Living the Outlaw Life
“As I understand it, laws, commands, rules, and edicts are for those
who have not the light which makes plain the pathway.”
— Anne Hutchinson, 1591-1643
Running away from your problems might just be the best thing you could ever do.
No, I’m not talking about skipping out on your child-support payments, your court hearing, or your carping spouse — though come to think, of it, maybe I am.
I’m talking about moving on when the society around you becomes too unjust, chaotic, or hidebound. I’m talking about heading for open spaces and starting over again in brand new territory.
BHM readers know instinctively the importance of moving on, as they leave behind traffic and noise, rabbit-warren neighborhoods, drug dealers, and busybodies to build a more serene life in the backwoods. But the picture is bigger than that. There must always — always — be places where discontented people can run for refuge and new beginnings. Otherwise, society ends up being a pressure cooker with a broken relief valve. And someday — blooey!
In an ideal world, moving on would be easy. The exit door to new territory should be wide open — even if it sometimes means law-breakers and moral scofflaws are allowed to “get away with it” by changing their identities, lying about their pasts, and making a run for some new frontier. We call such people criminals. And today we often suspect them of being terrorists. But in truth, they have historically and collectively been saviors of humanity.
The open door to escape doesn’t just benefit individuals, outlaw or otherwise. It’s right up there with breathing and eating when it comes to what keeps the species alive and thriving.
Outlaws on the move
This thought first began to sink in with me several years ago as I read a book about the Alamo and learned that the three most noted figures on the “Texas and freedom” side had all physically walked out on their earlier lives, and not necessarily in the most genteel manner. Col. Travis, the commanding officer, had abandoned his child and pregnant wife in South Carolina. He was busily making sexual conquests as a “single” Texan when command of the Alamo fell into his lap. Davy Crockett left his beloved Tennessee after a bitter political defeat. Though he was already a legend in his own state and had been a U.S. congressman, he said “You can go to hell — I’m going to Texas.” Jim Bowie was simply a con artist — the very kind of person the government says it wants to protect us from with its cradle-to-grave surveillance and control. Before arriving in San Antonio from New Orleans, he had sold land to which he had no title and had helped his friend, the pirate Jean Lafitte, pull off a vile scam involving the illegal importation and sale of slaves.
These men became heroes. Yet at least two of them would never have even been allowed into a modern-day equivalent of the Alamo with today’s background checks, immigration forms, passports, and ID scans in effect. (Remember Texas wasn’t part of the U.S. By today’s standards, these three were illegal immigrants.) Yet their stories are typical.
It’s not news that U.S. history has been made by malcontents, dissenters, the unwanted, the desperate, the impatient, and a goodly share of out-and-out rogues.
But just as crucially, our history has been made by people who’ve migrated into new territory without being forced to carry with them a lot of old legal, social, and psychological baggage. And it’s happened again and again, to our benefit.
Dissenters, rogues, and castaways settle new lands, seeking fortunes or freedom, better hunting, or just plain breathing room. Their descendants become the next “establishment.” And soon unhappy individuals and groups must flee them.
It was so when religious dissidents Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams fled the Puritan theocracy. It was so when nineteenth-century visionaries moved to the frontiers to found hoped-for utopias. Each new utopia was built further west as “civilization” became too omnipresent for such innovation to thrive in its midst.
And it would be so now — if there were new territories left to move into.
Not only American history, but vast portions of human history have been the history of moving into new territories, driven by need or desire. The climate changes and you follow the herds. The Pharaoh enslaves you and your tribe seeks a new land. Cast out for questioning the authority of a powerful shaman, you and your companions seek whatever might be over the next hill. And you don’t have to ask the shaman’s permission. In fact, he might be chasing you out of the village on a fast pony.
