks, attracting investment, and focusing on the growth of specific industries.

The propertarian approach gives residents and businesses more security. The hands of the state are tied. This security comes at the expense of flexibility. I tend to lean towards the state capacity approach. Aligning the incentives of the city government with the residents can minimize the risk of government action harming the residents while preserving the possibility of positive government action.

I’ve been thinking about this after reading How Asia Works. If Studwell is right, financial hubs are a completely different thing from large-scale development. The great charter city success stories - Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong - are all stories of cities that became financial hubs. These are great, but you can only have so many financial hubs in a certain region before it gets kind of saturated. If eg Prospera becomes a financial hub for Central America, that’s great and they can be really proud of themselves - but it wouldn’t necessarily be a scaleable plan to lift all of Latin America out of poverty.

Lots of charter cities want to be Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore. But could a charter city be Park Chung-Hee’s Korea? Sounds like a harder problem, especially since it won’t be immediately profitable (and in fact will be actively less profitable than doing other things in the short-term). Still, it might turn out that that’s what you need if you want to end poverty at scale.