Dr Titus Gebel, CEO of Free Private Cities Inc, speaks to Glint about why the total privatisation of the state is the best way to guarantee freedom and we should be selling our citizenship to the best offer
“Let the market decide!” declares Titus Gebel. He is describing the tenets of his Free Private Cities programme, a business idea that puts the livelihoods and wellbeing of citizens wholly in the hands of private companies. “It’s a completely new approach to what I call ‘the market of living together’ – The best flourishing societies of the year 2050 will not be subscribing to any of today’s ideologies.”
The brochure for these new capitalist Zions shows shiny glass-clad skyscrapers, glinting in the sun of tomorrow’s dawn, but, for the time being at least, it all remains conceptual. A free private city would be a newly built metropolis, ideally a port, where for a flat fee, individuals could live in a society where every need, luxury or essential, is privatised and where competition pushes costs down and drives up quality.
The existence of multiple such cities would lead to further competition: As individuals become more mobile they could vote with their wallets – putting a premium on functioning, open and tolerant societies. How different free private cities are run could focus on a range of orientations: Gebel says the use of modern technology and building materials could help make environmentally sustainable living spaces, or the focus of markets and location could address migrant and refugee issues, especially in the developing world.
“The social contract idea is basically right. Why then, is one side constantly changing the contract?” The free private city premise is to codify that relationship, replacing the state and nation with a contractual arrangement that holds governance to account as a service provider and leaves ‘citizens’ free to pursue their own agendas. The concept feels new but is not unrecognisable. On the website is a staccato echo of the motto of the French Republic: ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ has become ‘Security. Liberty. Prosperity.’ The contrast is telling. While the former ideals were forged from the fires of revolution burning against injustice, the latter feel more like statements of intent: objectives mandated by a business plan. Where states have written overtures to Utopia, free private cities want only the freedom of practicality.
It’s a rationalism Gebel makes no apology for: “What do you want as a person? You want to live in safety, you want your life and your liberty and property protected. If I now provide these services as a normal private company against an annual payment which covers the cost, and maybe a little bit of profit for me, then we have the free private city.”
The idea of letting a corporate organise your life runs counter to the provision of profit-free welfare that, in the UK and much of Europe, has dominated the post-war dialogue around what the state is. A free private city may not be seen as a solution by the mainstream but, given the time and productivity lost to local and national government inefficiencies it will have its fans. “Eighty-one percent [of people] worldwide are not satisfied with what they are getting from their government. [But change] is difficult – to impossible – in the existing system because there are so many entrenched interests.”
Gebel left his position as CEO and founder of mining group Deutsche Rohstoff AG four years ago, moving to Monaco but retaining his German citizenship. He has found many like-minded individuals, all wanting a hassle-free life guaranteeing trade, liberty and security. Not all of them are wealthy he says: “A lot of ordinary people too. I’m always talking to taxi-drivers all over the world [one recently told me] that all they want from the state is clear roads, security and to ‘leave me alone’. That is something a private company can offer. You don’t need a prince to do that.”
But isn’t the idea of a private city for fee-payers really just the preserve of the rich – gilded drawbridge and all? Gebel points to Sandy Springs, a small city in the American state of Georgia notable for outsourcing all its public services except for the courts, police and fire brigade. “On the basis of the Sandy Springs figures, you could offer services of a first world standard – for less than $1,000 a year. Sandy Springs are actually doing it for $350 a year.” However, other costs such as social security and education would remain. Gebel trusts these to the invisible hand as well: “why should it be different to the rest of the market? If there is competition, if there are people making profit then you have an incentive to do it better and cheaper than competitors.”
The same is true of security and pension provision. Citizens would be able to sue the city if they suffered loss of property or their private pension was not provided. The law would most likely be calibrated to that of a recognised state to allow international arbitration, host state integration and to corruption prevention.
What currency would be accepted in a free private city? “We would say ‘let the market decide’,” repeats Gebel, suggesting a regional or local currency could work “but some people could prefer a gold-based currency and that makes sense. We have an opportunity in a new society not to print our own currency and avoid a central bank and interest rates. Let the people decide! The only thing is that people would have to pay their fee in that currency and we would probably link this to gold as well. We could ask for payment in dollars but who knows what the dollar is worth ten years from now, so the city provider can also demand payment in gold because gold has been stable for several thousand years – that is something we are already considering.”