Moving on doesn’t always benefit the individuals who do it, and it sure doesn’t benefit the people already on the “new” land. Half the pilgrims died in the first year in the New World. Travis, Bowie, and Crockett paid bitterly, if heroically, for their escapes by dying at the Alamo. Few European immigrants to North America found the promised land, though their children may have. American Indian tribes and cultures were nearly destroyed as descendants of Europeans overran their “empty” lands. And how many ne’er-do-wells have fled the old, only to find themselves recreating their own problems in their new home, even under a new identity?
But individuals do benefit from the very freedom to make the move. And in the long run, the human race benefits beyond measure.
Troublemakers, geography and destiny
The people who run for new territory are often a pain in the backside to society. They may be perceived as a threat to the established order. They’re the non-conformists, the people who challenge every received opinion, the people who don’t follow the rules or don’t want to. (Anne Hutchinson expressed their spirit in the quote that opens this article.) They’re the agitators and the chronic rebels, the losers, the petty crooks, the cranks, political outsiders, the unquenchably risk-taking adventurers. Troublemakers all.
In the short term, tidy, orderly societies should be glad to see the backs of such people as they head on down the trail.
But arguably, the restless souls are also the most important people in the world. They are the ones who keep cultures, including the overall human culture, from turning into one big, stagnant bureaucracy. And they can do that best when allowed to move on, not when they’re held in place to struggle against the antipathy or inertia of any “establishment.”
When they move on, people bring along the best of the old and create the rest to their liking, or to meet the dictates of the new land. They bust the old paradigms and show that different ways of life and thought are possible. Later, the people in the old places adapt and grow in turn by taking the best from what the pioneers have made possible. Or they stagnate and suffer for it.
But where do we go now?
Having filtered across every livable continent the human race has also crashed against the bars of its cage.
There is simply nowhere on earth to go that isn’t under the control of some established, and ever-more-bloated and intrusive, government. The ideal “open exit door” is closed. Any door can lead only to other established places, and those are hardly willing to take masses of religious dissenters or trickles of individuals with iffy backgrounds.
The kind of limited moves now possible aren’t the ones we need for real human innovation or real human freedom. To relocate from California to the backwoods of the well-established state of Tennessee may give an individual a sanity break, but it doesn’t open new ways of life or present the opportunity to establish new and better institutions. It usually just means a whole lot more paperwork, ID cards, insurance forms, and database entries. To split one nation into two or three or ten (as so many have recently done) may be a good thing for local self-determination. But it’s also not as liberating as opening new territory, and too often ends with nothing but centuries of squabbling.
One hundred and fifty years after the wave of European immigrants and their children struck California, we’re stuck.
So what do we do — especially we who crave freedom, self-determination, newness, and release from arbitrary rules and procedures ? What do we do when we find our governments or our highly organized, bureaucratized societies becoming oppressive? What do we do when we are a minority of dissenters in a place and an era that no longer values dissent?
What we don’t do
They tell us these days that the mature course — for both individuals and unhappy groups — is to remain and confront our problems. We are to “work within the system,” “reach consensus,” and “have a dialog.” This is the way to solve every problem from family hassles in Alabama to genocide in Africa.
Phooey. Freedom isn’t created by consensus. Consensus doesn’t produce innovation. And an important minority of the human race — that troublemaking best-of-the-best — isn’t made for consensus. It’s made for moving in directions others haven’t yet discovered.
Consensus and “working within the system” are also traps for the powerless. They are ways to fool us into thinking we’re being heard when no one’s actually listening. They encourage us to dilute and denature our best hopes in a mishmash of polite conformity.
It’s virtually impossible for “outsider” groups ever to find the freedom and justice they seek within the confines of an established order that despises them or whose agenda is entirely different than their own. Or simply a society whose inertia (“that’s the way we’ve always done it,” “It’s the law”) stands like a boulder in the path of change. Groups who try to play that game may gain some concessions, but often find themselves, like Orwell’s animals, gazing in from outside as their leaders increasingly resemble the tyrants they claim to oppose. The other big alternative to escape, revolution, usually only results in unspeakable horror and new forms of misery.
Outsider individuals don’t even have those sorry options. It’s either escape or adapt to “the way things are.” And for true individualists, such adaptation can twist the soul and be a daily torment.
