Every time I hear someone say “if you don’t like it, leave”, I half expect someone to artfully discharge saliva and tobacco (tobaccy?) at a spittoon so close to me that I nearly spill my sarsaparilla. I grant no credit to those offering the line as a coherent argument, as it seems most often to be the kind of vomit inspired by garden variety xenophobia and American exceptionalism uttered by only the unexceptional – reveling in an entitlement granted by those far superior of mind and mettle (and long-since dead). No, unfortunately the sentiment fails to rise above the laziness of the proliferation of the status quo. In other words, mindless conservatism for the sake of comfortable lethargy rather than tangible ideas or ideals.
What pains me most is that it’s actually a great strategy conceptually, and one that has served humanity well over millions of years. Somebody made a really bad movie about a guy who promises to move to Canada in the event that George W. Bush won the election for his second term. Of course, we all know how that turned out and he actually follows through with his stated intentions. Now, I take this act somewhat seriously. After all, I moved to Panama City, Panama shortly after the same election. Granted, I’d intended to anyway, but it was extra motivation in light of my frustration with the fear-drenched American politics and rampant jingoism exemplified by the political climate at the time. That endeavor lead to, or highlighted, two insights.
To those short on motivation in the domain of thought, leaving the United States (for any reason) is tantamount to heresy. These ardent right-wing authoritarian followers aren’t amenable to the idea that the brainchild of Jefferson and Madison has weathered time exactly as Jefferson predicted (not well, and needing of revolution in order to maintain its greatness). For them, what is is what was meant to be; ordained by the infinite wisdom of the founding fathers <sarcasm>who emblazoned “In God We Trust” on our currency</sarcasm> in the hopes that a mint could forever engender the support of some invisible magical overlord.
It is not in my blood to side with sloth and indifference in service of monotony. No, I shall take my measure of justification from the admiration of the pioneering spirit implied by the enlightened of those before us:
To remind [King George III] that our ancestors, before their emigration to America, were the free inhabitants of the British dominions in Europe, and possessed a right which nature has given to all men, of departing from the country in which chance, not choice, has placed them, of going in quest of new habitations, and of there establishing new societies, under such laws and regulations as to them shall seem most likely to promote public happiness. That their Saxon ancestors had, under this universal law, in like manner left their native wilds and woods in the north of Europe, had possessed themselves of the island of Britain, then less charged with inhabitants, and had established there that system of laws which has so long been the glory and protection of that country. Nor was ever any claim of superiority or dependence asserted over them by that mother country from which they had migrated; and were such a claim made, it is believed that his majesty’s subjects in Great Britain have too firm a feeling of the rights derived to them from their ancestors, to bow down the sovereignty of their state before such visionary pretensions. And it is thought that no circumstance has occurred to distinguish materially the British from the Saxon emigration. -Thomas Jefferson, The Rights of British America
Indeed, Jefferson recognized that voting with one’s feet was not only legitimate, but also a natural right and universal law. With a much narrower understanding of the ancestral migrations of humans, he outlined the mechanism of severing ties of authoritarians by vacating one territory in favor of frontier.
This strategy has evolutionary precedent. Our ancestors largely depended on individuals acting in concert to improve their individual survival. Hunter-gatherer bands were more effective hunters and gatherers than individuals or pairs. Extrapolating (I think fairly) from modern hunter-gatherers, they were well aware of this advantage and sought to maintain group solidarity. Surely, this had its upper limits as hunting and gathering does not scale very far in relation to coverable territory. The difference between hunter-gatherer life and modern life with respect to groups is that a significant number of people voluntarily leaving could also reduce the group size to below optimal levels. Thus, in a dispute, it would have often been advantageous for both sides to reach a compromise. The ultimatum game of, “if you don’t like it, then leave”, had much more serious consequences. As such, its power as a political act was more significant.
Nevertheless, leaving was always an option for individuals and any coalition that could be organized. Political coercion was absolutely limited by this dynamic.
James C. Scott extends the “frontier” concept in ‘The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia‘. In Jefferson’s time, as with ancestral hunter-gatherers, frontier existed just over the horizon from civilization. Rather than define “frontier” as the raw frontier as we imagine it, he delineates further by geographical barriers imposed upon states’ abilities to exert control over various populations. In other words, hillbillies (and corollary Asian populations referred to by similar pejoratives) were quite literally outside of state-sponsored civilization by nature of geographic isolation. He further asserts that, just like hunter-gatherers and American settlers:
At a time when the state seems pervasive and inescapable, it is easy to forget that for much of history, living within or outside the state—or in an intermediate zone—was a choice, one that might be revised as the circumstances warranted…. When [burdens] became overwhelming, subjects moved with alacrity to the periphery or to another state.
Until nation-states enveloped the remaining unclaimed corners of the globe in the 19th and 20th centuries, 100% of human existence included the ability for the industrious to venture into the frontier. This is the second insight I discovered once my visas renewals ran out, and was faced with a legal change in the United States that would have made continuation of my business illegal (according to the U.S.) merely because of my citizenship. In eerie defiance of Jefferson’s criticism of King George III’s tyrannical Britain, a “claim of superiority or dependence [was] asserted over [me] by [my] mother country from which [I] had migrated. As Scott puts it, things have changed now that:
“the sovereign nation-state is now busy projecting its power to its outermost territorial borders and mopping up zones of weak or no sovereignty.”
To clarify the reality of my second insight: there is no more frontier on this planet, excepting the sea. Unfortunately, humans aren’t particularly well adapted to life in excess of 200 miles from land (international waters). Thus, the dynamic of imposed human political obligation has shifted drastically and recently. When someone now says, “if you don’t like it, leave”, they fail to understand that there is nowhere to go. There is no Jeffersonian solution of “going in quest of new habitations, and of there establishing new societies… likely to promote public happiness.” Quests for new habitations lead only to other occupied territories with entrenched regimes.
It is true that citizenships can be wrangled in other nations. However, the process is highly restricted, and ultimately results in nothing more than trading one overlord for another.
Ironically, all signatory nations to the United Nations have agreed that it is a fundamental human right to be able to move freely across borders and relocate wherever one chooses. Those nations that signed the document (U.S. included) agreed to implement laws to support this right. However, it was signed in 1948, and travel has become more restricted in the years since.
- Fact: The modern absence of frontier is contrary to our hunter-gatherer past.
- Fact: The modern tendency of nations to claim superiority over their citizens is contrary to the principles the United States used as justification for declaring independence from Britain.
- Fact: The modern system of international law to which nation-states agree that a frontier-esque existence is a universal human right.
- Fact: The modern nation-states are in material breach of the contract to which they agreed.
It seems that too many people embrace the half-sentiment and half-responsibility of the first sentence in the following quote without grasping the importance of the rest.
“People say that if you don’t love America, then get the hell out. Well, I love America. We love the people of America very much, but when it comes to the government, it stops right there. The government is a bunch of corrupt thieves, they are rapists and robbers. And we are here to say that we don’t have to take it anymore. We are here to say that we are here to tell the truth…” -Born on the 4th of July
As a foundational property of a hunter-gatherer philosophy, I’ll have more to say about this in the future. For now, what other implications do you see in the recent shift in this dynamic? Do you think there’s a way to apply the hunter-gatherer concept of endless frontier in our lives within the framework of the current nation-state system?
Part II: The Libertarian Question