Gebel has sought to take the free private cities concept beyond academic seminars and conceptual architectural forums. He believes the future of anthropology could be forged in corporate polities. But where will the future land? Gebel says he is already in advanced discussions with a Central American state for a “partnership model” which will found a space which is “70%” free private city. Other options are being explored in Africa, Europe and French Polynesia where the related but separate ‘Sea-Steading’ movement is seeking to establish new communities on the open sea. He also mentions a project in Myanmar (Burma) which is hoping to use a free private city to give the regional Karen nation a growing economy in one of the country’s most remote and undeveloped areas.
As a backdrop to the Karen project, a paper often cited by advocates of free private cities is Repelling States: Evidence from upland Southeast Asia which identifies the highland region of ‘Zomia’ stretching from West Burma to Vietnam, where communities have typically functioned outside of the clumsy yokes of state and empire. The paper quotes the anthropologist H.N.C Stevenson, who, as long ago as 1943, wrote of the region: “customary law is enforced almost entirely through the medium of economic exchange”. In closing their own paper the authors, Edward Peter Stringham and Caleb J Miles, assert that “history helps show that society need not always be ridden with states. In the future, as more people come to recognise that state control is neither necessary nor inevitable, then we will be able to more effectively repel states.”
The societies Stringham & Miles gauge have typically paid homage to states while openly subverting them – utilising the political limbo of being ruled from afar. Gebel argues that stateless societies in the 21st century would have no such political opacity, they would be ‘free’, because every status would be enshrined by contract. “Most countries in the world are partners in investor protection agreements. Most countries are also members of the New York Convention, which will enforce [arbitration] decisions. That would be our biggest protection – our host country would promise ‘we’ll leave you alone for 99 years,’ or whatever. They’ll probably reserve some rights within their constitutions and international agreements, but that’s not an issue; everything is negotiable.”
Free private sitting ducks…
Negotiation is the key word: states with powerful armies tend to be better at it. In a world of trade-wars and zero-sum agendas, how would a prosperous free private city defend itself from the avarice of its host? Two things will happen if a host country reneges on its safe harbour status and sends in the troops says Gebel. “First, we will all leave and the very city you are trying to acquire will be lying idle. Second, we will sue you and we will seize all your property outside your country – you will never ever get any foreign grants because you were behaving like that. This is basically, in a nutshell, the strategy for avoiding that.”
Would a host state turned predator be deterred? Removal of citizens might be their agenda and few sovereign states have thwarted imminent invasion by threatening seizure of foreign assets. Gebel’s defence plan also assumes free private citizens would be able to leave their homes at short notice, arguably questioning their level of attachment to the project in the first instance.
Or redoubts of liberty?
Then again, that’s the whole point: the market dictates. “The idea of free private cities is to increase competition, not to say ‘look, here is a model, to which you should all live together and everything else is bullshit.’ No, people are different and they want to live together with different models, it’s completely ok. I can even see free private cities where different target groups are served. If people want to live together based on their religion or their ethnic descent then I have no problem with that, as long as the participation is voluntary and you can leave at any time.”
A free private city may be untethered in many regards but it cannot escape the paradoxes of liberal society it seems. In striving to be open havens of commerce and pluralism they could potentially become bastions of the discrimination and prejudices that are seen as the antithesis of modern democracies. By privatising the social contract do they preclude social acceptability? Markets might put premiums on cohesion and involvement but they are not perfect.
However, given the tragic and bloody history of nation-states, new loyalties to market forces might be no bad thing. Indeed, one could argue the same dreams were borne by the Mayflower, eventually leading to the creation of the world’s most prosperous society, complete with contradiction and struggle. Either way, Gebel’s vision is a test, of society present and future: “I see this as a big improvement in our living together because you do not have to make compromises between ideologies that are not competent.”
Top image: Detail from The Ideal City, attributed to Luciano Laurana, Francesco di Giorgio Martini or Melozzo da Forli. 15th Century.