Freedom lies in breaking arbitrary rules, in breaking out of the box. And the most thorough way to do that is to venture into new physical territory.
So where do we go? What do we do?
Nowhere. Nothing. For the moment.
But in the future, we must or the human race will pay an even steeper price than any individual ever will. It will stagnate. It will ultimately collapse under its own weight. Or it will explode as bottled-up discontent erupts from within.
Plenty of freedom seekers have recognized the urgent need for new lands and free lands and tried to create them. Thirty years ago, Mike Oliver and associates began to build the island nation of Minerva from an atoll in the South Pacific. The new country went as far as issuing coins. It was a lovely idea. It was quickly conquered by the King of Tonga.
Later the man-made island-city of Oceania rose on the drawing boards. This libertarian dream city of highrises would have been under the jurisdiction of no nation on earth. Despite impressive plans, it never got off the drawing board.
Hawaiians have talked about seceding from the nation, Rural northern Californians and southern Oregonians once tried to create the State of Jefferson. Environmentalists and western land rebels propose that parts of western Canada join with parts of the Pacific Northwest, recognizing that they have much more in common with each other than they do with Ontario or New York. Cyberspace is full of information about various real or imaginary micronations. These plans are often charming and fascinating. But like so many others, they suffer from the global problem — that there are no new livable spaces, no place for individuals to go where they aren’t already subject somebody else’s established rules, procedures, and endless paperwork. Established lands and governments possess an inertia that “open” territories don’t.
Hopeful projects still forge (or stagger) ahead. They fail and arise in new guises.
Entrepreneurs aimed to turn the former British protectorate of Somaliland into an independent nation and freeport.
Laissez Faire City, the first formally organized cyberspace “municipality,” intended, at one point, to negotiate for independent territory in Costa Rica. Though the plan for a physical city went into abeyance, Costa Rica has become a hotbed of freedom activities, with significant success for the Movimiento Libertario in recent elections.
The Free State Project, the brainchild of Yale grad student Jason Sorens, has recently begun an intelligent effort to take political control of a small U.S. state.
The Freedom Ship seeks to put an entire society onto one huge ship. Live and work on the ship and travel around the world, removed (except when in port) from the unfree jurisdictions of most nations. It’s a great idea for those with $2 million to buy an onboard condo and who have no need for a fixed business address.
But ultimately, there’s only one place to go where the hopes of millions and billions can be fulfilled — outer space. To the moon, to Mars, to O’Neill colonies suspended in space. Only out there will we find the infinite number of places we need to suit an infinite number of unconventional (and perhaps so far inconceivable) human dreams. That’s the real New World, the real place where humans can grow and find freedom. That’s the ultimate “backwoods” — even though the woods may only be planted by our great-great-great grandchildren. Although the technical challenges dwarf those of crossing the Atlantic or the North American continent, science-fiction writer and technology analyst Jerry Pournelle has noted that the cost per immigrant of an L-5 space colony is not very different from the cost per immigrant of the pilgrims.
It’s a long way off, in both space and time. It seems even more remote now that NASA has done the impossible — made outer space seem boring. (An observation acutely made by science-fiction writer Victor Koman in his magnificent novel Kings of the High Frontier.)
But it was nearly 120 years from Columbus to Jamestown, Virginia. So if it’s a hundred or two from the moon landing to the first Martian colony, we’ll still make it — provided some government doesn’t find a way to engineer adventure and desire out of our bones (thus buying itself some artificial peace at the cost of long-term death by stagnation).
Maybe some of the more long term thinkers among us should re-found the L-5 Society and start kicking some NASAcrat butt.
In the meantime, life’s going to be a little rough for the rest of us — those of us who won’t stay put or won’t put up with people telling us how to live our lives. We can move on, but only so far. The deep revitalization of real escape is denied to us.
The down-to-earth backwoods (which so many others have been leaving in a kind of reverse migration) may for now be our best hope for staying independent and free.